A man-made catastrophe of epic proportions…
“People do a lot of dumb shit ‘cuz it’s easier.” – Albert
First of all, I want to thank Kathryn and Natalie for allowing me to return to the web to blog on this show for the moth chase. I will be here every Tuesday and very much look forward to the conversation that I hope this show will generate.
As everyone knows by now, David Simon’s and Eric Overmyer’s new show, Treme, deals with New Orleans three months after Katrina. I want to start my musings on the first two episodes by reference to another disaster: the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Forty years prior, the philosopher Leibniz had published a classic work of philosophy now generally called simply Theodicy: a justification of God. Leibniz’s argument, worked out in majestic and pain-staking detail, was that ours is the best of all possible worlds. The evils in our world exist in the precise amount for this world to be the best of all possible worlds: if one catastrophe or misgiving was missing, then the world, as a whole, would somehow be worse or simply could not have existed (i.e. would have been logically impossible). I mention this not because I want to dwell on the philosophical issues, but only to point out that nine years after the Lisbon earthquake, Voltaire published a novella called Candide, which mercilessly attacked Leibniz’s idea (and Leibniz himself in the famous character of Dr. Pangloss) as utterly vapid and simply unconscionable in the aftermath of Lisbon.
In turn, I mention all of this because two centuries later, Theodor Adorno, wrote in his masterpiece Negative Dialectics that:
The earthquake of Lisbon sufficed to cure Voltaire of the theodicy of Leibniz, and the visible disaster of the first nature was insignificant in comparison with the second, social one, which defies human imagination as it distills real hell from human evil.
Now, Adorno was writing as a response to the Nazi genocide, but I believe that the same general point is perfectly echoed by John Goodman’s character, Creighton Bernette, when he quips to a British reporter:
What hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast was a natural disaster, a hurricane, pure and simply. The flooding of New Orleans was a man made catastrophe, a Federal fuckup of epic proportions…
The question then becomes of what will this revelation suffice to cure us of?
I think this polemical stance seems to be precisely what is at stake in Treme. David Simon’s op-ed in the New Orleans Times Picayune acknowledging the historical liberties and omissions in Treme seems to highlight this point: Treme is not a documentary.
This question of action, in turn, drives not only the political, social, and aesthetic concerns that loom forefront to us as viewers, but also serves as a means of entering the minds of Treme’s characters. We see throughout these two episodes how anger and rage lurk behind a variety of moments and locales. There is no character on the show that doesn’t exhibit some form of anger and rage; often it is misdirected towards targets that are easy and simply present. From Bernette’s outburst to the British reporter to Toni Bernette’s rampage in the kitchen to David McAlary’s rage towards the managers of Tower Records and so forth. We see these characters lashing out at the various manifestations or representations of what they take to be obvious and significant systemic injustices. This culminates in Albert Lambreaux’s beating of the street punk who has been going around stealing tools, wiring, and other supplies. Before the beating, Albert says: “I can build a house from scratch—roof to foundation. What can you do? Tear it down, that’s easy.” After informing the thief that he is responsible for stealing Albert’s tools he says: “You just didn’t know who you was taking it from.” Then, before the altercation he exclaims: “You need to understand what I’m telling you.” The entire conversation, but especially the last line, applies as much to the thief as it does to the Federal government as it does to us as viewers.
The genius of Treme, however, is that it provides no easy path through the minefield of such a conversation. I would read the scene immediately following this one, where Albert is washing his hands, as symbolizing this point: Albert, while feeling justified, is certainly not satisfied (Will we “have satisfaction?”). While certainly intentional, it’s obvious that Albert’s brutality surprises even him (as evidenced by the sheer shortness of breath he exhibits).
The rage and anger that hovers just beneath the surface in Treme brings to the fore the precise way in which this country has not dealt with Katrina. We have not really understood the event and even its assimilation into our national narrative is shaky, uncertain, and thoroughly murky. In a very deep sense, it does not register for us and we do not see it. What Treme does is to launch a salvo that brings it, in all of its complexity, to the fore. Two important questions that remain (for us as much as for Treme’s characters) are: who will listen and what will we do?
Until next week,