Rebecca Solnit, “Check Out the Parking Lot”

Rebecca Solnit’s London Review of Books essay “Check Out the Parking Lot” is primarily a review of Sandow Birk’s illustrations of the Divine Comedy, but it also contains an extended comparison of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles to the three realms of Dante’s afterlife. Here is an excerpt:

“[The Getty] is Dante’s Divine Comedy as a theme park, and just as in the Divine Comedy, the Inferno is the most compelling part.Getty-Museum-Dante-Solnit-Architecture

“You take the Getty exit, and if you’ve been heading north, swing over the overpass and, after a few wriggles, dive into the garage. You come out of the smog-filtered Los Angeles light (which always gives me the impression that a thrifty God has replaced our incandescent sun with diffused fluorescent light) into a dark passage. The garage is underlit, with a low-slung ceiling and construction that evinces the massive weight first of the cement slabwork and then of the floors and earth above. The weight presses down on you as the signs urge you onwards. Down you go, and down, and further down, spiralling into the seismically unstable bowels of the Los Angeles earth in circles of looming darkness, questing for a parking space of your own, further and further down. I believe there are nine circles, or levels, in this vehicular hell. Finally, you find a place for your car in this dim realm, stagger to an elevator, and move upwards more quickly than Dante ascended Purgatory.

Getty-Museum-Purgatory-Dante-Solnit“Though you aren’t in Purgatory yet. The elevator opens onto a platform where you can catch a monorail up the hill to the museum. Disneyland too has a monorail, and though on my first visit to the Getty I thought of it as a nice tribute to its sister amusement park, we perplexed everyone around us by walking up the unfrequented road the quarter mile or so to the museum. Altitude correlates neatly with economic clout in urban and suburban California, so although the presumed point of the Getty was to let people look at art, first they parked, then they looked at the mighty fortress of the Getty hunched up on high, and then up there at various junctures they got the billionaires’ view. Purgatory was the museum itself. There you went through the redemptive exercise of experiencing art, lots and lots of it, from ancient times through to the early 20th century, room after room of altarpieces and portraits and still lifes and drawings.” [. . .] — Rebecca Solnit, “Check Out the Parking Lot,” London Review of Books 26.13 (8 July 2004), 32-33.

The full LRB essay can be accessed here.