California Screaming: Los Angeles’ Culty Weirdness
(Another rescue from the Dangerous Minds archive, originally published Nov. 19, 2009.)
Los Angeles is the strangest city in the world. I swear it as a true and faithful relation.
Every cult in the world has an outpost in Los Angeles. I suppose it’s always been that way. Paramhansa Yogananda once called Los Angeles the “Benares of America,” the most holy city in the country. He also said it had the perfect climate to practice yoga in, likely why he established his Self-Realization Fellowship centers up and down the coast of Southern California. Manly P. Hall set up his mission to humanity here, the Philosophical Research Society, and tirelessly lectured on the Ancient Mysteries to common people and heads of state alike.
Then there’s the dark side. Jack Parsons and a certain somebody summoning Babalon in the Mojave Desert. The Solar Lodge of the OTO. Charles Manson. Roman Polanski. Rumors of Jim Morrison having his soul stolen by voodoo acolytes.
And somewhere in between those two extremes, the endless, slack-jawed landscape of We’ll Believe Anything: the health food stores, the diet crazes, the life-transformation-seminarians, the UFO cargo cults, the “lightworkers,” the Theosophists, the disappearing preachers. The faith healers, the distance healers, the healers of healers. The crystal gazers, the crystal huggers, the crystal smokers. My friend Shaun Frenté has a name for it all: “Ancient Californian Wisdom.”
William Faulkner called Los Angeles “an endless, sun-bleached Hell” (or something to that effect); there is a profound meaninglessness here that goes beyond the common stereotype of the city. It is almost as if, without the benefit of darkness and shadows, nothing seems sinister. If the sun always shines, then nothing can hide—or everything can hide, in plain sight. Los Angeles executes its Grand Unification Theory of All Cults: If everything is equally meaningless, any meaning is acceptable. If nothing is true, everything is permitted. It all means Less Than Zero.
Perhaps, since this city’s primary export is Illusion, all illusions can thrive here, from Magick in Theory and Practice to the Magic Castle. Los Angeles is the Great Magician, hypnotizing the whole world into the self-image it chooses. Here, we are all the man behind the curtain. Here, we are all a trick of the light.
Unlike the occult underworld of that other City of High Weirdness, London, which is moribund and necrophilic, still bound up in its shamefully stained public schoolboy uniform and still hiding under the long shadows of Crowley, Spare and Constantine, the occult landscape of Los Angeles wears a smile and a tan. It is perhaps the strangest city I have ever lived in. I’m still not sure how I ended up here.
Driving down Los Angeles’ endless freeways, the architecture looks Sumerian, Mesopotamian. The palm trees, Egyptian. After all, the climate here is exactly the same as that of Ancient Egypt. If people can reincarnate, might, also, cities? Could Rome have resurfaced as New York? Heliopolis, Los Angeles? Or maybe it is a composite—Thebes, Nineveh, Tyre, Babylon, Memphis. Perhaps they just recycled the whole ancient fertile crescent and renamed it Los Angeles, City of Angels, angels long fallen, waiting on hold for their agents to get back to them and offer them their Big Comeback Role.
The sun is going down now, over the palm trees of Echo Park, on the territorial border of the Egyptian empire and the Aztec one. Just another day in paradise. Heaven, or just south of it.