Katrina on My Mind: Pedagogy, Kate Chopin’s New Orleans, and HBO’s Treme
John Goodman plays Creighton Bernette, a Tulane University English professor (based on real-life political blogger Ashley Morris) on Treme (HBO, 2010-2013), Eric Overmyer’s and David Simon’s beautifully novelistic television show. Bernette, who has become a national figure for railing against the Bush Administration’s bungling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster—”Fuck you, you fucking fuck,” he rants about incompetent political cronies in an interview on National Public Radio—kills himself at the end of the ninth episode.
In “Wish Someone Would Care”, Bernette comes to this decision after a typically difficult day in the classroom in which he teaches Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) to his undergraduate American literature class. One lesson Treme teaches is that literary culture is one of our most powerful tools for coping with human suffering, even if the purported subject of the text is seemingly nihilistic self-destruction.
In Suicide: A Study in Sociology (1897), Emile Durkheim lays the groundwork for modern sociology, discovering in nineteenth-century statistics that the suicide rate rapidly increases during times of national strife. In a beautiful intertextual move, Simon and Overmyer structure this one episode of Treme around the pedagogical relationship among Edna, Bernette, and his students. Both Edna, the main character in The Awakening, and Bernette intentionally drown themselves in New Orleans, in direct response to their political circumstances: hopeless gender oppression in Edna’s case; a devastated university infrastructure, dominated by anti-intellectualism, in Bernette’s.
As if in reaction to Durkheim’s revolutionary social explanations of individual behavior, Chopin two years later uses The Awakening to suggest that Edna’s self-destruction in gulf waters is the only active political response possible from her position as a woman in the American South of the late nineteenth century. Despite the gender inversion, Treme positions Bernette’s death as an equally counter-cultural suicide, expressing his disdain for the nation’s inexplicable disregard for the destruction of New Orleans after the at least understandable “natural disaster.” Real-life blogger Morris famously berated a reporter for even describing Katrina as merely a natural disaster; Bernette has a similar conniption, throwing a British reporter’s microphone into the water for not seeing Katrina as a tragedy made by corrupt human beings.
By heaving himself off of a ferry in Lake Ponchartrain, Bernette protests the nation’s abject disdain for even smart university professors, abandoned to teach corporatized, indifferent students.
On the blackboard behind him, Bernette has drawn a little pot of gold, allowing Treme to link his critique from academia to television production. At the pedagogue’s most vibrant moment in the classroom, he lumbers out of his chair and points to the cartoon.
Bernette implores the students not to read The Awakening in the Aristotelian mode. He emphasizes that much great literature does not have clean-cut beginnings, middles, and ends. Here, Overmyer and Simon are performing pedagogical work, not on the student characters within the show, but on their audience. Like The Wire (HBO, 2002-2008) before it, Treme is a sprawling novelistic television event that unfolds over the course of years, filled with characters whose stories often begin in medias res, develop sporadically, and only once in a while conclude in anything so dramatic as the classical closure that comes to Bernette.
In the pilot of Treme, we meet a trombonist, Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) amid a crowd of characters out on the streets of the Treme section of New Orleans. All are singing and dancing as part of a “second line parade,” a celebration attempting to bring the city back to normalcy after the devastating storm. Minute after minute, the language of the pilot episode of Treme is purely musical. We have no idea who these characters are, nor do we know anything about their lives, especially how they might relate to one another.
During his last day, Bernette explains to his class the subtlety of Chopin’s writing, but the students refuse to push their thinking beyond the superficial; they conceive of the world in black and white. Quite literally, at one moment during his biographical portrait of Chopin as a Southerner, a White female student collapses hundreds of years of race history with blind stupidity. The sequence begins when the student asks if Chopin was a local. Bernette explains, “Kate Chopin lived all over Louisiana… She was the daughter of a Galway man, Creole, mostly on her mother’s side.”
The clueless White student in the middle of the class blurts out, “She was colored?” Immediately in front of her, a young African-American woman cringes at her clueless insensitivity. Behind her, no less than three sets of pairings of White male and female students turn their heads away, not in disgust, but because they are paying attention to their own tomfoolery, not the lesson that has just been delivered.
There’s not much “post-racial” in New Orleans, despite idiotic pundits’ celebration of the supposed post-racial South. Black and White students may be sitting in the same classroom, but they are not having the same experience. Bernette reacts much more calmly than the African-American woman, who does not speak out of exasperation. The professor simply explains, with a no more than slight cringe, that he is using the term Creole in the traditional sense, describing with nuance the mixing of race and culture that is the two-hundred-year U.S. history of New Orleans.
At the end of the episode, we return to Bernette’s classroom for a second time. A different female student suggests that the ending of The Awakening is depressing. Bernette responds to this reduction again with patient nuance: “The ending of the book is not the end. It is a transition, a rejection of disappointment and failure… She is not moving toward the darkness, she is embracing spiritual liberation.” A young man wipes his bored, tired eyes. Seeing his young students’ inability to comprehend the transcendent subtlety of The Awakening, Bernette dismisses class early, to the audible relief of the students. He then sits down contemplatively at the desk in the front of the classroom, realizing for the first time that the solution he has just poetically described in the novel should be his own.
As with most Hollywood representations of teaching, the classroom mise-en-scene speaks as loudly as these verbal interactions between the teacher and his students. Actor John Goodman uses his wonderfully rotund body to slouch into a chair in front of a desk at the head of the classroom. When he shrugs in despair at his inability to reach his students, his body threatens to swallow up the classroom furniture around him. His girth is his most endearing quality but also a sign of something terribly wrong.
Overmyer and Simon delight in weaving the characters’ individual stories into and out of each other’s lives, sometimes disappearing for many episodes only to return with a vengeance later. Bernette is just one of these characters, and one who dies before the first season is over. But, what he accomplishes in his classroom is to tutor us to demand narrative complexity and to see its proper home on HBO. No network pilot could survive the ratings drop implicit in the chaotic musicality of the opening of Treme.
The masses of channel surfers simply do not have patience to watch slowly simmering gumbo when the fast food of the Kardashians is available one click away. But, great literature is not subject to the economics of popular American television, nor should be the classrooms of American higher education. Bernette tries to get his students to drink in the complex flavors of Chopin’s depiction of a very particular place at one moment in time to see that the importance of the novel lies not just in Edna’s suicide but in the languorous path it took her to get there.
The radical literary insight that Overmyer and Simon make at this moment through Bernette is a delight to behold. Bernette realizes that Edna’s end must be his own. Following Durkheim, we should not see these as individual decisions, but as ripples of consequence that are felt across the social terrain and perhaps beyond. What Overmyer and Simon articulate through Bernette’s literary insight is that his decision to kill himself will stand out from the social flow of New Orleans, where Durkheim rightfully predicts an uptick in the suicide rate.
If Bernette teaches his students to see that the social milieu represented by Chopin is just as important as the classical closure that dominates the end of The Awakening, the opposite could be true. In a sea of narrative chaos on Treme, with characters flitting in and out of our spectatorial consciousness, Bernette’s act of social protest might stand out as meaningful beyond the devastating effects his self-nullification has on his family: he abandons his wife and teenage daughter in what can only be reprehensible cowardice.
My family and I watched the first season of Treme together as it aired on HBO. Very early in the proceedings, episodes before “Wish Someone Would Care,” I made a throwaway comment about Bernette’s madness: “This guy is in trouble; he’s going to kill himself.” At the time, it seemed like an absurd narrative jump, as Bernette’s radio and YouTube rants were full of angry life.
Shortly after the ninth episode ended with Bernette jumping off of the ferry, my family members began looking at me with a little bit too much concern. I assured them that my skills reading televisual narrative flow trumped any cracks in my mental state through which I was identifying a bit too closely with Professor Bernette.
What I did not predict was that Bernette’s self-immolation would occur via one of the best depictions of a classroom in American television history. While American popular culture is rife with negativity about the professoriate, we educators who love what we do typically highlight the transformative effects classrooms have on students.
Indeed, this is as it should be: we are in the business of opening worlds formerly shrouded to young people. What we should talk more about, however, is the transformative effects great classrooms have on their teachers. In his struggle to express to his students who Kate Chopin was, and the profoundly important meanings of her greatest creation, The Awakening, Bernette discovers something that he has not seen in the novel before.
Perhaps because of the gender reversal required—Bernette is a conservative literature scholar, dismissing the feminist readings of Chopin in favor of a more universal humanism (a position I should admit I find compelling and am replicating here)—Bernette (after one assumes having taught The Awakening many times before), sees for the first time that he himself is Edna Pontellier.
Such insights into worlds so seemingly different from our own are indeed worth their weight in gold, thus rendering the end-of-the-rainbow cartoon on the blackboard even more resonant. We need not cry over the deaths of Edna Pontellier or Creighton Bernette overly much. They are fictional characters, invented out of nothing, and often required by Aristotelian theory to meet gruesome ends.
Without threatening the lives of real people, they tutor us on how to engage the social world, perhaps even pointing to successful paths they themselves were unable to navigate. One lesson of Treme, learned from the sprawling nineteenth-century novel, more Dickens than Chopin, is that we must explore many narrative trajectories at once if we are to maximize the possibilities of our overcoming the sordidness of the world.
One commonly botched representational trajectory successfully charted by Treme is the classroom encounter between college professors and undergraduate students, a vital space in contemporary America where real people’s lives are at stake. As the creator of fully novelistic television, David Simon demonstrates the gifts of a great observational novelist (in the mold of Gustave Flaubert or David Foster Wallace), inventing characters whose experiences speak directly to those whom they represent.
Such is the case with Bernette and myself. After all of the bullshit Hollywood representations of predatory male teachers (recently a narcissistic philosophy professor who sleeps with his female student before trying to murder her in Woody Allen’s film, An Irrational Man) Simon gives us a real teacher, one who struggles not only with his own life but with how to impress upon young people that literature is one of the few tools we have to fight back against the darkness.
Bernette is unable to continue, because the deck is stacked against him: students are encouraged to see education as a commodity they purchase, rather than the most difficult thing they will ever attempt, which is to learn to think critically and challenge themselves by inhabiting the worlds of those with whom they disagree.
Bernette kills himself in response to national tragedies—Katrina and anti-intellectualism—which are, of course, deeply interrelated. Bernette rejects “disappointment and failure,” both his, in his inability to reach his students or the viewers and listeners of his various video blogs and radio interviews, and, following Durkheim’s theory of the national tragedy, George W. Bush’s.
As educators, Bernette’s path is one that should give us tremendous pause as we go about attempting to re-build our educational system in the wake of the devastation of neo-liberalism. How can we double down on Bernette’s promise, teaching passionately about things that matter, like American literature, and not feel the need to immolate ourselves? How can we teach students to forge intellectually sophisticated lives of social purpose when they are encouraged to be corporate automatons, not only by the right-wingers but also by the STEM celebrants and no less than President Barack Obama?
Appropriately, Treme does not paint a happy picture of our chances for success, but its genius gives me the will to continue the attempt. This is the lesson I take from Treme: from frustrating failure within the narrative, we can transform the negativist trajectory in the real world from which the narrative initially emerged.
— Walter Metz
A Book Chapter Published In:
Screen Lessons: What We Have Learned From Teachers on Television and in the Movies. Eds. Mary M. Dalton and Laura R. Linder. New York: Peter Lang, 2017. 11-16.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening and Selected Stories of Kate Chopin. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009 .
Durkheim, Emile. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. .
Gallagher, Danny. “Meet Ashley Morris, the Real Creighton Bernette from Treme.” AOL-TV [on-line]. http://www.aoltv.com/2010/06/12/meet-ashley-morris-the-real-creighton-bernette-from-treme/. Accessed: December 14, 2011.