Monday, May 25, 2015

California as Heaven, or Not.

In Palo Alto in 1956, George Kennan wrote
California reminds me of the popular American Protestant concept of heaven: there is always a reasonable flow of new arrivals; one meets many--not all--of one's friends; people spend a good deal of their time congratulating each other of the fact that they are there; discontent would be unthinkable; and the newcomer is slightly disconcerted to realize that now--the devil having been banished and virtue being triumphant--nothing terribly interesting can ever happen again.

(Sketches from a Life, entry for May 13, 1956.)

I thought of this today when I happened to pick up Mazes by Hugh Kenner, and found a bookmark at the end of the essay "Please Welcome My Next Idea", a piece from 1982. Within it, the angel at the entrance to the afterlife is catechizing Mortimer Adler, who then had a show running on PBS:

ANGEL: ... Back when the morning stars were singing together, I made my thousands of decisions with elan. Now I scarcely know which telephone to pick up.
ADLER (quickly): The blue one.
ANGEL: Hush, you do not know what you are saying.(A long pause.) I have decided. Your eternity shall be unique.
ADLER: Not . . . (he gropes for the worst) an eternity of culling the Great Thoughts of John Dewey?
ANGEL: No. An eternity at this very desk. You are a packager, I am a packager. Heaven, Hell, those are packages. Our appearance, even is not unlike. I shall change my pace for an aeon. I shall descend and run the Aspen Seminars. You shall sit here and catechize the clients.
ADLER: With the files? The Rolodex? The video archive?
ANGEL: With all of it. You will find it comes naturally. I must tell you, though, the secret of the telephones. Red, blue, it does not matter: mere decor. Both go to the one Dispatcher. What matters is not which you pick up but the word you say: you say merely "Los Angeles," or "Kalamazoo."
ADLER: Los Angeles. Ah, of course: Heaven.
ANGEL: Your blind trust in categories! For once consider reality. No, for the deserving, seasons and Michigan air. For the mass of men, in their infinitely greater number, an eternity of smog and issueless freeways.
ADLER (speechless): . . . 
Unfortunately, the University of Georgia Press seems to have let Mazes go out of print. It is not perhaps the best collection of Kenner's essays, yet it has excellent pieces--this one, "The Wherefore of How To", and "Marshall McLuhan Redux" among others.

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