Friday, July 28, 2006

The View from Under the Volcano

A friend sent a link to the Serbian B92 online radio/news services Blog in which Jasmina Tešanović writes about a visit to Holly Beach and Cameron. In it, she asks (or perhaps it is her friend who asks) " Why do people stay in disaster sites, living under the volcano?"

The refrence to Malcolm Lowry's novel is interesting, but not an apt metaphor for the hurricane coast. The lurking dangers of Lowry's Under the Volcano are not geographical or natural. The volcano is a bit of theatrical backdrop. In Lowry's Mexico the real volcano is Geoffery Firmin, an alcoholic on the edge of a complete mental and physical breakdown, an man in a drunken head-on with his past, specifically his ex-wife and his half-brother.

New Orleans is full of Firmins, self-medicating themselves in the shadow of the volcano, stepping through life as gingerly as a drunk on a broken French Quarter sidewalk, working their way through the fog of life disaster zone, just focusing on the next thing that must get done (which is hopefully not to find the bottle they've hidden from themselves). It is peopled by uncertain idealists like Geoffery's half-brother Hugh, people in search of a lost past like his ex-wife Yvonne, by the corrupt officials and criminal pelados that lurk at the edges of the novel.

Their presence here is not tied directly to the eruption of flood waters that poured through the levees and into our streets. These people were here before the flood, and have returned. Our personal volcano, the lurking threat of flood and storm, does not loom over us in the way a smoldering caldara would. It is deeply internalized, hermetic, a very part of who we are. The tenuousness of life here imparts, I believe, much of the joie de vivre that makes New Orleans a special place. Every generation has its storm, or its near miss. We see ourselvesf or our neighbors reduced to the clothes on their backs, forced to start over. The text of New Orleans is that of Omar Khayyam, an in'shallah fatalism that reminds us to enjoy today for tomorrow it may all be gone. Again.

Why, I would ask Jasmina and her friend, do people live in Serbia and Croatia and Montenegro? Why didn't everyone leave when things fell apart? In modern Europe, there are roads and cars and air flights, the ability to flee to a safer place. Why would they stay? And once the shooting and bombing and raping stopped, why would people want to return? Shouldn't these places be empty wastelands like Holly Beach and Cameron?

The Balkans are not depopulated for the same reason New Orleans is not, for the same reason ravaged and exposed places from Holly Beach to Shell Beach will not remain that way. I expect to see women waiting on the steps of their piling-mounted houses watching their husbands tie up their boats for the day, children on bicycles weaving up and down shell roads chased half-heartedly by lazy dogs beneath a sky full of wheeling gulls. I expect this because of people's profound attachment to the place of their birth, to a way of life, to friends and family; the complex way in which our internal geography interacts with the social and physical one around us.

People do not give up such territory casually. I carried my absence from New Orleans like like a vivid scar for almost twenty years. Yes, it was well hidden by the daily life I put on during that time, but the incessant itch, the phantom pain never quite stopped. And now I've asked my family to cut their ties to Fargo, N.D. and move to New Orleans. Not a single day passes when I'm not reminded that my wife and two children are uprooted while I am home. It is the secret pain that replaces that of my severed ties to the city, but one which I think will heal for all of us with time, as Toulouse Street becomes home.

Why did I bring them to live under the volcano? In Lowry's fictional world Firmin's ex-wife is compelled to try to lure him away from a slow death by drink. His brother Hugh is bound for the Spanish Civil War. They are compelled by powerful emotions to go in directions that drives the reader to say to them: stop, don't go there. You can't save this drunk. You can't save the world from facism.

In the end they could not, but they were compelled to try, to go into an impossible situation to try to save something of the world they once knew, or to make the future world they dreamed of. It is my own experience of that same irrational and inherently human drive that tells me Holly Beach and Cameron will not remain empty.

Jasmina writes of the disturbing emptiness of these places:

I am interested in people, not things. But there are not many people around here any more. The new upright billboards, beside the older broken billboards, urge the local people, who are nowhere around, to sue their old insurers for the homes and possessions they have lost.The mass grave of a city appears, gated by barbed wire: RITA DUMP SITE. It used to be a town, Cameron... the heaped debris of the dead town is colorful and futuristic... made of all sorts of materials, without shapes, without traces.… What did these objects used to be?...

One of these days the world we know will disappear. The rusting wheels and wires and tortured trees and marsh grasses will survive. Unlike the pyramids, this debris will not testify of a lost civilization, but of our lack of one.

It is the ruin of today--the ruin of Cameron and Chalmette, of Gentilly and Gulfport, not that of some misty future--that testifies to our lack of civilization. The Dutch have shown how to live with the sea. In 21st century America, as long as the oil-and-gas and the port are on line, the lives of the rest of us--simple, disposable cogs in the great economic engine--are of little consequence. We can be as easily relocated from our homes as pallets of product, should accounting dictate. What we have is not a civilization but an economy, one that is overtaxed by debt and war, that has no cost center to which to bill the saving of its soul.

If we cannot save the home of Jazz, our uniquely American art, or the rest of the cultural treasures of New Orleans, do we truly have a culture, a civilization? If all we have to offer the world is the cross and the gun, then precisely how far above our latest adverseries are we? Or are we both rump cultures, we as deeply disconnected from our Enlightenment roots as the Islamists are from the civilization that gave the world algebra and named all the stars. The world today seems almost as bleak as that Lowry saw in the middle of the last century. The prospects for the future of The West remain just as unclear, threatened from without and rotting from within.

Still, out of this morass we must find a way to live. We can do what most people in America do: ignore it, and go shopping or play golf. Or we can watch cable television obsessively and rant and rave against the Other that has ruined our ideal world. I find both of these scenarios more disturbing than my decision to take my family and move them under the volcano. The people of New Orleans are not the ones ignoring the danger. They are the ones confronting it, the people working a day job and gutting a house by night in the shadow of the volcano who are a greatest generation in their own right. (Not me, a recent arrival in an unflooded home, but they are all around me.)

People live under real volcanos, Jasmina, because of the immense richness of the place, because it is a land that gives them the opportunity of the joy of life and not just its toil. And that is why Camercon will comeback. As long as fishermen haul in full nets, for as long as the gas flares burn atop the refineires, and as long as the ships come up and the barges come down the Mississippi River to our wharves, there will be compelling reasons to rebuild New Orleans and the surrounding areas. And as long as enough of us are home, we will save our city, it's culture, and ourselves.



Comments:
Hell uva post! The spirit of place is a strong magnet.
 
...but, did your wife and kids adopt your "volcano"?
 
It was a mighty and sad book, painful to read.

I think you're right when you say: "The tenuousness of life here imparts, I believe, much of the joie de vivre that makes New Orleans a special place...enjoy today for tomorrow it may all be gone. Again."

Another great post, Mark.
 
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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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