Despite Gods and Demons
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?!
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 by. We 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.