When I walk down Bardstown Road in Louisville, I am simultaneously surrounded by the throbbing pulse of life and the hollow pallor of death. It's a busy street, the top hipster destination of Louisville. It is abuzz with the bustle so common to many cities: too many people crammed into too little space and confident that this efficiency minimizes the carbon footprint of humanity and eliminates the encroaching evil of urban sprawl. As to whether or not this ecological righteousness outweighs the evil of furious thoughts directed at the throngs of bodies crowding the sidewalk or the incompetent drivers slowing the flow of traffic, only the Universe knows (if it has personality or will at all; evidence suggests it is coldly indifferent). I myself am less enthralled with the environmental responsibility and feel more like a flatfooted kid forced to wear shoes three sizes too small. I am pressed and not comforted by the chattering bodies pressing in upon me.
But the thousand-yard-stare of these walking dead is far more troubling than the enclosure and noise. Each is clothed in thick layers of irony. The Bardstown hipster goes out of his way to dress sloppily because he finds it ironic. He listens to obscure neofolk music, intentionally building an identity which few others may share. He drinks terrible beer--the worst he can find--just to get a rise from those who recognize the rotgut he swills. He swears he loves that he may get even more disapproval from the average clean-cut observer. He lives post-culture, post-liberal, post-postmodern, post-everything but pre-nothing. He is pre-nothing in the sense that he is not a pioneer of anything but reacting to everything. Far more ominously, he is also pre-nothing in the sense that he in fact runs before nihil. An existential void howls just beneath the ironic scaffold which he has constructed, caulked over with Ray-Ban glasses, unflattering skinny ties, and an affinity for Wes Anderson films. In truth, any critique of the hipster has been exhausted to triteness by better and worse writers than me. I only wish to note that these hipsters drift through the world as perpetual ghosts, reveling in all they aren't (i.e. mainstream, conformist, familiar, hygienic) rather than in all they are.
I can't say I blame them. They suffer from the same heart disease I sometimes feel spiritually clogging my own metaphysical arteries. They struggle to know who they are or why they're here. They may gloss over it with a veneer of New Age spirituality or twentysomething progressivism or unsightly beards and skinny jeans. In reality, they seem no more tied to Louisville or even their favorite haunt Bardstown Road as a place than they are to their own roots which they no doubt found too conventional or unjust. True, they may be ardently devoted to a particular coffee shop or a local neo-folk bluegrass band. Yet they share with most people (besides the elderly and the Evangelical Christians) the fact that they are unlikely to see themselves as dutiful citizens who may be called upon to sacrifice billfold or style, life or limb for the sake of this particular city. Who am I to critique? I am not much of a Louisvillian either.
It's all so different from the Southern roots I left. I grew up in two small-ish towns/suburbs. I much prefer to identify with my small town in Georgia than with the metropolis of Atlanta; I hated going to the city and rarely did. (A Braves game was the only real draw.) I was too young to do much travel in Birmingham when we moved away from its suburb. However, Birmingham in the 90s felt more like Alabama's biggest town and seemed not to aspire to be an oasis of hip culture in a sea of redneck ignorance (unlike Birmingham today, desperate as it is to emulate Nashville or Atlanta). All my grandparents came from very distinct roots in their small Alabama towns. All the neighbors knew who they were and they understood their civic obligation to the neighbors; they had roles in town to play at were happy to play them whether or not Camden or Millbrook ever achieved hip metropolitan status or not. Even when I was young, I was mystified that everyone (even the black folks) hollered, "Howdy, Mister Charlie!" to my grandfather every time we walked past the Wilcox County Courthouse on the way to the barber shop. People there still know who I am years after my previous visit, a foot of height and a healthy beard notwithstanding.
Now the grands are dead and I am haunted by their ghosts every time I go back to the family estate. This is especially true in Millbrook where three generations of family are buried in the side yard. This always used to unnerve me when I was a kid. I was convinced the house was haunted when I would hear creaks in the night. Grandmother certainly agreed the spirits were about, though they never seemed to bother her as much. Walker Percy wrote in The Moviegoer how every Southerner knows he is haunted by ghosts, be those spirits Confederates or slaves or great uncles or Episcopal ministers or Sir Walter Scott himself. I have always known the land was haunted, even if I rarely felt brave enough to mention it.
Yet as I have grown older, I have grown to love the ghosts. I grew less afraid that some ghoulish spirit would appear to me at night as I awakened to their ethereal presence in the sunlight. They haunt me all the time as the voices of Stoical talk of obligation and duty. I go home to Mama all the time because when she calls, a man must answer (Bear Bryant said so). They haunt me in instinctive chivalry and honor. "Hold the door for a lady, get between the lady and traffic when you stroll the sidewalk, hats off when you pray." They haunt me in the mournful sadness at the rebel graveyards. The grand Greek tragedy of Dixie--a proud culture built upon the back of irredeemable subjugation--strikes a chord in my soul even though I never donned a gray kepi or loaded a musket against a Yankee or forced a man into servitude. Maybe it's as simple as the fact that the ghosts have inevitably become familiar as the years have marched on. The boy sleeping by the graveyard in Alabama scarcely knew the souls lurking in the shadows. But the graduate student twenty years later knows a few of them now since they have only lately passed into death and wouldn't mind a visit from them. Family is still family, fleshly or ghastly.
The matter may be concluded with a cruel, untrendy irony. Caught between three or four potential roads, enabled to be anyone or anything by the anonymity of the cosmopolitan metropolis, formed by the "you-can-be-anything-you-want-to-be" self-esteem of Disney movies and 90s educational philosophy, I am rootless in a town whose soil is as alien as the red dust of Mars. I can be anyone or anything, but who should I be? The hipster hides his uncertainty with trendy cigarettes and ironic beer and empty talk of his individual liberty and the providence of an impersonal universe. Some days I would gladly trade the grounded shackles and limitations and small minds of a small Alabama town for chic twentysomething freedom which yields only listlessness and cosmopolitan relativism. When you needn't be anyone, you can be whatever you want. But what should you want and who should you be?
Put plainly, I prefer the dead ghosts to the living ones.