If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.
California is a tragic country– like Palestine, like every Promised Land.
Christopher Isherwood(26 Aug 1904 – 4 Jan 1986)
This British-born intellectual lived many years in America (where he took up citizenship in 1946), in Hollywood, where came to know both native (e.g., Truman Capote) and foreign literati (e.g., Thomas Mann). He is perhaps best known in a tangential sense: in his Berlin Stories (he had lived with W. H. Auden in Berlin during the early thirties) he created the character of Sally Bowles, played by Liza Minelli in that wonderful film Cabaret (youtube out-takes here) that was based on Isherwood’s book.
But, back to the epigraph!
Is it valid?
Yes. And no.
I myself was domiciled many years (1945-1963) in California, a couple hours south of Hollywood in La Jolla, just north of San Diego, and Isherwood’s observation gives me an opportunity not only to reminisce about that shimmering, magical Southern California I knew in the late forties and early fifties (before going off to college and other ventures) but also to bewail its current bankrupt status as the sad emblem it has now become of an America that has somehow lost its way.
Thus I agree with Isherwood in that California is a tragic country in the sense that – as in the typical plot arc – a powerful individual (e.g., Oedipus in the play of Sophocles) or nation (e.g., the Persians in Aeschylus’ play) falls from a preëminent peak of power and influence into desuetude and powerlessness. And these days we read almost daily about the increasingly desperate state of the state on many fronts in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Sacramento Bee, …
And by the same token, Isherwood is right in that there was a time when, truly, it seemed that California was – if not exactly Palestine! – certainly the Promised Land.
For me that whole era of endless summers on the beaches of the great Pacific and the careless days of skin-diving for abalones and surfing off Wind ‘n Sea is compendiously captured in no more awesome way than, in early June of 1951, at the ninth-grade dance in June of 1951 … and Gloria. Those were days of infinite optimism about California’s (and America’s) future, and I can think of no more magical a time or place to have been a teen-ager than Southern California in the late forties and early fifties – in spite of all the problems and all the thrills of those fragile years that at one point in growing up all humans have worked or agonized their way through!
This was also when and where I discovered that there was more to life than “C’m on, surfs up!” And in the spring of 1963, my final year of graduate school at U.C. Berkeley, my in-state full tuition cost $50.00 – yes, that’s right, fifty U.S. dollars (and, again, that was back in the good old days when a buck was still worth a quarter)!
Finally, still and all, even today there appears perhaps to be some hope!
And, oh, yes, yes, every generation sees its youth through rosy-colored glasses – that’s at least as old as grumpy old Greek Hesiod (c. 7th century BCE) in his didactic poem Works and Days about fields and farming and the dreadful present and the good old days — so too some six or seven centuries later witty Roman Ovid’s Metamorphoses and his Four Ages… but, of course in my case they really were the good old days!