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Apples and Oranges : That Question Again: Is There Any Intellectual Life in L.A.?

May 03, 1987|JUDITH GINGOLD | Judith Gingold lives in New York and Los Angeles. She is fond of both.

There you are at one of those chic soirees New York is famous for--the kind where the guests are solvent and got that way doing something interesting. All the intellectual trades are represented, and there's a sprinkling of famous names and almost famous faces. Everyone in the room has heard of Susan Sontag, most people have actually read her and there's a woman in the corner who may even be Susan Sontag. That kind of party. Clever chatter is mandatory, shop talk, verboten , unless the shop happens to be the White House, The New Yorker or an agency for surrogate mothers. Everyone is swimming in the au courant .

From time to time, of course, they pause to tread the conversational waters and bat about the timeless issues of New York life--co-op prices, selective schools and the general unsuitability of the city for human endurance. Should you let slip that you are a New Yorker who has moved to Los Angeles, these pedestrian meanderings will cease. Someone will turn to you with furrowed brow and earnest eyes and, in a voice laden with concern, he will pop the question: "Is there any intellectual life in L.A.?"

This is a sure sign that you are appropriately dressed. Congratulations! You have retained your indoorsy look despite the depredations of a seasonless climate. You still can pass as an intellectual.* One false move, however, and the accolade of social acceptance will be withdrawn. Everything rides on how you answer the question.

Do not reply with a list of museums, universities and concert halls. Your interlocutor knows all about them. He probably even has an opinion about the relative architectural merits of MOCA and the new addition to LACMA. No one denies that L.A. has some world-class cultural institutions, but they don't count. Neither does solitary intellectual endeavor. If you spend your leisure hours learning Walloon or studying Hegel, don't let on, lest people think you're eccentric. The thing to do is look glum and declare that if L.A. has any intellectual life, it would take Carl Sagan and an electron telescope to discover it.

You must show that you know it is the obligation of all high-brows to look down on Los Angeles, just as they must look down on the popular culture that spews from its mercantile maw. That's show biz. To the died-in-the-wool New York intellectual, Los Angeles is the urban symbol of the anti-intellectual life. It is to cultural schlock what Washington is to politics. L.A. caters to the lowest common denominator, which intellectuals disdain, except when dealing with fractions.

Besides, L.A. is death to intellectuals. Look what happened to Faulkner and Fitzgerald, not to mention the many lesser lights who've been extinguished in the California sun. This is a bodily, not a mental state. The clincher is that Woody Allen hates it--New Yorkers take that very seriously. There is no point in protesting. In fact, it is inappropriate to do so, for that is not the game.

The game is partly a get-acquainted ritual. You have been tentatively identified as a person of cultivated taste by someone who identifies himself as also of that ilk. Who else asks questions about intellectual life? Are you with him, or agin him? Though you have had the bad taste to forsake your natural habitat to dwell among the palmy, you are being given the benefit of the doubt. To accept it gracefully, complain. This is one of the few social exchanges where grousing is not only expected but encouraged. You may choose between macrocomplaining and microcomplaining--between discussing the appalling state of popular culture, or your own wretched fate as an exile in the wasteland.

If you go the macro route, the most stylish approach is to select some pop phenomenon and analyze it to death. What is the meaning of Vanna White? Surely the silence of our foremost woman of letters speaks volumes about the Weltanschauung of fin de siecle Burbank. Eviscerate Ramtha or MTV. It doesn't matter what you critique, so long as you are disapproving and suitably apocalyptic about its effect on the young. Your aim is to make friends with your partner, who probably prefers King to Norman Lear.

This goal can also be reached via the micro route. Here you begin by keening about the paucity of second-hand book shops in L.A. and the difficulty of meeting people in careers other than your own. You go on to describe the ins and outs of obtaining a copy of Le Monde or the Washington Post. If you wish, you may supplement this litany of soft-core hardships. Quote a few vanity license plates. Talk about the producer who reads only on his exercise bike. Descry the materialism of the very rich, who not only have more money than you and me, but better bodies.

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