January 22, 2009

New Orleans

The little Bush deconstruction piece I wrote the other day has got me thinking again about that great city. In one of his last interviews Mailer said there are any number of great American cities--Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, L.A. "if you insist"--but only one world city: New York. He was obviously forgetting New Orleans, but I can't blame him for that. I was too until just now.

What an extraordinary cauldron of cultures, what an amazing greenhouse of hybrid growth New Orleans has been throughout its history! When Walker Percy modestly claimed that his home city had produced no native genius, I thought maybe he was simply too close to its culture to see. I'm sure you could refute this claim at length with extensive examples, but two words are enough for me. In an interview once, John Lennon said "if there's such a thing as a genius, I'm one," and I mean not the slightest disrespect to the Beatles when I say that goes about quadruple for Louis Armstrong.

It's probable that Armstrong is New Orleans' greatest son by a considerable distance--does anyone else so entirely embody the spirit of the city? He was a master of most of its entertainment and musical styles--don't hear much zydeco in his work, but don't notice much else missin'. Great instrumentalist, first rate vocalist, dazzlingly inventive verbal and physical clown--dab hand as a writer too on the evidence of his autobiography Satchmo. Above all a supreme flowering of the fusion style typical of New Orleans, with its preference for strong emotional colouring and mixes of feeling and mood you wouldn't have thought coherently combinable until a strutting player with face painted white, red, cerulean blue, little dab of violet? sure, never missing a beat on an intricate quick step, shows you how it's done--always with a cool philosophical line running alongside as a guide for the perplexed. Oh sure, iti was rare that even the art of New Orleans hit and sustained those heights, but it always aspired to them, and the height of achievement according to more sombre, refined standards scarcely reaches the middle level of New Orleans' carnival/lent/jazz christening jazz wedding jazz funeral aesthetic.

Some of what I've been reading suggests New Orleans is experiencing a diaspora--a mellifluous word of Greek root which can be Englished as dispersion--in the wake of Katrina, but less in consequence of the hurricane than the blowhard efforts of FEMA to rescue--the disaster apparently, since it's certainly done nothing to rescue the victims. How will New Orleans ever rebuild if so many of its displaced citizens choose not to return lest at some point in the future they suffer such a rescue again? at its best recklessly incompetent, at its worst frenzied, high partying kleptomaniac.

(I don't mean to suggest nobody doing good work was connected with official relief efforts in New Orleans and Louisiana generally--I'm sure, among the NGOs especially, there were and are pockets of serious dedication. It's the overall effort, particularly at the highest reaches of patrician accountability, that has sucked worse than the vortex of force at a hurricane's ferocious apex.

I certainly don't mean to suggest that New Orleans natives and expats like Dr John and Harry Coninck Jr. have abandoned or failed their city. If exemplary reconstruction work's going on, they're at the heart of it. So are a number of her spiritual children--who are? oh, every serious artist in North America for a start. Some of us are able to do little but send our hopes and, those of us so inclined, prayers her way, but we know what we owe one of the world's great capitals of the human spirit.)

No comments: