Out There: A Psychohistory of the Extreme West
By the time the sun hits the sidewalk in a West Coast city, the East Coast is half done with a day’s work. In the American West you live with a sense that the East has already established what the world will regard as American civilization—Wall Street, Capitol Hill, The New York Times… Six hours behind and three thousand miles ahead, the West looks back at the East as a youth his parents: “You’ve done your thing—I’m doing mine.” Thus identity and lifestyle are not only common preoccupations in the West, they’re reflected in popular conceptions of what the West is all about: psychedelia, pop psychology, chaos theory, virtual reality, New Age, free love, etc… The East Coast may look patronizingly at this vain experimentalism, but it sometimes has to eat its words of critical admonishment—especially when the West profoundly influences the world.
Spatially ahead and temporally behind, the American West is not especially concerned with civilization. It idolizes the individual. Writers of the West—Jack London, Dashiel Hammet, John Steinbeck, Philip K. Dick, Charles Bukowski, to name a few—have tended not to depict the success but the failure of mores, traditions, rituals and civil institutions. Indeed, the predominant subject of that genre of films owing itself to the West’s history, the Western, usually presents the absence of law and order as a precondition for the triumph of an individual. Western cinema invariably poses the question, what happens when traditions, institutions and laws no longer apply? Usually the answer is that people obey the laws of self—drink, gamble, carouse, plunder, steal, murder and dissimulate. Or, if they happen to be heroic, they vindicate, protect, conquer and drift off—usually alone. “Shane, come back!” In Westerns there is a majority of the self-gratifying type and, of the heroic, a solid minority of one. The hero possesses virtues—equanimity, bravery, steadfastness, honesty—that are more native than civilized. A maverick, stranger, loner, he is driven by an internalized and predestined code of conduct where the external codes have broken down. The Western hero is like Raymond Chandler’s characterization of Philip Marlowe: “…the best man in this world and a good enough man for any world.”
Internal determination is necessary to survive an ad hoc society. Having lived most of my life in San Francisco, I’ve seen people lose their reasons for being and their lives in the bargain. One of these was Roy Raymond, the man who founded Victoria’s Secret. I met Raymond in late August of 1986. That was the year his retail store, My Child’s Destiny, went bankrupt, and four years after he sold Victoria’s Secret to Leslie Wexner, the richest man in Ohio, for a mere $4 million. On that beautiful August day, working as a picture framer, I had to deliver a Chimiakin painting to an address on Belvedere Island, the richest clump of real estate in Marin County. I arrived and got into a lift on steel tracks that descended noiselessly from Raymond’s carport over a lush garden. He met me at the door. He appeared robust, hairy and full of energy—or anxiety. He took me on a tour of the house, a quarter of which featured a view of San Francisco and the Golden Gate through floor-to-ceiling glass. He told me that the place had originally been a whaling station, which explained the sturdy dock planted in deep waters a hundred yards below us. He also took the time to itemize his sultan’s horde of treasure—an enameled coffee table from China, an urushi lacquer box from Japan, a jade sculpture from Thailand, hand-painted silk drapery from Italy… He was a man obsessed with stuff, and his way of being friendly, as is sometimes the case with shy people, was to engage you in things—other things. Unfortunately, he had no taste. It all amounted to an uncoordinated heap of preciousness. I hung the painting and left, wondering at the point of all this unguided hording. Years later I learned that poor Raymond had died. In 1993, having failed to succeed in his new business, the man who put the finery of the 19th-century French madam into the boudoir of the modern American WASP drove out to that beautiful postcard bridge and took a running leap over the rail. They found him washed-up on a Marin County beach with $67 in his wallet.
Boom and Bust
New wealth in the American West is not only devoid of the refinements and ostentations of class, it quickly sifts through the hands of newbies. Take the first boom California experienced, the Gold Rush. San Francisco was a barren hamlet bothered by a few tents and shacks. After gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, it took only a year for 90,000 people to arrive and set up camp. Witnesses describe the harbor as a forest of masts. Hundreds of thousands more arrived from all over the world in the subsequent seven years. When the Gold Rush formally ended in 1855, it left a city full of mercenaries and miners and, of course, the purveyors of hardware and recreation. To most of the folks who populated San Francisco, institutions and laws were not a priority. They had left such restrictions behind, enduring long and insanely dangerous voyages to dredge precious metals from a land they had no legal, cultural or religious business occupying. Sure, some made more than what they would have in a factory or mill. But most blew it on boozing, whoring and gaming. Most of these prospectors were left without prospects. They sold their claims to mining corporations that held interests all over the West and ended up drifting, farming, or establishing small businesses.
The metropolises of the West Coast effectively bypassed the development of culture. Unlike East Coast townships, established by people interested in living by orderly, pragmatic and religious principles, the West attracted the entrepreneur and adventurer. A spirit of lawlessness and license—affectionately referred to as “freedom” and “entrepreneurialism”—has reigned ever since. This East-Coast-be-damned business sense is still apparent in billionaire techies tooling around in private fighter jets and wearing cargo shorts and flip-flops to work—the latest classless boom.
In the West, if wealth accrues under a prodigy, it usually dissipates under a prodigal son. George Hearst and his son William Randolph are a classic example. George, the mining magnate, reputed for illiteracy and a taste for bourbon, poker and tobacco, scraped a fortune out of the dirt in the mid-1800s. With this he purchased the 48,000-acre Piedras Blancas Ranch, south of Big Sur. His son, William Randolph Hearst, after establishing a newspaper media empire with his father’s money, blew his fortune on a palatial home situated on daddy’s ranch. A mix of Spanish cathedral, Roman temple and Italian palazzo, the project did not reach completion before he died in 1951. It was an attempt to import civilization, literally in crates, into the cultural vacuum of those hills above the Pacific. Art and artifacts from all over Europe—stonework, woodwork, statuary, ceramics, paintings, textiles, reassembled ruins—are still there. A pastiche en vacuo, this magnificent castle in the sky is a great spot to visit, especially to experience its surpassing-human surrounds.
The West was destined for excess. The history of the white man’s occupation of the region reads like a myth of plunder. California even took its name from a myth. Califia, queen of a race of Amazons, as depicted in the 1510 The Exploits of Esplandian by Spanish author and explorer García Ordóñez Rodríguez de Montalvo, ruled over an island that vomited gold and gems like Mauna Loa lava. Mythical though it was, Hapsburg Spain was credulous enough to order its Manilla Galleons, under Cabrillo, to explore the West Coast for gold. On their tail came Sir Francis Drake in his Golden Hind, raiding those Galleons and trying to make a getaway through the Strait of Anian, a fabled water route that connected the Pacific and the Atlantic. After Drake’s UK-sponsored piracy, Russian fur traders decimated the sea otter to near extinction. Then the timber barons arrived. Gold, furs, and timber—these were the treasures most readily ripped from the West.
As for the original West Coast Indians, already pacified by abundance and ease, they were no match for these mercenary adventurers. Here’s how Steinbeck in his West Coast epic, East of Eden, described them: “They ate what they could pick up. They pounded bitter acorns for flour. Even their warfare was a weary pantomime.” The loosely knit tribes of California Indians—the Chumash, Salinan, Esselen, Yokut, Ohlone, Miwok, and Pomo—never consolidated their resources into anything approaching the power and sophistication of the Aztecs and Incas. They didn’t have to. Ease of survival allowed them to dwell in smaller communities. Mellow, peaceable, unschooled in the arts of organized slaughter, they lived day to day and made for easy prey. When it came time to resist the yoke of labor and religion, having had no need (until then) of civilization’s arm of war and surplus economy, it was too late.
The West Coast Indians were perfectly adapted to that abundant, alienating nature which makes ambition (without greed) impertinent. Dramatic and inhuman, it is out of scale with the capacity to experience it. Mark Twain in Roughing It wrote, “The idea of a man falling into raptures over grave and somber California, when that man has seen New England’s meadow expanses, and her maples, oaks, and cathedral-windowed elms decked in summer attire, or the opaline splendors of autumn descending upon her forests, comes very near to being funny—would be, in fact, but that it is so pathetic.” There is a primordial and awesome indifference in the cliffs that fall into the rough Pacific. California’s vast expanses of wildflowers are an overdose of color. The granite boulders of the Sierra Madres, interspersed with tough pines and long, sinewy grasses, are about as comforting as the surface of the moon. Nature on the West Coast is not inviting. It does not cry out, “Welcome!” Rather, it rumbles and roars in some language unintelligible to the human ear and extends beyond the periphery of vision.
I have always felt that this incomprehensible nature accounted, in part, for the Western sense of humor, which is a combination of hyperbole and preposterousness, an exaggeration of the specific into the ludicrous. Below San Francisco’s Cliff House restaurant and lounge, perched on the rocks by the ruins of the Sutro Baths, there is the Fun House Museum. Full of attractions salvaged from a nearby turn-of-the-century amusement park, it features an exhibit called “Laughing Molly.” This is an eight-foot woman with red hair, florid cheeks, enormous breasts, a bulbous nose and a rowdy, gap-toothed grin. You put a quarter in the slot and she starts laughing. The laughter builds to maniacal shrieks and cackles. It intensifies and extends beyond the zone of sanity, morphing from amusing to outright bizarre. It is a sense of humor that takes you, via exaggeration, into a realm of absurdity and pathos.
So it is with the West Coast idiom, which usually strikes Easterners as preposterous. Twain, with his discerning ear for vernacular oddities, records utterances like “one of the deadest men that ever lived,” or “darker than the inside of a cow.” The Western idiom still abounds in figures of speech that are both hyperbolic and absurd: “totally,” “mind-blowing,” “killer,” “awesome,” etc. The clipped, objective sarcasm of the East Coast expression “big deal,” first used ironically by Salinger in Catcher in the Rye, finds in its West Coast counterpart, “whatever,” an expression that, like Western nature, condemns you to arbitrariness. While East Coast vernacular tends to address conditions, West Coast vernacular tends to express experience. This emphasis on the noumenal over the phenomenal is characteristic of the West Coast sensibility, which derives from an experience of nature that is not readily comprehensible.
Delivering the Believers
The isolation of the West has always made it a beacon and breeding ground for idealists, religious fanatics, cult followers and the culturally displaced. Like all New Worlds, it lacks the civil and religious institutions that put a check on the dreams, aspirations and ambitions of visionaries and renegades. From the Spanish missionaries in the 16th century, who gave names to its places and geographic features, to the super-modern cults of today, the West has promised freedom from history and franchise of the new.
From 1769 to 1823 the Franciscans built some twenty-one missions in California. These villas of adobe and wood served as outposts of the Spanish Empire. They were situated approximately one day’s ride (thirty miles) from each other to form a network of goods, labor and information. The original scheme was to indoctrinate the natives and put them to work cultivating the California’s fertile lands for the extension of empire. Despite the mercenary intentions behind their construction, operation of the missions was left to the Franciscan Order of Friars, one of the four great mendicant orders of Christianity that were on the decline in Europe due to the Protestant and subsequently the French Revolutions. The Franciscans ostensibly modeled their lives after the poverty of Christ and were allowed no other luxury but two cassocks and a pair of shoes. They forsook all worldly possessions except the essentials, lived in chastity, served the poor, and conducted themselves with humility and patience. Commissioned by the Spanish monarchy to convert the California natives into a God-fearing, tax-paying labor force, the friars’ devout virtues had less than virtuous effects. A mission record from 1832 reports 87,787 baptisms, 24,529 marriages, and 63,789 deaths of the natives under the jurisprudence of these soul-savers.
In 1819 Spain cut off its funding of these religious-military-agronomic outposts. In 1826 José María de Echeandía, Mexico’s governor of California, issued a “Proclamation of Emancipation,” freeing the natives from missionary rule. Mexican secular authorities later claimed the missions and left them to dilapidate. Nevertheless, many are well preserved. The Mission Trail, running from San Diego to Sonoma, takes you through some of the most tranquil countryside and the best wine-growing regions in the State. As the sites of these missions were chosen for their fertility, availability of fresh water and the frequency with which they were trafficked by the Indians, they are well situated to give one a sense of the idyllic isolation of the West.
After the Franciscans, a series of cults and sects immigrated to this wild new world, which promised the same immunities it did to outlaws, mercenaries and renegades. In the early 19th century, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon), fleeing the East for its practice of polygamy under the leadership of Brigham Young, settled in Salt Lake City, Utah. By Twain’s account, this was an industrious, orderly, and “extremely healthy city.” In 1930, Guy W. Ballard founded the “I AM” Activity, after encountering the Comte de Saint Germain, a famous (and deceased) 17th-century occultist while hiking on Mount Shasta in Northern California. Ballard’s spiel was that “ascended masters,” who had attained immortality by knowledge of the Individualized Presence of God and realization of the Divine Self, had availed to him the secrets of their transcendence. The Theosophical Society, founded in 1875 in New York by Helen Petrovna Blavatsky, suffered a schism and relocated to San Diego, California under the leadership of Katherine A. Tingley. This cult basically serves the unifying brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color. Its world headquarters are now in Pasadena, California. Herbert W. Armstrong of Salem, Oregon founded The Worldwide Church of God in 1933. Headquartered in Glendora, California, this was the first radio ministry (“Radio Church of God”), the original religious broadcast. Now numbering over 100,000 members, this church body grew out of the Seventh Day Church of God movement, which asserts that evolution is a false theory, the Bible is God’s inspired instruction book, eternal punishment awaits the unsaved, eternal life is a gift to believers, and, of course, all but the chosen will survive the apocalypse (the exact date of which is subject to post hoc revision). This sect gave the theory of British Israelism—that the Americans and British are the descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel—to the Christian Identity movement.
Both rejection and projection drive the spiritually zealous westward. True believers and would-be believers flee existing conditions to forge new ones. It is essentially the promise of isolation that pulls them—liberty from an oppressive present, control over a coercible destiny. And while characterizing clichés abound as to the West’s brand of spirituality—usually in the form of pop-superstition—churches, denominations, movements and cults are now so various and variously extreme in the West that I cannot be summary and comprehensive without lapsing into dismissive generalization.
Getting a Lifestyle
In addition to the occultist, spiritualist and Christian cults, the West abounds in followers of the New Age movement. A distant cousin of 19th century Transcendentalism, this quasi-religious movement dates from the late 1960s, when a popular rejection of Western religion and an influx of spiritual culture from the Far East and Middle East were assimilated into the counterculture and hippy movements. The most conspicuous leader of this movement was Leland Stewart, who in 1967 founded in the International Cooperation Council, which advances an ethos of “unity in diversity.” As Philip K. Dick presaged in his dark science fiction, New Age is a convergence of the Far East and American West. As the repeal of the Asian immigration exclusion acts in 1965 put immigrants from Asia, India and the Middle East on the same quotas as those from Europe, there was an influx of spiritual teachers from these regions. The counterculture movement on the West Coast integrated many of the Hindu, Buddhist and Taoist teachings into what has become an everyday part of the West Coast experience. Health food, metaphysical literature, yoga, acupuncture, psychic development, meditation retreats, alternative medicine—all these are common commodities in the West.
Growing up north of San Francisco in the 1970s, I occasionally saw men walking around in white cotton robes, dusting the sidewalk with a feather to spare hapless insects and microbes. My best friend’s mother rented her house to a guy named Baba Das Shivnanda, who dressed in the garb of a Swami, trailed a bevy of young ladies similarly attired, and had a lot of cash. One day, Baba, as we called him, returned from a trip to Mexico carrying a couple hundred pounds of fresh-picked peyote cactus. He put it on the patio to dry for a few weeks, then ground it into a powder to be sprinkled on his morning granola—”for spiritual purposes.” Not long after the production cycle closed, armed gunmen broke into Baba’s abode, tied him and his lady acolytes up, shot a hole through the floor for a show of severity, and made off with the drugs and cash. In Northern California you get used to such convergences of pacific spirituality and violent crime.
Finally, the West Coast abounds in self-improvement cults. The most well known is “est” (Erhardt Seminars Training, or “it is” in Latin). est’s founder, Werner Erhardt (John Paul Rosenberg by birth), had no formal psychological or spiritual training beyond encyclopedia peddling and Parent’s Magazine management. One day, while driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, he had a revelation: “the way it is” (meaning his experience of life at that light-bulb moment) was better than the way it might be or could have been. He set up a seminar intending to sell that “it is” moment to a population of young, affluent and well-educated people who were, at the time, tired of the way it wasn’t. Werner’s reversal of outlook—a turning to the self, as opposed to everything else, as the cause and consequence of experience—offered a handy solution to those suffering from counterculture withdrawal. However, to “get it”—Werner’s term for the “it is” moment—one had to suffer a collapse of the illusions and defenses of the alter ego. Consequently, est became controversial for the environmental isolation, social humiliation, confessional regression and emotional battering through which it put its trainees.
In 1974 one of Erhardt’s colleagues, John Hanley Sr., founded Lifespring, another experiential training cult very much like est and almost as popular. My parents were taken in by this one. They became Lifespring missionaries, incessantly boring and exasperating me and my brothers with the rhetoric of their training sessions. One effect of Lifespring on my family was the degeneration of our discussions into psychobabble. If Springer-speak delivered transformative truths, these were packaged in idiot-speak: “When you’re on your thing, being you, the is doesn’t come, it goes. You generate your is. Being on your thing means owning your stuff.” This baffling awareness did not spare my parents from divorce and bankruptcy.
Cults flourish in the West because they exploit the need for meaningful experience in a relativistic and diverse environment. Many who migrate to the West Coast, losing their familial and cultural contexts, suffer identity disorientation and adopt “alternative lifestyles.” As used by Alvin Toffler, the world’s foremost futurologist and author of Future Shock, the word lifestyle describes a sub-cult within the predominant culture. A lifestyle is actually way of life as objectified in products, ideas and activities, that gives a coherent sense of personal identity and context. Sub-cultures, such as the hippies, queers, beats, goths, punks, rockers and geeks, inasmuch as they reject predominant, mass-cultural values, provide the comfort of social definition.
Many of us who grew up among this crazed variety of cults, movements, trends and lifestyles developed what Keats describes as negative capability—”capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” We had to accept the irrational, absurd and delusional as a mere fact of life. Skeptical, individualistic, without anything to belong to, many of us conceded to the arbitrary. We can only hope to be good enough as individuals, not just for the West Coast, but any coast.
Originally published in WestEast magazine, Fall 2008. @2011 Jan DiVincenzo. All rights reserved.