The fault line under New Orleans is rumbling again. It acts up every few years, but it’s different than most fault lines since the people who monitor it nationally are always new and always seem to think they’re the first ones to have discovered it.
Local people have known of its existence for centuries, of course, but national self-appointed culture experts must verify for themselves, because of their profound distrust or disregard of locals’ analytical abilities. The fault line is an intellectual one; the two plates that periodically scrape and jar are the will to mystify New Orleans and the will to debunk the mystification.
I’ve referred to these two tendencies in the past as New Orleans exceptionalism (the will to see in New Orleans an alternative to mainstream American values) and Americanism (the notion that New Orleans is not more special or valuable than the rest of the United States, just weaker, poorer, lazier, dumber). Both points of view depend on seeing New Orleans as “other” than the rest of the country, but one side in this tussle is positive, celebratory, while the other is simply insulting.
The funniest thing about the debate is how the participants, especially new transplants, seem so unaware that they’re re-enacting an age-old script. [module align=”left” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”]Until they acknowledge the New Orleans that existed before they got here, they will simply be colonialists, imposing whatever their uninformed and youthful imagination wants on what they falsely perceive to be a blank slate.[/module]
The latest flare-up came in a New York Times piece that unleashed “kalegate” in the blogosphere. Many locals were amused that one of the recent transplants interviewed for the article claimed there was “no kale” in New Orleans. There were lots of responses on Facebook and in the local press, one of the best coming from local columnist Jarvis DeBerry.
Some wondered why the interviewee couldn’t find kale in the city, since it’s been around for years in a variety of grocery stores and restaurants, and others wondered why we needed kale in our diets to attain some kind of national legitimacy. But the most remarkable thing about the Times travel piece was that the reporter dispensed altogether with what might have been thought a basic requirement: to talk to someone actually from New Orleans.
Lizzy Goodman’s “research” involved talking to a handful of folks who had just moved here within the past couple of years and saw the city, according to her, with “fresh eyes.” Yet their impressions were patently not fresh. They were as ancient as the earliest exceptionalist-minded transplants, smelling magic wafting from every sagging, vine-covered gallery. Yet, it’s true; night jasmine does have an intoxicating fragrance. So does sweet olive.
The de rigueur Americanist debunking of this viewpoint came from Dave Thier in Esquire. Magic? Mystery? All bunk. Take away the climate and New Orleans isn’t much different than Cleveland, Thier contended. He declares that he’s become just as bored here as he’s been everywhere else (whose fault is that?) and has taken to watching Netflix — which is available here, even if newcomers have yet to find their way to a plate of kale.
Thier presents his credentials for finally seeing through the mystification: He’s been here three years already and seems to think that Hollywood invented the moonlight-and-magnolia myth of New Orleans right around when he showed up in town.
What’s arrogant about both the newly transplanted exceptionalists (Goodman’s kaleless interviewee) and the newly transplanted Americanists (Thier) is their total disregard of how long this debate has been raging.
Charles Gayarré set the tone in his first history of Louisiana, back in 1846, by suggesting that the “poetry” and “romance” of the region — forget objectivity — was the way to understand it. Tennessee Williams was one of the great mystifiers, too, and a smart one. He has Blanche DuBois famously say, “I don’t want realism. I want magic!”
Yes, Blanche is viciously punished for her love of fantasy, but I’m no fan of the Blanche haters, especially since she has emerged as a symbol of New Orleans itself (even though she’s not from here).
What the debunkers of magic don’t get is that the will to imbue New Orleans with magic is in fact the source of that magic. It’s like a gris-gris bag. We can laugh at the silly superstition of the gris-gris bag, as if it would protect someone from getting hit by a bus. But the wearer of the gris-gris bag doesn’t believe that. In voodoo terms, it’s about intentionality. The gris-gris bag has been blessed by the will to believe and, thus, makes people feel more safe and empowered. Others use not gris-gris, but “poetry” and “romance” to make the world appear more beautiful than it is.
Not that all of us are susceptible to the magic. Freud confessed in “Civilization and Its Discontents” that he was unable to sense in himself that “oceanic feeling” to which people of faith lay claim. But he at least acknowledged that their feelings are real. To translate into NOLA vernacular: You gotta believe!
Americanists like Thier (and the scores who have written pretty much the same thing before him) suggest that the will to fantasy, to magic, is somehow a cause of our social ills and a factor in our neglect of them. But this charge involves a disregard of history more egregious than the exceptionalists’ addiction to huffing jasmine’s intoxicating vapors.
Because the fact is, New Orleans has had plenty of muscular political and social movements — from the labor movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries to Civil Rights. Lafcadio Hearn’s love of moonlight didn’t prevent waterfront unions from organizing and even transcending racial barriers (until a state commission stepped in).
In just the past 20 years, New Orleanians voted to raise the city’s minimum wage (until the state stepped in), and a mayor sought to sue gun manufacturers (until the state stepped in). Today, of course, the East Bank levee authority has filed suit against oil companies to help pay for coastal damages (though the state is fighting it).
Wearing crazy outfits and pretending to be other people during Carnival doesn’t seem to prevent these committed efforts to upgrade the real world.
Of course we can’t expect the new transplants arguing about New Orleans on their big national stages to know about any of this, and they’re clearly not interested — though they claim to know the city better than your average tourist possibly could. Worse, whether they celebrate the magic or debunk it, they don’t accord the city the dignity of an intellectual history.
Lavender Ink, a local publisher, just released a new anthology, NOLA Lit: 200 Years of New Orleans Literature. Maybe transplants who are truly in to the place should pick it up and give it a read.
Until they acknowledge the New Orleans that existed before they got here, they will simply be colonialists, imposing whatever their uninformed and youthful imagination wants on what they falsely perceive to be a blank slate. The natives have opinions, too, y’all, and have been engaged in defining their own city for generations. The national press shows, as often in the past, that it’s not really interested in New Orleanian self-analysis. Apparently we’re not qualified.
So, if we’re doomed to be subjects rather than agents of our own definition, which master do we choose: the exceptionalist magic lovers or the Americanist anti-magic crowd? If the choice is between beautiful savage and dumb yokel, I guess I’ll go with the former. I’ve got the perfect outfit for it, and the right mood music, too. The fantasy is working its magic — I feel better already.
C.W. Cannon grew up in the Marigny. He teaches English and New Orleans Studies at Loyola University.