Hyperbolic city

“But the ghosts were all there, walking on the waves of harmony.”

(Cable, 1889-2015)

I’m sitting in the garden of Jackson Square, New Orleans while writing these words to avoid the dissolution of my impressions into the ocean that separates us. The city is buzzing with music, voices, smells, and colors on this first weekend of Krewe of Boo, the Creole Halloween. From the Mississippi river comes an uncertain wind that curls the hair and waves the US flag.

I have with me Strange true stories of Louisiana. Not the first edition, which called for me at Arcadian Books and Prints, but a more accessible version from 2015. I walked into the bookstore almost like someone taking a tranquilizer. It was necessary to peel back the various temporal layers of which New Orleans is composed. I was looking for past words that would clarify the present. Just like Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities (2016). The short story is a technical medium capable of providing the representation of the imaginary of a community-nation. I discovered in Madame Lalaurie, from the short story The haunted house, a metaphor for the city (Cable, 1889-2015), or better, for the historical blocks I have tried to decipher. Because it is elegant, but also fatal. Coincidentally or not, the haunted house in the novel which I have just mentioned is located on Calle Real/Royal St, the street I walked through the most often, in and out of the unpredictable art galleries that inhabit it.

Maybe it’s not a bad thing to start at the beginning. I was told that New Orleans (which is called Nola) is like a country apart. I had been told the same thing when I was in Baía. Salvador is not Brazil, nor is New Orleans exactly the USA. I avoid clichés, but the similarities are there to be seen: geographies of slavery, permanently looked upon as “folklore”. And, in fact, I registered the same mute and proud ancestry in these black skins, which continue to do menial jobs in the 21st century. Caetano Veloso sings: “And others who are almost white are treated as black / Just to show the others who are almost black / That they are almost all black (2012).

Appudarai (Medeiros & Cavalcanti, 2010) enunciates the struggle for housing, but also the flows that sediment inequality, as characterizing modernity. In this city, a dispute over space is experienced at every corner. Not only from the private interior (the sophisticated bars and hotels that manufacture only apparent acculturation) but in the public space itself. Only on the surface can we mistake the street manifestations (live music at every step) for democracy. Even here there is a vertical hierarchy. Between those who just use a drumstick and inverted plastic buckets to make percussion, and those who parade instruments, a basic structure. Everyone wants to make money. They accept cash, Paypal, forward donations to QR Codes. Tourists, in their droves, take pictures and videos. It is inevitable.

This is the precise point I wanted to get at, and I’m not sure I expressed myself well. The “white folks” incorporate this outpouring as their own, at least for the half dozen days they wander here. The blended culture that washed up in New Orleans is currently a commodity. At some point, however, I am not sure who is exploited and who exploits. Because the mutual cultural exchange is illusory. Being that the owners of the city (the ones inscribed in these antagonistic smells of downtown and in the sometimes-decadent monumentality of colonial architecture) are the kids who circulate in the streets. The black kids, I mean. Who, by the way, are at the lowest level of this performative chain, drumsticks in their hands, furiously beating on plastic buckets, watched over by their parents or older relatives. We can opt for a romantic vision – Capitães da Areia (Amado, 1937-2001) is an unavoidable memory -, or establish a referential with the rights of children, which we think are more than conquered, in our civilized world.

In any case: this is to say that New Orleans is a permanent metamorphosis, repeating cycles and transmuting itself with each passage. From mid-afternoon on, the excitement is guaranteed in the French Quarter. The noise is exponentially late at night and stops, considerably, around 4 in the morning. Early in the morning, the spoils of the night are literally washed away. I used this clean light to breathe in the streets. At this hour, as in a village, those passing by say hello, wishing me a good day. It was with relief that I head outside the limits of Bourbon St. On a normal weekday, in the Tremé neighborhood, everyday life softens the excess of the French Quarter. There are kids bumping into each other and giggling, on their way to school. Many meet at the Treme Coffee House for breakfast. There is a piano in a corner of this ordinary coffee house.

Now I am interrupted by the whistle of a ship and recall the Mississippi as another balsam on the landscape. As if its waters give us back familiar certainties. The smell of the river, the boats that navigate it. Reminiscences of Guimarães Rosa: “I love the great rivers, for they are as deep as the soul of man. On the surface, they are very lively and clear, but in the depths, they are quiet and dark like the sufferings of men. I love one thing more about our great rivers: their eternity” (1965). I remind the river in my city, which is not so wide, but also flows with the same indifference. A guarantee that life remains beyond us. I visited the Mississippi in the morning, and revisited it in the afternoon. I experienced the light, in the different phases of the day. Between the river and the city, the train line. And on it, a gigantic freight train passes, noisy and slow. It takes over the entire landscape for many minutes.

Taking up the orchestration of New Orleans. I think of these musical reproductions as a hyper-reality of what the city was. You know. Jazz, Soul, Louis Armstrong, Tennessee Williams, Faulkner, and so on. Is something new coming up? That is, what is being done here is a remake of what happened or a permanent renewal of popular (and erudite, for that matter) culture. The time I have left in the city will not allow me to draw any conclusions.

Yes, the beggars. There is one here beside me in the garden. They are many and mostly black. Do they roam freely? Or with madness? I don’t know. There is something poetic about these beggars, as if they don’t surrender. But perhaps it is the romantic vision that persists in appearing.

I was going to mention Mardi Gras and the parades. The columns of music bands and performers, announced by a police car, seem to come out of nowhere and fade away in seconds. Pastiche? Twice I was thrown beads as a provocation. At me and at dozens of other people. In one of them, they purposely threw beads onto the balcony where I was standing, with a nod of seduction.

There’s a voodoo time I didn’t go to. And the cemeteries. Also death as revelry. What nerve! I entered the Church of Guadalupe and I was drawn to the motherly lull of a child. I lingered at this sign of life, thinking of the child I wanted to hold, at this very moment. I looked away and noticed the coffin, an almost pornographic image. I haven’t seen a church waking in a long time (these days, they are discreetly arranged in the mortuary chapels). Out of respect, I left.

Text, images and videos: Teresa Lima

New Orleans, USA, October 22, 2022

Published on 04-11-2022


Amado, J. (1937-2001). Capitães da areia (Vol. 22). Dom Quixote.

Anderson, B. R. O. G. a. (2016). Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism / Benedict Anderson (Revised edition ed.). Verso.

Cable, G. W. (1888-2015). Strange true stories of Louisiana. River Road Press.

Lorenz, G. (1965). João Guimarães Rosa – Entrevistado por Günter Lorenz ‘Diálogo com Guimarães Rosa’. Retrieved 24-10-2022 from http://www.elfikurten.com.br/2011/01/dialogo-com-guimaraes-rosa-entrevista.html

Medeiros, B. F., & Cavalcanti, M. (2010). Entrevista com Arjun Appadurai. Revista Estudos Históricos, 23, 1-12. https://bibliotecadigital.fgv.br/ojs/index.php/reh/article/view/2915

Veloso, C. (2012). Caetano Veloso – HaitiYoutube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MfAxBoxdlb0



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