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September 25, 2005

Your Turn: In The Ruins


“You don’t really think about the situation rationally at such an overwhelming time, of course.  If it’s home, elegiac competes with angry for emotional first place.”

I’ve been holding on to this illustration, and have been continuing to look at it for about two weeks.  What’s been particularly strange is that, as soon as I go to post it, the situation in New Orleans takes another turn resulting in a fundamentally different way of relating to the image.

If you’ll indulgence a moment of introspection, it seems that the BAG has been all over the map recently.  It’s a delicate balance, but it seems like my emphasis has been a little too much on the politics lately, at the expense of the images.  Lost in that mix, specifically, have been those satisfying opportunities (for both of us) where I pull back and let you take over the analysis.  My sense is, with all the emotions stirred by a month of disaster — many of them fed by instance after instance in which Bush has revealed himself to be as unqualified and phony as we’ve known all along — a lot of us are feeling just a little poisonous.

The quote above is from a beautiful piece in this New Yorker issue by Nicholas Lemann.  The reason I’m drawn to it is because of how powerfully and sweetly it expresses the relationship to place, the complexity of loss, and the marvelous, but less than logical poetry of one of our “most profoundly American” cities.

If you can, read Lemann’s piece, In The Ruins, before you react to the image.  I tried very hard (with mixed results) to accurately reproduce this cover.  What I most wanted to capture was the lightness of the sky in the middle of this rain.  You know, it can come down like crazy in that town, but apparently, there’s a large part of the place that could never get wet.

By the way, the name of the watercolor is also very nice.  It’s called “Requiem” by Ana Juan.

Tell me what you see.

(illustration: Ana Juan.  New Yorker Magazine. September 12, 2005.  Cover)

  • mugatea

    Won’t you come along with me
    Down that Mis – sis – sip – pi;
    We’ll take a boat to the land of dreams,
    Steam down the river down to New Orleans.
    The band’s there to greet us,
    Old friends will meet us,
    Where all people like to meet
    Heaven on earth, they call it Basin Street
    Basin Street is the street
    Where the elite always meet –
    In New Orleans, land of dreams
    You’ll never know how nice it seems
    Or just how much it really means.
    Glad to be, yessiree,
    Where welcomes free, dear to me,
    Where I can lose my Ba – sin Street Blues.
    Spencer Williams, 1926
    Recorded by Louis Armstrong, 1928

  • joshowitz

    From the darkest mud blooms the most beautiful of lotus flowers…
    Only from great evil can great good arise…

  • Sam

    I love the site. It’s a great idea and I think you do a fantastic job. I wonder if you’d check out my post about photographs of animals from the hurricanes and the effect they have on us ( I was inspired by what you do here and I’d be interested in your perspective.
    – Jersey Perspective

  • black dog barking

    Rain and tears, sorrow and cleansing, the saxophone wails as the hurricane passes. That’s quite a picture / image.
    The article paints New Orleans as a city in long decline sliding from an “…economy that runs on plantation agriculture, mineral extraction, and an intentionally impoverished, unempowered, and uneducated populace” to its terminal node as tourist mecca / convention center. NOLA may be an extreme case, certainly more fragile and more exposed than most, but there are lots of other American cities with similar graphs.
    If we leave it to MBAs and accountants to decide what to do about NOLA we’ve given up. There is no Standard Accounting Practice that measures saxophone interpretations or evocative magazine covers.

  • dancinfool

    The image is in one way elegaic, of course, and in another blatantly false. The French Quarter didn’t flood like the image shows – other poorer and more desperate areas flooded like the image indicates with flood waters up to the tops of street signs.
    It would have been a truer image if the artist had pictured Fats Domino anchored by his piano to his beloved and flooded 9th ward home. (I’ve always thought that Fats was a true role model for New Orleanians because his was the ultimate statement about being true to one’s roots.) The article which I read before really looking at the cover makes it clear that so many born there stay there. The reasons why I cannot say other than it’s an inner thing.
    The New Yorker image is, of course, a more abstract statement of what has happened to my hometown (Yes, I’m a New Orleanian.) It is, however, a tribute also to the Blues which rose from New Orleans years and years ago and a clear image of why – I can hear that sax as well as I can hear my own heartbeat; it’s an also an inner thing.
    Thank you for choosing a true non-political image for us. The politics of Katrina is completely disassociated from this New Yorker cover.

  • lemondloulou54

    The illustration made me realize that NOLA was and will be again, god willing, a feminine city–from the mud, watery, low-rise buildings, nurturing, open to all, yes, the big easy. We never say that men are easy. Contrast her to NYC or SF or Chicago or Phoenix or Houston, all masculine cities, where humanity is dwarfed by high rise architecture. NOLA emerged from the water and lived on the water and returned to the water and we hope will re-emerge from the water. NOLA is the only truly American city–a little bit Native, a little bit African, a little bit European, a little bit Caribbean.

  • djangone

    My very first reaction, before I started giving it the benefit of the doubt, was that it wasn’t in good taste. I’ll be in the minority on this, I guarantee you.
    New Yorker is my life’s blood; I could hardly live without it. But sometimes there’s a pop sensibility to their covers that lightens the effect of serious matters. In this case, the synechdotal center of New Orleans, the place the white people know about, the French Quarter, is the focus. In fact, the French Quarter stayed dry. The water looks clean, when in fact it was lethal. The cover doesn’t contemplate whether a floating corpse is one of our relatives in the Ninth Ward, because as NYer readers, we don’t have relatives in the Ninth Ward.
    The cover is about the death of the idea of New Orleans. What ocurred was something else, the actual death of New Orleans, and it looked nothing like this.

  • Kerstin

    “.. a lot of us are feeling just a little poisonous.”
    Are we feeling poisonous or poisoned? At what point do we lose the ability to differentiate?
    Is it completely apolitical? The sax player is leaning back to the viewer’s left, the buildings on the right seem to be sinking rightward yet the sky is light enough to suggest that “it’s a new day.”
    I like the mildew growing up the left of the cover.
    The few times I visited what stood out most noticeably was the palpable sense of decay. Sure there are towns and cities all over this country that are decaying, but New Orleans maintained an unique cultural identity that thrived despite the battles with nature and the incredible social neglect.
    Can’t give you much more on this one. The cover seems sterile and colorless, not at all like the New Orleans I visited.

  • Mad

    I very much like the illustration, the colors and composition, and the spreading mildew. The colors are appropriate for the storm and if they are some lifeless, it is because it is a “Requiem”, a chant for the dead. A chant for the death of a great American city.
    Nostalgia and sentimentality and boastful words from Bush can’t cover up the reality. We come to another no-win situation- how can we not rebuild such a city, but this nation cannot afford to rebuild New Orleans.
    A New New Orleans could not be the Old New Orleans.
    But most of all, New Orleans is two feet below sea level on average. And sinking. It’s next to the ocean and another big hurricane is coming, next week or next year, but sooner rather than later.
    So it is a Requiem for New Orleans, and perhaps a requiem for this nation. This may be when we realize that we are a giant that puts itself into too many no-win situations.

  • Marysz

    The musician plays as the water rises. He’s alone. Is anyone going to come and rescue him? We need to do more than just enjoy listening to his music. If we don’t step in and help him, he’ll drown.

  • Scott

    If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break
    And the water gonna come in, have no place to stay
    Well all last night I sat on the levee and moan
    If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break
    And all these people have no place to stay
    Now look here mama what am I to do
    I ain’t got nobody to tell my troubles to
    I works on the levee mama both night and day
    I ain’t got nobody, keep the water away
    Oh cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do no good
    When the levee breaks, mama, you got to lose
    I’s a mean old levee, cause me to weep and moan
    Gonna leave my baby, and my happy home
    –Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie, Mississippi Delta Blues Musicians, recording of 1929

  • Timothy

    Please keep up the great, insightful work, Michael. You’ve become a must read for me. Congratulations on your slot at The Huffington Post. Great that many more will be following your contributions!
    My reaction to the “Requiem” image, the article and NOLA:
    The enchanting and haunting melody
    that only comes from Shades Of Grey

  • marcegoodman

    My initial feeling was with djangone that this was not in good taste, a rare false note, as it were, for the New Yorker. It seemed too glib. I also predicted that I might feel differently over time, as indeed I do. Nonetheless, this “Requiem” would have worked better had it evoked a genuine jazz funeral, with a much larger ensemble distributed along the rooftops rather than a lone saxophonist. This would have better expressed the collective nature of all that was lost, including the “idea” of New Orleans.

  • The BAG

    Several people sent me “animal rescue” links during the height of the Katrina flooding. Honestly, I was so focused on the human dimension, I wasn’t able to focus on it.
    I know, from a clinical standpoint, that the relationships and feelings people have with and toward animals are so intense because they are (or, at least seem) so much more pure. Looking at these images, they hit us harder because the animals possess almost absolute innocence. The contrast, in comparison, throws a harder light on the less innocent actions of man and/or nature. Maybe it’s the softer light than makes me shy away from the animal photos. Give me the complexity — I crave a more dimensional and not too untroubled perspective when it comes to human nature.
    That said, I very much liked the photo you posted. What really interested me was that one animal at the top of the image swimming away. Do the ranchers know? It’s crazy, but I root for an escape.
    To Timothy, and other who have mentioned it: Thanks for the kind words regarding the HuffPo gig. I’m really pleased that they see the value of looking at political images. That said, I want to reassure everyone who cares about this site that the BAG is, and remains, my first priority.

  • bg

    I too am a devoted reader of the New Yorker. I see this cover as a statement more about culture than a funeral for a city, or the idea of the place.
    I see culture as a survivor, one who stayed, the culture that was called more to express itself than to be rescued.
    Even though the French Quarter was spared the water, the flood illustrated on this cover is more understandable than the ninth ward and Fats Domino’s home, which is more symbolic of his attachment to place than this image that says “New Orleans” to the less schooled.
    There is also the old architecture, symbolized here, also at risk, but perhaps not all gone.
    Finally, the greyness, still amidst the storm, before the sun has come out again, transition.
    The image is about sadness and loss, but it is certainly not “the end.”

  • Kathryn Cramer

    A NOLA riff on the dance band on the Titanic.

  • iamcoyote

    It’s reminiscent of the image of the Fiddler on the Roof, isn’t it? bg’s comment could be about Anatevka.

  • Jamie

    This is somewhat off-topic, but I hope you’ll allow an emotional response.
    I love New Orleans, my sister’s home and my sanctuary, and mourn what happened there.
    There will be no elegy or memorial for Cameron Parish, though. That’s where I was born; the largest parish with the smallest human population. People who live there have always said that the rest of the country acts as if there were nothing south of Lake Charles, and now it’s a fact.
    New Orleans deluged by the lake and the river, Grand Chenier overwhelmed by the Gulf, my grandparents’ graves under salt water, and I suspect that I better hold on to my memories as best I can, because that’s all that’s left of home.

  • PTate in MN

    I have travelled all over the world, but I have never been attracted to New Orleans. The Big Easy, Mardi Gras, New Orleans jazz, bourbon, corrupt politicians, Cajun food, the hospitality of the Old South-these never held enough allure for me to travel there.
    It is hard to appreciate what has happened to New Orleans, all those people displaced, all those houses and lives disrupted. I have spent hours poring over those satellite maps of the city, stunned by the devastation.
    This NY cover seems sweet and melancholy: The solo musician playing a soulful sax as the water rises. The mood, like the cover, is blue, elegiac. The reality of what has happened to New Orleans is so much more terrible than pictured here. This evokes melancholy for something magical that has been lost. It expresses a bourgeoise perspective, that of tourists who knew New Orleans as a romantic destination. It makes me wonder if I missed something by going to Europe, Boston, Oregon instead of New Orleans.
    I contrast it to the cover of the New Yorker after 9/11: The grim Twin Towers. There the emotion is also blue, but the emotion isn’t nostalgic, it’s raw and stark.

  • Jo

    I see it as the thought will live through every thing. What we think of the city is more important than what is happening to it and that will last.

  • Version 7

    Reminds me of Nero….sure you know that story..
    Facts are, we’re in trouble.
    Loads of talk about images and metaphors blah blah balh but take a step back, 9/11, Iraq, Katrina, Rita etc etc, we are not learning.
    This empire can not strike back…

  • Drew Thaler

    A lot of complex and conflicting thoughts come through for me.
    - Inaccurate? Well, it’s a New Yorker’s view of the catastrophe. Yeah, the French Quarter didn’t flood, but neither is the famous “A View of the World from Ninth Avenue” a realistic map. It still captures the emotion (and the sort of benign well-meaning ignorance).
    - It’s a funeral. For all the people who died, or even for the city itself.
    - It’s a statement that whatever happens, the spirit of New Orleans can never die.
    - It’s an expression of hope. Actually it makes me think of the Onion’s recent piece about how Delta blues are poised for a big revival now. “Category Five Woman Done Me Six Kinds of Wrong”…
    - All of the above.
    Two other notes: Amidst all this emotion, the buildings are even a little crooked as if they are sinking. And the rococo swirls on the architecture inject a note of irony into the catastrophe.

  • Bill

    I see a piece of leftist toilet paper!
    Next question!

  • Susan Murray

    The cover is about the death of the idea of New Orleans. What ocurred was something else, the actual death of New Orleans, and it looked nothing like this.
    I agree 110% It seems like a pretty and distant version of the ugly truth and I resent it.
    It also bothers me that the guy looks as if he could be white or black. I hate it when they fence sit about race and in this case it’s just plain timid. It’s a black city it ought to be a black looking guy!
    And where is the anger?
    I paint. I’ll show you how I saw things some day– it shocks me that anyone could even relate to this image!

  • hauksdottir

    Death is also life and renewal. That decay, mold, mildew all ensure that in some future there will be nutrients available for some other life. To be truly dead is to be sealed in plastic or frozen in some lab. Isolated from all natural processes.
    Maybe our government is the mortuary. It is sealed and isolated.
    The world, however, is alive. Wind and water can’t linger but must keep moving, keep changing. We humans might need to adapt a bit more to nature, be a bit more flexible, if we want to stay alive.
    Music, BTW, is alive. It flows like water.

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