Out of the Rubble
Do we create more caring communities in the wake of natural catastrophes? Depends on what “we” you mean.
Shake the Devil off: A True Story of the Murder that Rocked New Orleans
By Ethan Brown • Henry Holt • 2009 • 207 pages • $25
Rebecca Solnit’s New York in the days after September 11 and mine are two different cities. Mine is a fragmented town where people north of 57th Street walked around as though more or less nothing had happened, while people downtown tried to find ways to escape the city. Hers is a place where a rainbow of energetic and charitable people from all over the region, and from further afield, gathered to rescue, resupply, and transcend–to create what the American anarchist Hakim Bey (one of Solnit’s theoretical influences) calls “temporary autonomous zones,” places of cultural and social reinvention. That was her Union Square, a kind of soixante-huitard commune on the edge of the disaster. My city was a town where we had a sudden and unaccustomed respect for the forces of order, as opposed to our usual dismissal of the cops as unwelcome ticket-givers; hers is one where those forces of order quickly arrived to destroy the glorious atmosphere she found in the disaster’s wake.
While the tragedy’s contours were just becoming known, my friends and our kids gathered at an apartment near school. I arrived after making my way through Central Park, a long walk, beautiful on that day and, as Solnit would not be surprised to hear, already marked by a sense that the day was special and somehow sacred. Even though we north New Yorkers were not downtown breathing the dust or hiding from the debris, even though our experience of September 11 was much like that of the rest of the world’s (that is to say, virtual), still, we were in New York, we were New Yorkers, at a moment when to be a New Yorker was to be in the middle of change, in the middle of news, in the middle of the Western world’s most spectacular disaster since, since…. The atmosphere was like the ecstatic yet fearful one I’d experienced in Port-au-Prince after Duvalier was deposed. People walked around in expectation of something. The September 11 disaster provided a break in the normal, a respite that is always present in the moments after a calamity, at least for those whom the catastrophe leaves relatively unharmed.
Over at my friend’s house, we baked chocolate chip cookies with the children and tried to explain to them what had happened. We had a festive time; it was like the feasting and humor you find after funerals. “Sorry for your loss; where’s the ham?” The human creature is a strange beast.
Solnit noticed something very different about the reaction to September 11, and that something is part of a long argument presented in her new book, an argument tinged with a charming, irreverent West Coast ebullience, an attitude I think of as “joyism.” A New Yorker for years, I live in Los Angeles now, so I am not shocked or unaccustomed to this attitude. But somehow, as she presents it in the long chapter about September 11, it grates.
Solnit is part historian and part sociologist, and certainly not a reporter. She was not there for the disasters she covers, which gives the book a certain surreal distance. Naturally, she wasn’t in San Francisco for the 1906 earthquake, nor in Halifax for the armaments explosion of 1917. She wasn’t in London during the Blitz, nor in Mexico City for the 1985 earthquake, nor in New York for September 11 (she was in a gym in San Francisco, she relates). Nor was she in New Orleans for Katrina. Nor did she get to those places right after the events, because she was not yet working on this book. Paradise is a reflection from a distance, even though, in a triumph for Solnit, the narrative often has the immediacy and thrill of on-the-ground reporting, thanks to her excellent sources and vibrant voice.
Relying on the work of various “disaster scholars” (yes, disaster studies is an accepted branch of sociology), Solnit argues that disaster, while feared by established societies, actually gives hierarchical and entrenched cultures like our own the opportunity to step outside the daily grind and see the transcendent possibilities available to humankind if only law and order, private property, and a kind of suburban ennui (call it martini malaise) did not stand in our way.
Solnit’s attitude is optimistic and almost reverential; it’s the stance of an upbeat left-wing cheerleader, a convergence joyist, a kind of New Age yippie rainbow embracer. Early on in the book, she quotes Rutgers’s Lee Clarke: “Disaster myths are not politically neutral.” In this case, Clarke is talking about what he and Solnit believe are the long-held, elite myths that disaster engenders mobs, looters, and rapists. But Clarke might just as well have been talking about Solnit, who posits a people’s utopia built on the shards of catastrophe, and embodied in, say, the groups who came together in Union Square after September 11 to feed stragglers and wanderers, to put up posters, to run post-disaster rap sessions and happenings.
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