Searching for Aptosis in the American Desert, §2

August 3rd, 2009 by alex

The Canyon

“If life becomes hard to bear we think of a change in our circumstances. But the most important and effective change, a change in our own attitude, hardly even occurs to us, and the resolution to take such a step is very difficult for us.”

- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value

I’ve always heard that the Grand Canyon really delivers, experientially speaking. While other famous attractions, like Mount Rushmore or the Eiffel Tower, often underwhelm, Arizona’s big hole does not fail to live up to its superlative adjective. A professor of mine in college used the Canyon as an example while explaining Kant’s description of the sublime, as an object or event so grand as to confound our powers of imagination and sensibility in their attempt to measure up to its enormity. With Vegas in the rearview, we’re headed for that.

As we get closer, the landscape really starts to look the part. There isn’t much in the way of vegetation beyond scrub brush, and the land is flat but for its gradual upward tilt. It’s the sort of country where a giant hole in the fundament might yawn out before you at any moment. But it’s also coy like that, and we drive on for many miles expecting to see the thing just over this here rise.

Like any mass-scale tourist attraction worth its salt, the Grand Canyon is surrounded by its attendant municipality of gas stations, visitor centers, overpriced grocery stores, and souvenir shops. This is what we encounter first and last in our stay at the Canyon. It’s sort of a portal from the relatively uncommercial national park just up the road into and out of the more generally consumer-oriented aspects of American life. It’s a last-chance type thing for those going in, and a welcome-back type thing for those coming out. My guess is that some people find it reassuring on some level. Again, I suspect that I may be one of these people.

Inside the park I’m firstly impressed by how big the premises are, how long we’re driving from the gate to the camp site, which is itself still quite a way from the rim of the Canyon itself. A group of female elk graze on some low-hanging trees just off the road and I find myself fretting over their safety and really hoping they don’t run out into the road. They seem so peaceful, and the passing velocity of these heavy, steel automobiles really grates against the rhythm of the place. Though, really these animals are probably far more savvy than I when it comes to surviving here.

Our second encounter with the local fauna is less serene than the first. I’m sitting on a bench in the paved park visitor plaza, waiting for my wife to get out of the restroom. A woman walking close by starts to scream and point at a mulched plot along the side of the walkway. A crowd gathers with much haste. People are nudging and trying to get a look. She tells them all it’s a snake, a snake in that brush, and it’s really big. I’m no fan of snakes, at least not in any experiential way, but I decide to check it out. And it’s really a huge snake, with yellow and black armor-like skin, circumference of a fifty-cent piece, and at least three feet long. And the crowd sort of has the thing boxed in, and I’m thinking some form of violent remonstration on the part of the snake would not be unjustified, here. Luckily for everyone involved, the snake finds a hole in the ground and makes good its escape. The crowd disperses in ten to twelve seconds.

Which brings me to one of the salient facts raised by this visit: that of the sheer volume and persistence of the tourism in the park. It is everywhere, and it is loud. It’s not that I’m surprised, because I’m not really. It’s just the juxtaposition of the tourist thing, a gruesome spectacle anywhere, against the backdrop of this beautiful and unique natural formation.

Because the Canyon is just such a formation. It is magnificent, and it is overwhelming, and I see why it’s considered such a big deal. And why, by extension, all these people are here. A ranger gives us a handy acronym for remembering the four main geological and elemental processes that have produced this massive, and globally inimitable schism: D.U.D.E. As in, that’s one crazy canyon, dude. The breakdown: deposition, or when the layers on display up and down the canyon’s walls were deposited; uplift, when the highlands that the canyon cuts into pushed up from the earth’s mantle in the wake of colossal tectonic repositioning; downcutting, when the Colorado River, swooping down out of the Rocky Mountains, began to slice down through millennia’s layers of deposits; and erosion, when the resultant slopes are worn away over the years by the elements, widening the Canyon’s span. I am not by any means well-educated in earth science. But I do have a healthy respect for time, especially in large, intellectually unfathomable portions. And the age of the Canyon, the time over which this set of processes has yielded the thing before my eyes, is estimated to be maybe seventeen million years.

The Canyon 2

That’s the history of the thing, and when it’s combined with the immediate experience of it, I find myself thanking my professor for such a perfect example of the sublime. I could almost believe that Kant worked out his definition here, looking out over the gorge ten miles across, nearly three hundred from end to end, and more than a mile deep, if I hadn’t once been told that Kant never travelled more than a handful of miles from his hometown. He had an aversion to travel. Maybe he couldn’t abide the tourists.

And so for the second portion of the aforementioned juxtaposition, enter the tourists. When I speak of tourism, I don’t just mean people going places to see things. As we’re sitting on the rim, waiting for the sunset, we see at least eight different cars pull up, unload one passenger who gets out, gives the view a cursory once-over, seems to check something off a mental checklist, gets back in the car and drives away. We’re on the shuttle bus on the way to a trail on the western edge of the south rim, we see a couple of graceful mule deer bounding off along the side of the road, and the gentleman behind us informs everyone that he sure wishes he’d brought his gun, because he loves killing those suckers, and then continues on recounting all the things he loves to kill. A family is on a ranger-led tour with us, all wearing matching Grand Canyon tee-shirts, leaving me wondering a.) when did they buy these?, b.) when did they change into them?, c.) did they each happen to really like that specific shirt or was there some sort of decision, autocratic or democratic, made about which one it was going to be?, d.) am I somehow remiss, having no ability or desire to presently don any apparel with the name of the attraction I’m currently visiting graphically designed across its surfaces?

These sorts of lists run the danger of devolving into rants or screeds. That is not what I wish, here, mostly because the whole point of bringing the tourism up is as counterpoint to the Canyon itself, the thing everyone here, including myself, is here to see. And as I stand here, right up near the rim, I am distracted by the people. I am thinking about the people, and listening to the people. I am annoyed by some of the people and amused by others. But here I am, me, the subject of my thoughts, starkly demarcated from these objects, these others, thinking in chains of words that lead all over the place except…to the Canyon here, ancient, intractable, uncompromising, and ultimately more-than-human. A German teenager throws a wad of paper over the edge and I wince, but don’t say anything.

Not for the first time on this trip, I find myself recalling David Foster Wallace’s discussion of American intranational tourism in the title piece from his essay collection, Consider the Lobster. I quote, at length:

“As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way–hostile to my fantasy of being a real individual, of living somehow outside and above it all. (Coming up is the part that my companions find especially unhappy and repellent, a sure way to spoil the fun of vacation travel:) To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to soil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you.”

(Hat tip to Will for doing the typing on that; my copy of the book is packed away somewhere in New York at the moment.)

And I guess that’s my point, that the Grand Canyon offers some seriously and ontologically soiled experience. And I am part of that, no matter how much I might tell myself that I am set apart, that I am here to witness the natural spectacle itself, and that all this spectacular hoopla is just a nuisance getting in my way. Because I am so inextricably a part of that nuisance. And that’s probably what irritates me about the situation, that hoary quip about being most annoyed with others for things that we fear most in ourselves.

I am here before millions of years of geological progress, and I am distracted by the human element. And I’m wondering if this is always the case after all, if my place is in the world is just that realm of right angles and shortest distances, and words and sentences, and subjects and objects. But our stay at the Canyon ends, we strike camp and head out eastward, pleasantly fulfilled in some ways and grimly disappointed in others. It’s all part of this great American experience, we say, as we drive toward our next destination.

Searching for Aptosis in the American Desert, §1

July 22nd, 2009 by alex

“With its human face, yes, Carpaccio’s ambivalent smile, the Porta della Carta, so forth, all artists’ whim, I fear…Unless you mean what the Being saw when it looked at me?”

“How would you know what it saw when it-”

“What was given me to understand. To become as they’d say out here aptotic, uninflected, unable, sometimes, to tell subject from object. While remaining myself, I was also the winged Lion – I felt the extra weight at my shoulder blades, the muscular obligations unforeseen.”

-Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day

In the desert it’s over a hundred degrees even after sunset. It’s hot enough that the hoary old quip, “At least it’s a dry heat,” completely breaks down into dry coughs and raspy splutters. And don’t look to the wind for relief; gusts come at you like someone blowing a hair-dryer on your face.

We come into Vegas after dark. Neither of us has ever been here before. We’re trying to find our hotel, dodging construction along streets with no visible demarcation of lanery. I’m trying not to be distracted by huge displays that cost millions of dollars and are explicitly and psychologically intended to distract me. It hits me that if ever there was a city entirely built on our sense of communal navel-gazing, Vegas is it. This is most vividly brought home by the massive screen just over the street portraying a woman’s navel and groinal area gyrating amid falling dollars signs and gold coins. And occasionally a roller coaster car flies over the street, littering the area with screams.

I try not to dwell on that Hunter Thompson quote, something like, “This is what the whole world would be doing on Friday night if the Third Reich had won the war.”

The casinos are certainly grand. It is immediately apparent that very few expenses were spared in their construction. And looking around, seeing people pumping money into the slot machines, it seems like a pretty negligible up-front cost for such an overwhelming, 24-hour-a-day return. I think that a casino on the strip in Vegas may be the greatest business plan of all time, if money is your object. People have told me that the casinos pump oxygen into the gambling floors to keep the patrons invigorated, keep them excited. Keep them high. It’s always seemed plausible, and my own experience is not contradicting the hypothesis. Although my eyes feel like they are open to thrice their normal capacity, and I’m sort of stumbling around like a bumpkin in Times Square, I’m feeling really good.

Walking out on the strip, in sur-100-degree heat, bathed in blinks and strobes, is a harrowing endeavor. A mobile bill-board rolls past, “Babes to you!”, adorned with naked women arrayed in improbable positions and giving seductive glares indiscriminately. Teenagers, probably working their summer jobs, stand in groups and push business cards on passers-by, business cards that fit the most analytic definition of pornography and provide the proper phone number for an impressive selection of sexual tastes and tendencies. The teenagers, the guys passing these cards out, do this little snapping thing with the cards too, as they hand them out, and it makes it difficult to ignore them. I get the feeling that, to survive in Vegas, every thing must have its hook.

I enjoy games, and I’m competitive, but I’m really no gambler. I play some slots, and I win some and lose some, though mostly I lose some, and pretty soon I’m bored. There’s just this moment where I realize that I can keep putting my money into this machine, a machine that is designed and realized to grant a sizable return to the owner, for the chance to press a button over and over, or I could just keep my money, and live with not being able to press the button over and over. I don’t have enough money to really go play cards, and so we wander around some more, breathing the hyper-oxygenated air.

And there are kids everywhere. It’s after midnight in the casino, and families are still out there, playing slots and cards and dice, children in tow. It’s a strange juxtaposition, because the casino in many ways is like some giant, twisted dive bar. Here we’ve got a couple walking around with matching four-foot plastic tubes of piña colada, a Marlboro Menthol 100 hanging from each maw, while over here are six- and eight-year-old brother and sister, up way past any reasonable bedtime, but assuredly juiced on oxygen and sensory stimulation. I know that Vegas has been pushing a PR campaign to stress the Family Fun aspect, and it looks like it’s working out for them, if only in a blithely disingenuous sort of way.

After a couple hours in the menagerie I notice an unease building. It’s hard to label at first, and its instigators are small enough by themselves. One of the escalators at the hotel is broken. The handle on one of the grandiose entry doors is loose. Some of the ashtrays are full and spilling over and the carpet is filthy. The waitresses, despite their low-cut and rather glam apparel, are older than in the movies’ version of Vegas, and most have unmistakably sad eyes. It’s sort of like the veneer, the whole “thing” of Vegas in its over-the-top appeal to the senses and appetites, begins to show its seams. And once I notice it, I start seeing it everywhere. Now it’s not only the waitresses, but everyone who looks unhappy. I mean, they’re smiling, and laughing, but there seems to be something forced about it. Like it’s what one is supposed to do, and so why not do it? I begin to wonder what I look like, but I can’t find a mirror, so I have to guess by observing everyone else and admitting that I am mostly like them.

In the morning, with the full heat of the sun scorching the desiccated landscape, Vegas becomes Las Vegas, desert city and tourist destination. The Vegas of last night becomes a stark reproduction, devoid of the special effects and suspension of disbelief that made it what it was. It’s sort of like going back and visiting your elementary school and being completely underwhelmed by how small it is, how bleak and boring the geometry of its rooms and halls are, how stripped of hazy sentiment the whole experience is.

So we’re out and fighting our way through traffic and construction, out past the airport and the university, past strip malls with chain stores that are just like everywhere else. I steal a phrase from David Foster Wallace, and dub Vegas a supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again. And we head east out over the desert.