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In The New York Review of Books

In his whimsical U and I, Nicholson Baker rejoiced in sharing the same "carnal circuitry" with his hero, John Updike. Mr Updike's commentary on "After the Flood," the exhibition of Robert Polidori's chromogenic prints ("photographs" doesn't do these three-by-five knockouts justice) that is currently on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, makes it clear to me that I do not share the celebrated author's moral circuitry. Writing of the ruined interior, 1401 Pressburg Street, Mr Updike laments,

... it is the wrecked, mildewed interiors that take our eye and quicken our anxiety. Would our own dwelling quarters look so pathetic, so obscenely reflective of intimate needs inadequately met, if they were similarly violated and exposed?

This is very offensive. Who is Mr Updike to say that the needs of this room's occupants were inadequately met? The unspoken but palpable allusion to the Last Judgment only makes the implication of guilt-by-inadequacy (and poor taste) all the more shocking. How does Mr Updike know what this room looked like before the flood? And where does he get the idea that the house is in one of New Orleans's "humble neighborhoods accustomed to being ignored"? A glance at Google Maps locates the house in Gentilly, a solidly middle class part of town. I don't know what's worse, Mr Updike's condescension or the laziness with which he extrapolates poverty from desolation.

A few lines later, Mr Updike writes of "our fascinated, sociologically prurient gaze." This is followed by references to Susan Sontag's On Photography. I believe in the possibility that reading On Photography might help thoughtful people recognize that gaze and replace it with an empathic regard. The power of Mr Polidori's photographs is their firm and still grasp of fact, whether the view be of the Queen's Bedroom at Versailles or the living room at 1401 Pressburg. Both photographs are of rooms first and only implicitly of lifestyles. The latter also captures the fact of devastation, a state that, in me at least, arouses sorrow and pity, not prurient fascination. There is nothing prurient in recognizing that this could happen to me.

Mr Updike's mistitled piece ("After Katrina") also seems insufficiently aware of the cause of the damage on exhibit. Katrina the storm is held responsible. But of course New Orleans was not destroyed by a storm. It was, as the title of the Met's show has it, flooded. And it flooded because the responsible authorities - principal among them the Army Corps of Engineers - had neglected the proper maintenance of the levees. It's a pity that, for all the images that we have of the disaster, we don't have a stationary video of the water's steady but probably not turbulent rise. It's an image that would bring home to more people the avoidability of it all.


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