As we mourn New Orleans, let us also celebrate it, as New Orleanians famously celebrate their own dead. The city has long been admired for its literary creativity, its exceptional food, and its wonderful music, and deplored–albeit also frequented–because of its legendary corruption and degradation. The possibility of its destruction no doubt played a role in the character of its people, and it is no accident that an annual bacchanal took place there, in the riotous celebrations of Mardi Gras. Death has always been omnipresent in the consciousness of the city; dancing in defiance of death was the city’s trademark, and the spirited music that defined New Orleans for much of the world was played at the happiest occasions, and at the most famous funerals.
New Orleans is one of a handful of cities that are defined in large part by the recognition that it can all come to an end most any day. Joel Lockhart Dyer wrote that “New Orleans is North America’s Venice; both cities are living on borrowed time.” New Orleans and Venice are both subject to the vagaries of the water gods, and both have acted sporadically to fend off their seemingly inevitable fate. But their basic response to the looming disaster has been defiance, a ritual assertion of life in the face of the inevitable, and an embrace of human frailty that echoes the frailty of the city itself.
Carnival in Venice, albeit more so in the past than today, has much in common with Mardi Gras, including the use of masks by the celebrants, who thereby throw off their daily identities to participate anonymously in the licentious celebrations. Thomas Mann knew what he was doing when he wrote Death in Venice, in which a proper German professor (pointedly named Aschenbach, the stream of ashes) hurls himself into bawdy Venice to recover his repressed sexuality and creativity. Similar characters abound in the works of Tennessee Williams, who lived many years in New Orleans, the setting for both A Streetcar Named Desire and The Rose Tattoo. William Faulkner also found New Orleans a congenial place for his creative labors. And in both cities, the bacchanals are religious, celebrating both sin and the hope of redemption thereafter, as if a sinner were more attractive to the Almighty than a virtuous soul, at least on that day.
Moreover, Venice prefigured the most likely cultural and political destiny of New Orleans, no matter whether the long-anticipated catastrophe came or not: a slow slide into monotonous ritual, a city transformed into an historic theme park, more frequented by tourists than defined by the energy of its inhabitants, an anachronistic curiosity like Florence, where one focuses on things past, not present or future.
But there is much that separates them. Venice is a northern city, and New Orleans is profoundly southern. A German like Mann might find Venice to be incredibly warm and sunny, but no knowledgeable Italian would. And the presumed naturalness and spontaneity of Venetians could only be taken seriously by someone from even farther north. New Orleans, on the other hand, incarnates the south. New Orleanians are perversely proud of the slow tempo of their daily life, of the absence of industry, and of the fascinating spectacle of human foibles and failures that seems at one with the city. The Italian city that most closely matches New Orleans is Naples, not Venice. Naples also faces destruction–volcanic destruction, from “Vesuvius the Exterminator,” as the poet Verga once wrote–and Naples, too, is noted for a lively, and often lawless style of life, along with great literature, art, cuisine and music. Unlike Venice, Naples is every bit as southern as New Orleans, and the European stereotype of the Neapolitan is very much like the American image of New Orleanians: lazy, happy, spontaneous, and unrepressed, slow-moving but quick-witted, and very happy with the food.
Naples and New Orleans also share a common affliction: disease. An enormous number of New Orleanians and Neapolitans have died of cholera; indeed, one of the best books on modern Naples is entitled Naples in the Age of Cholera. New Orleans had the additional scourge of Yellow Fever. In both cities, the effect of these epidemics and mass deaths meant, as Frederick Starr puts it in his excellent book on New Orleans, “death…was not merely a private drama occurring in the intimate circle of one’s family, but a civic event, experienced by the entire community.” Both cities have a highly developed culture of death. The dead are believed to be actively involved in daily life, busily haunting houses and even restaurants, sending dream messages to the living, and organizing good and bad fortune for those who have or lack proper respect for the inhabitants of the spiritual realm.
The dead themselves require special treatment, because both cities lack proper traditional burial grounds. New Orleans is below sea level, and the soil in Naples is very porous, so the dead are usually placed in tombs, not in the ground. In some Neapolitan churches, you can see skeletons in the walls, and local artists paint clothing around the skeletons. This sort of intimacy with the dead is unknown in most of the modern world.
The combination of a rich culture of death with the looming threat of catastrophe is an intoxicating mélange for the spirit, and it no doubt explains why so many great writers have been drawn to these two southern cities, both of which have developed a unique version of Catholicism, often to the consternation of Rome. As Starr observes of New Orleans (and it is equally true of Naples), “all this frivolity occurs in the very city which, for over two centuries, Death visited more ruthlessly than anywhere else on the continent.”
Doomed cities with an intimate relationship with the dead are special places, incubators of exceptional qualities of spirit and thus of extraordinary inventiveness. If we have lost one of those cities to the forces of nature, it will impoverish our world far beyond the enormous human tragedy. Even if it was long foreseen.