Swans Commentary » swans.com September 11, 2006  



Honni Soit Qui Malibu
Writers & their Habitats


by Charles Marowitz





(Swans - September 11, 2006)   William Saroyan wrote his finest play The Time Of Your Life in a crummy hotel room in San Francisco. Thomas Wolfe, who was well over six feet tall, produced many of his novels leaning against the top of his kitchen refrigerator. George Bernard Shaw used to write in a small shed behind his estate at Ayot St. Lawrence. Every writer will tell you that to be creative you need a quiet, enclosed space far from the madding crowd in order to "get it on." But then there are exceptions to the rule like Baudelaire, who used to write his poetry in outdoor Parisian cafés, and there is a legion of young writers in New York and Los Angeles whose muse enables them to compose in the hurly-burly of Internet cafés and garrulous coffee bars.

As for myself, I need to feel I am surrounded by Nature, to reconfirm the notion that what I am doing at my Mac, no matter how esoteric the subject matter, is in some way connected to the natural world around me. When I look out the window, I'm not seeking "inspiration," I'm admiring the imperturbability of the landscape and the couldn't-care-less drift of the clouds. I envy their apartness from people and emulate them.

For some twenty years, I have lived and worked in Malibu. Like a lot of people, I was first drawn there because of its rural splendor. There is something to be said for writing with the mesmerizing thud of ocean waves in the background and a clear azure sky above. But over the years, one's idealized version of almost any place adjusts to intruding realities. I still write in my Malibu study, but it has become more a refuge from the community than an enclave which is an integral part of it.

Malibu is an elitist village where people with too much money and not enough brains spend most of their time, as Wilde put it, knowing "the price of everything and the value of nothing." The widows and dowagers are the most insufferable species in this microcosm. They invariably take up two parking spaces when they park their Hummers and SUVs and experience no pangs of conscience about hoarding public thoroughfares.

They always "dress to the nines," as the British say; that is, garishly, extravagantly, and, despite the massive expenditure of funds, frequently in appalling taste because all they really do is digest and regurgitate the current fashions. Their husbands, if they still have them, are brokers, lawyers, businessmen, or moguls who work in or around the entertainment industry while their wives spend most of their time dragooning Mexican workers to manicure their lawns and maintain the sanctity of their gardens. (If, through some inconceivable industrial action, Hispanic workers were ever suddenly to withdraw their labor from this community, the whole of Malibu would collapse like an apple crumble.)

The most visible part of the population is made up of these middle-aged women (usually botox-tautened trophy wives of powerful men) who are idle, affluent, mindless, and garishly caparisoned. Both sexes recoil from politics as they do religion -- although there are small fervent sects that are fanatical Vedantists or Buddhists, arcane faiths which provide some spiritual compensation for their followers' absorption in material pursuits. Whether Republican or Democrat doesn't really enter to into the equation as they are all, whatever their political inclinations, hermetically-sealed, myopic conservatives. Even the vocal liberals who wax rhapsodic over mavericks like Ralph Nader and Michael Moore will, in their private lives, practice the same philistine morality of those people who are impressed by the bogus machismo of George W. Bush or find Dick Cheney "sexy." To such as these, the aura that comes from power and affluence is the only true aphrodisiac.

Living in the midst of these insensate ghouls is like inhabiting a plush, expensively-furnished penthouse apartment with a gorgeous view of Devil's Island. No matter what relaxation one may derive from one's amenities, through the window one can view only the wretched, lost souls who inhabit this luxurious wasteland. Or, to change the metaphor, it is like living in the midst of enemy territory. One never forgets that there is a moral and philosophical gulf separating oneself from the uptight, complacent, supercilious leeches who make a fetish of shopping and wolf down the latest tidbits of Hollywood gossip as if they were tasty cream cakes.

I exaggerate. No doubt. More likely than not there are genial, intelligent, empathetic, and creative residents scattered through the canyons and hillsides of Malibu who would be the envy of any model community anywhere in the world. I admit I have met a few. But they represent a small endangered species and often, what brings them together is a shared disdain for the arrogant bigots who treat the city as if it were their own up-market playground. We are outsiders, cozily ensconced inside this glittering ghetto, pretending that we inhabit some stratosphere different from our neighbors. It is of course a delusion. A ghetto, no matter how you slice it, is only a small enclave of a larger society and always disdained by those in the mainstream.

It is, in some way, a city of extremes. Big waves, monstrous fires; love of haute cuisine, crappy restaurants; vast estates, decrepit trailer parks. Martin Sheen at one end, Mel Gibson at the other.

Every year there is a Chili Cook-Off, an art fair, or some other outdoor event and, when I can work up the gumption, I try to attend. But once there, I am side-swiped by the sight of taut, overly-coiffed matrons and their bulimic, blonde-haired daughters in strangulating designer jeans brandishing sun burned bellybuttons, and so hurry back to the protective calm of my inner sanctum. It is difficult trying to interact in a social context where virtually everyone is deaf to the tumult of international crises and taking refuge in surf, sand, boogie-boarding and artificially engineered alternatives to "real life."

The inhabitants of the community are divided between developers and slow-or-no-growth zealots and these two factions, the people who want to build and sell real estate and those who wish to preserve the city's rusticity, are irreconcilable enemies. They clash constantly in City Council meetings and their enmity is as acrid as the loathing that liberal democrats feel for southern Dixiecrats. One of the most repulsive clans in the community is the gracious, grasping, falsely-gregarious breed of female estate agents who reap preposterous percentages out of the properties they peddle to unsuspecting buyers. The rivalry that exists between these over-cosmeticized crones is poisonous and remorseless. These are women so entrenched in material values they would weave any fiction required to bag an upscale client or close a sale. They are the harpies of Malibu and hover like Valkyries over the multi-million dollar properties that glisten in this affluent Shangri-La. Their venom sprayed with perfume; their avarice concealed behind fixed smiles and larky bonhomie.

But despite all these human landmines, there are havens in the city where one can escape and commune with more benevolent spirits. Solstice Canyon Park is such a place for me. When the well of inspiration runs dry, I am invigorated by walking through this grizzled parkland in Corral Canyon where I can easily imagine Thoreau sauntering past towering oaks and tuning in different frequencies of birdsong; a vernal retreat intersected by a running stream and a series of interconnecting trails which, like all of nature, are diffuse and quietly regenerating. The countryside is cluttered with bramble bushes, twisted sprigs and unexpected hillocks on every side. Nothing is as unapologetically messy as Nature. It shames all our attempts to index and impose order onto our lives. Its disorder says: this jumble of grass and gravel, rocks and undergrowth, is the way life ought to be and shame on you for trying to tabulate what is so ravishingly non-categorical. When local politicians or galumphing tourists impose depression or vexation, Solstice Canyon Park provides succor and refreshment.

Malibu is a community where intellect and spirituality are dead or dying and complacency and worship-of-self have almost entirely taken their place. Then why live there, ask the wiseacres? The answer is: it is bracing to live in the heart of "enemy territory" surrounded by values that one loathes and among men who live robotic lives and are married to android wives. Gauging the latitude and longitude of the enemy is the best way of devising strategies to oppose them and avoiding the terrible fate of becoming like them. Call it masochism, if you like, but it helps turn the gyre that activates the keyboard that generates the text.


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Charles Marowitz on Swans (with bio).



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art12/cmarow56.html
Published September 11, 2006