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This plague is not a hurricane

By: Walter Isaacson

Walter Isaacson is a professor of history at Tulane University.

29 March 2020

On Mardi Gras Day this year, we had friends over to watch the marchers and musicians of the St. Anne parade strut and dance past our balcony on Royal Street. By the end of the procession, many of the marchers had dropped out and joined our party, wearing their clever costumes. A few were dressed as the coronavirus, with bodysuits that mimicked the beer bottle and hoods that made them look like viral rockets. It was still early enough to be amusing.

Now as I look down from our balcony, Royal Street is nearly deserted. A lone cornetist on the corner is playing a slow rendition of “I’ll Fly Away,” but there are few people to drop tips into his bucket.

Did Mardi Gras help make New Orleans a hot spot in the current plague? Probably. Should it have been canceled? Well, obviously, just as in hindsight it would have been good if we’d canceled all big gatherings and sporting events in the country in mid-February rather than mid-March. But I can’t blame our governor or mayor for not knowing that. By Mardi Gras weekend, there had been no deaths or reported community-spread cases in the United States, and Trump that Monday tweeted, “The coronavirus is very much under control.”

Now there are 3,540 reported cases in Louisiana, as of Sunday, making it rank as the ninth most-afflicted state in the nation, and 1,127 have been hospitalized. New Orleans has 1,350 of the cases and has suffered 73 deaths so far. The governor says hospitals in some parishes may soon be filled, so the city’s convention facility is being converted into an emergency facility. While the toll will be nowhere near the 1,500 or so who were killed in Louisiana by Katrina, I understand why we have been called an eye of this hurricane. It’s an apt analogy, because the atmosphere in much of the city, other than the hospitals, is eerily calm but charged, just as in a hurricane’s eye.

There is still some music in the streets. Doreen Ketchens, the beloved clarinetist who plays with her band on Royal Street in front of our corner grocery, performed to an empty sidewalk a few days ago. “It’s the week after the madness, but we’re out here anyway,” she said. “We wanted to give some music to a very quiet Royal Street.” She sings a final rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” stressing the verse about “when the sun begins to shine,” then plays happy birthday to her tuba player. In Jackson Square, a lone drummer plays in front of the cathedral. As Brandi Carlile once sang, “You can dance in a hurricane/But only if you’re standing in the eye.”

Walker Percy, a Louisiana novelist with a wry philosophical depth and grace worn lightly, had a theory about hurricanes. “It was his impression that not just he but other people felt better in hurricanes,” he wrote of the semi-autobiographical title character of his second novel, “The Last Gentleman.” During a hurricane, we no longer feel alienated or uncertain. We know what to do, and we do it. We are together, in the same boat. Then we have a hurricane party.

But this plague is not a hurricane. In a hurricane you know that, if you ride it out for a day, the sun will begin to shine, the waters will recede, and the earth will begin to heal. During this plague, we’re not quite sure what to do, other than stay socially distanced. New Orleanians are not good at social distancing. It’s also unclear how this storm ends. The song that resonates is not Brandi’s “The Eye,” it’s the Neville Brothers’ cover of “Sitting in Limbo.”

So we look for something to do that might be useful. Throughout the city, restaurants have set up tables outside for people to come buy takeout plates of their specialties. For the homeless and less fortunate, pickup trucks with volunteers drive through the neighborhoods handing out boxed meals for free. Various groups, including my Tulane students, have scrambled to set up funds to help hospitality workers, musicians, those in the gig economy and others who have been hurt.

A few days ago, my wife and I drove two hours south to Grand Isle, where the marshes meet the Gulf of Mexico. People used to go there in previous centuries to escape the plagues. There was a semblance of normalcy. The Starfish restaurant was serving at outdoor tables, and as we drove back up along Bayou Lafourche, we stopped at the tin shed of Big Jim’s seafood dock and bought a couple of dozen oysters just off the boat.

Louisiana used to go through these plagues regularly. The worst year on record was 1853, when 7,800 of 115,000 New Orleans residents died of yellow fever. Right after that plague receded, the town’s first Mardi Gras krewe was formed. The pent-up city needed a release.

Will there be a Mardi Gras next year? Yes, but only if it’s safe by then. There’s a resilience in a city that has come through many plagues and hurricanes in its history and which, like our nation, will come through this one.

COPYRIGHT 2020: The Washington Post

Walter Isaacson on Walker Percy’s Theory of Hurricanes

In yesterday’s issue:

Walker Percy had a theory about hurricanes. “Though science taught that good environments were better than bad environments, it appeared to him that the opposite was the case,” he wrote of Will Barrett, the semi-autobiographical title character of his second novel, “The Last Gentleman.” “Take hurricanes, for example, certainly a bad environment if ever there was one. It was his impression that not just he but other people felt better in hurricanes.”

Percy was a medical doctor who didn’t practice and a Catholic who did, which equipped him to embark on a search for how we mortals fit into the cosmos. Our reaction to hurricanes was a clue, he believed, which is why leading up to the 10th anniversary of Katrina, it’s worth taking note not only of his classic first novel, “The Moviegoer,” but also of his theory of hurricanes as developed in “The Last Gentleman,” “Lancelot” and some of his essays.

Percy lived on the Bogue Falaya, a lazy, ­bayou-like river across Lake Pontchartrain from my hometown, New Orleans. He was a kindly gentleman whose face knew despair but whose eyes often smiled. With his wry philosophical depth and lightly worn grace, he was acutely aware of his alienation from the everyday world, but he could be an engaged companion when sitting on his porch sipping bourbon or holding court with aspiring writers at a lakefront seafood joint named Bechac’s. “My ideal is Thomas More, an English Catholic . . . who wore his faith with grace, merriment and a certain wryness,” he once said. That describes Percy well.

Indeed it does. Thank you, Walter

But will it also be true of earthquakes, when the really big one comes?

The Last Crawdad, Man!

Since the Kollektiv isn’t traveling south this year, Korrektiv Kollektiv: Soldiers Grove Unit decided to bring Nawlins up to Cheeseland for an evening in honor of Third Oldest Daughter’s birthday… That’s her in the middle with her sisters posing as Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos…

Spin, measure, cut...spin, measure, cut.... spin, measure, cut. OK. Got it.

Spin, measure, cut…spin, measure, cut…. spin, measure, cut. OK. Got it.

Just a taste of what we’ll be missing this October – but, we hope, not next year…

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All mine…?

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Dad’s crawdads….

Let the games begin!

Let the games begin!

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Crawdads and uncles…

Still life with escrevisse and cousins

Still life with escrevisse and cousins and beer can.

Mudbugs in the milieu...

Mudbugs in the milieu…

Hand and claw...

Hand and claw…

Bernadette's Feast

Bernadette’s Feast

One fine evening in southwest Wisconsin...

One fine evening in southwest Wisconsin…

Don't forget the pie (One apple and one berry).

Don’t forget the pie (One apple and one berry).

The Last Gentleman Conference postponed.

Argh.

The Last Gentleman Revisited: A Study of the Family in the Fiction of Walker Percy and Evelyn Waugh

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“What distinguishes Judeo-Christianity in general from other world religions is its emphasis on the value of the individual person, its view of man as a creature in trouble, seeking to get out of it, and accordingly on the move. Add to this anthropology the special marks of the Catholic Church: the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, which, whatever else they do, confer the highest significance on ordinary things of this world…. And what do you have? You have a man in a predicament and on the move in the real world of real things, a world which is a sacrament and a mystery; a pilgrim whose life is a searching and a finding.” –  Walker Percy, “The Holiness of the Ordinary”

Given the turbulent history of Percy’s own family – his father, grandfather and possibly even his mother having all committed suicide – the role of the family in Percy’s fiction is of particular interest. After Percy’s conversion to Catholicism, as he indicates in his 1989 essay “The Holiness of the Ordinary,” the family like other aspects of the “ordinary things of this world” takes on, through the Catholic order of marriage, a special sacramental character.

In Walker Percy’s first novel The Moviegoer, alienated from his late father’s staid yet disintegrating Southern family (as represented by his Aunt Emily), Binx Bolling visits his mother’s family in the Bayou. During his visit, their genial easy-going backwater spirit, which is free of the usual pretensions that haunt the decaying Southern gentry, helps Bolling reestablish a context for his existence. It is especially in his interaction with his dying younger half-brother Lonnie that he begins to see how his “search” might possess certain religious implications:

“Like me,” Bolling explains, Lonnie “is a moviegoer. He will go see anything. But we are good friends because he knows I do not feel sorry for him. For one thing, he has the gift of believing that he can offer his sufferings in reparation for men’s indifference to the pierced heart of Jesus Christ. For another thing, I would not mind so much trading places with him. His life is a serene business.”

Even as the family plays an important role in Bolling’s plight, however, the role of the family in The Moviegoer is even more fully realized in Percy’s next novel.

To better understand the part the family plays in The Last Gentleman – both within the narrative itself and the broader context of Percy’s fictional output – the reader would do well to examine another well-drawn fictional family – the English recusant Flytes of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited. While there is no evidence that Percy consciously modeled the Vaughts on the Flytes, an investigation into the parallels between the two families – and of the solitary characters they invite into their respect folds – Charles Ryder and Will Barrett – can yield a fruitful discussion on the importance of family in Percy’s oeuvre, and especially in The Last Gentleman.

Not only do the Flytes anticipate the Vaughts in their eccentricities and struggles to navigate the modern age, but as the Flytes afford Charles Ryder a glimpse of the mysteries of life through their Catholicism, so too the Vaughts serve as Barrett’s escape from the everydayness of things which plague his character throughout The Last Gentleman.

Like all of Walker Percy’s novels, The Last Gentleman offers a study of the modern existential man adrift in the universe, reliant upon his own lights and, with a little luck, the discoveries he makes on his wandering path. But as any reader of Percy’s work knows, these elements do not make Will Barrett’s adventure necessarily unique among Percy’s protagonists. Given Percy’s penchant for seeing his characters’ existential struggle working itself out in the “holiness of the ordinary,” in this way, Mr. Barrett is very much in the same league as Bolling, Dr. Tom More, and Lancelot Lamar.

What distinguishes Will Barrett from among Percy’s other existential anti-heroes, however, is his role as an orphan. His own family is all but absent from the story. In lieu of his own family, then, Barrett strikes up a relationship with the Vaught family who adopt him as caretaker for the dying youngest son Jamie Vaught. Serving as Percy’s avatar of the New South with their consumerism and cantankerous demeanor, the Vaughts also retain vestiges of the Old South through their Catholic faith and their tight-knit, if not always functional, family dynamics. Invited into the Vaught’s world, Barrett is intrigued by the family’s members – each serving as a sort of living telescope into the deeper mysteries of life which Barrett only begins to understand at the novel’s opening.

Hearkening back to his first novel, The Moviegoer, Percy presents the Vaughts as a comic foil for the main character and as a portal into the mysteries which first fascinate him as he gazes through the telescope in Central Park – and which he senses Sutter Vaught must know something about at the end of the novel.

“Happy families are all alike,” Leo Tolstoy asserts in the beginning of Anna Karenina, “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Perhaps concurring with this estimation, Percy nonetheless shows that through the family, unhappy or otherwise, the individual comes to an understanding of something more abiding than the cold comfort of his existential exertions. By presenting a comparison of the families and individual characters in The Last Gentleman and Brideshead Revisited, I intend to show how Percy taps into the same important lodestone of family dynamics which facilitates Charles Ryder’s conversion and at the same time show how The Last Gentleman, while not haunted with the same nostalgia as Waugh’s masterpiece, ought to take its rightful place besides Brideshead Revisited as a contemporary novel attempting to address the malaise of modernity from the uniquely sacramental and therefore hopeful role of the family.

Many critics see The Last Gentleman as a “hinge” novel between Percy’s first efforts at fiction and his more mature work, but through this presentation, I will show that The Last Gentleman can also stand on its own as Percy’s most fully realized fictional treatment of the family as a refuge for the existential hero and a sign of hope for the modern world.

NB: Deadline Extended!

Casting the Akira Kurosawa The Last Gentleman, #8

Takashi_ShimuraTakashi Shimura as Forney Aiken

Casting the Akira Kurosawa The Last Gentleman, #7

Daisuke_KatoDaisuke Kato as Mr. Vaught

Casting the Akira Kurosawa The Last Gentleman, #6

Kyōko_KagawaKyoko Kagawa as Sister Val Vaught

Casting the Akira Kurosawa The Last Gentleman, #5

Yuzo_KayamaYuzo Kayama as Jamie Vaught

Casting the Akira Kurosawa The Last Gentleman, #4

Toshiro_MifuneToshiro Mifune as Dr. Sutter Vaught