The Myth of the Absent Ancient: On Donatien Grau’s “De Civitate Angelorum”

By Patrick R. CrowleyDecember 9, 2023

The Myth of the Absent Ancient: On Donatien Grau’s “De Civitate Angelorum”

De Civitate Angelorum by Donatien Grau

THIS PAST JUNE, Donatien Grau, advisor for contemporary programs at the Louvre, appeared at Yvon Lambert Gallery in Paris’s Marais district to celebrate the launch of his new essay in book form, De Civitate Angelorum (“On the City of Angels/On Los Angeles”). Picking up a microphone, Grau gave a kind of Ciceronian declamation to a roomful of elegant Parisians. However seemingly incongruous the subject and setting, Grau’s audience was rapt. Some, like the French fashion designer Michèle Lamy, even followed along in the text with her signature dyed-black fingers. Of course, that text was written entirely in Latin, with no existing translation—save for a few asides in French as Grau footnoted himself in real time. After he finished, Grau wiped his brow and put down the microphone. A pregnant pause was followed by cheers and enthusiastic applause, yet there ensued no Q and A, no roundtable, no conversation to conclude this secular mass. For me, an American visiting from California who was trained as a classicist, the entire scene represented a surreal cross between a graduate seminar and an unintentionally ironic performance of the French intellectual tradition.

Why write an essay about Los Angeles in Latin? The spatiotemporal otherness of Los Angeles has captivated Grau’s European imagination for many years. In a 2018 exhibition of contemporary art at the Getty Villa titled Plato in L.A.: Contemporary Artists' Visions, Grau characterized Los Angeles as a kind of empty and timeless terra incognita. He posited that the city’s “absent ancient, which is fantasized about and constantly reinvented because of its absence,” renders it an eager consumer and outpost of European culture—the “Far West” of the New World. It’s unclear whether Grau adopted this exonym (originally coined by a Jesuit monk in the 16th century) as an ironic othering of a Eurocentric worldview, an entrenchment of it, or both. Either way, he aims here to invent a proper history for Los Angeles, albeit a mythologized one, that to his mind the city never had. His method of choice? Overlaying the urban zone with a classicizing conceptual grid and using a classicizing language to match. Perhaps Grau envisions the essay as a kind of ancient ethnography. Still, the text’s ambitions—not to mention its author’s deliberate choice to write in “Neo-Latin,” as post-Renaissance Latin composition in humanistic and scientific discourse is often called—appear more aligned with colonial narratives of the New World.


The press release for Grau’s essay provides a lengthy explanation for his language choice, noting that “the title […] is based on Saint Augustine’s ‘De Civitate Dei’ (‘The City of God’). This is a reference to fifth-century Latin, whose authors assumed their position standing after the great Roman history and in front of the library of ancient texts.” The release goes on to account for how “the text is [thus] filled with ‘centos,’ taking up this history which preceded it,” concluding that the essay represents “a sort of [formal] equivalent to the ‘post-history’ that Los Angeles embodies.” Put another way: By structuring his essay on the model of a “cento,” a type of poem developed in late antiquity that comprises a patchwork of verses, especially on those of Homer and Virgil, Grau finds an appropriate form to match his content. Of course, few readers will have the proficiency in Latin required to read the book in the first place. Those who do, however, will notice a range of infelicities and grammatical errors (inappropriate tenses, deponents used as passives, misplaced postpositives, misgendered words, and so on) that threaten to undermine Grau’s own assertion, lifted directly from Vitruvius, that “neither talent without instruction nor instruction without talent can produce the perfect craftsman” (“Neque enim ingenium sine disciplina aut disciplina sine ingenio perfectum artificem potest efficere”). Niggling points, perhaps, but worthy of mention, since so much of the text’s argument is constituted by the basic facts of its form and language.

The actual content evokes a famous line from Ecclesiastes 1:9: “Nihil novi sub sole,” or “Nothing new under the sun.” The idea that Los Angeles is somehow “posthistorical” is a well-worn trope—one that Grau, among other European intellectuals, has explored at length. French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, for example, famously asserted that the vast horizontality of Los Angeles rendered it completely illegible from a historical point of view, and that “a posthistorical city is a city, I fear, about which one can predict, with some certainty, that it will die.”

Grau’s decision to compose in Neo-Latin does far more than consider Los Angeles from the perspective of a classicist. It attributes the kind of historical amnesia to the city that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. His insistence that “[t]he future cannot be foretold here, and the past does not exist” (“Futurum hic praedici non potest, et praeteritum non existit”) strikes me as a deeply reactionary statement; namely, it forecloses the ethical responsibility for any meaningful reckoning with the history and consequences of European imperialism.

Like many others before him, Grau covers familiar ground in the reverse grand tour of Europeans making the pilgrimage to California, and he experiences a mixture of wonder and disdain. He remarks on the familiar tropes of sunshine (“Sol Invictus” reigns supreme here), freeways (“liberae”), urban sprawl, Hollywood (“Ruscisilva”), and the cult of celebrity. (“California—the land of the Lotus-eaters,” my half-Italian, half-German advisor once quipped, referring to the mythological island where pleasure and luxury induce the inhabitants into a state of lassitude and amnesia in a temporal drift.) Naturally, Grau devotes considerable space to the Getty Villa (affectedly translated as the “Villa Dolabra,” since the surname “Getty” derives from a Scot dialect word meaning “pike”). Ominously, Grau predicts that the museum, a replica of the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum that was destroyed in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, will meet a similar end in some future cataclysmic destruction. For his part, Grau seems to regard this “cladem futuram” as a kind of divine retribution for the childish belief among Angelenos that they are real angels who will live forever. Ironically, such a prophecy shares much in common with the structure of Hollywood disaster movies that Slavoj Žižek has interpreted as elaborate allegories of libidinal economy, rather than mere spectacularized destruction.

If time constitutes one of the recurring themes of Grau’s essay, the other, complementary one is space. An obsession with terrestrial limits and extension pervades the text. While such limits might be localized in an empirical sense—the maritime setting of the Getty Villa, for example, exists at the very end of the continent (“Ad finem continentis Villa Dolabra est”)—they can also be conceptualized so that Los Angeles becomes a microcosm of the whole world (“Itaque Civitas Angelorum non solum finis mundi aut ultimae terrae, sed etiam cuncti mundi est”). In contrast to other European intellectuals, who unfavorably compared the layout of Los Angeles to the Altstadt of a modern European city, developing organically over time, Grau judges Los Angeles by the ancient standards of Roman urban planning and cadastration—or the practice of surveying land for taxation. Unlike a typical Roman town defined by a “cardo” and a “decumanus,” a primary north–south and secondary east–west thoroughfare respectively, Los Angeles is ostensibly defined exclusively by the latter (the implication being that it therefore has no “heart” or center).

Los Angeles thus appears to exist for Grau not only outside of time but also outside of space. There is considerable precedent for this view in French philosophy. For Gilles Deleuze, who famously visited California in 1975, American literature embodied a rhizomatic, westward momentum and a “sense of the frontiers as something to cross, to push back, to go beyond.” (Deleuze notes that “[t]here is no equivalent in France. The French are too human, too historical, too concerned with the future and the past.”) In his manifesto on postmodernism published a few years later, Jean Baudrillard declared Los Angeles to be “nothing more than a network of endless, unreal circulation—a town of fabulous proportions, but without space or dimensions.” At the same time, architect and theorist Paul Virilio argues,

more than Venturi’s Las Vegas, it is Hollywood that merits urbanist scholarship, for, after the theatre-cities of antiquity and of the Italian Renaissance, it was Hollywood that was the first Cinecittà, the city of living cinema where stage-sets and reality, tax-plans and scripts, the living and the living dead, mix and merge deliriously.

In Los Angeles, “more than anywhere else,” Virilio asserts, “advanced technologies combined to form a synthetic space-time.”

In a kind of amalgamation of these diverse thinkers, Grau seems to view the American West with an ambivalent curiosity, putting its newfangledness in contradistinction to European melancholy and the weight of history. Yet, as Joan Didion memorably observed in her 1965 essay “Notes from a Native Daughter,” Californians tend to regard their state as shot through with its own brand of historically induced melancholia:

California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.

Of course, the European and American idea of California as an empty, uninhabited Western frontier is itself a fantasy—one which entails potentially pernicious oversights. Adopting the manner of a Roman historian like Livy, Grau addresses this briefly towards the beginning of the book. There, he locates the contemporary diversity of Los Angeles in its past, acknowledging that plunderers came to the area and called the native people “Indians.” Yet Grau goes on to recount how “[t]he Indians were killed, and new people came. For it is the life proper to a city to always receive new people” (“Indi occisi sunt, ac novae gentes accesserunt. Est enim propria vita civitatis semper novas gentes accipere”).

It is discomfiting, to say the least, to read genocide as a context for pluralism. Especially amid Grau’s rapid historical narrative, such a proclamation feels like a missed opportunity to delve more deeply into the stakes of Indigenous encounter, conquest, colonialism, and survival. Promisingly, Grau returns to the diversity of Los Angeles towards the end of the essay, taking up the mantle of an ancient ethnographer and naming the various communities who have come to the city in search of a new home and a new life. Yet his list of ancient racial and ethnic categories (“Persicorum, et Sinorum, et Iberorum, et Aethiopum, et Asiaticorum, et Italianorum,” and so on) raises questions about their modern applicability. While the reference to Persian or Chinese immigrant communities might seem relatively straightforward, “Aethiopum,” for example is considerably more complex. Modern scholars routinely and anachronistically use the name of a modern country, Ethiopia, to refer to an ancient region that covered parts of modern Egypt and Sudan, but to whom does this identity refer when recursively reapplied to the modern world? “Asiatic,” a term with historical connections to colonialist policy, is equally fraught.

More than merely exposing the challenges intrinsic to any project of translation, questions like these reveal the specific limitations and pitfalls of writing in Neo-Latin as a decidedly ideological endeavor. Precisely because it is not a living language, because it is self-consciously fossilized and exclusionary, Neo-Latin establishes an enduring authority, whether in ecclesiastical or scientific discourse, that links the past, present, and future in a fictive continuity of mutually reinforcing relationships. The potential reward lies in the fruitfulness of anachronistic juxtapositions, as articulated by philosopher Giorgio Agamben: “Only he who perceives the indices and signatures of the archaic in the most modern and recent can be contemporary.” But the very real risk is that writing in Neo-Latin can reinscribe and perpetuate a European fantasia of a “posthistorical” city that collapses past and present to make the past feel less distant and strange than it really is—and, often, should be. Who, then, is this book ultimately for? Modern-day Angelenos? A room full of elegant Parisians? Latin teachers and their pupils? Perhaps, as I suspect, the author himself.

LARB Contributor

Patrick R. Crowley is the associate curator of European art at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. Previously he was assistant professor of art history at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Phantom Image: Seeing the Dead in Ancient Rome (2019).


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