The Last Ditch -- Sarah Knox Taylor -- RAPPACCINI'S DAUGHTER -- A EULOGY


Rappaccini's daughter:
A eulogy




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New Orleans: Queen of the Mississippi; the Big Easy; the City that Care Forgot. She has captured the imagination of writers, been the subject of countless songs, nourished the world with a major cuisine, hosted an annual party unrivaled in its combination of elegant tradition and tawdry decadence. And now, in three or four days' explosive devastation, she is gone. Whatever rises from the twenty or more feet of water covering (at this writing) more than 90 percent of the city of Dreamy Dreams, it will be, at best, a reproduction of the city we knew and loved.

Everyone returning from New Orleans has brought home layers of memories: the Rabelaisian crowds pushing their way through Bourbon Street at midnight, or the powdered sugar sweetness of coffee and beignets in the market at two in the morning, or the solitude of Jackson Square at dawn.

The late morning savor of hollandaise sauce and Bananas Foster during brunch at Brennan's competes with the tang of a muffuletta from the Central Grocery at noon and the crunchy deep-fried satisfaction of an oyster po' boy at Tipitina's while an accordion plays in the background.

The total controlled frenzy of a street musician playing a riff on the sunlit washboard strapped to his belly fades into the darkened commercial creepiness of recorded chants in a voodoo museum, which in turn are echoed in the mellow tones of a solitary clarinet drifting through a small courtyard where clusters of jazz aficionados sit in candle-flickered darkness.

There are the quiet times of nearly soundless and solitary activities: the splash of water as shopkeepers wash down the sidewalks in front of their Canal Street businesses in the hour after sunrise, or the muffled footfalls passing candlelit altars in the church of Our Lady of Guadalupe, crouched against the walls of St. Louis Cemetery Number 1, or the photographer trying to capture the image of a cat sprawled in a sunlit courtyard, framed by a wrought-iron fence.

There is the clink of crystal and silver surrounding the diners at the Court of the Two Sisters; the high-pitched laughter floating from a bawdy club in the Quarter; the deep echoing whistle as a barge on the Mississippi signals a passing tugboat while tourists wave cheerily from the Moonwalk.

The stately white mansions of the Garden District with their ancient trees and broad verandas dwarf the narrow shotgun houses in the Irish Channel; Creole cottages line the sunny streets near the Ursuline Convent; and the intricate knotwork of French Quarter balconies casts its shadows over cobbled streets.

She has inspired writers by the score: Truman Capote, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Walker Percy, Anne Rice, and many others, whose tales of mystery, the supernatural, the corrupt, and the absurd course through our mind and heart as if through the curves of her defining river.

All of these are now pictures in albums, recipes on kitchen shelves, volumes in our libraries, clippings in our mental scrapbooks. The waters of Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi and Bayou St. John have rolled into the city, and the Good Times have rolled away.

Perhaps it's better that way: For under the shimmering façade and the beauty of her architecture and the gaiety of her nights lay a voluptuous, slightly overripe corrosion, a tawdry reminder that much of her charm was established on a reputation for excess bordering on the unwholesome. The rigid social structure of debutante balls with their white dresses and careful rituals intended to introduce convent-bred young ladies to proper gentlemen was shadowed by the quadroon balls of the past, intended to introduce those same proper gentlemen to appropriate mistresses. The guttering candles in cathedral and chapel saw their counterparts on altars dedicated to the voodoo pantheon, and sometimes the line between those two venues blurred. The graceful iron latticework of the French Quarter balconies overlooked the sporting houses of Storyville. The elegant white tablecloths and crystal champagne glasses of Antoine's previewed the roaming Bacchanal of Mardi Gras, while the structured formality of the cotillion burst free into the wild gyrations at midnight in Congo Square. The queen of the Mississippi harbored a corruption underneath her glamour, a penchant for vice that shone in her eyes whenever she dropped her feathered mask.

And so it has been in the days since Katrina, the fierce storm with the prim Dutch burgher name, swept through the city and ripped apart her levees, drowning houses under two stories of water and inflicting still-unassessed damage upon stately homes, moon-bleached cemeteries, historical sites, sheltered courtyards. Under the laissez-faire and permissive surface roiled a primitive animalistic frenzy.

The inhabitants who decided to ride out the storm, trapped when the waters rose, turned feral, shooting at rescue helicopters, not just pilfering necessary food and water but looting electronic goods and antique furniture that could not be used in, nor transported from, a city under water from which escape was blocked and to which, once the government-mandated evacuation is completed, they may not return for what could be months. The Superdome, designated as an emergency shelter for thousands fleeing their homes with only those possessions they could carry, became the venue for beatings and assaults as temperatures rose and tempers grew thin. Hospitals caring for critically ill patients who could not be moved were ransacked for anything portable, leaving caregivers and patients stripped of necessities. Now there are reports of massive leaks in oil-storage tanks, and of cannibalism in a city stripped of civilization.

It is still far too early to determine the true measure of destruction, or to ascertain whether the city can be rehabilitated, reconstructed, renovated, or restored. But something unquantifiable has been lost forever. Whether the Old Absinthe House has been swept away completely, whether Preservation Hall will ever again fill the air with authentic New Orleans jazz, whether Café Du Monde will ever see another sunrise — whether "authentic replicas" will be set in their places, like theme park attractions, or whether enough remains to salvage — we may not know for months. What we do know is that the chilling televised images of a city turned into a howling circle of Hell will be added to our mental scrapbooks, and the harlequin-turned-beast will never be driven back into the sleepy bayous.

Care has remembered; Ash Wednesday has come to the Crescent City; and it will be a long and terrible Lent.

September 6, 2005

© 2005 WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.

"Rappaccini's Daughter,"
by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

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