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The Esoteric Files: Why Do We Say 'Back East?'
The origins of a non-geographical location
There is a phrase that has baffled me ever since I’ve arrived in California, and that is that many people say ‘back east’ when referring to the East Coast, or really anything east of California. In the day-to-day it is used so often as to be almost imperceptible. Saying ‘back east’ is to a degree as common as putting the word ‘like’ within sentences and sentence structures, where it does not belong. But ‘back east’ is not a language game and this isn’t going to be an article about grammar. Rather, I want to explore and, hopefully, understand where the phrase came from and why it survives to this day.
Back to what?
There is a reason why the phrase ‘back east’ sounds and feels esoteric. In the philosophies of many ancient cultures the West was a symbol for the final transformation of the human soul, as it navigated the terrain from the land of the living, the East, to the land of the dead, the West. In ancient Egyptian belief the land to the West of the Nile is where souls of the deceased travel after death and the Egyptian burial grounds are a testament to the esoteric notion of the rising and setting of the sun. Every single day the sun god Ra and the heliacal disc disappear or ‘die’ over the Western horizon, to be born again in the East.
Humans have witnessed the ‘death’ and ‘rebirth’ of the sun for millennia. This is the primordial spiritual experience of anyone who has taken the time to wait to see the ‘end’ and woke up early to welcome the ‘beginning.’ The slowly descending disc into the underworld is filled with powerful symbolism. The lonely cowboy walks into the setting sun at the end of a western. Orpheus follows the sun into the underworld to retrieve his wife Eurydice from the clutches of Hades. Orpheus was according to some sources the son of the sun god Apollo. And the Ancient Egyptian god Osiris becomes the god of the afterlife, also after descending into the underworld, through the treachery of his brother Set, who killed Osiris, cut up his body, interned it in a box and threw it in the Nile. His wife Isis then collected all the remains of Osiris’ body and wrapped them up, mummifying and spiritually reconstituting the body upon which Osiris rose from the dead and joined his father, the sun god Ra, in the sky.
Since we are all symbolically returning to the beginning, as the phrase ‘ashes to ashes’ suggests, there can be no returning to ‘back west,’ we may only go toward or ‘out west.’ The life’s journey is of a cyclical nature. Like Osiris or Orpheus we may visit the land of the dead, but must ultimately return or go ‘back’ to the land of the living. How strange is it then that it is in California where the horseshoe theory of the East-West demarcation comes full circle? California, and more generally, the West, the proverbial land of the dying sun, should by all esoteric accounts be the land where things go to die, but it is in California where the hottest trends are set, where the latest technology is built and where by a stroke of chance everything begins. Going ‘back east’ is to follow an invisible through-line. California is renewal. It is Hollywood and its fantasy-producing machinery. But the land is ancient, ragged and unstable. It dies by a thousand fires and earthquakes, over and over, each time coming back in a different form.
Back to where?
The obverse to ‘back east’ is ‘out west’ and the two are of a similar cultural import, or at least they seem to be. As someone that was born in the Eastern Europe, (technically Central Europe, but which most people consider Eastern Europe - because it’s not Western Europe) I consider this particular phraseology curious. It seems like it goes beyond simple word play. In essence, the phrase ‘back east’ has many esoteric connotations, because it suggests the going back in time, to something, to some place, or to someone. ‘Out west’ is a going out toward something unknown, unseen, beyond. It suggests a moving forward in time, into the future, or as the hippies used to say ‘far out.’
It may be difficult to understand where precisely ‘back east’ exists. In some ways ‘back east’ presents the same difficulties of identifying a location, as the equally esoteric notion of the Balkans. In a take that is equally philosophical and hilarious, Slavoj Zizek goes on a short geographical mind trek in a video aptly named ‘Where is Balkan?’ Through twists and turns Zizek observes that the Balkans do indeed exist, but that they are separated by an imaginary line between its geographical and psychic (psychological, phantasmic, sociological, etc) locations. For many cultures that are often associated with the Balkans - Croats, Slovenes, Serbs, Montenegrins, Macedonians, and so on - the Balkans are always somewhere ‘out there’ behind an imaginary border, that somewhat coincidentally or opportunistically, exist on the outer edges of said culture. For the Austrians everything south of its borders is considered the Balkans, for the Slovenes the Balkans begin with Croatia, while for the Croats the Balkans are everything past the border with Serbia, and the Serbs consider the ‘true Balkans’ to be the mountains of Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo. As one travels deeper into the Balkans, the imaginary territory of the Balkans shrinks relative to the distance traveled. Conversely as one travels out of the Balkans, the territory tends to increase, so as to encompass more than what the actual geographical location contains. Thus, to the Germans, even Austria is tainted by the strange culture found near its borders and therefore is Balkan. The same can be said for the Germans as viewed from behind the French borders, while the British view the entire European continent as an incoherent, Balkanized mish mash of cultures and religions. With its association with a dark and violent history, Fascism, vampire lore and dark foreboding religions, it is no wonder that many of the Balkan cultures try to disavow this association by pointing to other cultures they identify as the ‘true’ Balkans. Thus, the Balkans occupy two separate inner and outer territories – the outer with its more or less fixed geographical locations, and the inner, permeable, constantly shifting psychological territory.
In this regard ‘back east’ is not a place or a specific territory within space and time. It occupies the mental space beyond the real. This makes sense because in my travels and years spent living in the West, or ‘out west,’ I’ve heard the phrase ‘back east’ said by people that have arrived from the East Coast and settled in the West, but also by people that have been born and raised in the West and have never been to the East Coast. While there is no ‘official’ etymological history of the saying, there is no shortage of message boards and chat rooms where the topic of ‘back east’ is discussed.
In these chat rooms the prevailing theory is that the saying ‘back east’ has its origins in American colonial and post-colonial history and its westward expansion. Within the US, the clearest geographical demarcation between the East and West are the Mississippi River that separates the East from the Midwest and the Rocky Mountains that separate the Midwest from the West. But because ‘back east’ is not solely about geography, this separation is only partially useful. As with the Balkans, the East and the West are imaginary demarcation lines that people often use to describe what happens ‘out there.’ Every state in the nation has its own east and west, as does just about every city and town. Throughout the 1700 and 1800s the West was the land of constantly shifting and expanding frontiers. This was the land of danger, violence and opportunity, totally at odds with the old money fueled stuffy urbanism of the East.
If we look at a map of shifting population density in the United States over the last 200 years, an interesting pattern emerges. Post-colonial America expanded westward for roughly 100 years. Reaching the Pacific Ocean, its ever-growing population began migrating to city centers as the Industrial Revolution was reaching its zenith, all the while the rural population kept up the pace. Then, roughly 150 years on the process reversed. As the West Coast took in the ever expanding population of east coast ‘economic refugees’ - immigrants, former slaves, military veterans, indentured farmers, prospectors, but also opportunists, racketeers, career criminals and outlaws - the East Coast also continued to increase in population density, mostly due to immigration. But the population growth of the two coasts was also in large part due to the fact that the middle of the country began to empty out in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl and World War II and worsening economic conditions. The economic proposition for most people at the time was found in city centers and especially in the cities along the coasts. Thus, in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s the tax base shifted from rural to urban areas. This population shift had the most dramatic effect on the Rust Belt and the Midwest, where cities like Detroit became urban wasteland, losing more than half their population in a matter of decades. For many in those times, going ‘back east’ was as economically existential as going ‘out west’ was for the generations before.
Today the migration process may be reversing yet again. As cities become more and more unaffordable, younger generations are rethinking the notion of urbanism. Many are moving ‘back east’ to smaller cities and towns in the middle of the US that their parents and grandparents left on their quest for the elusive American Dream. This is the premise of Ghostbusters: Afterlife, where the grandchildren of the cast of characters from the original 1984 film become embroiled in supernatural hijinks, but this time in a small Midwestern town. Though they are technically not moving east, they are moving counter to the direction set by previous generations, moving backward, rather than forward in time and the non-geographical location that the phrase ‘back east’ suggests.
The Death of the City
Some researchers have noticed that the eastern portions of many European and American cities are economically poorer than their western parts. They began to wonder why. The answer seems to be related to the prevailing wind patterns. In North America and in Europe the prevailing winds blow from west to east. Interestingly, the ancient Greek god of the east wind is Eurus or Euros, counterpart to the god of the west wind, Zephyrus. Examining and using data from 70 English cities and 5000 industrial chimneys in 1880, researchers produced a model of the spatial distribution of pollution and published them in a research paper at the Spatial Economics Research Centre. The data showed a larger share of air pollution in the eastern parts of cities like Manchester and London during the Industrial Revolution. This tendency is seen in other large cities like Paris and New York.
During the Industrial Revolution factories were built in city centers, making them accessible to the cities’ working population. This ‘convenience’ also meant that people were that much closer to the smoke stacks spewing smoke, ash and soot all day - every day. This noxious brew of chemicals covered the city, but due to the prevailing eastern winds, did so mostly in the east and less so in the west. City planners noticed and built low income homes for the poor working class residents in the more polluted areas, while the bosses and managers built their homes in the cleaner western parts of the cities. ‘Back east’ could therefore suggest both the eastward direction of the winds or the fact that during the industrial revolution upward mobility was still not only possible, but getting more common, and that standards of living were increasing at a steady pace. Leaving the poor section of the city meant that one was moving up in society and leaving the old life ‘back east.’
Curiously enough, even though city centers have for decades been largely free of factories and the pollution they created, the trend of the rich living in the west and the poor in the east remains to this day. We may be able to chalk up this discrepancy to an intergenerational tendency. Given that in the global West we witnessed a slowing down and even a reversal in upward mobility, it is no surprise that areas that have been generationally poor have remained poor, while their well-off counterparts have grown wealthier. Through various processes of gentrification, population movement and generational interchange, city centers became a mirror image of the abstract conception of ‘the west,’ while in reverse order, the emptying country side became ‘back east.’
It may be clear by now that the phrase of ‘back east’ is inherently tied to the notion of the American frontier and the way it was considered and reconsidered by the many generations that have had to grapple with the aura of America’s mythical beginnings. The frontier was always ‘out there.’ With the closing of the physical Western frontier, the ‘far out’ hippies, who still shared in the West’s expansionary propensity, pushed the frontiers further, this time into consciousness, the self, and experimentation with drugs and sex. Technology pushed the frontier even further, out into space and later into an alternate reality of its own making, the internet and artificial intelligence. We may therefore think of ‘back east’ as a reminder that there exists a location that is not physical in any true sense or definition of the word, but like the imaginary frontier of science, religion or consciousness, is a non-physical location of the collective unconscious and the millions of lives that have resonated with its meaning, which is deeper than what the phrase and its possible history suggest.
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