Reading Matters

Hurricanes bring us out of doldrums

So how does a hurricane suspend malaise?

Aug. 29 will be the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, and The New York Times used the occasion to run an essay on the late Louisiana novelist Walker Percy and his take on malaise and alienation and the power of hurricanes to lift both. At least temporarily.

The essay was by Walter Isaacson, who was vice chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority after Katrina, and he talked about Percy’s theory that hurricanes make us feel better, less depressed, and, to paraphrase, more comfortable in our own skin.

How can this be? Percy, Isaacson reminds us, believed that when we are mired in the everydayness of ordinary life, we are susceptible to what the novelist called a free-floating despair, a feeling that you’re not a part of the world or connected to the people in it.

Percy’s characters are ever on a search for the cause and cure of this alienation. Falling in love, action n a war, even a fender bender, according to Percy, can be a “respite from the malaise.”

And what exactly is it about a hurricane that can lift our spirits?

In part, Percy believed, it’s because when a hurricane is about to hit, we no longer feel uncertain about our role in the world. We know what we’re supposed to do and we do it.

But his theory goes beyond the mere heroic.

“True, people help each other in catastrophes,” he wrote in ‘Lancelot.’ “But they don’t feel good because they help each other. They help each other because they feel good.”

Now, of course, hurricanes blow on by. Then what? Sadly, we typically return to our ordinary old selves and our sour old malaise.

But Isaacson says he believes Katrina, which struck 15 years after Percy died, was an exception to that theory.

“It jolted New Orleans so brutally that even a decade after the waters receded, the malaise has not crept back in,” he says. “Instead, the memory of Katrina and the excitement of having to rebuild something better continues to keep people in New Orleans engaged and connected. There’s an edgy creativity that comes from the shared aftertaste of danger, a sense of community that comes from knowing you’re in the same boat.”