The great dialectical philosopher Theodor Adorno stated that “no theory, not even the correct one, is safe from the perversion that changes it into a delusion as soon as it has lost its spontaneous relationship with its object.” We must pay particular heed to this warning when attempting to write about New Orleans. The positive words and images that are inevitably invoked to transmit something of its singular essence – resiliency, community, vibrancy, diversity – no longer suffice to describe the object in question, if they ever did.
I would therefore like to offer a negative homage to New Orleans. When I moved there from Austin, Texas in 2001, I was an unhappy young man. I left a city full of smiling idealists and found myself in a city full of killers, drug dealers, failures, alcoholics, corrupt cops, strippers, and losers of all varieties. There were other kinds of people there too, but they were as invisible to me as I was to them. Finally I could breathe again. Bukowski remarked that “there ought to be a place for people without ambition, I mean a better place than the one usually reserved.” Pre-Katrina New Orleans was that place.
There was only one reason to move to New Orleans in 2001: because you wanted to die. Here is where poetry is located: the delicate zone where the desire to live and the desire to die are indistinguishable. Here is where the oppressive, univocal logic of capitalism and happiness cedes to a paradoxical, reversible logic of desire. It is in this fragile zone that the death drive can be put to good use. The death drive, introduced by Freud in the early 1920’s, has always been a scandalous concept, even among psychoanalysts. Clinically, it presents a paradox. It is only by formulating and living out our fantasies of death and destruction that we can begin to detach from them. Someone in the throes of masochistic despair – someone like me in 2001 – cannot use a happy place like Austin to extract himself from his depressive miasma. A deep-sea diver who resurfaces too quickly will catch the bends and die. After being underwater for so long, the atmosphere has become literally lethal to him. He has to come up halfway and pause for a few minutes between the depths and the surface before he can rejoin the living. This intermediary space is, I submit, the space of life as such. The psychoanalyst Donald Woods Winnicott theorized that all analytic work was done in such an intermediary space, one halfway between reality and the dream world of the unconscious. The genius of New Orleans was that it functioned as such an intermediary space. It was so poor, so backwards, so hopeless, so full of staggering idiocy and violence that it cured me of the most extreme manifestations of my own death drive. By trying to kill me, it prevented me from trying to kill myself. In the space of a few months I was mugged and beaten in broad daylight; my house burned down; another house was burglarized; my car was stolen two weeks after I bought it; my bike was stolen; my girl left me for another man; I was twice racketed by corrupt city officials; and probably more. Like a good psychoanalyst, New Orleans heard loud and clear the message I was broadcasting to everyone – kill me – and did its best to give me what I wanted. Nothing less would have saved me.
Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man is a strange book written by a strange author. It is the story of a mysterious con man on a Mississippi River steamboat who, by ripping off gamblers, liberates them. One must traverse one’s symptom before one can leave it behind. The art of the psychoanalyst lies precisely in his ruthlessness: rather than empathizing with the analysand’s symptom, he holds a silent mirror up to it. By thus transforming acts into images and images into words, the analyst drains the symptom of its morbid appeal.
In other words, New Orleans was my first psychoanalyst. It was even more ruthless than my unconscious. My three years there allowed me to metabolize something of my own death drive that would have remained frozen inside me anywhere else. Without New Orleans, I would have died, if not in reality, then spiritually and psychically.
The genius of pre-Katrina New Orleans was that it was a transitional space open to anybody. Its world-class death drive made it a radically democratic city. It would take anyone, even the hardest cases. It was like a cheap, open-air psychiatric hospital where you could stay for as long or as short a time as you desired. Since then, I have had the pleasure of working in a real psychiatric hospital. The psychotic patients I accompanied used the hospital to formulate and therefore leave behind something of their own death drive. It was a place of experimentation and desire conducted under the shadow of disintegration. I am reminded of Carol Reed’s classic, The Third Man. How is it possible that a depressing story about murder and corruption set in a ruined, occupied city can leave us feeling so alive? I believe the answer lies in the radical, undecidable openness of (Reed’s portrayal of) postwar Vienna. It is a space of desire, a transitional space in which the oppressive logic of happiness has been temporarily suspended.
I fear that New Orleans is becoming a happy place, and therefore no longer a true place. We as a race are not destined for happiness. It is an illusion, one that has been weaponized to extract money from us. The best we can hope for – and it is better than happiness – is knowledge, movement, desire, what Nietzsche calls the Gay Science and which Hegel scholar Katrin Pahl refers to as the way of lighthearted despair. The New Orleans I lived in was never a first-rate city in any positive sense, but it was a first-rate asylum staffed by some excellent psychoanalysts and nurses. At some point in the well-lived life, we all need to find ourselves in such a place.