Ed Driscoll

Cities Living On Borrowed Time

Micheal Ledeen compares New Orleans with Venice and Naples:

New Orleans is one of a handful of cities that are defined in large part by the recognition that it can all come to an end most any day. Joel Lockhart Dyer wrote that “New Orleans is North America’s Venice; both cities are living on borrowed time.” New Orleans and Venice are both subject to the vagaries of the water gods, and both have acted sporadically to fend off their seemingly inevitable fate. But their basic response to the looming disaster has been defiance, a ritual assertion of life in the face of the inevitable, and an embrace of human frailty that echoes the frailty of the city itself.

Carnival in Venice, albeit more so in the past than today, has much in common with Mardi Gras, including the use of masks by the celebrants, who thereby throw off their daily identities to participate anonymously in the licentious celebrations. Thomas Mann knew what he was doing when he wrote Death in Venice, in which a proper German professor (pointedly named Aschenbach, the stream of ashes) hurls himself into bawdy Venice to recover his repressed sexuality and creativity. Similar characters abound in the works of Tennessee Williams, who lived many years in New Orleans, the setting for both A Streetcar Named Desire and The Rose Tattoo. William Faulkner also found New Orleans a congenial place for his creative labors. And in both cities, the bacchanals are religious, celebrating both sin and the hope of redemption thereafter, as if a sinner were more attractive to the Almighty than a virtuous soul, at least on that day.

Moreover, Venice prefigured the most likely cultural and political destiny of New Orleans, no matter whether the long-anticipated catastrophe came or not: a slow slide into monotonous ritual, a city transformed into an historic theme park, more frequented by tourists than defined by the energy of its inhabitants, an anachronistic curiosity like Florence, where one focuses on things past, not present or future.

But there is much that separates them. Venice is a northern city, and New Orleans is profoundly southern. A German like Mann might find Venice to be incredibly warm and sunny, but no knowledgeable Italian would. And the presumed naturalness and spontaneity of Venetians could only be taken seriously by someone from even farther north. New Orleans, on the other hand, incarnates the south. New Orleanians are perversely proud of the slow tempo of their daily life, of the absence of industry, and of the fascinating spectacle of human foibles and failures that seems at one with the city. The Italian city that most closely matches New Orleans is Naples, not Venice. Naples also faces destruction