American Cloaca: A Memoir: Intermission
A cloaca's not all bad. It might smell that way sometimes though.
and many including
me and Trump are
American Cloaca is meant to be a lightly traced memoir of my own education, which I see as lifelong process, pursuit, and purpose. But is it perverse to think there’s something gained in all lessons, even those delivered by unpleasant means?
“Well, that was interesting,” we moan, holding our teeth in the palms of our hands, like the last bits of a sense of humor. “But now I know. I’ve done that. I never have to do that again.”
A writer friend told me, before Trump was elected and he knew how half the voting public thinks, that my title was too negative, even ugly. Surely I must know it means toilet?
The Romans did have their Cloaca Maxima, a system of closed-over sewer canals that purged the city of effluence. Along with the aqueducts that provided water in the first place, it’s seen as one of the earthy glories of that culture.
But the Cloaca emptied into the Tiber, and that river, along with the streams in its watershed, is what really cleansed the city. As scholar Donald Kyle writes, “[W]ater was a classic way to dispose of polluted objects, prodigies, and unwanted creatures—beings rejected from or never accepted into the community. Salt water was best for the purification of accursed items, and the Tiber was seen as sending its contents to the sea. [...] Very simply, use of the Tiber was logistically pragmatic and symbolically reassuring...and disposal by water cleansed the city and its people of filth and guilt.”
I’ve been accursed on four separate occasions, and I’m interested as always in the intersection of geography and metaphor—in this case, the cleansing, purging, and purifying of the body, politic or singular. But there’s more to a cloaca, literally and metaphorically.
Unlike us primates, many animals have a single, multi-use orifice called a cloaca, used not only for defecation but also for urination, reproduction, scent-marking, and sometimes (in turtles) respiration. The complexity is sobering. I’ve known people who talked out their asses but never met anyone yet who could breathe through one.
The Mississippi River is America’s cloaca. It drains 31 states (and two Canadian provinces) of our environmental sins—fertilizers, arsenic, benzene, mercury, oil, pesticides, PCBs, feedlot runoff—which end up in the Gulf of Mexico. At the same time, 60% of North American birds use the River basin as a flyway; 92% of US agricultural exports are developed in the basin; and the largest port district (by tonnage) in the world is in the River delta in Louisiana.
I’ve lived near the River or in its watershed most of my life, and it’s always in my consciousness. Five years ago I myself flowed down-continent to the Gulf and am washed-up in south Louisiana, a place that typifies America’s complexity. If the River is our cloaca, then surely Louisiana is the maximum. It’s the epicenter of global warming and has an oil economy; it’s a Red state devastated by a recent Republican governor; it has an often-beautiful and sometimes-protected landscape that runs with toxins; its boosters speak of a recession-proof boom that has many of the same problems as Putin’s Russia.
All these dichotomies, all the in-and-out, give-and-take, insularity and globalism, the cycles of slow fade and partial re-generation, have interest and charm, if only because they suggest the complexity of life itself, for which a cloaca is a decent metaphor. This was my intent.
But what if, after a lifetime, complexity is the only thing we ever know?
As I’ve said, I grew up in a little coal town in the Midwest. To me it seemed unexceptional. But the region had been so staunchly unionized a hundred years earlier that the people seem to have believed a social democratic revolution was nigh, with their people in the vanguard. When things got violent on both sides during a mine strike in 1922, the region was pilloried in the national media as “the black spot” of the country, and its people as probable communists.
Then some of those same unionists, who’d been willing to die for workers’ rights and social justice, supported a fake lawman who came to town and became through populism a fascist. He ruled illegally, briefly, from city hall in the name of nativism and a return to civil order. The National Guard was called in when he and his thugs tommy-gunned a hospital. When he and another man finally shot each other to death in a cigar store, the Klan, huge in the Midwest then, held a grotesque funeral for him in the First Baptist Church where I would one day attend Sunday school.
Was I to believe this kind of odd complexity is long gone from American life, or that its impulses can be ignored? Many of my Facebook friends from hometown, army, college, and corporate life are Fox News devotees and voted for Trump. Where I live, Cajun Lives Matter is a joke on Facebook; Blue Lives Matter is a prominent electronic billboard; and city police cruisers defiantly display stickers in their windows that say In God We Trust. There’s open carry, so you’ll be eating in a burrito place and look up and there’s a complete stranger with a nine-millimeter on his hip, spine stiff with his own power, choosing guac or salsa two feet from your sons.
Recently I brought to town NYC street photographer Donato DiCamillo, an astonishing talent, to look at segments of our society for the McNeese Review, of which I’m Editor. On the poor side of town we went to a christening in a Black Baptist church and on the street spoke with addicts, the homeless, and men who’d worked the refineries and ports. We visited polling places on voting day. Near campus we met the owner of an old-school white barbershop. In the hospital an elderly man whose family has owned a regionally-famous pharmacy for a hundred years invited us to his bridge club and to meet his brother. We drove far into the countryside to sit with the former president of the local chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy. We spent an afternoon with the SWAT team, which had gone to Baton Rouge with the state’s other SWAT teams for the Alton Sterling protests. With the exception of one man who was likely a dealer, all were generous and kind. Though it was election week, the veneer of southern politesse prevented discussion of politics, and since then I’ve seen neither protest nor hateful gloating; there’s only the silence of sweet and proper. It is all very much exactly what it is.
Who understands what it is? I think of William Gass on Gertrude Stein: “Gertrude Stein has been, therefore, an anecdote and a theory and a bundle of quotations.” It’s how we know most of our icons, good and bad, and it’s how we know Donald Trump. The left, which never saw this coming, attacks itself furiously, like a dog biting its own flanks after being hit by a car.
Cognitive dissonance is a big phrase in the media these days. Philosophers say the only sin is hypocrisy. I call it thoughtlessness—what we fail to see or hold in the mind, especially when things are most complex and unpleasant. It’s nice to think education might help with that, and that it’s a worthy thing. Our next government doesn’t seem to think it as necessary, but that may not matter. I think we’re all going to learn some things.
Photo of Rome’s Cloaca Maxima outlet to the Tiber courtesy Jim Leveille.
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