It was in the early 1600s when William Shakespeare penned one of his many memorable quotes, this one from his play, “The Tempest.”
“What’s past is prologue,” he wrote, in what would be a for-bearer of the writings of the 19th century Spanish philosopher George Santayana, who wrote: “When experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Words that have bitten many an ass.
And it may or may not have been Albert Einstein who once (maybe) said: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
All of these quotes are easily applicable to New Orleans, perhaps more than any other inhabited community across the broad landscape of civilization. And I use that term loosely.
Civilization, that is.
But as is our wont to do here – to mangle phrases; to get things all wrong in just the right ways – it might perhaps be more fitting to suggest that here the past is not prologue. In New Orleans, the past is prolonged.
We are a community consumed by nostalgia. We relish dwelling in the past, revering what happened long before, seemingly paying little to no mind to what lies ahead. “Ain’t Dere No More,” the iconic song by Benny Grunch and the Bunch might as well be our Irrational Anthem.
I suppose this phenomenon persists mostly because we’re so old. Not you or me necessarily – well me, yes – but the point being that our city was founded 300 years ago and ever since, it’s all been history. Days of the future passed.
Prologued. And prolonged. The past is a cottage industry here. Hell, it IS our industry here. Before the pandemic – and presumably after – history is what we peddle. In art and architecture, tourism and tours, books and plays, music and Mardi Gras. Everything looks backwards. Tells the story of who we once were and how we got here. And the past tells an interesting – and illuminating – story for these, our present days. And perhaps a few cautionary tales for our nation as a whole in these strange times.
This is the first of a series of blog posts leading up to the Nov. 3 Presidential election that will address exactly these matters. About how much has changed over the years, decades and centuries – and how much actually hasn’t.
Which is almost everything.
From epidemics to negligence to vigilantes and violence to voter fraud, the history of New Orleans is unfolding before our very eyes today on a national scale.
To kick off our series, here’s Benny Grunch and the Bunch, introduced by Frank Davis, he of “Naturally New Orleans” fame. (And who, as it happens, ain’t here no more.)