NPR ran a story this morning about the Islenos of St. Bernard Parish in New Orleans. They are people the Spaniards brought over from the Canary Islands in pre-Napoleonic times to settle and defend this northeastern outpost of their American empire. The report was essentially an elegy to a dying traditional American subculture. It is now moribund because the delta wetland upon which the Islenos people depended for their livelihood as crabbers and shrimpers has been gradually destroyed, Katrina being the latest blow.
They are one of those rare subcultures that found a way to maintain a living tradition as the world around them modernized. It is not yet a zombie tradition. The culture has to die first for it to become that. A culture goes zombie when people won't let it rest in peace but try to keep the body moving once it has lost its soul. To stay alive, most traditional cultures must maintain a living connection to the land or the sea. There are exceptions--the urban subcultures of Hasidic Jews come to mind--but they are pretty unusual these days in America. And it looks doubtful that the Islenos will survive for much longer. Too much works against it.
Living traditions survive in the U.S. only so long as they can resist acculturation into the larger modern American milieu. The economic pressures working to break down such subcultures are terrific. And it is more than likely that the next generation of Islenos will think of themselves as Islenos as much as I think of myself as Irish. They will have lost their connection to the land and its culture just as much as my family has done: Ireland is in my name. It's there in the background, but it no longer has any real defining power for my identity. It has very little shaping influence in the way I live my life.
It might even be said that Ireland has very little shaping influence in the way the typical educated, urban Dubliner lives now. Other cultural influences, for better or worse, that have very little to do with Irish history, religion, and customs have severely eroded what it means to be Irish, even for the people who live there. The urban Dubliner has more in common with the urban Parisian or New Yorker than he has with the Irish-speaking farmer in the Gaeltacht. When you become a modern, you lose touch with the living tradition--you step out of it, and you might retain some of the tradition as a matter of habit, but you no longer are sustained by the tradition as something that nourishes in a deeply satisfying way. It no longer composes the warp and woof of one's soul.
Some might argue that the Italian, Irish, Polish neighborhoods of New York, Boston, or Chicago contradict my argument. And I would agree that traditionally ethnic cultures once thrived there, but such cultures are now for the most part moribund. Take the fairly typical example of my wife's family's experience. She came from a working-class neighborhood in the Bronx that was mostly Irish. Her grandmother, however, was a Siciliana who came to Italian Harlem when she was eighteen, was matched up with a husband whose Italian dialect she could not understand, eventually moved to an an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx in which she never had to speak English, and she never did. When we romanticize traditional cultures, we have to remember that tradition has very little respect for freedom and individuality. The group comes first, and you obey the group authorities and comply obediently with its customs. There is a form for everything. There is a way that things are done, and to deviate from form is considered ignorant and barbaric, even if there are good reasons to do it.
This Italian subculture in which my wife's mother grew up still persists in the Bronx, but it's not what it used to be. Such neighborhoods are celebrated in Martin Scorcese's films. Raging Bull, for instance, was about my mother-in-law's neighborhood when she was a young adult. She is very nice woman, but she is someone who simply cannot operate if required to think on her own. There is a way things are done, and her job is to learn how to do it as prescribed. She still retained a tribal mentality, even though she chose a life that required that she move beyond it.
My mother-in-law is a typical of the second generation in such immigrant families--neither here nor there. She wanted independence--she married outside the tribe--but she couldn't pull it off because she couldn't free herself from the tribal mentality of her family. Her husband, usually referred to by my mother-in-law's family as "the German," had no real individuality. He was simply someone who was "not one of us." My mother-in-law paid a price for her one, bold stab at freedom, and so did her husband, because she was never able to really cut herself off from her family, and the family never accepted him.
Today, that neighborhood is still Italian, but it is moribund Italian. It's still a place where the kids try to find homes to live near their parents. But my wife couldn't get away quick enough. Her mother, for instance, didn't want her to go to college. "People like us don't go to college," she told her. But what her mother really feared was losing her daughter, because once you leave a world like that by going to college, you join the "white people's world," you're changed, and you can never really come back into the older world with the "first naivete" that is necessary to live in it unselfconsciously.
And my wife did not go back. She lived in Europe for several years, and after we were married in New York, it was her idea to move to Seattle. She couldn't put enough distance between herself and her mother. She needed the distance because the tribal pull was still pretty strong in her, too. But given the choice between freedom and the deeply felt need to live one's own life, on the one hand, and the choice to live within the restrictions of a moribund tradition, she, like most healthy, spirited people, chose freedom. Unless there is something that still lives in the tradition that nourishes the soul in self-evident ways, most normal people choose to leave rather than to stay, if the choice is open to them.
That's the problem with most European ethnic communities in the U.S. now. They are at best running on fumes and are living a twilight existence that fails to deeply nourish. I see it in my Asian students here in Seattle as well. I was talking to bright, lively Korean girl today about how conflicted she feels about loyalty to her family and her hatred of the restrictions and patriarchal customs that she has to live out because they are antithetical to the kind of American woman she wants to become.
So people like her, as my wife did, leave the comforting but restrictive womb of their families' culture to seek their fortune in the wide, wide world. But then something interesting happens. Very often, even if they were very successful in the "outside" world, they find that something is missing--that the outside world lacks soul. And so they return to the old thing, but it no longer nourishes; it can't because in most cases it’s dying. People who insist on staying in the dead thing are those who live in a kind of zombie traditionalism.
Zombie traditionalism is born of a longing for something that has been lost, and a hope that behind the forms there's a life that can nourish, but there's not. You can't go home again because there were good reasons for leaving it in the first place. One chooses to go back sometimes for lack of anything better.
So this morning while listening to one of the Katrina-displaced Islenos women interviewed on NPR, I was moved by her obvious, deeply felt pain. It was the pain of the exile. It was the pain of the Russian émigré, whose very soul withers because it has been disconnected from the soil of Mother Russia. She was like a native American being asked to move to a reservation. After Katrina, she has been prohibited from moving back to St. Bernard Parish, and like so many other New Orleanais, it's not clear when or whether she ever will be able to move back.
She spoke poignantly about how it's the only life she knows, how her parents and grandparents and all her ancestors lived and worked there. And I feel badly for her. For here's the tragedy: Now she has to live like the rest of us in a culture that has lost its traditional culture soul. That's a boat that's long left the dock for the rest of us. The challenge now is not to live in a culture where soul is given, but somehow, out of our own interior freedom to re-ensoul the world and in doing so to renew the face of the earth.