It was Nicolaus Copernicus who in the early sixteenth century first proved that the sun is the center of our galaxy. As expected, this news came as no surprise to the residents of Los Angeles, a city in which heliocentricism had taken hold long ago and has served as the basis of existence ever since. Los Angeles is filled with stars, but none with such a devout following as the almighty sun, gleaming on high in all of its glory.
This city revolves around the sun. It is one of the world’s last remaining outposts of a mythical cult of sun worship. Abandoning their faith in terrestrial gods, the ancients turned instead to the sky and entered the temple of the sun. Hail Zeus! Hail Ra! The sun is the pinnacle of the pantheon, unreachable in its perfection. It is this divine light that Angelenos yearn for; to bask in its glow and to feel its warmth is to receive salvation. Somewhere between sallow and sunburnt, the perfect shade of tan marks the pious believer. Don your sunglasses and shield your eyes, for the immaculate sun is too powerful for a mere mortal to confront. Yet even this cannot deter their efforts. Having been drawn out from the shelter of their covers by the morning’s first rays, they strip down to tank tops and flip-flops in the hopes of maximum exposure, breathe deeply in through the nose and out through the mouth upon foam yoga mats under the clear, yellow sky for the purest path to trance-like ecstasy; take it straight through the skin and you feel it in your bones in seconds. It’s all part of the liturgy.
The primal myth upon which Los Angeles grounds its sun-centered beliefs is an eternal one. Each night the sun is swallowed by the Pacific only to be birthed anew from Earth’s eastern womb the next morning. Legend has it that the Santa Monica Pier, casting its wooden limbs into the gilded waters, was built in an effort to hold fast to the powerful sun, only to outdone by the precise solar power it sought to contain. There are only so many sunlit hours in the day. As the water extinguishes daily the flame of the sun’s holy glimmer, Los Angeles becomes aglow with false idols. The city itself transforms into a living solar replica, generating its own light and energy in its need to maintain luminescence. White, splendid headlights at sixty miles an hour illuminate the freeway veins that pump with life, while the reds of the clotted US-101 traffic wail in cardiac arrest. Along Hollywood Boulevard reflections of neon signs bounce off the windows of diners and motels in kaleidoscope fashion while movie premier searchlights shoot like rocketships into the black night, slicing the skyline into flailing zebra stripes. But nothing can compete with the power of the sun. Tomorrow is another day. By morning the artificial will be replaced with the real.
Rise with the dawn and greet the day. The weatherman on Channel 2 says it will be clear and sunny with a high of 85 and visibility up to ten miles, cut short only for the usual smoggish haze. It’s New Years Day, and all of America is huddling for warmth in front of the TV, hoping that a glimpse of the sun-soaked Rose Parade will be enough to melt the away their wintry woes. A drop of hope in a ray of sunshine. The land of the eternal sun beckons. Each year millions of pilgrims flock to the beaches and endless highways of Los Angeles on their journey towards spiritual enlightenment or at least a shot at summer temperatures in the dead of winter. Here it’s always sunny with a chance of a celebrity sighting. This is the life. This is the promised land. Look no further, for each peaceful, sun-drenched day is another blessing.
Through luminosity alone can we see. In light there is truth. Yet too much light can blind. Don’t look directly into the sun. Don’t stay outside too long or you’ll get burned. Of all the corners of the sprawling city of Los Angeles, the sun shines brightest on the San Fernando Valley. Temperatures are higher, days seem longer, and the devotion to the sun cult is stronger. When you’re driving west on Ventura Boulevard at sunset, faith alone keeps you from tumbling into the car in front of you when the cellphone-talking driver slams on the breaks. The most faithful believers live happily in their naïve fidelity, when in reality the heavenly sun that shines so brightly upon them is the greatest Judas of all. Is this heaven or is this hell? Day after day they flow from homes to cars to malls in the comfort of central air, oblivious to the raging inferno outside. Oblivious to anything, really. When the mercury rises past human body temperature human connection is rendered nearly impossible. Contact is minimal. Communication occurs only in snippets of slang, abbreviations, and emojis sent telephonically at stoplights. Nothing is what it seems. Here asphalt frying pan streets cook up watery mirages. In time everything, all semblance of truth and purpose, melts away. In this valley of death it’s always survival of the fittest; natural or silicon, would Darwin really care? Refill your Nalgene water bottle and take it with you wherever you go, hike up Runyon Canyon and make sure you look good doing it, eat kale and pretend you like it. Is this what perfection is?
What happens when the sun goes down and the lights shut off and nothing can be seen? What happens when appearances are rendered irrelevant? Weren’t they always? There is so much that can’t be seen. So much escapes the sun’s rays. Call it heresy, call it falling from grace, but there is something enticing about abandoning this City of Angels in exchange for the shadows and the dark, damp corners untouched by light.
Soon enough the Land of Milk and Honey becomes Gomorrah, destined for ruin. Only by fleeing Los Angeles and its cult of the sun does one realize that life doesn’t have to be so sunny. Light is not just a symbol, it is ontological, defining our existence for better or worse. Travel east, against the tide of the sun’s daily course, and see with new eyes that the redemption to be found in Los Angeles may be nothing more than the blinding, burning effect of too much sun. Perhaps enlightenment may only be found in the dark.