Thursday, August 1, 2013

Kosher Locust: The Apocalypse and Nathaniel West

The Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West

Yes, there is such a thing as a kosher locust, an insect suitable for consumption by Jews under the ancient dietary laws known as kashrut. While it is stated in the Torah (Parshat Shemini) that “Every flying insect that uses four legs for walking shall be avoided by you,” there are actually eight different species of locusts that a Jew can munch (see red locust left). But don’t get your hopes up, for in fact the law proscribes that a Jew can only eat these locusts as part of a “continuous tradition,” such as the one practiced by the Jewish community of Djerba in Tunisia. The only other way that a righteous Jew can taste them is to visit and be offered a sampling of such locusts by a member of a Jewish community in which the practice is already established. 

Why include this in a post about Nathaniel West and his novel The Day of the Locust?  I’m really not sure, except that it’s interesting and West was Jewish (born Nathan Wallenstein Weinstein) and that in his aforementioned novel he envisions for America a plague of locusts even more destructive than God’s.  

In fact Jews are deeply familiar with locusts (even if most can’t eat them). God, in his desire to punish the Pharaoh of Egypt for enslaving the ancient Hebrews, unleashed upon the stubborn tyrant a rain of plagues (the list recited to this day at each Passover Seder), a nasty cloud of locusts featured prominently among them. West’s satire of 1930’s Hollywood, that garish purgatory where he, like Faulkner, was condemned to do time working as a screenwriter, is a fractured, dizzying journey into American loneliness, vanity, and despair. Like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald himself praised the novel for its "scenes of extraordinary power"), like Miller’s Death of Salesman, the novel takes the American Dream and turns it inside out.  As Jonathan Lethem puts in in his introduction to the novel, “West explicitly defines Los Angeles as the place where the American (Egalitarian) Dream has ended up, first to replicate itself in the synthetic cartoons of the motion picture industry, and then, under the exposing glare of sunlight, to die.”

And die its does—if fitfully, grotesquely—in the hearts and minds of his desperately yearning characters: an old Vaudevillian, a screenwriter, a starlet, a cowboy, a ghastly child actor, a midget gangster, and a lonely Midwestern businessman, one of the many disappointed and disillusioned who has come to California to die.  At the center of it all is Tod Hackett, an East Coast artist and intellectual outsider who throughout the novel is struggling (like Lily Briscoe in Woolf’s To The Lighthouse), to complete his masterpiece, in his case an enormous painting called “The Burning of Los Angeles.”

Surely one of the best parts of the story—it will hook you at once—is the surreal and portentous opening in which the protagonist, the love-struck dreamer, Tod Hackett, looks out the window of his Hollywood office where he works to pay the bills as a costume designer and background painter to behold:

     An army of cavalry and foot was passing.  It moved like a mob; its lines broken, as though fleeing from some terrible defeat. The dolmans of the hussars, the heavy shakos of the guards, Hanoverian light horse, with their flat leather caps and flowing red plumes, were all jumbled together in bobbing disorder. Behind the cavalry came the infantry, a wild sea of waving sabertaches, sloped muskets, crossed shoulder belts and swinging cartridge boxes. Tod recognized the scarlet infantry of England with their white shoulder pads, the black infantry of the Duke of Brunswick, the French grenadiers with their enormous white gaiters, the Scotch with bare knees under plaid skirts.
     While he watched, a little fat man, wearing a cork sun-helmet, polo short and knockers, darted around the corner of the building in pursuit of the army.
     “Stage Nine—you bastards—Stage Nine!” he screamed through a small megaphone.

All is jumbled, irrational, confused; nothing seems real. This is West’s signature, for as a writer he was drawn more to the poetry and vision of the French Surrealists (and through them to Freud) than to that of his social realist compatriots, writer-activists like Walker Evans, John Steinbeck, and John Dos Passos.  More like Faulkner in his technical and stylistic daring, as well as in his professional marginality, West marveled at what William Peden called “the horrible emptiness of mass lives” and worked hard to find a means, a method, to describe it. What he devised—at least as far as this novel is concerned—was a hallucinatory, often violent (and violence-filled) juxtaposition of images and things, which, when coupled with his own strange compassion for his characters, constitutes nothing less than a revolution in meaning and form. “It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance,” reflects Tod Hackett, near the ending of this apocalyptic novel, “no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that need are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.”

Nathaniel West, born in New York City in 1903, published three novels before moving to Hollywood to write screenplays. In addition to The Day of the Locust, he is the author of A Cool Million, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, and Miss Lonelyhearts.  He died in a  car accident in 1940.  The Day of the Locust is published in tandem with Miss Lonelyhearts by New Directions.

* Thanks in part to

Peter Adam Nash

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