That Bright Moment (Slight Return) March 6, 2009Posted by Mark Folse in cryptic envelopment, Federal Flood, New Orleans, NOLA, quotes, Toulouse Street.
I’m feeling tongue-tied of late, and find myself reading old posts to escape the cyclops screen reflecting my own empty-headedness, or worse all the news of the day in and about Toulouse Street. I found this one from February, 2008, and it seems (with a few tiny edits) as apt today as it did then.
YOU ARE TRAPPED IN THAT BRIGHT MOMENT
WHERE YOU LEARNED YOUR DOOM
— Samuel R. Delaney in City of a Thousand Suns
Trapped not as you might think, given the juxtaposition of the word doom; trapped instead in the complex web of postdiluvian New Orleans in the way light is said to be trapped by a cut and polished gem, refracted by the complex play of facets until made into a flashing thing of beauty: that is how I try to live with what was once the shadow of The Flood, the rafts of ghosts it unleashed.
Delaney’s novella trilogy Fall of the Towers revolves in large part around the the mass, simultaneous discovery by an entire society that a key assumption about their lives–that there was an enemy beyond the barrier; that they were at war–was a complex fiction constructed by their ruling class.
I am not certain how something terribly similar will play out here in New Orleans, among people who’s fundamental assumptions have been washed away: that the basic infrastructure of our lives is built well enough that we will not die of living upon it; that our government will rise up to protect and succor us at a moment of great peril; that if we pay our bills to the insurance company they will help make us whole. How do we live when all of the illusions that underpin life in modern America are suddenly swept away.
Some will drift into cynicism: all governments are corrupt, all big corporations dishonest: what did you expect? Nothing to be done. There is a certain beauty when that sardonic surrender is contrasted with the insistent evidence of hope, with the irrational and irresistible persistence that is one of the hallmarks of life, prominently displayed here in New Orleans like flowers erupting on a cooled lava flow. For evidence I offer the rush by Orleanians to embrace the dark and complex Waiting for Godot [last] year.
Complete cynicism in its modern sense is the fate I want to avoid for fear we become the new Dog Philosophers, mindless of our personal or civic obligations from a misplaced belief that the world is beyond redemption. I started down that road once on the blog I once kept called Wet Bank Guide. For a time the anger there over the Federal Flood and all that followed was palpable, the anger that once led me to ask if it were possible to renounce my citizenship in the United States of America and become a resident alien in the only country I wish to recognize: New Orleans. Over time, I transmuted that ugly funk into something else, a celebration of what I believe it means to be “trapped in that bright moment”. At what I thought the high point of that transformation, I put Wet Bank Guide to bed.
Now I try instead to celebrate the found moments of odd or profound beauty that come out of All That: the moments of simple, quiet pleasure and ecstatic, public joy that mark life in postdiluvian New Orleans, the surest signs that what we are building here is indeed New Orleans, heedless of the violent transfiguration of our landscape, the vast swaths of ruin that still blanket the Gentilly and the East, that mark the modern Land of Nod.
I cannot entirely surrender that anger, not while I have this public forum and a handful of readers I might influence. There is too much to be done to realize the potential that arises out of that bright moment when we learned our doom. What the citizen journalists of the blogosphere call the ground truth must continue to be told in pieces like the one below, Crazy Like a Fox, until we have — like Saint Patrick — driven the snakes out of paradise.
Until that work is accomplished there is still a life to be lived here. For all of the constant struggle and the occasional horror of that life there are still the moments that flash out like shinning from shook foil, as Gerald Manley Hopkins put it. Our world is charged with the grandeur not of God precisely but of who we are, of how we live: every bar of music and snatch of song that puts a lilt in our step I never saw on the streets of Washington or Fargo; every sloppy po-boy unrolled from its waxy wrapper like an Egyptian treasure, that sustains us as much by the thought of which neighborhood joint it came from and by the sight of it laying there like a woman in dishabille, as we are as by the smell and the taste of it; the peculiar site lines of a city built to conform to the zaftig geography of the river’s crescent and our slow descent into the ocean. All of these flash out of the cold, hard moment when we rediscovered who we are, flash out with a beauty that should settle the question once and for all: why do we choose to live here having learned our doom?
For Orleanians, as I believe it will unfold for Delaney’s characters, living in that bright moment is not an end but a beginning, not so much a scar but like a smudge of transient ash on the forehead that reminds us of who we are, that helps us to rediscover for ourselves who we are and where we live.
The quote that eventually came to rest prominently at the top of Wet Bank Guide was from the jazz and performance artist Sun Ran: Its After the End of the World, Don’t You Know That Yet? For Sun Ra, it was a profound renunciation of the ugly history of what it meant to be Black in late 20th Century America. It was not the presumed despair of some character in a Left Behind novel (I can’t bring myself to read those Christian tracts, but I can imagine what that world is like, borrowed no doubt in large measure from works like Stephen King’s The Stand).
Instead Sun Ra’s aphorism calls us to a celebration of the realization that we have been unshackled from the conventional, from so much of our history and attachment. Perhaps I can help all those around me who still cling to the past, to the ugliest parts of the long story what makes us who we are; I hope I can push them to recognize that those shackles lie about their feet and no longer bind them, that they have been freed by that bright moment in which we knew our doom to become something at once old and new: not the city bequeathed to us like a curse by our ancestors who held or felt the lash but instead the city of memory and of dreams, the city that lives in our hearts.