Disaster Mythology and Californian Identity

Meghan Daum had a great column in the LA Times the other day about how Californians help make sense of themselves and their state through disaster mythology.

Money grafs:

This hip mix of dread and sang-froid, especially when it comes to natural disasters, is crucial to our regional literary and cinematic identity. In hard times, New Englanders may have their flinty stoicism, Southerners their gothic rhapsody and Midwesterners their sandbags. But when it comes to the way we appear to respond to apocalyptic tragedy, citizens of the Golden State seem marked by a grim nonchalance. As bad as things get, we never entirely let go of the idea that a Californian watches his house burn down while standing in his driveway in a pair of Ray-Bans, drinking gin and humming a Doors song.

Such caliginous images are not just a mythology we impart to the outside world, they’re integral to the cliches that remind us why we live here. In the same way that New York City dwellers wear the hassles of their daily lives as a badge of honor, Californians like to view their proximity to impending disaster as a direct reflection of their toughness; evidence that they’re more interesting, more glamorous than everyone else — and the closer they live to the precarious edge, the more quintessentially Californian they are.

She ends:

Didion called Los Angeles weather "the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse." Chandler, for his part, described windy Santa Ana nights when "meek little wives feel the edge of a carving knife and study their husbands’ necks." This is sexy stuff, but it’s also what we use to deny our own role in the mess.

Yes, Mother Nature is mercurial, and yes, the winds that blow in from the desert have certain otherworldly qualities. But to become over-reliant on our disaster mythology, as poetic as it is, is to carry on a heedless romance with California rather than the respectful, mature relationship that ought to develop at some point in the love affair.

1 comment on “Disaster Mythology and Californian Identity
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