Story Time: Comfortably Numb

I posted this at First Draft not long after I joined the team: September 19, 2009. It first appeared on my eponymous blog on July 13, 2006. It’s another Dickens influenced post about New Orleans.

Unfortunately, most of the pre-Katrina conditions I wrote about in 2006 still exist. That’s why I call New Orleans TFC: This Fucking City.

Let’s set the Wayback Machine to 2006:

Syd Barrett’s death got me thinking in Pink Floyd song titles. A scary concept, I know. Careful With That Axe, Eugene didn’t fit the situation here in New Orleans but one title nailed it: Comfortably Numb from The Wall. Comfortably numb describes the state of our political, judicial, and socio-economic systems here pre-K. We were muddling through at all levels but as long as we were comfortable, we were numb.

Then came Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent federal flood, which, by analogy, was to New Orleans what the last part of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens was to Pip the hero of the story. Pip had always thought that the bitter recluse Miss Havisham had been his financial benefactor. He was wrong. His real patron was Magwich, an escaped convict turned magnate whom Pip had helped while a child. There are two scenes in David Lean’s 1947 film adaptation that complete the analogy:

First, Pip confronts Miss Havisham who had led him to believe that she had helped him. She had also cruelly used her beautiful ward Estella to torment Pip. Miss Havisham lived in a large and spooky house but spent most of her time in a dining room wherein a wedding feast had been laid but never served. Miss Havisham’s fiancee had jilted her. The table remained untouched including an aged wedding cake that had been gnawed upon by vermin. Miss Havisham always wore her wedding dress as a badge of shame and delusional martyrdom.

Pip let Miss Havisham have it: telling her what an evil and horrid crone she was; especially the way she’d used Estella as an instrument of vengeance against the male gender. Miss Havisham, being a Dickens character, realized the error of her ways but then a coal rolled out of the fire and set Miss Havisham’s dress ablaze. Pip tries to put the fire out by using the venerable tablecloth, but it crumbles and Miss Havisham dies; a victim of, in her case, being uncomfortably numb.

How does this apply to New Orleans in 2006? Miss Havisham is a perfect symbol of the city. For years, we allowed our city to rot and decay but instead of trying to do something about it, we turned to drama, drugs, booze, food and apathy. If I had a hundred-dollar bill for every time I’ve heard “you can’t change fill in the blank it’s New Orleans,” I’d be as rich as Pip’s portly solicitor, Mr. Jaggers. I’ve heard that line applied to government, litter, crime, you name it; it’s the catchall excuse. The city and its people were all comfortably numb.

Second, at the end of the movie, Pip returns to Miss Havisham’s house in an attempt to prevent his first love, Estella from turning into her step-mum, Miss Havisham. Pip finds Estella sitting in Miss Havisham’s dark and filthy dining room, where else? The curtains had not been opened since the day Miss Havisham was jilted. Pip rips the curtains open and flings the windows open. The curtains crumble from years of dust and disuse. But Pip has let the sun and fresh air in. Having faced their demons honestly, Pip and Estella go on to a better life.

Hurricane Katrina swept our old systems away, exposing them as rotten, corrupt, and structurally unsound. Post-K, everything has collapsed, especially the criminal justice system. The criminal courts no longer function. There is no place to house juvenile offenders so they must be put back on the streets even those who pose a danger to the rest of us.

Debrisville is like Miss Havisham’s decrepit mansion but there’s no Pip to level with us and help us to pick up the pieces and start anew. Why? Because for nearly two centuries, New Orleans was comfortably numb and content with, and downright proud of, its apathy and backwardness. The storm *should* have provided a jolt to the system but the future remains unclear. One thing *is* clear: being comfortably numb is no longer an option. Instead, we need great expectations.

The last word goes to Pink Floyd:

4 thoughts on “Story Time: Comfortably Numb

    1. Not true. You need to get out of here for a while and see the real world.

  1. Ok, I get that your picture is taken from the David Lean film adaptation of *Great Expectations,* but somebody needs to note that exactly NONE of what you describe actually happens in the novel. Pip does NOT “let Miss Havisham have it” in their final confrontation, and Pip and Estella most definitely do NOT finally meet in “the dining room, where else?” There are actually two endings to the novel, both of which have Pip and Estella meeting again, but NEITHER is in the dining room at Satis House, and both are more than a little melancholic.

    It’s your prerogative to make whatever connections you want, and the Pink Floyd one is a least a correct reference to their album. But don’t impose egregious movie sentimentality on Dickens. He has his own recourse to melodrama and romance, but this particular novel is much darker than usually acknowledged, and we should at least grant him the benefit of what he actually wrote, rather than claim he produced “scenes” that he never imagined.

    1. Your comments are fair. I’ve seen the Lean movie adaptation more recently than I’ve read the Dickens novel. I’ve made it clearer that this post is based on the movie.

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