As I watch Cairo come unglued, its crowds twist and swirl with smiles, I'm reminded of the most remarkable work done by Nathanael West in his novel The Day of the Locust. Tod, the protagonist, describes a painting he's working on in his mind titled "The Burning of Los Angeles." The details of the painting accumulate throughout the novel, and by the end, its horrendous whole makes perfect sense. West was writing only this: SEE HOW WE ARE. What we do with it is up to us.
By Nathanael West...
"In “The Burning of Los Angeles” Faye is the naked girl in the left foreground being chased by the groups of men and women who have separated from the main body of the mob. One of the women is about to hurl a rock at her to bring her down. She is running with her eyes closed and a strange half-smile on her lips. Despite the dreamy repose of her face, her body is straining to hurl along at top speed. The only explanation for this contrast is that she is enjoying the release that wild flight gives in much the same way that a game bird must when, after hiding for several tense moments, it bursts from cover in complete, un-thinking panic.”
The Day of the Locust
"Despite the agony in his leg, he was able to think clearly about his picture, “The Burning of Los Angeles.” After his quarrel with Faye, he had worked on it continually to escape tormenting himself, and the way to it in his mind had become automatic.
As he stood on his good leg, clinging desperately to the iron rail, he could see all the rough charcoal strokes with which he had blocked it out on the big canvas. Across the top, parallel with the frame, he had drawn the burning city, a great bonfire of architectural styles, ranging fro Egyptian to Cape Cod colonial. Through the center, winding from left to right, was a long hill and down it, spilling into the middle foreground, came the mob carrying baseball bats and torches. For the faces of it member, he was using the innumerable sketches he had made of the people who come to California to die; the cultists of all sorts, economic as well as religious, the wave, airplane, funeral and preview-watchers—all those poor devils who can only be stirred by the promise of miracles and then only to violence. A super “Dr. Know—Pierce-All” had made the necessary promise and they were all marching behind his banner in a great united front of screwballs and screwboxes to purify the land. No longer bored, they sang and danced joyously in the red light of flames.
In the lower foreground, men and women fled wildly before the vanguard of the crushing mob. Among them were Faye, Harry, Homer, Claude and himself. Faye ran proudly, throwing her knees high. Harry stumbled along behind her, holding on to his beloved derby hat with both hands. Homer seemed to be falling out of the canvas, his face half-asleep, his big hands clawing the air in anguished pantomime. Claude turned his head as he ran to thumb his nose at his pursuers. Tod himself picked up a small stone to throw before continuing his flight.
He had almost forgotten both his legs and his predicament, and to make his escape still more complete he stood on a chair and worked at the flames in an upper corner of the canvas, modeling the tongues of fire so that they licked even more avidly at the Corinthian column that held up the palmleaf roof of a nutburger stand.
The Day of the Locust