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Despite Gods and Demons

April 9, 2010

So there’s this thing I read in the New York Times Treme piece a few weeks back that’s been bugging me a little.  See if you can spot it:

But because so many of [The Wire‘s] story lines dramatized the futility of any of these characters’ attempts to break through social and economic ceilings, the image of contemporary urban America that the show offered was one in which character wasn’t fate so much as a fait accompli: in the land of the free market, Simon was arguing, free will wasn’t going to get you very far. In “Treme,” Simon seems to be arguing for the very opposite idea: the triumph of the individual will despite all impediments, a show about people, artists for the most part, whose daily lives depend upon the free exercise of their wills to create — out of nothing, out of moments — something beautiful.

Back in the days of New Package, VirgoTex posted this great analysis of Season 4 of The Wire called “The Cause of Gods and Demons”, a post which very eloquently spells out Simon’s world view vis a vis “free will isn’t going to get you very far” (and I could swear Simon left some love in the comments but I don’t see it now).  How basically your life, or lack thereof, was determined not by your skills and talents and merits, but by random chance, by the gods of probability rolling their dice, and “aw, snake eyes, it’s OD for you son.”  The four kids of Season 4 grew up into roles that were quite the opposite of what you’d expect, due mostly to chance events and minor mistakes that snowballed in unimaginable directions.  The good-hearted kid becomes a hit man, the loveable goof becomes a juvie hall thug, the brainy child of addicts becomes an addict himself, and the tough-talking not-so-street-smart son of a gangster somehow accidentally makes it out of the ghetto and into an education.  No rhyme, no reason.  And the institutions of progress — the schools, the police, the government, the unions — doled out non-benign neglect at best, obstacles or outright harm most of the time.

VirgoTex got it.  Everybody who followed The Wire carefully, or The Corner, or Homicide, knows that the institutions won’t save you, they might in fact kill you, and to the extent that you manage to save yourself, it will only be through sheer luck of the draw.

So, knowing this, how can anyone toss off a comment like “Simon seems to be arguing for the very opposite idea: the triumph of the individual will despite all impediments”.  Simon just up and changed his mind, his entire worldview, maybe one summer while filming Generation Kill? Or he found the one place in the world where the individual really does have the power to determine his own destiny: post-Katrina New Orleans?!

Frigga, please.

I can only imagine that the Times writer came to this conclusion by 1) watching the first few episodes of Treme and making some very dicey logical leaps, and 2) ignoring the vast historical record of how fucked up and Not OK New Orleans and New Orleanians have been the last five years.

OK, so in the first few months of the storm, despite all the carnage and heartbreak and craziness, there were some bright spots.  The first second line, the first Hubig’s Pies, the first night the Maple Leaf opened up, the first time somebody hooked some Christmas lights up to a generator in the Bywater.  I know damn well that everybody remembers their first roast beef poor boy after the storm and still feels something like triumph at the memory.  Every little tiny thing felt like a triumph back then.  And there was a certain amount of hope mixed in with all that pain.

But alas, it was not to be that simple.  As Bodie once said (and I’ve always thought he was talking about New Orleans), “This game is rigged, man, and we like them little bitches on the chessboard.”

Make no mistake, the cause of gods and demons is alive and well in New Orleans.  And whether Simon shows all of it or just some of it, trust me that despite the will of tens of thousands, by the end of Season 1 and into Season 2, people will kill themselves, or desperately try to die; people will be killed by the stress; people will fight insurance companies and lose; people will fight City Hall and lose; people will be shot by police, shot by criminals, or shot just because they drove down the wrong street at the wrong time.  Some people will rebuild; some people will have their homes bulldozed one day while they are away; some people will be permanently locked out of their homes by a federal bureaucracy.

Everybody remembers the Kafka-esque nightmare of Road Home, of FEMA checks.  The Brazil-like guantlet that you had to go through just to get your power turned back on, or to pick up your mail.  The endless parade of commissions and experts who came sniffing around, put out some position papers, got their check, and fucked off back to designing golf courses in California.

Triumph of the individual?  Indeed not.  What is special, what is beautiful and wondrous about New Orleanians, is not that we are more powerful individuals, that we have some secret sauce that lets us win out over the evils of fate and the neglect of our societal institutions.

What is special about New Orleanians is that we have fun, we dance, we cook and eat and make music and party, despite.  All humans survive, all humans endure.  But in New Orleans, we do it with style.  Our secret sauce doesn’t help us get over, but it does help us get byWe dance at funerals, ferchrissakes.  Hell, somebody play some Al “Carnival Time” Johnson and we’ll dance in our Tyvek suits and mold respirators, stomping in the dried mud in the middle of what used to be the street where we lived.

This is why New Orleans matters.  This is why we are different.  And this is why Treme is important.  And I haven’t even seen a single episode yet, but I am pretty damn sure this is what Simon wants the world to know about us.

The piano still plays

  1. virgotex permalink*
    April 9, 2010 7:24 am

    Simon did leave me some props but it was in comments for a subsequent post;
    Great post, Ray. Good eyes. No one goes broke betting on Simon to serve the fatalism/cynicism cocktail.
    “Despite.” Indeed.

  2. April 9, 2010 8:17 am

    Amen. Selah. We are indeed surrounded by randomness. Only thing that does matter is what we do with it & how we endure.

    I just pickedup a copy of “The Corner”. Looking forward to it.

  3. April 9, 2010 8:46 am

    VT: Yeah, it’s kinda like that old satirical Army recruiting slogan: “Be a co-writer with David Simon. Travel to exotic places, create fascinating, memorable characters, and kill them. (Now in non-fiction too!)”

  4. April 9, 2010 10:21 am

    This post is so good, it makes me wonder if the Back of Town commentary about Treme might be superior to the show itself. And I say that with all due respect to Simon. But this struck me as a wildly entertaining (“Frigga please”!) and profound commentary. Simon’s quote in the virgo tex post was like a revelation in terms of how I can approach Simon’s work– the capricious gods are post-modern institutions.

    Great job, Ray. For me, I don’t see how you’re going to top this one, but I look forward to the next attempt.

    Damn the gods.

  5. April 9, 2010 10:35 am

    Wow! Amazing post. I wonder if it’s a question of focus. For example, in The Wire we saw the inner workings of the PD, so we knew some of the reasons it was so profoundly screwed up. Same thing with politics, same thing with the newspaper, to a lesser degree education. We had real characters explaining through their experience why the institution was the way it was. I don’t get the sense that in Treme we’re going to have FEMA workers and administrators, or government officials as main or even secondary characters. So while our heroes won’t have complete free will in “pursuing their projects,” I wonder if the focus won’t be so much on the institutions that prevent them. Perhaps it’s even as simple as screen time.

  6. April 9, 2010 10:36 am

    I think the things you refer to as special and beautiful in the end of your post are the triumphs of the individual that Simon sees – not a civic, political victory over governmental neglect, crime and poverty, but a city dotted daily with individual acts of beauty, bravery and poetry despite the grinding forces. And, a city that returned and re-found those moments in spite of the institutional hostility to its return.

  7. April 9, 2010 10:44 am

    And, this post, my friends, shows exactly why I started Back Of Town. Just couldn’t see how the show would be without those who get it – Ray, Virgo, Folse and all the writers and commenters – coming together about it like this in a public forum. That, and I’ll be damned if I let what-the-hell-is-your-point shit like this be some of the only visible “informed commentary” on the show.

    My work here is done.

  8. April 9, 2010 11:38 am

    oh gawd, I hadn’t seen that, Maitri. It is my opinion that Yglesias should really stick to politics- again, my opinion only, but I disagree with him re almost everything else of his -about culture, tv, art, music, etc – that I’ve read. Ironically, given his concerns here, I find his views about the things he reviews to be too intellectualized and not realistic.

  9. April 9, 2010 11:41 am

    I love you. You know that. For precisely this sort of thing.

    I always thought The Wire was about to what extent middle-class America was willing to bullshit itself that everything was okay. What are you willing to step over in the gutter on your way about your day? This fits into that perfectly: America, by and large, was willing to step over New Orleans in the gutter in order to get past those pesky feelings of guilt and misery and GODDAMMIT THIS IS NOT SUPPOSED TO BE LIKE THIS HERE FUCKING FIX IT that well up whenever there’s a reminder we aren’t a good country all that much. Amsterdam, to me, was the whole show: What are the lies you let yourself believe to make life tolerable?

    Because it’s easier to create distance between yourself and the need than it is to address the need, and so there are Amsterdams everywhere. There are Amsterdams in our living rooms and at our dinner tables. Simon’s always been taking us inside them and shoving our faces in them and making us look. It’s why I watch, for fuck’s sake. The idea that this is somehow some veneration of libertarian bootstrap ideology is fucking bonkers.


  10. April 9, 2010 3:06 pm

    I love you too, A. And here I am all unmarried now. Sigh.

    Alex, I agree. Everything that was taken for granted was cherished like gold when it was rediscovered after the flood. BTW, I liked your piece in Offbeat. I almost quoted it when I wrote this, because of this bit from Overmyer:

    ‘The first season deals with people returning and starting to get their lives back together; season two would deal with the money. “Where is all the money going? The aid, the insurance money, the Road Home money,” Overmyer says. “We’ve barely scratched the surface on politics and crime, which historically was just coming back about the end of our season.”’

    See? Same old Simon and crew. The indifferent institutions are coming, it’s just that we’ve got a few months of “How’s your house?” and MAX Band and homemade street signs in Broadmoor and “Whoa, do I hear a second line?” to get through first.

  11. rickngentilly permalink
    April 9, 2010 10:17 pm

    ashmoesque post sir.

    i met you at a gutting of of morwan and bett’s house.

    you emailed me about the wasps that had taken over some windows.

    i showed up with a rusty wheelbarrow and some shovels that used to be ok before the flood.

    (this is why i’m not a writter , this sounds like a village voice personal ad)

    any way , your and ashley’s posts turned me on to other nola bloggers and all those words helped me deal with my katrina ptsd a little better.

    i had lot of bumps in the road but i am a better man thanks to yalls balm.

    i wish you the best in your life and give you sincire thanks for the help you all gave me in getting my life back on track.

    it’s still a work in progress but again you greased the skids in the right direction. thanks man.

  12. April 10, 2010 2:11 am

    Rick! Where you been man? I think we’ve all had those bumps the past few years. Mine bumped me back to motherfucken Texas for the next few years.

  13. April 11, 2010 9:44 pm

    Ray – that is ‘teh awesomness’! Great post!

    If anyone knows where to see it after tonight (be it hulu or whatnot) pls let me know. Morwen & Betts are going to see if they can zap it and throw on a disc for my cable-less-Luddite tush.
    Worst case, I’ll wait (not patiently mind you) for it to come out on DVD.


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