Profane Illumination, Street Surrealism, and Venice, California

In the new book Venice, CA: A City State of Mind long-time alternative publisher John O’Kane collects the cultural history of one of America’s most distinctive counterculture locales: Venice. Its artificial canals once hosted a theme park and the neighborhood, popular with figures like Charlie Chaplin, was dubbed the “Coney Island of the West.” After the theme park went out of business and the area hit hard times, Venice’s decline led to a subsequent revival as a low-rent beach bohemia was created by surfers, skateboarders, weight lifters, hustlers, queers, artists, and musicians. Here’s an excerpt from O’Kane’s book. —Ed.

A Venice flush with freedom-seeking extenders who share good words and perform good deeds is a marvelous sight to imagine, and not only because it would bring traffic to a standstill and perhaps force citizens to find a more ecologically-friendly means to transport themselves, even get a bicycle like Gerry and join Critical Mass, or start footing it. What will make this fantasy real?

Since society is not likely to change from the top-down anytime soon in a way that satisfies most alternative residents, we could certainly use a few of these seekers to at least filter around town and make something happen. They could make the society we live and interact in on an everyday basis freer and more democratic, and this could lead to the insight for creating the attitudes and habits to make a more equal and humane society.

The Surrealists, whose movement surfaced in the early 20s in a time of social disruption and economic crisis, faced a similar dilemma. These artists and writers felt their society, and especially the notion of material progress that drove it, stifled human potential. It was extremely rational and controlling, to the point in fact of becoming thoroughly irrational and chaotic, a surreal distortion where absurd behaviors were inevitable. It was like the waste from society’s failings couldn’t be completely cleaned up; its swarms of counterfactual bugs couldn’t be fully exterminated.

Less concerned with why, they immersed themselves in this surreal overflow and played around. They pushed thresholds, trying to dissolve the barriers between waking and sleeping. They explored feelings and states of mind removed from what most considered reality with exquisite images and words and their well-crafted combinations. Since a normal lens is no more than a convention anyway, an illusion, they played with every possible angle on reality through abnormal, even paranormal ones. While this could be intoxicating, they believed it would lead to useful perspectives. In the tremens of freaking-out delirious in a society that intoxicated, they could soberly pursue the truth.
In the late 20s they entered a new phase. They began to feel that created objects were not the only vehicles to change a society with little prospect of changing. They tried to break free from written and visual language and focus on experiencing the everyday world purely and automatically, living poetically and artistically free from the aesthetic wraps of poetry and art, which they felt could help craft a more creative existence. While it’s debatable if this separation is ever possible, they were eager apprentices who shifted much of their attention away from galleries and manuscripts, taking their craft to the streets as performers to grasp the warping society with whatever materials they could muster.

Experiencing the everyday in this way involved developing a creative relation to physical objects. In a twist on the anthropologists’ craft, they excavated treasured sentiments and ideas from their reflections on these objects. Guillaume Apollinaire, a significant muse for the Surrealists, called these poets tricksters. They could conjure meaning from objects that seemed ready for the trash heap, were outmoded and on the verge of extinction, or those that were the first of their kind like an original tintype. There were energies in them, and in their contrasts. For Walter Benjamin the traces of times past resonated with current relevance for the careful conjurer; anachronisms came alive. They were capable of bringing the “immense forces of ‘atmosphere’ concealed in…things to the point of explosion.”

Allen Ginsberg and the Beats were kindred spirits. They found enlightenment in the most prosaic places and through the most ordinary arrangement of objects in them. Ginsberg, with a boost from Zen, discovered revelations in the baggage room at the bus station, through the juxtaposition of fruits and vegetables in the supermarket, and on the docks of railroad yards.

Andre Breton’s Nadja is an apt manifesto. Published in 1928, the book exposes the city of Paris’s surrealized face through the author’s affair with Nadja, whom he meets through a chance encounter in the streets. It’s no high romance that unfolds, however, but a rather off-beat relationship. She’s not so much a sensual love object as a conduit to objects. At times he seems closer to the things that she’s close to than to her, and is more fascinated with her vision of the world and details of her life. It’s like she’s only a vision herself, a state of mind, and not a real person. After she goes mad and exits the story he becomes obsessed with her, and develops a renewed interest in her existence and the city.

The notion of profane illumination captures the Surrealists’ evolving creative attitude to objects. This is Walter Benjamin’s phrase to describe what he felt was the gist of their innovative method of response to society. Their interest in enlightened discovery and a critical perspective on society’s failings, its dark counterfactuals, came together in this fascinating idea. It refers to an inspiration spawned by openness to a kind of experience that escapes the rational world, especially its performance-driven traps and dependencies. Ambling through city streets, or just hanging out with friends, they discovered spaces, sensations, moments, uncanny and irrational objects that disoriented and estranged. These experiences were also a catalyst for spurring the awareness to expose the parties and institutions responsible for performing society’s bad deeds.

This openness to experience could be drug-induced. Experiments with mind-expanding drugs were common during these years, and Benjamin himself had been recording his observations of city life using mescaline for several years. But drugs could only provide a preliminary boost. The inspiration was ultimately produced by the surplus of surreal distractions and distortions, a worldly conditioning that trumped personal whim.

Society’s imperfections left an illuminated trail of profane products for those with discriminating eyes. These profanities were embarrassing exceptions to the story of progress. They were produced by a society of rationalized hierarchies and exclusions addicted to performance goals and profit margins. The effects were evident in a toxic planet, polluted lifestyles, personalities made not to fit, as well as the homeless and the many wasted lives that had to be pushed aside. This included the Surrealists and other critically-minded citizens who were sure to find more exceptions to the story. The very existence of the profane was synonymous with outsiders. An us-versus-them mentality ruled where certain people and values were deemed more important; sacred, in fact. But however sacred many believed society was, it was actually quite unholy and heathenish. There was ample evidence in the behaviors of those who exploited others that morality was surely lacking, and god was likely dead.

So the Surrealists identified with society’s marginal and underground members, and especially the beaten spaces they populated, believing the secret to the mystery of how society worked, or didn’t, could be found there, and certainly not in the above-and-beyond. They weren’t bleary-eyed mystics contemplating their navels or metaphysical abstractions. In fact they were especially obsessed with freeing themselves from the effects of religious illumination. They believed you shouldn’t get too worked up and try to fathom obscure mysteries since you might miss what’s truly important. The enigmas that matter in an overly-rational world arrive in fits and starts, and you access them by chilling out and plugging into the here-and-now. Facing off with the unknown could certainly be positive; experience could suddenly explode with marvelous twists and turns. But it was important to avoid the urge to look up into the heavens for answers and learn to depend on sacred relief.

Since it wasn’t easy to recognize and connect the dots anyway, you had to believe the world you faced was not what it seemed and try to conjure the one that really matters. The true believers drew from their own experience and actively pushed to flush out the real world’s profanities, make as much of society look like it really is as they could. This required some ingenuity because however self-illuminating the already-surrealized society was, they couldn’t merely lie in wait for the results. Meaningful inspiration was produced through a sort of shared venture. It was latent in society and in the beholders’ eyes and mind.

For example, they drew attention to themselves as the barbarians society said they were, and shoved their unsavory presence in the faces of the more sacred than thou who pushed the system on. If everything had to look so good, why not smirch the sacred gloss at every turn? Take every opportunity to burst their sectarian bubbles. Shock and disarm them. Profane the residues of sacredness that keep profanities in place.

An orgy inside the LA Cathedral might lead to a riot and possible jail time for its participants, but it could also draw attention to the role of the Catholic Church in sexual abuse. If all the homeless in Venice filed into Bank of America simultaneously to open accounts, the media might show up and help raise awareness about glitches in the economic recovery, though the real frenzy might come when the cops arrive with the vans and haul them off to County, further testing the overcrowded prisons (this could perhaps be an effective backdoor solution to homelessness, however!). If money is so sacred, try to burn it in a public ceremony outside the Stock Exchange to kickstart a discussion about supply side economics, or the Fed’s latest Quantitative Easing policies…

Street Surrealism

Near California Ave and Abbot Kinney Blvd there are several streets and alleys named after Surrealists or the regions they hailed from, like Andalusia, Aragon, Cadiz and Cabrillo. These are perfect plants in a city where many have dreamt of different realities in various states of awakening. Rumors about Breton, Dali, Aragon, Desnos and others passing through Venice for a little resort time en route to that famous meeting with Trotsky in Mexico still circulate, however, fueled perhaps by rogue elements in the local art scene that believed Surrealists should have taken the next step and become more political. Kristen, who sells incense near Breeze Ave and the Boardwalk on weekends, swears her grandfather saw baby-faced Andre twirling his umbrella one sunny day outside the Rosemary Theater.

Unfortunately these streets and alleys are now surrounded by valeted nightspots and boutiques. Aragon Ct, a short narrow alley abutting Abbot Kinney Blvd from the west, has been erased from the tour maps, but hopefully the remainder won’t suffer the same fate or be renamed no matter how commercialized the area becomes. Venice has a long history of attracting a diversity of creative migrants, and has given sanctuary to many exiled artists and intellectuals as well.

The surrealist mindset thrives in places like beaten Venice with a surplus of streetwise folks and potential profaners who live in the moment, as well as a nearly perfect storm of influences: shocking carnival of contrasts, edgy behaviors, pockets of dream life, as well as drenches of amusement and nature. These have pushed many to richly experience everyday life in the city’s ordinary spaces and spectacular scenes, readymade stimuli to evade the predictable and undermine the performance principle. Though perhaps a bit shy on credentials, they’re addicted to good habits and know their substances. They can slip into rapture at the sight of a reptile-fondling tightrope artist wobbling above clanging Hare Krishnas snaking their way through a mass of pie-eyed tourists; a pigeon formation shadowing a scatter of surfers; or a tattered lotto ticket dancing on the wind.

They’re like alchemists. Alchemists are utopian-minded craftspeople, populist scientists without an official shingle who convert low-level metals and substances, controlled and uncontrolled, into higher ones, especially gold. They’re also known for cooking potions and elixirs to help extend life, useful credentials for residents of a place like Venice with a high concentration of youth-minded folks.

But these profaners hardly need to dust off those chemistry sets hidden away in the attic. They use their inspiration to convert the base elements of street life into precious mental states and forms of beauty and truth. They bear witness to flawed relationships, distorted views, the community’s wasted human debris and make sense of it all by acting out scenarios that can salvage their potential. They tell the stories that make the connections few others recognize. They insert themselves into conversations and situations and create golden oral moments, perhaps even some useful gilded legends. They fuse the waste and imperfections into forms of spiritual fertilizer that spread around town and work overtime to make as many as possible see the light.

This take on the world is not what we expect from most artists and intellectuals who tend to act like flighty tourists when it comes to all kinds of waste. Perhaps that’s why Thomas Mann, Theodore Adorno, Arnold Schoenberg and Bertolt Brecht, famous exiles from Europe before WWII, found the gentrified stretch up the coast a bit more to their liking, viewing the Venice pop scene as another franchise of the wasteland.

Aldous Huxley is an exception. He was a passionate if irregular presence in the city’s streets, making many sojourns here over the years. There are stories aplenty of him scoring substances around town. He was an honorary citizen whose famous book, The Doors of Perception, published in 1954, provided the name for the city’s most famous rock band.

But this book also offered insights into the drug experience. It was perhaps the perfect preparation for a precocious profaner concerned, as his focus on Hyperion revealed, with exactly how our rationalized society manufactures wasted people and tracks them through a process that creates the illusion of free choice. And it’s also an excellent primer for anyone interested in expanding consciousness. He taught us how to open the doors of perception with a chemical boost to manage an escape from repressive social systems that drug their subjects into zombies.

Our famous alchemist’s muse was William Blake. “If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.” This reference from Blake’s 1793 book, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, crystallizes Huxley’s debt. In fact he wrote an essay in 1956 titled “Heaven and Hell” that has since been included in the 1954 book.

Like Benjamin, Huxley experimented with mescaline to discover the experience that escapes the rational world and its enslavement of beings to material objects and profit, themes and concerns central to Blake’s book written in the revolutionary heat of post-1789 France. The book records Huxley’s impressions over the course of several hours in 1953 under the drug’s influence. He claims to have directly experienced a cleansing, to have opened the doors of perception and cut through the clutter of designs, actively transcended the cavern’s chinks that distort what matters and what truly is. Though not against contemplative transcendence, he believed the complete experience enhanced through mescaline pushed the person toward a greater alertness and more correct social behavior.

These results suggest that Huxley is at least kin to Benjamin’s profane illuminator. The experiments with mescaline are a conspicuous overlap. They both believed that this non-addictive drug was only a preliminary boost for learning how to open the doors. The purpose was to cultivate the mindset for seeing the world differently that would become habit. You could argue that for Benjamin the illuminating power was meant to be practiced in the streets where the revolutionary experience cooked which could free the seeker from the performance principle. His is an active profaner, an engaged flaneur who ambles around open to tears in the social fabric and ready to make things happen. His larger vision was that the masses, who he believed had the potential to see things as they are like their masters, could actively shape the future direction of society. Not exactly Huxley’s cup of tea.

There’s a certain affinity here between Benjamin’s active flaneur and Venice’s mass of street surrealists beside themselves with inspiration, the everyday bohemians who trip through the back-doors and side-doors of perception. This culturally-inspired beaten wasteland was surely prepped by the time of Huxley’s demise in the early 60s to welcome a diversity of experimenters with all sorts of substances. It was an open field laboratory for curious chemists, edgy alchemists, testosteroned spirits and just good folks wanting to bypass the bummers of everyday life with a perceptual charge. Who needs an afternoon of contemplative research when your neighbors can take notes and record your movements and flows 24/7, and give you instant feedback on how to hitch a ride on the nearly perfect storm?

Swinging Doors

If the Doors hadn’t been born in the immediate aftermath of Huxley’s death, the mid-60s, they would have had to be invented. Jim Morrison was different in sensibility from both Huxley and Benjamin. He was neither the learned Brit somewhat aloof from the masses, nor the erudite German claiming them for the coming revolution. But he fused their perceptual and profaning powers to address the new consumers of pop culture with many issues of the day as their free-verse poet intellectual, boosted from a new palette of intoxicants taken under decontrolled conditions. As a visionary young poet he sought, like the Surrealists, to illuminate objects as they exist in time “through a clean eye.” As a musician he performed prayers and poems to purge perception and engage all the senses in some collective transparent happening, aka the rock concert spectacle, to urge his faithful to break on through to the other side. It was like he wanted everyone to become alchemists and learn how to convert their senses into the advanced powers that would make this break. In fact he muses about alchemy in his early prose jottings, believing this “erotic science” could sense correspondences in and between unlikely orders of being and transform the results into something greater.

He was a master profaner, illuminating problems in the media, politics, religion and consumerism, shocking masses of faithful and introducing them to different orders of reality, even another America.

But he was also crassly profane on stage and elsewhere, at least later on, perhaps pushed to gorge his sybaritic fancies by the fans that idolized him. He came to be illuminated more than the issues. The mental and physical waste and chemicals that any good alchemist will strive to transform into something superior merely piled up. His consciousness and being bloated, in need of purification, and his perception plugged up. He was shrink-wrapped by fame and spectacle, not unlike how his 20th century foxes were wrapped up in plastic boxes. It’s revealing that he died of a heroin overdose, consuming a drug known for closing the doors of perception. Morrison went to the other side fighting demons while Huxley passed peacefully through the portals on LSD, fortunate to sense his fate a few hours in advance, perhaps rewarded for his years of healthy consciousness expansion.

Morrison’s nihilism may have kept him from anointment as a credible Dionysius, but his larger-than-life presence has been a catalyst pushing regular residents with little interest in drug research beyond themselves. After all, Venice’s nature and amusement drenches have been stirring the perception pot for many years. Many swill the relevant clichés and see what happens, submit to the city’s nearly perfect storm of influences and even hitch a ride to somewhere. Keeping a reasonably hip attitude toward things and people has been the best insurance to prevent the doors from disappearing. They may find nirvana or the godhead, but possibly also a closed-door drug therapy program since there are no guarantees in life whatever the substances folks rely on for salvation, or to salvage their moments.

It wasn’t without risks for the chemically imbalanced. Liberties taken to leap across wide expanses of unknown territory, or ingest dense chunks of unrelated substance, might twist any bit of sense on the tips of tongues into very bad downers and trips.
Like the day when Rufus, bummed out because his girlfriend’s cat hadn’t come back for what seemed like years, stared into the firmament flat on his back on a roof near Pacific and Sunset, and saw himself dangling from a tree in front of her window across from Venice High. He apologized and apologized until realizing later that she dumped him back in 1967 and her only association with animal life was to a little yellow canary that drowned itself one day in a bad batch of kool-aid. But he beat Jim Morrison’s Big Blue Bus across town by 20 minutes without leaving his deck.

Too much bending of time and space, as Rufus will be the first to admit, may weaken your brain cells so substantially that your thoughts take off like frisbees on steroids. But if you can stay fairly balanced and at least train your sights and mind on bending and stretching, loosen up and make a few links without having to worry about flunking a drug test, our natural and surreal furies might get you imagining how to breed a rooster with a fish.

The signs are there for anyone to play with, in the most deprived or most opulent living spaces, the glitz of gentrified facades, or the piles of Monday morning beach detritus. The results might not be poetry, but the materials can stimulate the desire to act out poetic states. Venice’s street surrealists, whatever their degree of readiness, catch similar waves of insight as their famed forebears who reached the point where words were losing their sock and the auras that once stitched the world’s mysteries together were losing their power. But armed with this insight, poets and the poetical can putz around in the withdrawal spaces where these meanings once held true and create alternatives, even leave us in stitches awhile.

Imagine Louis Aragon ambling around town in his prime of perceptive power. He might mingle with the swarm of ambiance chasers along the Boardwalk, slip into the muscle quarter and drool over the ageless sculptures, spy our newest citizens gorging on happy hour in the Canal Club, or even drop into the Town House, a marvelous gargoyled original on Windward, and chat with George about its former life as the famed Minelli’s restaurant, its logo still in the entryway.

He could teleport himself into the homeless mindscapes panhandling in the alley behind Elly Nesis, walk in and get the latest condo prices for Oakwood, lurch toward his dream space while rapping with Ralphy–whom he mistakes for his mate Salvador in his prime–on California near the Electric Lodge. Finding this property a little pricey he might get distracted and stalk a few of Nadja’s bikini-clad, implanted upgrades to the water for some chitchat.

On any given day many of his extended kin go about their everyday routines and do similar things, but they mostly go unnoticed. They wander over to Aragon Ct, or virtually any other spaces around town where the inspiration lies, and hang out for a while. This is a very short and narrow alley abutting Abbot Kinney Blvd from the west. At sidewalk’s edge we get a good glimpse of this popular strolling space, the many boutiques, furniture stores, design galleries and swank eateries that bring hordes of visitors to these shores but also cater to recent arrivals living in the vicinity. Named after the city’s founder, this artery flows with what some architects of the new Venice feel is Abbot’s true spirit…

Excerpted from Venice, CA: A City State of Mind.

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