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Atlantis July 9, 2008

Posted by The Typist in Toulouse Street.
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The rocket stands on its launch pad like mythical Babel, a pointer and a reaching out towards the heavens. A triumph of modern technology, it lifts itself by an alchemy of the ancient elements, the composite pieces of water and air joined to make fire, to lift men above the earth. A trembling in the ground and a roaring in the ears and it is away.

We watch its arc, the contrail cloud left by as it climbs into the sky. Men in white shirts sit nearby and below ground staring into computer screens, reading out their ship’s progress in numbers. Some figures climb as does the rocket–altitude, speed, the g-forces of acceleration, tracing their own mathematical curves that mirror the rocket’s. These men have built this marvel and monitor the operation of it hundreds of thousands of tiny composite parts, willing it to defy gravity and rise into the sky.

The music of this film is perfect, an analogue in sound of the complex mechanical systems we are watching, Phillip Glass’ electronic transmutation of organic music into the electronic space: crescendo and diminuendo replaced by attack and fade, the symmetries of the baroque distilled into the circuitry of the sequencer, the natural sounds of voices and pipe organ channeled into the sequencer’s inexorable logic.

We have reached in this space faring ship the apex of man’s upward climb, have tried to realize that reaching into the heavens symbolized by Babel and the pyramids. We are God’s new Chosen People. He has willed that we will master not just this one continent but an entire world. Now we reach up into the space beyond this planet so that men might walk upon the moon, someday journey to the stars.

And then it happens, as if an invisible bolt of lightening was sent down from the heavens. The vessel of all our modern hopes and dreams disintegrates in a cloud of flame and shrapnel. It is the old story again, Babel confounded and the landscape littered with gruesomely dead Greeks who had set themselves up against Olympus.

As the rocket explodes and the burning remains of the rocket slowly tumble down, following gravity’s rainbow arc back to the earth, the voices take up the refrain again: Koyaanisqatsi, a Hopi Indian word meaning variously ‘crazy life, life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living’.

Here in New Orleans we do not erect towers to the heavens. We build a city where men have always built, on the fertile flood plains of a convenient river, and close to the bountiful sea. The first temples were reared in places like this, inside those first cities on the flood plains of Tigris and Euphrates. If it is an act of hubris to be here then gods have made a terrible mistake in creating man as they did (or worse, have created him to fail for their entertainment).

Here instead of towers we build levees, low mounds of dirt and clay by which we would defy the flooding river and the ocean. Where hubris and engineering intersect we find politicians peering over the engineers’ shoulders and asking, can we do this cheaper? Faster? Better? There is a rule in projects such as these, called the iron triangle. Simply stated the rule is: better, faster, cheaper–pick two. We squabble with the government for levees that would withstand a 100 year flood, and dream of the 10,000 year protection of the British and Dutch, and hope for the best.

Time has shown we did not build well enough, or perhaps we built too well. Left untouched by man, this delta would eventually be abandoned by the river, and the land sink into the sea. We are victims of our own progress, of the channeling of the river for navigation and the containment of its nourishing floods, and of the extraction of the liquid mineral wealth beneath us. By doing so we have destroyed much of the buffering land around our levees, and so accelerated the time span of our drowning from the geological into generations. The levees we built were not enough to stand against an immense wall of water running downhill in time.

Atlantis is not a myth. It is a prophecy. Someday it will be our history.

At the beginning and end of Koyaanisqatsi are shots of pictograms left behind by the desert dwelling natives of the American southwest. These simple pictures made from materials at hand have lasted the better part of a millennium, stand as the mute testament of people who have come and gone. What will we, the people of New Orleans, leave behind as our testament? The computer that holds these words, made of plastic and glass, copper and steel, will last long enough to bump up against an archeologists trowel if it is not too far beneath the sea, but the words it contains will be lost forever. What you read here today will not stand up through time as those simple drawings go

For all of our foolishness of dredging channels and building levees, digging our city’s own grave with every shovelful, we have a good life here. In spite of all the problems we have made for ourselves, amplified times over by the inevitable flood, New Orleans is not Koyaanisqatsi, not in the sense the filmmaker intended with his endless scenes of ant-like Metropolis. We manage a life here measured not by the speed of our machines or the height of our towers but instead by the music and the food and the ritual, by the way we live with and inside of those things. While we cannot completely master time any more than we can the land or the river or the sea, we have managed to bend time to a different tempo, one more in balance. It is something worth sharing with the world, and will someday be worth remembering.

I am left to rely on the hope that the music and food and ritual have so imprinted themselves upon the world that they will not be forgotten, that the word Creole (and its close cousin Cajun) will be spoken in kitchens long after the city is gone; that as long as Carnival is celebrated somewhere New Orleans will be remembered as one of its great centers; that the sounds of jazz will someday be played not only on a reproduction coronet by scholars–the way early European music is remembered today–but as something as vital and as ineradicable as language: somewhere in the future in something like a nightclub people hear the music, and rise up and dance.

That is the image I would scratch on the wall by torchlight and leave behind us, if only such a thing would not be drowned: a man raising a trumpet to the heavens leading a parade of figures, some bearing heaped platters, who dance to his music.

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Comments»

1. New Orleans News Ladder - July 9, 2008

Nice Piece.
Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on takeoff, on its 10th mission on January 28, 1986.
It was discovered to have been a failure of an “O”-Ring seal which then allowed a stream of solid rocket fuel to pierce the fuel tank containing the liquid hydrogen.
Not a bolt of lightening from the Heavens. If you don’t believe me then you can check here:

Crew:
Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, and Ronald McNair. Back row, from left to right: Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, and Judith Resnik.

Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon reentry on Feb 1st, 2003.
Crew:
Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, Ilan Ramon, Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown, Laurel Clark.

Space Shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to launch October 8th on a mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope.

The New Orleans you write of happened because it was Easy. It was Big Easy. It happened that way to accommodate the Hard. The Hard needed distraction and sensual satisfaction.
We don’t always talk of the hard, as it is easier to romanticize the easy. Industry is hard. It is hard to have an international port. It is hard to channel this river to maintain that port for Industry, not art or music but Industry. It is hard to fly. Even harder to launch rockets. Even harder to launch reusable rockets. Space flight must be the hardest of all Industry.
New Orleans has always existed for Industry.

2. New Orleans News Ladder - July 9, 2008

It is when the tide gets out of balance that we really need to worry.

3. liprap - July 13, 2008

I’ve been reading up on space flight a lot lately, especially since our visit to KSC. More on this from me another time on my blog, but I gotta say that Mike Mullins’ autobiography of being a space shuttle astronaut is an absolute eye-opener. It raises a lot of the same questions about the space program that you raise about New Orleans.

There is risk in everything – and a risk in letting our hubris run rampant can be seriously deadly.

4. Mark Folse - July 14, 2008

The space shuttle will forever be designated X for Experimental due to the limited number of light hours racked up, and its unique design. It is inherently dangerous to strap yourself to a tin cane attached to a bomp, as the two Shuttle disasters demonstrated. I think Americans had a false confidence because we had not lost an astronaut in flight all through Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. (Three were lost on the ground on a training exercise when their capsule caught fire and the 100% oxygen atmosphere at the time allowed the quick incineration of the interior.)

False confidence is a killer when dealing with risk, and we are the Queens of Denial down here.


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