Tuesday, December 16, 2008
southern thoughts on a winter day
I’m re-reading Walker Percy’s “Love In the Ruins,” an awesome book about the crumbling of America as she once was. It’s ostensibly about a race war that isn’t so much a war as a capitulation, and about a doctor who is “abstracted from himself,” as he feels many Americans are. But he finds a way to cure these psychic ailments, to cure liberal ennui as well as conservative rage. Got me thinking about the dirty south again, where I haven’t been for a long time:
Driving south there is a distinct, sharp moment when you realize you are no longer in the north. You may not recognize it as it occurs, but you soon come to realize that it has happened. Coming from Michigan down through sad, old Indiana, then across into Kentucky, and there it is: something has changed. The northern rust belt has given way to something softer, less clanging and more sonorous. The fields are just as green, the landscape much the same, but something has changed.
In the west there’s not so clear a distinction, but I have made the drive to New Orleans from Colorado, and you can see some of the change, after you pass through Evil Texas, with its faux-southern deception. Texas is a fictional place; it doesn’t exist except in the minds of its proponents. It’s all suburbs and sprawl and concrete and scrub, a shithole of the mind.
Coming from the northeast especially there is something miraculous about driving south. There was a time coming down through Maryland and the Virginias, late at night, the only one still awake, when you crossed through some mythical veil and there you were. The ground fog clung warmly to the green, loamy earth; the dingy tension, the grime of the ancient northeast seemed to melt away. A broad white slab of new concrete expressway carries your lonely 4 am car down, down further into that old world, like a humid fairy tale storybox waiting to be opened. It’s a place waiting to reveal its secrets, but you have to know how to ask for them.
In a way, the south seems even older than the exhausted, soot-covered cities of the northeast that came before it. There was a gentility, a politeness -- however false -- that gave this place its charm, its mystery. There was hope here once, a feeling that a better world not only awaited the faithful after death, but could also be created here on earth. There was a dignity, a gravitas in the way things were done that is lost.
And a sense of sadness mixed in too. You get the feeling that the south always knew she was doomed, that the Big Sin she committed had spelled out her fate all along, and she knew punishment was inevitable. The sadness of the countryside is palpable. It is a land of death.
But driving south late at night, your only companion the radio because all your music seems tired and old, there is a moment when you can feel these ghosts of a more prosperous time reaching up out of the soft, fertile ground. You can hear them asking, whatever became of their way of life, how did it get reduced to a cartoon, a bad joke wherein ‘Southern’ became synonymous with ‘Ignorant,’ or ‘Racist?’ It was a proud country once, for all its faults, even in light of the Big Sin. There were good people here. But like everywhere else, it has now been reduced to a mockery of itself.
Sometimes, though, sometimes if you’re very quiet as you drive southward late at night, she still shares her secrets -- but only if you ask in just the right way.