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Ago, agere, egi, actum

September 30, 2012

“I’ll do the time I deserve to do. Cause I did what I did.”

Disasters are “responsible” for a great many things, and not just on the physical plane. They destroy, they rearrange, they punctuate, they scar. Sometimes they even create simultaneous or subsequent iterations of disasters. Disasters aren’t alone in this respect but they are alone among other causal agents with respect to agency.

How you read Treme (for that matter, how you read that paragraph) likely corresponds to how you’d finish the phrase on the title card that sets up the episode: twenty-five months after Hurricane Katrina? Or twenty-five months after the flood, caused by the failure of the levees, caused by entwined decades of failure and negligence. There are those who would add more commas, followed by more “caused by”-s.

“…you and me done broke some fresh fucking ground. Them songs is gonna stand, son.”

Words, like people and events, even buildings, tend to become associated one with the other. These relationships can be deliberate or random, sometimes due to error, sometimes accurately reflecting some interconnectedness. Two such words are “palimpsest” and “pentimento.”

To be scraped clean and used again, or evidence of that having happened, often in layered iterations — watching Albert enter the home under renovation, come upstairs to set about working, then get interrupted by the song on the radio, I registered the scene visually as a palimpsest. A year ago, we saw a similar scene against a similar backdrop, another song on the radio, a very different reaction, or the absence of a reaction, from Albert. Time has passed, Albert is older. He’s still a hardass, but even hardasses change, of their own accord or in response to external forces.

“Don’t ever change.”

It’s a matter of convenience to drag Lillian Hellman into this (she was, after all, born in New Orleans)

Old paint on a canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter “repented,” changed his mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again.

As soon as she published  Pentimento, others began to refute much of what Hellman had written, who she’d written it about, whether or not she was even present for some of the events she’d depicted as her own memories. That’s a whole other story but related to this topic, related to Treme, related to New Orleans. Whose memory do we trust? Whose lives get turned into “history” and who gets the last word about that? Whose landmarks, whose traditions? Who gets to protect those and who gets to tear them down?

“Did you people ever actually preserve anything of note?”

Who owns the stories of what happened after the levees broke, and how should they be told? Does your story depend on rigorously catalogued pieces of forensic evidence? Or is it the story of a family, who used to live in a house, that used to be in a neighborhood, where now there’s only chest-high weeds?

Memory, traditions, justice, cognac, music, relationships, buildings —”things” get preserved in different ways, in spite of or because of different forces, and to different extents.

5 Comments
  1. September 30, 2012 2:44 pm

    Having VT back, it’s … its … it’s like having the real refs back. A great and thoughtful post. Whose memories, what liberties are central questions but fidelity is the real truth in any representative work of art or literature, and Treme has that in spades.

  2. September 30, 2012 7:13 pm

    Sure, the show has it, but my post wasn’t about the agency of the show and its creators, it was about the agency of the characters – both the characters we know and those who’ve lived and died in NO for centuries before.

    That’s what I think this first episode was about. Who gets to close down a march or escort it? And why do they do what they do each time?

    Lots of forces that have nothing to do with laws or right or wrong come into play when choices are getting made. Who gets to tear down a city block and why do they get to, and what might stop them. Who gets to write an opera about the story of the storm? Who gets to decide what is and isn’t jazz, or what Indians can and can’t do?

    “Did you people ever preserve something?” “We tore that down in 61 or 63..” Who’s “you people” and who’s “we”? Is Google right about Louis Armstrong or is Davis?

    Who gets to march in a protest? What gets weighed when someone takes an action and makes a choice and what does that choice do to history or your job or your marriage, etc.

  3. October 1, 2012 10:56 am

    I’m so glad you included Lillian Hellman, one of my idols. She was born in New Orleans, and grew up spending half of the year in New Orleans at the boarding house on Prytania Street run by her two aunts, and the other half of the year in New York City. I only wish Lillian was here with us to watch Treme, she would certainly understand how exiled New Orleanians feel.

    I guess the stories belong to all of us, since we each have our own perspective. Sharing out pre-K and post-K tales with each other only strengthens the bond.

  4. October 1, 2012 1:10 pm

    Oops, typo. Sharing “our” pre-K and post-K tales, not sharing “out”— although that could become a new expression.

  5. October 1, 2012 9:03 pm

    Virgotex, all excellent points in both your post and comment.

    To the show specific, I had never thought of pentimento as a literary device. The fact that the happy Albert was painted over the sad Albert made the change of heart (and relationship) just that much more significant. It was thrilling to watch Albert brag on Delmond in exactly the same situation as he had ignored him previously.

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