Memory and Forgetting: Ninth Ward

Sat. April 28, 2007
Categories: Papers

 

In the portrait stories we read about volunteers from around the country that moved into action during the tail end of the storm. Many of these people went beyond the “diffused good will”  shown by moral communities (Margalit, 2002, p. 33). Their unselfishness paralleled devotion. This devotion enabled them to meet the particular needs of hurricane victims in New Orleans. A level of care typically shown to relatives, friends, and neighbors was now being shown to strangers.

One may ask the question that, while it was very moral behavior on the part of individuals, is our government expected to “care” for citizens in similar fashion? If our government responds more effectively to disasters in the future, would we call that “care” or even distinguish it as a moral act? Some people believe that governments do have the responsibility to be moral, and to show a degree of ethical care for its citizenry. The concern I have when speaking of memory and moral relations in the same breath is that moral superiority may settle in and then spirit trumps soul. Dante might agree.  Based upon recent experiences in New Orleans, which circle of Hell would Dante place our politicians?

Throughout Dante’s ascent from Inferno up through Purgatorio he has the task of remembering to the world those souls whose path he comes across. Similarly, the Post-Katrina Portraits are a way of remembering the good deeds of volunteers who served selflessly in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. One thing Dante did was to look around and “notice” his environment, the society in which he lived in. The Latin notitia means acquaintance or awareness. Notitia is a part of the act of divine memory where we allow awareness to expand to include truth, goodness, beauty, and more. In terms of soul memory, notitia is a noticing of our senses in present surroundings. I believe many volunteers drew closer to the light of the divine in their selfless service.  Selfless service is, in some way, a divine remembering. One example of this from the portrait stories is from a  ‘peace patrol’ volunteer who  said that helping somebody else helps you to forget about yourself. This is like being bathed in the River Lethe after the inferno of Katrina.

Remembering and forgetting: our lives flow between the Rivers Lethe and Eunoe.

In the process of letting go and healing the soul, survivors gather their memories from before the storm to keep the warmth and the feeling of New Orleans alive; in the meantime, volunteers cared in the most ethical way, the effect of which prepares them for the light of the beatitude. We remember these volunteers in the portrait stories.

Remembering can be cultivated as a conscious act of memory, not something random that occurs throughout the day.

Remembering is akin to meditation, and it is the awakening of heart as a path into soul memories. At least it deepens the sensory experience of life which could be called soul.

Yet we should not forget the moral superiority of government officials who failed to respond appropriately to the natural disaster, thereby adding to the human disaster. Because of political decisions by local government officials, and because our highest federal officials deny leadership in the wake of Katrina, a majority of disaster victims from New Orleans are still displaced. It is a political exile of sorts, although not the political exile experienced by the poet Dante during the socio-political struggles taking place in Florence, during which time he wrote the Divine Comedy as a mnemonic poem to remember the people and events that had taken place there (as well as to memorialize his love of Beatrice). But those displaced from the Ninth Ward also feel the longing and sorrow of exile. Some were fortunate to return, although many have not.

Our morality ought to be embedded in care otherwise this tendency towards moral superiority leads to multiple discriminations. My concern is that moral superiority might be at the core of our government’s weak response. The Ninth Ward is an economically poor area, and so elite members of society are led to neglect it due to their belief in the moral inferiority of those in poverty. Why aren’t our elected officials capable of a transcendent vision of freedom and at the same time able to show solidarity with the poor?

Instead, Hurricane Katrina drove more than a million people from their homes, probably the largest migration of Americans since the 1930s Dust Bowl. Although still difficult to trace one year after the storm, the following numbers of households receiving FEMA assistance in the summer of 2006  in five cities were reported by National Public Radio (NPR): Atlanta 70,000; Baton Rouge 15,000 – 100,000; Birmingham 1,500 – 13,000; Houston 111,000; San Antonio 15,000 – 18,000 (Godoy, 2006). Comments posted at NPRs Talk of the Nation (2006) website reflect alethia, or the inability to forget, as one woman now living elsewhere wrote:

I stay in regular contact, and it appears that unless one inhabits “denial isle,” little has improved since then. I have a good job here, and relatives, BUT will miss New Orleans every day of my life. How could indifference and neglect destroy the most unique and culturally valuable city this country has known? Life is not better elsewhere. We who have left cope, but like the death of a loved one it leaves a void that can’t be filled. (Wendy Scott, September 28, 2006)

In Purgatorio, the path of the River Lethe flows to help souls such as these in their suffering. Our normal lethean task is consciously remove all memory of ‘sin’, those actions that are felt to be highly reprehensible.

Out of the same source from which the Lethe flows there springs in the Divine Comedy another river, the Eunoe, which means “good mind” or “good memory” (Lethe, p. 28).

In this way we effectively dissolve post-Katrina memories of physical, mental and emotional suffering. This is a form of positive dis-membering which can be called “conscious forgetting” or “letting go” of experience. While suffering in the Inferno, those who drank from the River Lethe immediately forgot everything that had happened to them, but the danger here is of oblivion. This is why we need to pair our forgetting with our remembering, and drink from the River Eunoe as well. While there is huge value in forgetting in order to find peace, we ought to continue to care that dignity was denied to the poorest of our citizens.

Since many of us cannot forget Katrina and do suffer from alethia, one consolation is that our continued witnessing serves as moral condemnation for injustice. We remember not only those who died but those who are still struggling to rebuild, recover, and rehabilitate. Divine justice, as we saw in the Divine Comedy, comes in the afterlife and is meted out individually, but this does not dissolve the need for human justice here and now. What chance will justice have on earth if, as moral witnesses, we neglect to remember those citizens still displaced by the debacle? While we have the ability to forget, we also have the responsibility to remember, and through our memory condemn acts of injustice that still occur today as Ninth Ward survivors struggle for affordable housing.

This is because the survivors of New Orleans are not the only people who are to be entrusted with the memory of Katrina. Margalit (2002) would call New Orleanians a natural community of memory (p. 70) since they shared the experience of a hurricane together (and they are the ones who remember Hurricane Betsy in 1965). But Margalit also says it is possible that “we may care for people and for communities we have not encountered nor are likely to encounter in our lifetime” when he writes of a larger ethical community (p. 70). This would include people in solidarity with the survivors of the hurricane. Someone like myself, living in Los Angeles, may care deeply for a community that she never lived in. Reading the Post-Katrina Portraits is a way to share in the memories of Ninth Ward survivors and volunteers in order to keep the stories alive simply because there are things that ought to be remembered. At the very least, all of us can remember the disaster in New Orleans as part of a moral community.

Even though we are under no obligation to care, we remember because we choose to live in a sane and peaceful society.  Margalit (2002) says there is a difference between what we ought to remember and what we would like to remember, that is, “being moral is a required good; being ethical is, in principle, an optional good” (p.105). In Margalit’s view, moral relations differ from ethical relations, and he says “there is no moral obligation to be engaged in ethical relations” (p. 105).

Morality, in my usage, ought to guide our behavior toward those to whom we are related just by virtue of their being fellow human beings, and by virtue of no other attribute. These are our thin relations. Ethics, in contrast, guides our thick relations. (Margalit, 2002, p.37)

Those in solidarity with New Orleanians have a thin relation with them, while New Orleanians themselves have “thick relations . . . anchored in a shared past or moored in shared memory (Margalit, 2002, p. 7). Hurricane survivors in the Ninth Ward are thickly related and share their past memories of previous hurricanes as well as the memory of Katrina. But there is nothing to prevent the rest of us from caring as well, even though we are thinly related to them as fellow human beings. Although with the passage of time it is easy to forget, it would be morally good and psychologically healthy for us to remember even though we have not experienced the painful events firsthand: we can share sympathy for survivors’ suffering.

Although Dante’s answers may not be our answers, significant issues raised in the Purgatorio continue to be important in the world today. These include: responsibilities and rights of individuals, leaders, and society; effects of misrule; church-state relations; criminal justice (punishment and rehabilitation); artistic expression and censorship. The focus of this essay is on the ‘remembering’ we may cultivate in regards to the worst civil engineering disaster in U.S. history while at the same time understanding the need for “forgetting’ parts of the experience in order to heal.

The disaster in New Orleans is now a part of our historic myth. What actually happened is made clearer by the first hand stories of survivors even more so than what the media showed on the news.  Darwin’s often misunderstood “survival of the fittest” is conjured as we move through the months and years since Katrina. Think about the fact that New Orleans was once a large slave market  (Roberts, 1994, p.36) that evolved into the place where “free blacks” developed a group consciousness for the first time:

 

Before free blacks could begin to develop a group consciousness, there had to be enough of them to make up a group, and it was during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that libres in New Orleans and other circum-Caribbean cities came to constitute a substantial segment of their populations. Evidence from Louisiana supports Arnold A. Sio’s argument that “the development of group consciousness among the freedmen occurred in conjunction with an increase in population size and density and with the growth of social organization. (Hanger, 1997, p. 17)

 

Hangar (1997) states “the cultural behavior and social activities of New Orleans libres . . . increasingly helped create a distinct free black consciousness and culture” (p. 137). New Orleans has since evolved into a unique city, rich in history and culture, in addition to being an important shipping port in the United States. The memory I am asking us to embody is not sentimental, although many of us have great tenderness for the city of New Orleans. No, the reason for remembering is to re-member the displaced parts of psyche, individually and collectively. To remember is to call back the soul of the city; it is to recognize New Orleans as a sacred city or “the meeting point of heaven, earth, and hell” (Eliade, 1954, p. 15). Yes, New Orleans represents this aspect of a sacred city.  Now the question becomes “How are we going to shape our lives as a result of the stories, individually and collectively?”  Or are we going to forget, as some people would like to?

 

When you help somebody else, you really do forget about yourself. I spoke to, hugged and cried with the other volunteers. Peace Patrol (Security) was my 1st job. I love E.C. (Emergency Communities) because it is best at filling the gap. Someone steps up to the place without the bureaucracy. We can get it done, not put it on a helpline ….spoken by a volunteer.

 

References

Alighieri, D. (1307-1308). Purgatorio. In A. Mandelbaum (Trans. 2004) The divine comedy of Dante Alighieri. NY: Bantam Dell, Random House.

Bor, J. (2007). Victory for public housing residents and activists: house passes HR1227
Retrieved from http://neworleans.indymedia.org/news/2007/03/10031.php.

Eliade, M. (1954). The myth of the eternal return. Trask, W. (Transl.) Bollingen Series XLVI, NY: Pantheon Books.

Hanger, K. (1997). Bounded lives, bounded places: free black society in colonial New Orleans,

Durham & London: Duke University Press.

Dante’s Hell (2007). Retrieved 04/09/07 from http://danteworlds.laits.utexas.edu/index2.html.

Godoy, M. (2006). Tracking the katrina diaspora: a tricky task. Retrieved 04/09/07 from http://www.npr.org/news/specials/katrina/oneyearlater/diaspora/index.html.

Quigley, B. (2007). Eighteen months after Katrina. Retrieved 4/10/07 from
http://www.www.justiceforneworleans.org/

Talk of the Nation. (2006). Katrina diaspora: where are they now? Retrieved 04/09/07 from

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5724765&ft=1&f=5

 

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