Monday, August 27, 2007

The Inexorable Rhetoric of Literature

The mainstream media are already in the process of "celebrating" the second anniversary of the Katrina disaster. As early as last night ABC News had already relocated their anchor to New Orleans. Those scare quotes are, of course, an indicator of irony; and the irony, in turn, is a reminder of an arrogance of an industry the cares only about selling soap, regardless of whether the news is good or bad.

As I write this, I am listening to Igor Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex oratorio, whose libretto is basically Sophocles as interpreted by Jean Cocteau. That interpretation begins with an Oedipus full of his own arrogance for having saved Thebes from the Sphinx now having to contend with the outbreak of a plague. When the Delphic oracle declares that the plague is a punishment for the murder of its previous king, Laius, Oedipus' arrogance leads him to demand that he learn the truth behind his murder, whatever the consequences may be. The ultimate consequence, of course, is that he pays for his arrogance.

Reading Walter Mosley's essay for The Nation about Katrina I could not help but be reminded of the arrogance of Oedipus. It is the same arrogance that transmogrified a culture from waging war against poverty to waging war against the poor. It is the arrogance of what Lewis Lapham has come to call the "American Ruling Class" that constitutes the focal point of Mosley's well-wrought prose:

Not only did our government fail to answer the call of its most vulnerable citizens during that fateful period; it still fails each and every day to rebuild, redeem and rescue those who are ignored because of their poverty, their race, their passage into old age.

The disaster named after the hurricane is not confined to the areas affected. Every emergency room, empty bank account and outsourced life's work could be named. We live in a country rife with ignored and condemned poverty. The rich, high on their great corporate steeds, ride over us believing that they are out of the reach of global warming and its symptoms, of terrorism and dwindling natural resources. When government officials tell them to evacuate, they drive their cars, board their corporate jets or simply climb to higher ground with ease. At this very moment they are looking down on Baghdad and New Orleans, Pakistan and Sudan, you and me. The feeling of invulnerability that these people have is unfounded, but nonetheless it makes them reckless. They take chances and cut corners believing that everything will come out all right. Their delusions of grandeur and ultimate power put us in ever more dire straits.

However, Mosley does not stop with criticizing that Ruling Class. Rather, he then extends the argument to recognize how all American citizens have had their values warped by the Ruling Class, particularly through the influence of the media controlled by that Class:

If we call ourselves Americans (and mean it), then we are all victims of Katrina. If we breathe the air or eat fresh fruit, if we call on our cellphones, drink water from a plastic bottle or just nibble on a chocolate bar, then we are Katrina; we are the rising waters around the ankles of this world.

When the day comes to mark off the two-year point since the deluge descended on the Gulf of Mexico, we should take care not to make too much noise. We shouldn't march in that shadow of time or even protest. Rather, we should sit alone in a room with our imaginations open to feel what they experienced on that day: the waters rising, rising and us climbing stairs and ladders, chairs and fire escapes; sitting on rooftops while bodies float by; calling out to passing boats and helicopters that go by in mute witness; being pressed to the roof by the rising tide and being engulfed shouting, shouting out for the ones we love underwater, unheard; the darkness swirling around us as we die with no one coming to save us, or themselves.

This, in turn, brings Mosley to the climax of his conclusion:

Two years have passed and we are still exporting democracy while we continue living under the semibenevolent oligarchy of international corporations and their candidates. This two-year point measures how far we have sunk under the weight of the rich and their political flunkies--while so many of us still celebrate them as if they were pop stars. We experience the silence of drowning men and women. We call out and are not heard. We believe in systems and people who have no faith in us. We perpetuate the rising temperatures and waters and hatred and feelings of hopelessness. New Orleans's defeat is also our defeat. Its closed schools are a metaphor for our minds and our futures. We see the storm's passage but we don't see it coming. But it is coming. And there are no leaders, no corporations, no benevolent billionaires who are going to save our grandmothers and our babies. We must unite outside of the systems that lie like fast food heaped on golden platters at our feet. We must organize at the ground level, where the water has already begun to rise.

Thus, by invoking the rhetoric of literature, Mosley has seen through to the painful premise that the havoc of Katrina also serves as a metaphor for the havoc that Ruling Class arrogance has brought and will continue to bring. Furthermore, the environmental implications of that arrogance have escalated the consequences from the Gulf of Mexico to the entire planet (as any number of this summer's news reports have confirmed). Mosley believes we must unite to confront this arrogance. Cocteau, however, understood that such arrogance can only be brought down by "an inconvenient truth;" but, as the Gore lecture/documentary has demonstrated, that truth will not set us free but will bring us down along with the arrogant. This is what I shall be thinking when I sit alone in that room, imagining how others felt when the levees broke and the water kept rising.

No comments: