Diary

Frank Kermode

Even if you enjoy Southern California as much as Reyner Banham you may still, like him, draw the line at those discreetly fenced-in and fortified cities in which the better-off sometimes choose to live, and at whose gates the visitor must check with the guardians before being allowed to enter. I recently spent a few days in one of these suburban paradises. It occupies a large tract of the Palos Verdes peninsula, its hills dotted with single-storey houses, tennis courts, swimming pools, corrals, and criss-crossed by trails created by the settlers for the use of their equestrian families. The endless rains of last winter have washed out many of the trails, and streams flow across them, scaring horses which have never seen running water. Large pieces of property have dropped off and blocked the roads. The nearby beaches have been shrunk by storms. It all seems a bit hard on people who have accepted the high risk of earthquakes but never dreamed of such destructive weather.

They are bearing up. Their ‘city’ is still a plausible version of paradise, if you care for that sort of thing. Walking in the canyons (I’m no caballero), I wondered why I couldn’t imagine living there. On the edges of those canyons were highly desirable residences; each of them seemed to have been underlined by bold slashes of violet-pink plastic paint, applied by some huge roller. These were plots of iceplant. Succulents and sage seem to be the mainstay of the vegetable world, together with eucalyptus. Some admire these for their leaves and scent, even for their odd scraggy shapes. They come from Australia, but almost everything here comes from somewhere else. You come upon whole woods full of nasturtiums, and other indications of an English garden allowed to get out of hand – out-of-season roses and honeysuckle, fuchsia, geraniums. There are millions of daisies that belong in South Africa. The British should be the last to propose that each place should have only its native plants, but here they somehow look as if they’d just arrived, and with an irrelevant gaiety. What really belongs seems rather grim: the deep cuts of the canyons and the powerful chilly Pacific, its swells arriving from thousands of miles away to prevent feeble swimmers like me from intruding – they throw you back onto the beach.

The inhabitants, of course, have got the measure of the ocean (except when, really annoyed, it breaks their piers and tears away their cliffs) just as they have control of nearly everything else. In large quiet shopping malls they buy their crease-proof synthetic clothes (never linen, despite the climate, for linen creases) and enjoy their modest $250,000 houses. They treat one with polite, smiling familiarity, with a sort of disinterested courtesy as genuine or as phoney as the cultivated churlishness of New York manners. California is the state of Proposition Thirteen, which restricted property taxes and so all social services: every man for himself, allowing every other man his due, which is to be for himself. So they all seem much alike, all driving at five miles an hour over the limit on the now perpetually crowded freeways, all knowing just what the good life requires. Perhaps, after a while, one might find it possible to agree. But not now, and not in any really imaginable future.

Well, it’s not America, any more than New York is, or any state or city. What do Americans miss most when abroad? The television news the other night showed some GIs on the point of returning from the Lebanon, and, asked this question, their spokesman replied, to general applause: ‘MacDonalds, Burger King and American TV’. But perhaps some others long for gourmet restaurants, Krug Cabernet Sauvignon ’74, and musak in Orange County; or, altogether more understandably, Sunday brunch at the Clift in San Francisco. The trams are not running in that city, but will be back, ready for another hundred years, by the time of the Democratic Convention next summer; the new buildings downtown are extravagantly grand, and you can watch them, and the harbour, from the revolving top of the cavernous Regency Hyatt hotel, drinking tea at a pound a glass. The City Lights bookstore is still in place. San Francisco would get more British votes than Los Angeles, but of course it isn’t America.

Nor, a fortiori, is Salt Lake City. Though the Latter Day Saints believe the ultimate Temple will not be there but in Independence Missouri (where a rival sect stubbornly refuses to sell them the divinely-chosen plot of land, supposed to be the site of the garden east of Eden), Utah is the nearest thing to a theocracy you could hope to find in the Union. The streets of Salt Lake City are numbered from the Temple in their midst. You can’t get into the Temple unless you are a Saint in good standing, but there are Visitors’ Centres in which extremely gentle Hosts welcome you and tell you all about their religion. As you listen, observing the Sunday-school illustrations of the Book of Mormon and the awful cosmological working models, the thought most likely to occur is that millions of people find it possible to take it all seriously.

The Mormons have a third Testament, of equal status with the other two: it provides among much else the history of early American religion. It seems that before the Babylonian captivity an expedition from Jerusalem, using divinely designed boats or submarines, arrived by a long and difficult route in the New World. (Much is now made of Thor Heyerdahl as the man who showed this could be done.) In due course, heralded by the prophets (of whom Mormon was one), Christ made a post-Resurrection appearance. The Saints are not the only sect to desire a third Testament, but so far as I know theirs is the only one that back-dates it instead of making it refer to an age yet unborn. But this is a religion of back-dating. The dead, for instance, are baptised so as to improve their chances in the after-life; all the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, all save one or two disagreeable Presidents, together with other famous men such as John Wesley and Columbus, have been posthumously baptised, and there are vast genealogical researches by people who wish to benefit their remote ancestors. The Book of Mormon is not alone among sacred books in claiming to have originated in golden tablets sent from heaven, and not alone in its free use of other people’s sacred books, but to the infidel eye it is much sillier than any other, and the same could be said of the theology and liturgical practices of this church. The latter are basically Masonic, though as usual the claim is made that the Masons use a corrupt version of the Temple rite. The former, with its plural deities and its doctrines of pre-existence and progressive divinisation, is the sort of eclectic muddle common enough in other charismatic foundations. A Catholic professor on my tour said: ‘What these people need is an Aquinas.’

They won’t find one, but they don’t need one. They have built a powerful institution; beliefs likely to stunt its growth, such as the fundamental doctrine of polygamy – necessary to the increase of the priesthood, for all adult males are priests – are quietly shelved. Even the dietary restrictions, for instance on tea and coffee, have been economically beneficial. Joseph Smith Jr, a semi-literate and probably rather crooked preacher, came out of the apocalyptic milieu of upper New York State in the 1820s, and his chance of lasting success was in principle no better than that of other sects like the Shakers or the Millerites: but in fact he founded one of the richest religious institutions in the world, which is also the most actively proselytising, even though converts have to surrender a tenth of their income to the church, give up tea, coffee, cola and alcohol, and, it seems, wear sacred underclothes.

I was in Salt Lake City on the evening of the opening of The Return of the Jedi. Here, as elsewhere, the show was to begin at midnight, and by eight o’clock the queues wound endlessly round the Temple-oriented city blocks. Perhaps there is some significance in the remote family resemblance between these successful myths. Certainly they are alike in being financially successful. The Mormons are extremely rich, not only from the tithes paid by the millions of believers but from their uranium deposits and business enterprises. They spend money on their poor, but they also spend it by the million on opposing the Equal Rights Amendment. Though they have been Democrats, they are now solidly Reaganite. Their religion imposes on every man a duty to get on in this world but also in the next, for by continued effort he can become a god, with attendant benefits to his wife and family. He carries no burden of original sin, so everything that happens is strictly up to him. If you visit Emigration Canyon, from which Brigham Young after inconceivable difficulties sighted the great Salt Lake Valley and said, ‘This is the right place – drive on,’ you get some notion of what it meant to bring a whole community there in wagon trains. We’re told the valley was bleak and treeless, the soil sandy: but that within two hours of arrival the pioneers were ploughing and planting and harnessing the streams of the Rockies.

It was 90 degrees in the city, though it had been 30 only days before, and the day after I left the heavy winter snows melted and poured down into the streets. But Brigham Young had made the streets wide, so that heavily-laden wagons could turn in them, and the citizens saved the city by turning some such streets into orderly rivers. Salt Lake City was not exactly a rest for the people of God, and it is not America, but you can see why for some it is a version of both.