We arrived at Las Vegas after a journey that took in Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon, Panglitch & Zion. Zion was a different kind of place from Monument Valley or Bryce Canyon. The river, Virgin, was only at the start of its task to cut into the sandstone, gouging a canyon of the stature of Grand Canyon. The rocks were more rounded and domed rather than worked into amazing figures. There was no hidden, symbolic meaning here, no mysterious, lost language waiting to be deciphered. These were merely rocks.
The river here was gentle, like an ambling walk, cliff to one side, river to the other. Fast flowing and tumbling down shallow rock steps. It rained and was a cold day. But everybody simply ignored the wet and damp atmosphere despite shivering and cold extremities.
Vegas was brash, appealing to everything excessive and vulgar in Man: gambling, pleasures of the flesh, greed, covetous desires, and gluttony. The people were fat in the extreme, as in Lowell’s ‘fat beyond the call of duty’. Large arms, legs that were immense in girth and abdomens that pushed through loose shirts and blouses, urgently, trying to escape belt or cord string. And the arms paddled as if every effort was against a stream that flowed upwards, against the whole corpulent edifice, perspiring, breathing heavily, waddling uphill or even on the flat! Some people seemed to move their legs in a semicircular swing to bring each thigh forward, swinging to avoid the tackle of the other.
And the coupling was a gift to curiosity: obese men paired with slim women that one wondered how she could ever manage to endure the weight. Every conceivable pairing – far eastern, hispanic, black, Native American, white, South Indian, and many more species yet to be catalogued, sized for shape and origin, bewildering in the variegation of physiognomy.
The casinos were the most boring places on the planet. Men and women sat by slot machines, cigarette dangling at the lip, a drink in one hand, eyes glazed over as in a trance, and a businesslike studiousness that was indifferent at the same time as empty and demoralized: elderly Chinese women, obese Black women, young men with lank hair that glistened unwashed against perspiring foreheads. There was no excited, expectant face, no look of triumph nor was there any joy or laughter. This was sheer indifference, boredom, stagnation, death even. It was the most morbid and unproductive environment that poverty of the spirit engenders. Was this the antechamber of hell? Dispiriting.
At the restaurants the meals were oversized! Tasteless and without fragrance, every item on the menu was intended to exaggerate what any reasonable person could manage, burgers that were so outlandish they would not, never ever, fit into any mouth no matter its gigantic dimensions. These were symbols of the wealth of America not meals for eating and savouring. More a hieroglyphic of excess speaking to the downtrodden and the unthinking about success and promise, about hope and dreams. Less about food and nutrition.
Vegas was the concrete poetical image of excess, the 21st century Jazz Age. This put me in mind of F Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940). Not his body of work but his breakdown or as he put it, his “crack-up”.
Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work- the big sudden blows that come, or even seem come, from outside- the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends, don’t show their effect all at once. There’s another sort of blow that comes from within-that you don’t feel until its too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again
Now a man can crack in many ways- can crack in the head…or in the nerves
And his judgment as to the origin of his malady was
An overextension of the flank, a burning of the candle at both ends; a call upon resources that I did not command, like man over-drawing at his bank…a feeling that I was standing at twilight on a deserted range, with an empty rifle in my hands and the targets down. No problem set- simply a silence with only the sound of my own breathing.
Excess in the individual or in society has a cost as F Scott Fitzgerald says, an over-extension of the flank, flabby, wobbly, vulnerable to mortal afflictions. Beneath the lights, the colors, the vitality and vibrancy of Vegas, perhaps lurks the insidious crack-up.
Photos by Jan Oyebode
I’ve been reading Eugene Minkowski’s Lived Time. His preoccupation is with the structure of psychopathology as far as it concerns the experience of time. He does have novel ideas especially about future orientation or what he calls the future horizon. He makes the point that Desire, Hope and Prayer are future orientated. In melancholia, desire and hope are impaired. Perhaps Desire is impaired because of the fact that melancholia disrupts reward systems and the capacity for hedonism, hence anhedonia and the absence of Desire. Or perhaps as Minkowski says Desire and Expectation are both interlinked and further linked to time and since melancholia disrupts time experience it demonstrably disrupts Desire and Expectation. Prayer is another matter. In the poetry of melancholia, prayer is constant (see Berryman, Gurney & Elizabeth Jennings). Rather than nullified, Prayer is preoccupying as melancholia removes any sense of redemption, the feeling of sin is grave and burdensome and only prayer stands in opposition to this feeling of futility. And, as Minkowski makes clear prayer is future orientated but in this case the role of Prayer is to arrest time and to bring death closer.
Minkowski’s project was to characterize abnormalities of subjective time experience, what he terms ‘lived time’. In opposition to this is objective time or clock time. And the magnitude of objective time is made manifest in the opposition of geologic time to human history. Think of 4.6 billion years against a mere 150,000 since Homo sapiens africanus rose up on the Eastern African Plains and 70,000 years at most since he emigrated to central Europe and the mere 5,000 years, if that, of history!
The grandeur of geologic time was ever present in travelling from Los Angeles through the Sierra Nevada and the Mojave Desert to Boulder, just skirting Las Vegas. The prize was Grand Canyon by way of Hoover Dam.
Grand Canyon. How to speak of wonder and spectacle without exaggeration or hyperbole? The play of light on endless strata rendering shadows and colour visible, lifting contours and angles, curving and flowing everywhere, yet still, frozen, and architectural in its splendor. There were dramatic cloud formations, and the horizon and the sky cooperated to define and reveal a field of visual inquiry and to make this aesthetically pleasing.
Minkowski’s patients experienced slowed and frozen time, time that upended the forward pointing arrow of time, reversing this apparently immutable structure of the material world. But Grand Canyon was stating the obvious, time can itself be caught in a net and brought to a standstill. A river like the Colorado can slowly and relentlessly carve sandstone, rocks, into a chasm that astonishes. It is as if the abrupt and abnormal experience of time were graphically communicated in the line of rocks, the shape of the canyon to an uncomprehending audience.
To walk down the Kaibab trail at Grand Canyon to Skeleton Point, 3 miles down and another 3 miles back, the descent 2,000 feet is to travel back 1.5 billion years. It is a hike not a walk. It is grueling and exhilarating. The weather can be changeable. It rained, showered, hailed and then the sun in its glory shone for a time as we walked down. And then there was a rainbow hanging there in the sky, right against the canyon colours, a rare and magical sight. Fantastic.
And wherever you turned there was another spectacular display of the earth’s beauty, whether it be colour, shape, splendour or aura, the spirit felt uplifted. This was walking back through time, reversing the arrow and seeing the past close-up.
Grand Canyon was only a precursor to Monument Valley. At Kayenta close to Monument Valley, the rock formations were strange and intriguing. There were pink, salmon, or red stones in unusual shapes. A total absence of ground vegetation but trees in isolated positions growing into the rocks.
At Monument Valley. Although these natural monuments had all been named, elephant, camel, hand, etc, they demanded that our own imagination rescue them from these names that held them fast, immobilizing their desire to be free. So we wondered aloud: Was that a serpent, a sphinx, or an alien in cosmonaut gear? What kingdom did these masters rule and where are they now? Here at Monument Valley Time seemed not to be merely frozen into strata but to be struggling to free itself and to take on symbolic form, that is to have meaning, which is recognizable and nameable.
The evening closed in without any display of sunset colours.
The final Act was Bryce Canyon Amphitheatre, at sunset. It is like an ancient city that one has suddenly come across in a forgotten island. The castle walls are a deep unforgettable red. Laterite. The battlements gigantic fortresses enclosing a centre that is circular, concentric and whorled, based on the design of a rose.
In the distance the sun, lights up the watch squares, giant battlements glacial solid in a dream and emptied of life. These ancients have left for another place. Where are they all now? Mile upon mile of sandstone formations, sculpted by wind and rain to form the most arresting pieces of natural art. Deep red, variegated carmine red, yellowish red of mud, then grey and mustard. Champagne even. These were cities, citadels, castles, cathedrals, balustraded, ornamental, baroque in their splendour. Ahead, on either side, curving and fraught with delicate wings and stately gardens, these majestic deserted palaces overwhelmed any sense of cynicism about nature’s capacity to enrapture and enchant.
Time was the underlying theme, the implicit, covert message in this display of grandeur, elegance, beauty and colour. Time as it is when it ventures to reveal itself but cloaked so discreetly in rock that it remains hidden from the unsuspecting eye.
Photos by Jan & Femi Oyebode