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King all dressed in red

February 17, 2015

After re-watching The Wire last year, I recently begun watching David Simon’s next serial effort, Treme, (yes, I’m several years late).

I’ll admit, I expected it to be something like The Wire: New Orleans. But it’s–well, perhaps not more than that, or less, but certainly other. I’d recommend Treme (or at least the first season, which is all I’ve seen) to anyone fascinated by The Wire‘s bleak portrait of the modern city… but, perhaps even more so, to anyone interested in New Orleans jazz, or in the meaning of artistic performance and improvisation more generally.

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Is it surprising for the creator of the supposedly hyper-realistic The Wire to make a show about such recondite subject matter? Nevertheless, Treme does seem to me a true sequel to The Wire, and watching it has brought out for me just how inadequate the term “realistic” is as a description of what The Wire accomplishes.

We could put it this way. The Wire offers a comprehensive vision of what it is to live in Baltimore, that is, to be a human being in the modern city: cops and drug dealers (season 1), and longshoremen (2), and politicians (3), and public schools (4), and newspapers (5), are all enslaved to Moloch, god of misaligned incentives. Either they act as the systems of the world bid them act, and live successful, meaningless lives; or they try to buck the system and do meaningful work, and are destroyed. Treme takes that vision for granted, and asks a further question. For those living in a heavily musical neighborhood in post-Katrina New Orleans, a neighborhood full of professional jazz players and street performers and high-end chefs: what does all this artistic activity signify, in the face of the utter devastation New Orleans suffered when the levees broke? That is: what has “pure” art, art without any practical object, to do with the world of Moloch? Is the escape it offers true or false?

Given all the heady interpretations attached to improvisational jazz by those who would see in it the proper artistic response to late-modern atomization and loss of traditional meaning, it makes perfect sense that Simon would take New Orleans as the setting for a show answering such a question. “New Orleans,” in the world of this show, is the name given to the belief that art can save. Not just a name, of course–an atmosphere. Several minutes of every episode are devoted to watching the characters play music. These aren’t just music videos; the point seems to be for us to recognize the presence (or absence) of what Auden (in “Sext”) calls “that eye-on-the-object look,” the look of total absorption in an action, the look that shows the artists are “forgetting themselves in a function.”

The irony, of course, is that, as one watches, one inevitably wonders: are the actors really playing the music here, or are they only pretending to play music? And so, by a strange transference, one wonders about the characters: is this life they live, this life of absorption in music, only a pretense? And so “New Orleans” becomes a name also for pretense; for the kind of decadent Catholicism the city is so well known for, a Catholicism of surface aesthetics only, with no content underneath. This life of pretense is the perpetual fear of every religion of art–until it is finally embraced. Treme so far at least has not quite embraced it, nor condemned it utterly; it seems more interested in examining its every facet, and searching for what in it might be worth saving.

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While I do think this way of describing the series is accurate, it necessarily leaves out much, including the specific racial and economic tensions that complicate New Orleans life. This is all, of course, fascinating, just like The Wire‘s attention to detail. But, though there’s always more to be said, as an introduction to Treme this will have to do.

Since I have it stuck in my head at the moment, (and indeed it was the proximate cause for writing this post), I’ll end with a performance of “Iko Iko” from the 1950s. “Iko Iko” is one of the pieces of “classic New Orleans music” that shows up throughout the show. It’s not, though it might at first sound like it, a nonsense song; it’s about one of the more obscure New Orleans Mardi Gras traditions, the “Mardi Gras Indians.”

Happy Fat Tuesday.

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