5 Things I Learned From Eve Babitz

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5 Things I Learned from Eve Babitz | Wit & Delight
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“She looked mean and stylish, as if she were supposed to be beautiful and you should take her word for it. From afar, she looked a lot better than close up. Sort of like America. Or even L.A.” – Eve Babitz, Black Swans

Oh, Eve Babitz. You sensual wordsmith.

If you’ve ever been to California, Eve Babitz’s writing holds the essence of its every sharp edge into the Pacific. She’s as much a part of the ocean sage and Chateau Marmont’s orange juice and chicken salad and hollyhocks and the unfashionable sadness of Los Angeles’ charm as California is a part of those things. More than half of her books like Black Swans, Eve’s Hollywood, Slow Days, Fast Company, L.A. Women, and Sex and Rage are West Coast bohemian homages, a shrine of youth and a desperate love letter addressed to the fallen past. If you haven’t read her, do. She is the West Coast Joan Didion, if Joan Didion didn’t have Sacramento, and is often the forgotten heir to the West Coast written throne.

Forgotten because she was forgotten. Or hidden, for that matter. While driving home from a party in 1997, she dropped a piece of ash from the cigarette she was smoking onto her skirt and the entire car went up in flames. After suffering third-degree burns on the lower half of her body, she stopped going out. She went from being the most dazzled West Coast groupie to the artist who could not be seen.

Babitz was born in 1943, amidst the authentic lineage of Los Angeles. She grew up around the famous and infamous and her godfather was Igor Stravinsky himself. She wrote books, read Proust and Woolf, designed album covers, loved Marilyn Monroe, and was a fleeting lover of Jim Morrison, Steve Martin, and Harrison Ford. As Lili Anolik put it, in this infamous Vanity Fair article, a write-up that put Babitz back on the map in 2014, Babitz always possessed a naturally romantic disposition and an obsession with the irrational and unreal. Essentially, she always wanted to be a part of the sexual power spectacle that was and is Los Angeles. 

In writing, her sentences feel fleeting, like seeing a rainbow in mist. You don’t expect her lines to throw you like they do. They’re Babitz-isms. Like, when she describes having a crush on a man by writing that she wants to “sag into his molecules” (Black Swans). Or when she describes the streets of Hollywood in the 1920s being “filled with red and yellow clouds of fragrance” (Black Swans). Or when she describes Los Angeles, “where the light is so pitiless” (Sex and Rage). She writes that the sound of the tango instrumental “branded my heart like a gaucho branding a calf – smoldering flesh” (Black Swans). Babitz-isms make reading her work surprising. They’re as natural and spurting as a sneeze.

Her writing is also pure in its sensuality and color, sunny almost. She writes like she’s running at full speed and shouting it out with glee.

Her writing is also pure in its sensuality and color, sunny almost. She writes like she’s running at full speed and shouting it out with glee. When she lit up the Sunset Strip in the ’60s and ’70s with her gritty and unapologetic lightness it’s no surprise her words leave you wondering why you never thought of the world in such a way. She admits her wrongdoings in a figurative blank so you can substitute your own life; understand how age equally taints and teaches and how weather and movement define us. 

So, I’ve put together a list of things I’ve learned from the beloved and hungry observer of scenes: thy Eve Babitz. Let’s dig in.

1. Most of the decisions we make, how we define our values and aspirations and needs, are often a function of place. 

It’s simple: We define who we are by the setting we’re in. “People nowadays get upset at the idea of being in love with a city, especially Los Angeles,” Eve writes in her book Black Swans. “People think you should be in love with other people or your work or justice. I’ve been in love with people and ideas in several cities and learned that the lovers I’ve loved and the ideas I’ve embraced depended on where I was, how cold it was, and what I had to do to be able to stand it.”

This is one of my favorite insights by Babitz. It’s true. I’m often defined by the place I’m in, more so than the humans I meet inside of those settings. The places I’ve left and the weather that held me in that very moment is what I often remember—and is always the most important. Why? Scenery has a big thing to do with everything, especially mental health. That’s why we love to travel and define with sensory moments, filled with newness.

Place also keeps me away from material things. Babitz writes that the world must have been marvelous when place was the sole element that impressed the young. A fire illuminating under a starry sky could offer humans the purest happiness. “This sense of place,” she writes in Slow Days, Fast Company, “there was nothing to be wanted from material things, nothing to be saved.”

2. Pain doesn’t care about what you like.

We can’t choose to feel only the type of pain we prefer. In Babitz’s Los Angeles biodome of sex and plentiful rock and roll, she knew getting old was inevitable (if she made it past twenty-five). That is the pain she did not prefer. However, death and healing aren’t the only options of life, something Babitz covers quite frequently in her personal essays. The far less attractive option is merrily getting old; falling from youth. “Real girls do age,” she writes in Black Swans. “No matter how self-enchanted they are. And age is a disaster.”

Age is a disaster. And no one wants to admit it. We try to write about aging gracefully with strokes and feverish color. We will all be okay, we try. But, will we? According to Babitz, no. Not at all, actually. It’s going to be painful and unholy and odd and messy.

Babitz claws for the past and writes that youth is amoral beauty; a sense of freedom from consequences. When we get old, we find moments strung with nostalgia like party serum and we must become well acquainted with loss and pain. And we merrily have no choice but to experience the sensualness of all of it.

I’ve never read someone who writes so truly and rapidly about getting old and watching her friends, old and new, leave Los Angeles. Babitz doesn’t like change—she doesn’t even like when architecture in L.A. is modified. “Give me a 1926 building or give me death,” she writes in Black Swans. Her stories are regretful and depressive, like watching a fifty-year-old woman at a party try to dance on a table, drunk. But it’s delightful because she’s destructive, like hearing a conversation you’re not supposed to tune in on. Babitz claws for the past and writes that youth is amoral beauty; a sense of freedom from consequences. When we get old, we find moments strung with nostalgia like party serum and we must become well acquainted with loss and pain. And we merrily have no choice but to experience the sensualness of all of it.

3. Success isn’t something that’s “bearable” for everyone.

Doubting the tactile balm of success is another favorite tidbit offered by Babitz’s words. We all know this deep down: Success, the purest form of it, can be momentary trickery. Profit is not what truly makes us happy.

“I realized that the truly awful thing about success is that it’s held up all those years as the thing that would make everything right. And the only thing that makes things even slightly bearable is a friend who knows what you are talking about,” Babitz writes in her novel, Slow Days, Fast Company.

“I realized that the truly awful thing about success is that it’s held up all those years as the thing that would make everything right. And the only thing that makes things even slightly bearable is a friend who knows what you are talking about,” Babitz writes in her novel, Slow Days, Fast Company.

4. If things get bad, you can always retire from the loop.

In her novel Black Swans, Babitz writes often about age and how, as she grows older, she looks forward to turning into one of those old ladies who hangs out on the Venice boardwalk playing cards and eating pickles. Within the “lining of the fabric of my life” she keeps the idea that, if things get bad, she can always fall back on this plan. She can “retire from the loop.” Everyone can have a plan B. There’s not a right way or a wrong way. And when things become beyond our own mind, there’s a comforting spot to fall on.

If things get bad for me, my plan B is always the farm. I can find a way to seek the inner lining of myself and stay with the horses, if everything else goes bad. The thought of that one simple thing gives me unattainable comfort and I understand what Babitz means by “retiring from the loop.” Babitz has always been particular to change, no matter what. According to a 2018 article in the New York Times, she coined the term “squalid overboogie,” when things got to be “too much.” Decadence comes in many forms and often the best lesson we can learn from Babitz is that leaving is good enough, sometimes. She shifted her expertise from photography to prose and back again, in a constant search for the right feeling, like trying shoes on and finding the best pair. If only until they blow a hole in the sole.

I’ve unpacked this quote from Black Swans a million times and I love it: “The trick, I suppose, is to keep the wolves from the door so if you want to hang out on the boardwalk and feed the pigeons, you won’t trip on your way down.”

5. Above all, take yourself seriously.

When I read Babitz’s work, from what I gather, self-enchantment is a very important thing. Babitz writes often about the “burning eagerness” artists should have and how many in Los Angeles don’t have “it” at all. “It’s very easy to stand L.A.,” she writes in Slow Days, Fast Company, “which is why it’s almost inevitable that all artists in Los Angeles just don’t have that burning eagerness people expect.” All of the things Babitz was good at—partying, writing, eating, experimenting with drugs, parallel parking, analyzing the weather—were activities she took seriously. Why? She could be proud of something. They were a part of her craft. No matter how ridiculous.

When I read Babitz’s work, from what I gather, self-enchantment is a very important thing. . . . All of the things Babitz was good at—partying, writing, eating, experimenting with drugs, parallel parking, analyzing the weather—were activities she took seriously. Why? She could be proud of something. They were a part of her craft. No matter how ridiculous.

This “self-righteous passion” was something Babitz learned from taking tango lessons. She writes that the dance itself allows her to resist; push against “turning to sticky mush” in Black Swans. And at the end of the day, she was never an illusion—like L.A. Babitz was the real, messy deal. She never had to be an oatmeal of a person that didn’t much care about movement or passion. Turning to paste, coincidentally, won’t get you anywhere.

BY Brittany Chaffee - August 30, 2020

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August 30, 2020 6:48 pm

I found #5 the most interesting. I think that most people lack that self-righteous passion and as much as lacking it is a good thinks in some ways, it does mean you will also lack drive. People that truly do big things or new things have to have it to keep going past the no’s and past the hardships.

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