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Heaven or hell, it's all L.A.

It's popular to portray the city as swinging back and forth between apocalypse and paradise. The truth is that they're two sides of the same coin.

September 07, 2009|GREGORY RODRIGUEZ

The next time some knucklehead out-of-towner asks me what it's like to live in La-La Land, I'm going to blurt out just one big, scary compound word that he's not likely to understand: pyrocumulus.

That's the term we all learned last week after we gawked at the huge mushroom cloud looming over the San Gabriels, the product of the intense heat and smoke from the Station fire.

I know I'm not the only one who took pictures of the awesome cloud formations, and I'd guess I wasn't the only one to feel a pang of guilt when I thought how beautiful they were. Last Tuesday, at a lunch in Century City, a man I met shared a photo of the cloud that he had taken on his BlackBerry from atop Laurel Canyon. He knew the image was awesome, terrifying, apocalyptic, but he seemed loath to admit that it also was really gorgeous.

The same goes for the sickly sun that set that evening in a smoke-choked sky. The minute I posted a picture of it on Facebook, friends noted the dark thoughts of conflict and finitude it evoked. "Hades in L.A." said one colleague. "I'm already stocked up for the revolution," wrote another. My friend Ernie wrote, "Blade Runner is here," and it's true that the sky that evening looked a lot like it did in Ridley Scott's 1982 science-fiction film set in a dystopian future L.A. My favorite comment, however, was from a young writer who said the sun looked like a "fried egg of doom." Whether funny or serious, the comments made clear how fluent we Angelenos are in apocalyptic talk. But we should also see our breezy doomsday POV as an integral component of our region's palm-tree aesthetic.

Of course, competing images of California -- and particularly Los Angeles -- as heaven or hell are a well-trodden cliche. In his book, "Landscape of Desire: Anglo Mythologies of Los Angeles," scholar William Alexander McClung talked about "the uneasy overlay of conflicting mythologies on which the city and its chroniclers have fed."

Just last week in the New Yorker magazine's blog, writer Susan Orleans used the heaven/hell trope for the millionth time. "All the blessings and plagues exist side by side in Los Angeles," she wrote. "The twinkling ocean, the looming mountains, the spill of desert, the bounty of vegetation, and the creased and verdant hills are here --and so are the floods and the mudslides and the earthquakes and the wildfires. Southern California seems constantly pitched back and forth between heaven and hell. This week, hell won out."

But here's what the pyrocumulus cloud tells me: We should stop thinking of Los Angeles in such hopelessly schizophrenic, contradictory, "pitched back and forth" terms. That's because the theological notions of paradise and apocalypse are not so much opposed as deeply intertwined.

Paradise and doomsday go hand in hand. The more magnificent the expectations we have for a time and place, the greater the risk of disappointment. And one can't divorce the traditional concept of the apocalypse on Earth from the idea of paradise on Earth. In our secular age, many forget that in apocalyptic tradition, cataclysm paves the way for a new heavenly era.

A few weeks ago, while I was in the checkout line at Ralphs on Western Avenue in Koreatown, the shopper in front of me told me that he expected Jesus to be walking through the clouds any day now. After the initial shock, I realized he was hoping less for a bloody Judgment Day on Earth than for a subsequent glorious beginning. I guess I should have thanked him.

Many of us may not share this vision, but its dialectic is integral to the apocalyptic tradition that L.A. is part of. ( All of our apocalyptic talk ties hedonistic L.A. to those austere New England Puritans who, as scholar Perry Miller once put it, marched into the Age of Reason proclaiming the end of the world.)

The word "apocalypse" comes from the Greek word apokalupsis, which means to uncover or reveal. For all its temporal terror, the apocalypse has traditionally been understood not as a disaster but as the revelation of a spiritual new age. Apocalyptic thinkers and preachers have interpreted crises on Earth as signs of impending salvation.

In my secular way, that's sort of how I saw last week's pyrocumulus clouds. Far from being the victory of hell in L.A. over heaven in L.A., they reminded me that in a very real way, we can't have one without the other. The cloud is just what it looked like: two sides of the same coin; the one defines the other. Heaven, hell. Ugly, beautiful. Apocalypse, paradise. Los Angeles.

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