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37. Nature morte


Encountered in passing in the New York Times Book Review . . .The review takes pains to note that Simon Critchley wrote the Book of Dead Philosophers on a hill overlooking Los Angeles. And, Critchley says, because of "its peculiar terror of annihilation," Los Angeles is "surely a candidate city for the world capital of death."

Critchley's comment on the place in which he wrote a collection of essays on dead philosophers (and on their dying) comes at the very end of his book, which offers a slightly snarky take on the consolations of philosophy (and being philosophical about the inevitable).

In a short afterward on "Geographical Details" he says, "To my eyes, the (book) is marked by the strange mood of that city and its inescapable clichés: the melancholic Santa Ana winds, broad deserted night-time streets flanked by high palm trees, and sunlight so bright that it becomes indistinguishable from darkness." Sunset Boulevard also makes a brief appearance; noir is mentioned in passing and Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

The oxymoron of "inescapable clichés" is very good. It conjures up a crowd of zombie-like phrases stumbling toward the writer, but, like the generic victims in a dawn-of-the-living-dead movie, the writer never seems to outrun them no matter how slowly the clichés shamble into this thinking.

Critchley might also have a problem picking capitals. I can think of a lot of candidate places where death reigns more ugly, real, and truly inescapable "? I'll start with Auschwitz-Birkenau.

That the New York Times would fit Critchley's bleak and lazy assertions about Los Angeles into a mildly favorable review of his book is fully in character. The book has nothing to do with Los Angeles, but those clichés slewfoot forward, groaning lowly for NYTBR reviewers' brains, whenever clichés of Los Angeles are invoked.


Why Critchley is uniquely disconsolate in Los Angeles, writing a book about bucking up manfully (or womanfully) in the face of death, is harder to figure. You can be miserable contemplating your own mortality anywhere.I thought that place mattered not at all any more, now that we're all in the same flat, globalized world.

But if the positive attributes of local do matter "? as increasingly they do "? they mustn't have a place in L.A., particularly if, like Critchley, you head the philosophy department at the New School in New York.

But L.A. will always have noir. And that, it seems, will have to do.

The image of calaveras was taken by Flickr user Anna Jay and the Swanson photo was taken by Christine Wilks. Each was used under a Creative Commons license.

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