SANTA ANA WINDS….This post is for readers in Southern California. A couple of hours ago Jeralyn Merritt put up a passage from Joan Didion’s “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” about Santa Ana winds, part of which I excerpt here:
We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks….The heat was surreal. The sky had a yellow cast, the kind of light sometimes called “earthquake weather.” My only neighbor would not come out of her house for days….In Los Angeles some teachers do not attempt to conduct formal classes during a Santa Ana, because the children become unmanageable.
….It is hard for people who have not lived in Los Angeles to realize how radically the Santa Ana figures in the local imagination….Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The winds shows us how close to the edge we are.
I’m curious about something. I’ve lived in Southern California my entire life, and this just doesn’t bear any resemblance to anything I know about the place. Santa Ana winds are just….Santa Ana winds. They do whip up brush fires, as Didion says, but otherwise her description seems way, way over the top. Sure, the weather feels a little weird when Santa Anas kick up, but teachers don’t cancel classes, pets don’t go nuts, people don’t stay inside their houses, and Los Angeles doesn’t get gripped in crime waves. At least, not as far as I know.
So what’s the deal here, fellow Southern Californians? Is Didion being overdramatic? Or is the drama really there and I’ve just been oblivious to it?
This, I believe, gets close to the heart of the Joan Didion Problem. She is such a gifted descriptive writer that she often can’t resist the temptation to wrap her otherwise keen observations with some Chandleresque hyperbole, just to see how the language turns out. It’s delightful to read, and leaves lasting impressions on your brain, but many of the impressions are, regrettably, not true. Not only that, but they advertise some near-secretive knowledge — hey wait, all this time I’ve been living here and I didn’t realize that the Santa Anas were the primordial force unleashing the dark side of human desire?? — allowing readers to congratulate themselves on being among the minority to break the SoCal code. It’s like when postgrads first stumble upon the sunshine/noir dialectic, or when yet another searing cultural critic sees a book-length metaphor in the fact that (gasp!) Brian Wilson couldn’t surf.