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My California: Journeys by Great Writersby Donna Wares
by Pico Iyer
To those of us who came to California from far away — as so many of us do — the place we imagine (and so find) seems located somewhere around the day after tomorrow. Ever since Hernando Cortez named this stretch of land, by some accounts, after a fictional island of the Amazons (fashioned in a fifteenth-century Spanish novel), California, more than anywhere, has been a province of the imagination that confounds most of us who confront it in reality. A state of consciousness, you could say, on which outsiders, who soon become honorary Californians, famously project their hopes and frustrations. It has always seemed apt to me that the home of physical and metaphysical gold rushes — the “Great Western Paradise,” as the Chinese called it — is also the place, some say, where the fortune cookie was invented. Fortunes, futures, gimcrack versions of futures: They’re all mixed together here, drawing us from afar, potential consumers, potential producers of a dream that — we come to see too late — can best be appreciated from afar.
“It’s a state of mind,” Robert Redford once said of California’s fictional capital, Hollywood, passing on the conventional wisdom, and it’s an actual location. The location is scarred, scary and full of those who’ve lost their way; but as a state of mind, in Redford’s words, “it’s transporting and unique: the end of the rainbow, the melting pot, the edge of the continent.” Or, to put it another way, Hollywood Boulevard has long been a slum, but the Hollywood sign shines in the world’s imagination.
This all has become part of the received wisdom of the place, the first cliché for the newcomer to see through; but what the Californian veteran often loses sight of is that the place really has managed to remain one step, one thought, ahead of the rest of us. Perhaps it’s only from afar, or only in the eyes of those who have never been to the “broken promise land,” that one can see the pattern: a center of the aerospace industry, when people were just beginning to leap across oceans (eight airports around L.A. even today); the epicenter of the Image, just as the whole globe was falling under the spell of TV, the silver screen; then home to the computer industry, the nerve center of the global village; and now ever more a cacophony of discarded futures, longed-for futures, pasts in a state of endless becoming, which seems to speak to the global anarchy of tomorrow.
Yet all of these industries — it’s easier to see from afar — are based on teaching the world how to fly. All of California’s major exports to the world are attempts to get us to look up from, and beyond, where we are. Outer space is being mapped at Caltech; inner space is being charted at Esalen and the other cathedrals of the “human potential” movement; cyberspace is being pushed forward in Sunnyvale; and California’s promise to many of us is that it will eliminate time — erase age, annul the past, leave all sheets clean — by replacing it with space. Infinite horizons.
I write all this as one of the millions who came here in pursuit of all that, drawn by a family from India, living in England, who wanted to put those pasts behind it. The first time I set foot in the state, in 1964, at the age of seven, the little town of Santa Barbara was presented to us as “the Athens of the West.” Staring up from a row of eucalyptus trees, the ocean stretching out below — farther than the widest expanses of Oxford, England — the skies an exultant blue, everyone around with a light in his eyes, the hope that had brought him here, we could easily believe it.
My father moved us from England to Santa Barbara to join a think tank that was busy creating a new future; the school where I was sent was in an area called Hope Ranch (California has never been shy with its symbols), and Mike Love of the Beach Boys, a character from allegory it could seem then, had a place nearby. Down the coast a few miles was a community founded by spiritualists, given the archetypal California name — Summerland; across the hills was the little town where they’d located Shangri-La for the Lost Horizon movie that had given people around the world a new sanctuary to dream of. Up the road, in the years to come, would be Ronald Reagan and Michael Jackson, cocooned in their respective Neverlands.
We didn’t stop to think then that we were conflating proper names with high ideals, or that reinventing the weal might involve dissolving even the certainties that had held up humanity for centuries. We knew only that we could find the wisdom of our native India thirty miles to the south, where Krishnamurti addressed the world’s innocent in his oak grove; we could revisit Europe, amidst the faux-gingerbread castles and windmills of Solvang, a Danish settlement thirty miles to the north. Somewhere in the middle, conforming to the ideas we’d formed in frigid Oxford, the surfers were drinking wheat-grass juice at the Paradise Cafe and an eccentric old European opera singer was developing a fantastic private garden she called Lotusland.
Exiles, all, living permanently in their heads, we might have seen; people keeping distant hopes alive in a desert that accommodated all. When people stop believing in the conventional deities, as G.K. Chesterton notoriously said, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in everything. And belief is what we came for, the chance to build castles in the air, in a place where the air was big and bright enough to seem to house more constructions than any piece of soil. “Stepping westward,” as Wordsworth wrote providentially, “seemed to be a kind of heavenly destiny.”
These ideas all seem a little quaint to me now: the Beverly Hills we had eagerly devoured on our TV sets in England is largely speaking Farsi, and Long Beach, where the Queen Mary rests, is the home of the latest L.A. dramas, in which Cambodian gangs face off against Hispanic ones. The passenger disembarking at LAX finds himself in a swirl of Koreans and Guatemalans and Ethiopians who look nothing like the characters on the soap opera Santa Barbara that is broadcast to a hundred nations; the visitor bumping along the streets of San Francisco soon realizes that it does not conform to the California Dreams program screened on the government educational channel in Japan. The very arts that have long kept the state afloat, and shining around the world, are ever more threatened, as a California Arts Council budget that was $31 million in 2000 shrank quickly to $26 million and then to $1 million in 2003. (Canadians spend $145 per capita every year to fund their arts, Germans $85 and Californians three cents.) It takes someone from somewhere else — a Reyner Banham, a Christopher Isherwoood, someone who sees the West as “El Norte” or Taiwan East — to look past the two thousand street gangs, twenty thousand sweatshops and one hundred thousand homeless souls that anti-historians of L.A. grimly enumerate.
And I, after forty years here, see that endless summer has its problems, if it refuses to take in winter and fall. The street that leads to the beach volleyballers’ paradise in Santa Barbara is called Salsipuedes and, trained now in Spanish by California, I can see that this means, “Leave if you can.” Perpetual youth can be a kind of sadness, and endless reinvention sometimes feels like the Hollywood script of legend, the self in permanent development and being worked over by other hands. But reality — what remains when the projector stops rolling — was never what brought us here, and it will never be reality that causes us to stay. The gift of California, for those who have not just dreamed of it, but dared to stake everything on those dreams, is to look far beyond the everyday, and in the general direction of the stars. It was just when Nietzsche pronounced the death of God, we tell ourselves, a little hopefully, that California, our California, was first conceived.
Excerpted from the book, My California: Journeys by Great Writers. Copyright © 2004 by Angel City Press. All Rights Reserved. Published by Angel City Press, Santa Monica. No reproduction of this work without express written permission of the publisher.
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