I of the Storm

Sandy’s fetid floodwaters were still teeming with the missing and dead when reports began trickling in from the more cultural neighborhoods of Manhattan and Brooklyn. The Paris Review Daily filed an eyewitness account from one Brian Cullman, who was roughing it downtown with Jody, proprietor of the chic Greenwich Village restaurant Buvette. Thousands were bereft of potable water, “meanwhile Jody kept pouring Medoc and Cahors, Burgundy and Beaujolais.”

Calvin Trillin, we learned, was riding by on a bicycle, headed to the New Yorker’s midtown offices. Cullman became a bohemian Brillat-Savarin, a sophisticate at his boîte, and we received a lesson on wine: “The Gigondas was described by one of the staff as tasting like plums and bedroom slippers, while the Chambertin was reckoned to be more like an early David Foster Wallace story, very complex, a lot going on, but no resolution.” Perhaps recognizing the tastelessness of the piece as the publication’s standalone comment on the storm’s devastation, Paris Review Daily editor Sadie Stein published a post a few hours later with an embedded Youtube video of footage from the Rockaways, a “reminder of the devastation visited.”

This type of writing crept onto the pages of New York’s literary journals, ranging from gallingly oblivious to merely obnoxious, melodramas normally purveyed by local newsmen steeped in a postured and insufficient self-awareness.

n+1 ran a strange double-dispatch from two women named Anya (!), who wrote in from their unmolested Brooklyn neighborhoods on the day Sandy struck: “That night, at a hipster bar, I drank artisanal beer and played pinball with a couple dressed as a slab of bacon and a banana.” Joining the fray with a post from within The New Inquiry’s cryptic constellation of blogs, Autumn Whitefield-Madrano wrote, “As one of the many who defiantly drank their way through the storm, my conviction that red wine makes for a fantastic lip stain is only strengthened.”

Even the punch-drunk leftists of the London Review of Books weighed in with a report from the gallery district titled “In Chelsea.” In this post, readers were apprised of the damage thusly: “Every celebrity architect you can name has retrofitted one of these spaces, but they weren’t made to withstand this kind of onslaught.” The reader is edified and reminded that in these superficial and mediocre times, there is an outlet thoughtful enough to consider the celebrity architects.

* * * * *

Thirty years ago the theorist Maurice Blanchot asked, in The Writing of the Disaster, at which point stories of suffering become themselves “an affront to affliction.” The above writing, which emerged in the immediate aftermath of the storm, was, indisputably, such an affront. The truth is that well before Sandy set its seething maw upon the Eastern seaboard the Twitterary masses were already foaming with worry. Jerking 140-character avatars and otherwise Tumbling and testifying the Instant like digital Pentecosts possessed of some luciferian foreboding. Social media is as appropriate a venue as any for broadcasting personal melodramas, meteorological or otherwise. But these early ululations would only set the stage for the eventual blogged contributions of New York’s cultural establishment.

The argument here extends beyond the catch-all culprit of self-absorption: the proliferation of highbrow first-person blogging, combined with the mechanics of reader fidelity, render such insensitive writing an almost existential requirement for the new literary establishment. Nascent journals like n+1 and The New Inquiry have had to engage in a vertically integrated lifestyle commerce to carve out a cultural niche, pairing editorial content with ancillary pursuits like selling $100 ashtrays and tickets to brewery launch parties. Even the Paris Review and the London Review of Books, enabled by their blogs, maintain a certain tone and perspective that resonates with the reader’s quotidian experience. The precarious fiscal viability of literary enterprise leans on a successfully cultivated identity, a web of referents with which a publication’s (mostly urban) acolytes can identify. To signify that they too have had those thoughts, those experiences, in those places. So when they come to launch parties, readings, they know they can dig the vibe, buy the tote bags.

Signifying this shared experience requires a steady flow of banal personal-narrative type writing. It is a sort of writing which can become self-defeating, tone-deaf in its project of bridging the solitude of personal experience by giving in to it. Every day is pregnant with narrative, every personal crisis a text to be written. In most circumstances, this is an inoffensive process. But in cases of widespread suffering, such a stance easily turns repugnant. The difference between maintaining a pleasant blog and being callously indifferent to human suffering is knowing when to shut up.

* * * * *

None of this is to say that we should categorically condemn stories that convey experiences merely proximate to suffering. Last month, the Oxford American ran a personal essay from Ted Bartlett on coping with the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac, in which he chronicled his family’s post-crisis gastronomy. The piece commented disapprovingly on a popular Tumblr, Assholes of Isaac, that had emerged during the storm, shaming indelicate social media behavior beneath a masthead credo: “Because when people are being rescued from rooftops, the most pressing issue is where you can find ceviche.”

It’s fair to say that the indiscretions of “foodies” are worth consideration: there is a long linguistic heritage of framing callous self-absorption as gastro-intestinal, redolent of addiction, scatological. The ethicist Emmanuel Lévinas spoke of “the stomach without ears,” the unfeeling subject who consumes without regard for the other, who approaches the starving “as an alien species.” Aldous Huxley decried the meaningless anxiety-induced “emotional enemas” fueled by the feverishness of modern media, a label that might as well apply to the slurry that issued from the Assholes of Isaac.

But Bartlett’s writing arrived a full two months after the hurricane devastated New Orleans, and it stylistically bears little resemblance to the myopia of the Sandy scribomaniacs. Similarly, an exceptional Sandy micro-memoir by Michael Joseph Gross was published by The Millions on November 19th. The piece, “Electricity Junkies: On Life in the Blackout Zone,” was an exemplary work of personal reportage mediated by sober reflection, a lament against the cognitive overload of an urban experience saturated with light and noise.

Consider, further, that Gross’s contribution to the Sandy canon never made explicit any sensitivity to the human cost of the hurricane. Yet there stood no trace of the blogorrheaic self-involvement dissected above, no rumblings of the stomach without ears. It was a vast improvement upon what was offered elsewhere, and one that encapsulated sympathetically the humanity of the author’s personal drama. It is not that we don’t feel bad for Buvette, the popular bistro that no doubt suffered financially from Hurricane Sandy. It is the tack of the approach. Respect for the suffering of others necessitates a conscientious response. And thus Gross placed the reader in his eye-sockets as he lived the moment of electrical rebirth, when that great amplifying machine sputtered back to life: “With horn-blaring cars racing by, I built a tunnel around myself to get me home, and I wondered if this bright light on everything around me really always was so harsh.”


Mostafa Heddaya