The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

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JUNE 2023 Issue

Donatien Grau’s De Civitate Angelorum

Donatien Grau
De Civitate Angelorum
(Yvon Lambert Editions, 2023)

How to understand the city of Los Angeles? The sprawling area of ten million inhabitants possesses neither a center nor a unifying culture. And it is notoriously a place of fantasy. Donatien Grau, who is both a historian and an accomplished curator of contemporary art, ponders the meaning of Los Angeles from the point of view of the classical historian. Not only does he consider the modern city as the ancient writers might have, but he does so in Latin and without translation, as if to keep in touch with his literary predecessors. Clearly there is a great deal of performance art here, but the narrative does read as if a Greek travel writer or a Roman historian were looking at today’s California. In twenty-three pages comprising twenty-five brief chapters, some only a sentence or two in length and others a full page, Grau roams through southern California, reflecting on the people and customs he finds.

It is an interesting peregrination, although Grau’s observations often sound like the fantasies of the European visitor to California. The ancient voices he borrows are varied and sometimes contradictory, resulting in something of a pastiche that includes the ethnography of Herodotus, the pure history of Caesar or Tacitus, the natural history of Pliny the Elder, the philosophical reflections of Augustine, and the severe moralizing of the early Christian theologians.

To his credit, Grau begins by correctly noting the essential trait of Los Angeles—its multicultural and multilingual population: Diversitas est summa in illa civitate in fine mundi (“Diversity is supreme in that city at the end of the world”). He is also no doubt right to emphasize the importance of endless sunshine, which is in the end what attracts the multitudes to the city. The cult of the Sun God came to be dominant in ancient Rome, and in Los Angeles, too: Sol in tota civitate regnat (“The Sun reigns over the whole city”). But Grau also adds a cautionary note by paraphrasing Isaiah 1:7: Primo terra in illis locis deserta erat; civitates antiquae igni succensae sunt (“At first the land in those places was desolate; the ancient cities were burned with fire”), an apocalyptic vision that pervades his view.

After a rhetorical defense of the author’s own learning and diligence, borrowed from the first century BC architectural writer Vitruvius, the tour begins. We are introduced to eight-lane liberae (“freeways”) and the mean streets that hide secret vice and domestic violence. The juxtaposition of freeways and hidden violence made me think of Raymond Chandler, the greatest of all chroniclers of Los Angeles. There are a few stops along the way at locations which are described as a tourist might do so, including trendy Venice and Hollywood Boulevard. The Getty Villa (called Villa Dolabra), though, is the subject of a more thoughtful reflection on the survival of classical culture in America but also, again, a reminder of apocalypse. The museum, itself a recreation of a Roman villa buried by the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, makes Grau think not only of that ancient catastrophe but also of an unspecified cladem futaram (“future destruction”).

A particularly eloquent passage ponders the nature of time in Los Angeles, where the past is said to have little meaning: Futurum hie praedici non potest, et praeteritum non existit (“The future cannot be predicted here, and the past does not exist”). There are echoes here of Augustine, but the theologian was contrasting the insignificance of temporal existence with the timeless spiritual life. Grau, on the other hand, is launching into one of his main themes, how Los Angeles is a place where people come to reinvent themselves, unburdened by the past. This, of course, is a common belief in view of the dominating presence of Hollywood (here Ruscisilva). Grau is explicit: Etenim in fabulis quoque incolae eius resident, ut duplices vitas agent; quarum una vita diei et altera vita somnii (“In fact, its inhabitants also live in fables, leading double lives; one of which is the life of the day and the other the life of a dream”). He is harsh in his criticism of the Hollywood lifestyle, equating it with the notoriously decadent spectacles of ancient Rome: Totum est spectaculum (“All is spectacle”). Here Grau becomes something of a moralizing scold, not so much a Cicero as a Christian dogmatic. In fact, he acknowledges his debt to Tertullian’s De Spectaculis (“On the Shows”), which condemns the pleasures of Roman spectacle unequivocally as sin.

In the final pages, now in the manner of a historian-ethnologist, he recognizes the poverty and homelessness that are evident everywhere, and then, to conclude, returns to the diversity of the people of the city: Hispanic, Asian, Iranian, African. The acknowledgment of their presence takes us away from the fantasy of Hollywood and brings us to reality: Civitas Angelorum patria eorum qui a partibus mundi illic venerunt et etiam qui novam vitam, novum genus, novum nomen sibi dare voluerunt (“The City of Angels is the homeland of those who came there from other parts of the world and wanted to give themselves a new life, a new race, a new name”).


Jeffrey Spier

Jeffrey Spier is Anissa and Paul John Balson II Senior Curator of Antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

All Issues