Christopher Isherwood, L.A. Gnostic

Yesterday the weather shifted, and it was crisp, fall-ish, for the first time.  I ate concord grapes and a macintosh apple, and the tastes and the feel of the air got me going: the autumn-feeling, the seasons-feeling, the back-to-school feeling that makes me want to go to farm stands and sing and sharpen pencils and read difficult books and write nonfiction.

And I was listening to an urbanist podcast, as I was walking through this new air, an episode of Colin Marshall’s Notebook on Cities and Culture, in which his interviewee, Frances Anderton, talks about how she was oppressed by the historical preservationist mentality while growing up in Bath in Georgian houses, and carried always within her a vision of ’60s sliding doors opening onto a patio, and now lives in L.A. and has those very doors.  And at one point one of them quoted Christopher Isherwood on LA hotel rooms, as an example of the LA aesthetic they were both celebrating.  And it made me so, so deeply grateful to not live in Los Angeles; so grateful to live in a place with seasons.

The distinction that Isherwood makes, following, is not an L.A . vs. New York distinction.  It’s not even an America vs. Europe distinction.  Instead, it’s a heresy.

Unreal! American motels are unreal! My good girl—you know and I know that our motels are deliberately designed to be unreal, if you must use that idiotic jargon, for the very simple reason that an American motel room isn’t a room in a hotel, it’s the room, definitively, period. There is only one: The Room. And it’s a symbol—an advertisement in three dimensions, if you like—for our way of life. And what’s our way of life? A building code which demands certain measurements, certain utilities and the use of certain apt materials; no more and no less. Everything else you’ve got to supply for yourself. But just try telling that to the Europeans! It scares them to death. The truth is, our way of life is far too austere for them. We’ve reduced the things of the material plane to mere symbolic conveniences. And why? Because that’s the essential first step. Until the material plane has been defined and relegated to its proper place, the mind can’t ever be truly free. One would think that was obvious. The stupidest American seems to understand it intuitively. But the Europeans call us inhuman—or they prefer to say immature, which sounds ruder—because we’ve flounced their world of individual differences and romantic inefficiency and objects-for-the-sake-of-objects. All that dead old cult of cathedrals and first editions and Paris models and vintage wines. Naturally, they never give up, they keep trying to subvert us, every moment, with their loathsome cult-propaganda. If they ever succeed, we’ll be done for. That’s the kind of subversion the Un-American Activities Committee ought to be investigating. The Europeans hate us because we’ve retired to live inside our advertisements, hermits going into caves to contemplate. We sleep symbolic bedrooms, eat symbolic meals, are symbolically entertained and that terrifies them, that fills them with fury and loathing because they can never understand it. They keep yelling out, “These people are zombies!” They’ve got to make themselves believe that, because the alternative is to break down and admit that Americans are able to live like this because, actually, they’re a far, far more advanced culture five hundred, maybe a thousand years ahead of Europe, or anyone else on earth, for that matter. Essentially we’re creatures of spirit. Our life is all in the mind. That’s why we’re completely at home with symbols like the American motel room. Whereas the European has horror of symbols because he’s such a groveling little materialist…

—George, in A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the aesthetic of early ’60s mod architecture, sometimes, in technicolor or Glorious Black and White, with Cary Grant or Kim Novak* standing in those patio doors.  I do, although usually I prefer the Georgian neoclassicism of Bath.

But I think my occasional, North by Northwest-watching-induced appreciation is safe, with no tendency to heresy, precisely because it is bound to a particular time and several particular places: to the Chanel No. 5-scented world of Los Angeles and New York and London and some James Bondy villain’s lair in Switzerland or South Dakota or somewhere, circa 1963.   In a way this appreciation feels like a triumph: the mod aesthetic was meant to erase particularity,** as Isherwood describes, but it is now so beautifully dated, that it has actually been appropriated by particularity.

That’s some sweet historical/aesthetic judo, right there.

*Whoops.  Eva Marie Saint, not Kim Novak

**I know that the house in NxNW is inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water, and I know FW is MEANT to be  hyper site-specific, very particular.  Obviously James Mason’s house in NxNW is also supposed to be site-specific, very individual, very distinctive.  But I somehow just can’t see it that way– it’s dramatic, but it’s also generic, something like Dramatic Supervillian Chic Moderne.


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