Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Nothing Can Be Violent Enough: "The Day of the Locust"

During the depression Nathanael West worked in Hollywood and grew more and more cynical, seeing in human beings a restrained violence held in check by the decadent and manipulative promises that society couldn't keep. In 1939 he wrote "The Day of the Locust," a deadly novel about these people. They made a 1975 movie from the book, but the movie didn't make a lot of sense...by giving gentle traits to people that had no redeeming qualities in the book, the movie failed to draw connections between selfishness, stupidity, boredom, impossible promises, and horrible violence.

You saw the movie, maybe, and you wondered what the point was. You watched Donald Sutherland mash a small boy into a pulp and you wondered what it all meant. I just finished re-reading the novel and I present this exerpt as an explanation, not just for the movie's climax but one possible reason for lynchings, mob violence, witch hunts, Minutemen, and extreme right-wing conservatives:
All their lives they had slaved at some kind of dull, heavy labor, behind desks and counters, in the fields and at tedious machines of all sorts, saving their pennies and dreaming of the leisure that would be theirs when they had enough. Finally that day came. They could draw a weekly income of ten or fifteen dollars. Where else should they go but California, the land of sunshine and oranges?

Once there, they discover that sunshine isn't enough. They get tired of oranges, even of avocado pears and passion fruit. Nothing happens. They don't know what to do with their time. They haven't the mental equipment for leisure, the money nor the physical equipment for pleasure. Did they slave so long just to go to an occasional Iowa picnic? What else is there? They watch the waves come in at Venice. There wasn't any ocean where most of them came from, but after you've seen one wave, you've seen them all. The same is true of the airplances at Glendale. If only a plane would crash once in a while so that they could watch the passengers being consumed in a "holocaust of flame," as the newspapers put it. But the planes never crash.

Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they've been tricked and burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, war. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can't titllate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.

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