Slow Burn

The Whittier Fire. California, July 2017.

The Whittier Fire. California, July 2017.

By contemporary standards, the red banner at the top of the CNN home page advertising its live coverage is completely normal. Every news organization wants visitors to watch video content. Ads sell for a lot more than print. And live video is better still, ensuring a captive audience. But yesterday, its message seemed wrong to me: “Wildfires burn near Los Angeles. Watch now.”

I immediately thought of the most memorable line from Christopher Nolan’s film The Dark Knight. Batman, who is really the super-rich socialite Bruce Wayne, is trying to figure out how to cope with a confusing new adversary. His butler – and surrogate father – Alfred tells a story about his time in Burma, while he was involved in some form of law-enforcement. A robber is stealing precious gems. He keeps eluding capture, in part because his actions are so unpredictable. One day, the forces pursuing him realize that he has been giving the stones away to peasant children. His crimes, it seems, were just for sport. “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” Alfred declares.

This tale is supposed to explain the behavior of the Joker, who seemingly starts fires for fun, both literally and figuratively. But if you take a step back from it – something Batman proves incapable of doing – you realize that it can actually be interpreted in a way that partially contradicts Alfred’s intended point. To be sure, there are some men who like to watch the world burn so much that they light the match themselves. Far more common, though, are those who lack the courage or conviction to assume that role, waiting for someone else to do the deed or, if the right circumstances present themselves, dissolving into a crowd that seems to act as one.

To be sure, most of the people who have been following coverage of the wildfires in Southern California are behaving in a responsible manner. They have lamented the terrible devastation. They have shared stories about the man who rescued a frightened wild rabbit and the reporter who helped lead a bunch of horses to safety. They have expressed concern for friends and loved ones who might be affected by the fires. They are donating money for victims of the disaster and urging others to join them.

And I’m certain, if you were able to poll them, that very few would confess to being excited by what they are seeing. That kind of open misanthropy is still largely confined to the dark recesses of the internet, where self-styled “free thinkers” delight in repudiating the sanctimony of the majority. As much as I detest this subculture, though, I worry that the interest people take in calamity is less wholesome than it initially seems. CNN’s banner doesn’t seem targeted at residents of Southern California who need information about an imminent threat, but rather those far enough away to watch the wildfires without fear.

But “far enough away” is not necessarily measured in miles. Commenting on the way her friends in Los Angeles have been responding to the fire, climate change activist – and Renaissance literature scholar – Genevieve Guenther wrote that they all seemed “resolutely fine and not at all bothered. It’s almost weird.” While that outwardly blasé attitude may reflect a realistic assessment of risk – some lowland parts of the city are very unlikely to burn – it also suggests a familiarity with danger capable of radically reshaping perceptions of what is and isn’t normal.

Why would someone want to live in a place where the potential for extreme events feels normal? I lived long enough in the Golden State to know that its immeasurable beauty can exact a terrible price. When I was growing up on the Eastern Seaboard, natural disasters always seemed to be happening somewhere else. Our weather was predictable and, with the exception of the occasional snowfall, excruciatingly boring. And it was more or less the same for hundreds of miles around us. But in California, whether in the news or in the movies, people apparently went about their business as they would any other day, even when horror was unfolding nearby.

Mudslides, wildfires, the occasional earthquake: all testified to risks that exceeded the power of my imagination. I was fascinated by the danger they posed. More than that, though, I was fascinated by the way in which Californians coped with the prospect of imminent calamity. When my family went on vacation there, I couldn’t help but look for evidence of the darkness woven like invisible fibers into the state’s incomparable light. And I wanted to move there, despite the danger or, more disturbingly, because of it.

That’s why, when I found myself on the sixth floor of Eshleman Hall shortly after 5pm on October 17th, 1989, the building’s sudden transformation into a ship didn’t really scare me. As my left shoulder fell towards its suddenly horizontal interior wall, I mentally calculated the likelihood of surviving the building’s collapse, with five floors below me and one above. It wasn’t high. But I seemingly lacked the faculty required to register the fullness of danger in a matter of seconds.

Two weeks later, after spending day after day secretly reveling in the fact that everyday routines had been disrupted – and not bothering to attend my classes, either – I found myself in Spats, a WWI aviation-themed bar on Berkeley’s Shattuck Avenue, listening to a strange, intoxicated woman with a punkish hairdo recite one of her poems: “Say you’re sixteen/And never seen a gun/I mean a real gun,” she began. And I was mesmerized.

Even now, as I write this, I am only just starting to comprehend the meaning of this experience. I had never seen a real gun at that point in my life. To be honest, I’ve barely seen any since. Somehow, though, the fact that this woman was rhythmically describing the horrific moment when she first encountered one – one of many in her teenage years, as I would soon learn – transformed her into a “gun”. The violent disruption of the Loma Prieta earthquake, which had been filling my mind with incomprehensible information, suddenly took human form.

I had been telling people that the shaking and its aftermath “felt surreal.” But now it was suddenly clear to me that this perception derived from the impoverishment of my pre-quake reality. Life wasn’t surreal now. It was just real, like the gun in this woman’s poem. And I knew I needed to sustain that exhilarating sensation, even if, like the beauty of California, it came at a terrible price.

As I was checking the news yesterday morning to see how the wildfires were progressing, I was reminded of what had proceeded the recitation of that poem on October 30th, 1989. I had been to the movies with a friend. We saw Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors — itself newly fascinating in light of the mounting hysteria over sexual misconduct – and then went for a nightcap at Spats. Another friend, with whom I’d been to two rock concerts since the earthquake, appeared with someone she had told me a lot about, but whom I had pictured entirely wrong. It was the woman who would turn out to be a poet and, years later, my wife.

Soon, my ex-girlfriend, a first-year graduate student in the UC-Berkeley Department of English, walked in with her new boyfriend and a fellow graduate student she had a crush on. We pushed tables together and talked excitedly, still caught up – or so I like to imagine – in the collective frenzy of that strange time. The talk turned to literature. First William Faulkner, in whom the other graduate student was deeply invested, and then other Modernist writers.

My future wife, who was more animated than the rest of us, both from anxiety and alcohol, proceeded to extol the virtues of an author I had, at that point in my undergraduate career, never heard of: Nathanael West. The Day of the Locust is such an amazing book,” she declared. I wasn’t sure whether anyone else at the table had read it. But she acted as if its brilliance were common knowledge. “The holocaust of flames,” she continued. “It’s all about the holocaust of flames.”

When I finally read that 1939 novel years later, while preparing for my qualifying exams, I was surprised to realize, retroactively, just how well it captured the way I had been feeling that night at Spats. The plot, fitful as it is, turns on the frustrated artist Tod Hackett’s fixation on the people who had migrated to California in the hope of finding excitement, only to learn that the boredom of their inner lives was difficult to escape. And his primary case study is a sad, lonely Iowan named Homer Simpson.

Although Tod has a job working at a movie studio, his mind is perpetually occupied with the epic painting he is working on, “The Burning of Los Angeles”. It will foreground the sort of people who, though a constant presence alongside the bustling stereotypes of the Hollywood scene, never seem to fit in. West describes Tod noticing them at the beginning of the novel. “While the others moved rapidly, darting into stores and cocktail bars, they loitered on the corners or stood with their backs to the shop windows and stared at everyone who passed. When their stare was returned, their eyes filled with hatred. At this time Tod knew very little about them except that they had come to California to die.”

As the story of Tod’s interactions with these people unfolds, his plans for the painting grow more detailed. Trying to keep his infatuation out of his mind, he begins “to think about the cartoons he was making for his canvas of Los Angeles on fire. He was going to show the city burning at high noon, so that the flames would have to compete with the desert sun and thereby appear less fearful, more like bright flags flying from roofs and windows than a terrible holocaust. He wanted the city to have quite a gala air as it burned, to appear almost gay. And the people who set it on fire would be a holiday crowd.”

While The Day of the Locust never fully explains the meaning of this passage, it makes clear that starting this fire has to be a collective undertaking. The individual Homer Simpsons of the world are far too weak, whether of body or mind, to light the match. Only when their individuality is absorbed into a de-personalized mass can they muster the necessary will. In the novel’s concluding pages, as Tod finds himself in the rapidly swelling crowd at a film premiere, he bears witness to this transformation.

A young man with a portable microphone describes the scene. “His rapid, hysterical voice was like that of a revivalist preacher whipping his congregation toward the ecstasy of fits.” He helps these secular parishioners perceive themselves as an indivisible crowd. “‘The police can’t hold them. Here, listen to them roar.’ He held the microphone out and those near it obligingly roared for him. ‘Did you hear it? It’s a bedlam, folks. A veritable bedlam! What excitement!’”

But this excitement is like the foamy spray of a cresting wave, awesome in its power. “Nothing but machine guns would stop it,” Tod thinks. “Individually the purpose of its members might simply to be to get a souvenir, but collectively it would grab and rend.” Soon enough, in part triggered by the nearly-comatose Homer Simpson stomping on a boy, that’s precisely what happens. And the superficially innocent excitement of fans reveals something deeper and darker.

“New groups, whole families, kept arriving. He could see a change come over them as soon as they had become part of the crowd.” This moment of integration is crucial. “Until they reached the line, they looked diffident, almost furtive, but the moment they had become part of it, they turned arrogant and pugnacious. It was a mistake to think them harmless curiosity seekers. They were savage and bitter, especially the middle-aged and the old, and had been made so by boredom and disappointment.”

Before I finish with The Day of the Locust, let me pause to note the ways in which this classic, mid-twentieth-century depiction of the frustrated masses overlaps with present-day reporting about that “other America,” increasingly divided from the inhabitants of the United States’ power zip codes, where people turn to drugs and demagoguery to battle existential despair. Writing at the end of a brutal decade, with Spain, China, and Ethiopia already consumed by flames; the persecution of Jews leading to a frantic exodus from German-controlled territory; and the prospect of world war increasingly likely, West clearly wanted to question the self-satisfied presumption, like Sinclair Lewis before him, that “it can’t happen here.” Today, as right-wing populism continues to spread throughout the developed world, we confront similar anxieties.

As the crowd at the premiere begins turning into a mob, Tod reflects on the reasons for its sudden metamorphosis. The Homer Simpsons of the world have spent the best years of their lives slaving and saving in the hopes that one day they could retire to “California, the land of sunshine and oranges.” But their dreams of this earthly paradise do not come true. “They don’t know what to do with their time. They haven’t the mental equipment for leisure, the money nor the physical equipment for pleasure.”

This realization leads to the novel’s most disturbing insight. Tired of even those quintessentially California experiences that were once novelties, such as going to the beach or watching planes take off and land, they develop a perverse desire for drama. “If only a plane would crash once in a while so that they could watch the passengers being consumed in a ‘holocaust of flame,’ as the newspapers put it. But the planes never crash.”

In the end, they come to celebrate any break in the monotonous routines of Southern California, where even “the sun is a joke,” no matter how extreme. And the mass media bear much of the blame. “Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars.” In the end, Tod ominously concludes, “nothing can ever be violent enough to satisfy them.”

If anything is going to come close, though, it’s a disaster, whether natural or made by humans. The mudslide and the stampede, the wildfire and the politically enflamed mob, the earthquake and the revolution: all hold the prospect of satisfactions which, however temporary, can only be achieved when everyday routines are radically disrupted. As I’ve noted above, few people will actually confess to desiring calamity. But there’s a reason why the media have always placed it above the fold, or, as is the case with CNN’s website, on a banner that floats on top of a story’s lede.

Over the past few days, millions and millions of people have been sharing reports about the wildfires, ranging from the inspirational to the heart-breaking. Many of them, have also been commenting about the devastation’s connection to climate change, just as they did this summer when hurricanes were in the news. Although it always takes effort to connect particular experiences with a general tendency, a higher percentage of people than ever before seems willing to do so when natural disasters strike.

It still isn’t high enough, however. For all the consciousness that has been raised by environmentalists over the past two decades, there are still a lot more climate-change skeptics out there than seems to make sense, given the preponderance of scientific evidence to the contrary. Individuals who have no difficulty acknowledging the horror of a specific flood or wildfire – and who sometimes give generously to relief efforts as well – resist plotting them as part of a trend. They stubbornly insist that hundred and even thousand-year events are “acts of God,” even though they are starting to come much more frequently than that.

When I reflect on my own desire for disruption, the problem comes into sharper focus. Human beings are remarkably adaptable. Paradoxically, the very mental powers that have allowed us to transform our planet, ushering in what is now generally called the Anthropocene, also make it possible to grow accustomed to risks that would once have seemed intolerable. And this adaptability intersects with the pursuit of excitement to a troubling degree. The more we get used to one set of risks, the more likely we are to seek new ones.

This phenomenon helps to explain everything from the appeal of amusement parks, which date back to the nineteenth century, to the rise of extreme sports over the past few decades. It also illuminates what is perhaps the biggest obstacle to getting the majority of people to take the threat of climate change seriously. Because we have been fantasizing about the eventual destruction of our way of life since long before nuclear weapons were invented, the fact that more banal human activities are leading us down that path proves less interesting than it otherwise would be.

Long-term degradation is also harder for most human beings to countenance. We find it much easier to mourn lives abruptly cut short by war, pestilence, or natural disaster than to process the inexorable march towards mortality of those who survive such calamities. Analogously, a forest suddenly destroyed by wildfire is more likely to have a visceral impact on us than one that is slowly declining due to climate change. And when we take risks, we don’t tend to worry about potential long-term consequences – the problem of head injuries in sports like American football and hockey is a good example – nearly as much as short-term ones.

In closing, I want to come back to The Day of the Locust one more time. As the subject of Tod’s painting in progress and the novel’s plot converge, it becomes increasingly apparent that West wants to complicate our sense of what constitutes a climax. Not only does his description of the crowd’s metamorphosis last a lot longer than we might expect, given the length of the narrative preceding it, he also draws our attention to the years of frustration that are being expressed before the film premiere.

Immediately after Tod imagines the desire of the people surrounding him to see the passengers in a plane “consumed in a ‘holocaust of flame’,” he resumes his reflections on what has brought them to this point. “Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment.” Though his painting will still depict an actual fire, he recognizes that the real holocaust of flames has been underway for many years.

That is why, as Tod hallucinates that he is working on “The Burning of Los Angeles” while still trapped in the crowd, his true subject becomes apparent. In the background, “across the top, parallel with the frame, he had drawn the burning city, a great bonfire of architectural styles, ranging from Egyptian to Cape Cod colonial.” But the foreground is dominated, not by the fire, but “the mob carrying baseball bats and torches” that it metonymically represents, “all those poor devils who can only be stirred by the promise of miracles and then only to violence.”

The slow-burning resentment of the disregarded and discarded has turned into a conflagration, one that seems to be pursuing Tod and his acquaintances out of the picture itself. A natural disaster helps us to see a human one more clearly. And that human disaster turns out to be not only a psychological correlate of the fire’s physical destruction, but also its precondition. Los Angeles burns because its inhabitants can no longer hold their despair inside.

As we follow this season’s fires and the even worse ones that will surely follow, it would be wise to bear this remarkable lesson in mind. Although West wrote The Day of the Locust almost eighty years ago, it captures the peculiar mixture of desire and dread that makes California a place like no other, but also one able to stand in for the future of everywhere else. Maybe, if we can see ourselves within the frame of its disasters, we will comprehend, before it’s too late, that we are all responsible for them.

Photograph courtesy of Glenn Beltz. Published under a Creative Commons license.