But the subject, driving through the territory ravaged by Hurricane Katrina at a time of great stress in my personal life, is too topical right now, as Hurricane Isaac bears down on New Orleans, for me to ignore. There's a ton I could say about this piece, but it would probably be more sensible to let it speak for itself. The photographs -- and their captions -- are an important part of it, though, so I do want to draw attention to them. This one is probably my favorite, which makes it a shame that its selection as the WordPress "featured image" shrinks it so much in the piece itself:Something about those twisted nails brings home the force of the storm and, on a metaphoric note, how hard it is to maintain attachments amid so much turmoil.
Like many of my longer pieces, this one takes detours that may seem rather strange at first. As a devoted fan of W.G. Sebald's work, I love the effect that dislocations can conjure. In this instance, though, the conceptual link between my reflections on traveling through a post-Katrina landscape in 2010 and my trip to East Berlin in 1987 is pretty clear, if you stop to think about it for a moment:
I was as intrigued as the other Western students by the strange “mirror world” we encountered there. But I also felt sheepish that my companions were mocking the East for its ugly goods and unattractive people. Whether it was because of my nascent political sympathies or just the realization that I had grown up wearing not-quite-good-enough brands myself, I was more inclined to note the ways that Communist everyday life was like my own than to remark its eccentricities.That theme, of not wanting the evidence of historical trauma to be hidden away, is one I've consistently articulated since I was a teenager. And, come to think of it, it jibes quite nicely with the move to revisit this piece now.
That’s why I soon left the group I’d crossed over with to strike out on my own, camera and tripod in tow. Soon, I found a much more compelling sight than imitation 501s or Eastern Bloc rock albums. Unlike every West German city I’d visited, Communist Berlin was still studded with rubble from the war. While some tourist attractions had been restored, much of the central city looked like a set from a Hollywood movie about the Berlin Airlift. I rapidly overcame my fear of taking photographs outside of tourist attractions and began trying to capture my impressions of a life interrupted.
Finding ruins there didn’t require the complicated mental exercise of overlaying post-bombing photographs over a contemporary view of the cityscape. Far from having been erased, visible reminders of the destruction were so prominent in East Berlin that they seemed like a point of pride, a strange modern-day analogy to the splendors of Ancient Rome. And that comforted me somehow.
So did the Berlin Wall. I loved its brightly colored Western side, a powerful testament to freedom of expression. But I also took solace in the Wall’s less attractive aspects. The void presided over by the watchtowers in the East, the way it looked like a scar bisecting the city from above, the stark contrast between the buildings on its two sides: all were powerful reminders that history can’t be wished away.