Remembering New Orleans

What is there to say about the destruction of New Orleans that hasn’t already been said elsewhere? As with the 9/11 attacks, I feel somewhat disconnected from what the rest of the country is experiencing, due to my inability to view video images of the tragedy (no T.V., only a dial-up connection to the Internet). I thought that Cornelia Dean and Andrew C. Revkin, writing for The New York Times, did an excellent job of encapsulating the environmental context. Among the blogs I read regularly, Whiskey Bar did the best job of summing things up (see also the comprehensive links list of organizations involved in hurricane relief), and Creature of the Shade offered the invaluable perspective of an urban geographer on the question of whether the city will survive. Creek Running North has had a couple of good posts on the looting – or is it salvage? – to which I can only add that, with 28 percent of its population below poverty level and one of the most brutal police forces in the country, the storm of looting was almost as inevitable as the hurricane itself.

On a more wistful note, a New Orleans reminiscence in 3rd House Journal takes the prize for most lyrical image. “After 10 days in New Orleans, I flew directly to Colorado Springs for a work conference,” Leslee writes, “and when I opened my suitcase steam came out. New Orleans travels with you.”

I have only been to New Orleans once, and most of that time was spent sleeping, so I have no real reminiscences to share. But I think it’s worth reflecting for a few moments on how much we collectively owe this city. Jazz has been called, rightly, America’s greatest gift to the world, and I think it embodies our ideals of freedom, adaptability and individual self-expression better than any other native art-form. That the birthplace of jazz has been dealt this kind of blow at the very same time that America’s other great contribution to world civilization – our national parks system, the first in the world – is under attack, makes me sad beyond words.

One often sees New Orleans described as “America’s most unique city.” This is a polite way of saying that it was one of the few cities in America where, I gather, it was possible to have fun. Street culture was actively encouraged, and the annual party known as Mardi Gras drew hedonists and misfits from all over the country. Why? Because outside of Louisiana, the idea of a high old time in virtually every town and city in this law-and-order-obsessed country is to reproduce the entire civic order in a slow procession through the streets: a parade. Woo-hoo. New Orleans offered a valuable counter-example, as well as a link to pre-Christian religious traditions of both African and European provenance. In vernacular religions the world over, annual, week-long festivals offer a ritualized vision of the world turned upside-down – an age-old image for the spirit world and a valuable reminder of the distance between that world and our own. But the United States was founded upon a different sort of idealism, one that sought to actualize heaven in the here-and-now – that whole, utopian, shining-city-on-a-hill bullshit. The inevitable result has been severe hubris and hypocrisy, social repression and a relentless war against wild nature.

It’s tempting to try and imagine how things might have been different if, instead of putting all its efforts into keeping the Mississippi in a straightjacket, the Army Corps had instead tried to apply a kind of Mardi Gras philosophy. Annual, controlled flooding of the Mississippi – on a much bigger scale than the freshwater diversions currently permitted – might still be able to restore coastal wetlands and reduce the storm surge from future hurricanes. In place of our traditional view in which order – meaning top-down control – is all-good, and chaos – bottom-up insurrection – is all-bad, we need to learn how to value an interplay between the two. If we continue to resist achieving some kind of equilibrium, in the form of social, economic and environmental sustainability, nature will do it for us, and the results will not be pretty.

O.K., I do remember this: a slow, night-time drive through a wide-awake city, and the immense civic pride shown by the African American taxi driver. He swung past one of the cemeteries, explaining why all the coffins were stored in above-ground crypts. When he found out I was a writer, he enthused about local author Anne Rice and her publicity stunt to promote her latest vampire novel: she had herself borne through the streets in an open coffin. They say that jazz originally sprang from the famous New Orleans funeral, in which the slow march to the cemetery switches to an up-tempo dance tune to accompany the mourners back home. Here’s hoping New Orleans can dance back from the crypt once again.

UPDATE: Before you pooh-pooh my conclusion, read this (found here). It very much fits what Jarrett wrote in the comments: “New Orleans — with its ability to produce wonderful stories like this one without having anything like a coherent local economy — may be more performance than place, which is cause for hope. Performances are easier to put back together than places are.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.