September 14, 2005

The Deluge

[First published January 9, 2005 ]

Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.

--Eliot, The Wasteland

When a monumental disaster sweeps over humanity I expect myself to respond with an emotion that, to me at least, feels commensurate with the event. I'm certain most other people expect the same of themselves, and almost everyone is capable of it. And if, for some reason, we are not capable of it, we nevertheless know enough to pretend. It is what we expect of each other in the modern, civlized world.

We like to think we feel compassion naturally, but in truth we are raised up and trained in it. And, as a reasonably well-raised man, my expectation of myself was to feel, without question, an upwelling of empathy as I had in the past. This time it was different. This time I could feel nothing at all.

This time my ability to find compassion wasn't so much diminished as it was drowned under the awareness of a catastrophe so immense that it ground human imagination down to a dull nub. For days I was bothered by the fact that, for once, I just couldn't get my head around what had happened. For some time, I put it down to a persistent illness that seemed to hang on and on. But as my illness burned itself out I came to understand that nobody else could do it either.

Yes, I made all the expected statements of pity and shock and concern. I gave money in response to the unremitting pleas for money. I nodded and agreed that this was very, very bad. I applauded the heroes and condemned the criminals and hustlers.

I watched, straight on at first but then more and more at slant, the images sweeping out from the epicenter of the catastrophe. I listened, attentively at first and then with only a part of my mind, to the news repeat and repeat itself in an upward spiral as the numbers of the dead began as monumental and rose up into the incomprehensible.

Intellectually I comprehended that it was, and would remain, incomprehensible, but when I went to my storehouse of emotions for a feeling on which to ground this knowledge I found it empty. Not merely empty, but swept bare and scoured.

Perhaps this season had, at last, burned that ability out of me. The turn of the year always tugs at the darker parts of the self, the winter of discontent as the poet has it, and this year had some extra elements that made it worse; -- a house by the sea, days of rain, the damp illness that would not leave, and the steady scenes of human beings like so much cordwood washed up in pools of stagnant water, the feet coming out of the wreckage, the survivors hunkered down in the mire, the shorelines scrubbed bare ... all that drove me deeper into myself and away from ....

No, that is not it. That is not it at all.

It was the scale of the thing, the staggering scale of the thing. A disaster so immense that it rose up and blasted through our thin screens on which we project reality, and surged off into the realms of myth taking perhaps a quarter of a million souls with it.

It was something like this, I finally understood, or something more terrible still, that surges in our shared memories where the shattered foundations of Atlantis sleep. And in that image I at last knew why I could not mourn.

All our vaunted technology (which had failed to protect them), all our touted ability to detect and communicate, (which had failed to warn them), all our outpouring of aid and goods and treasure (which had failed to save them), all underscored that we were not the lords of creation this time. Instead we were reminded, by their deaths and suffering projected across the globe, that we are all hostages to fortune. We all felt and continue to feel the stern tug on our leash. And that is a fearful thing. That is the fear from which myths are forged.

If we had lived in the age of Atlantis (Pace, whether or not Atlantis happened my friend. That is for another time.), if we had lived then or even 200 years ago, we would have experienced this disaster at this distance as an event already risen to the realm of myth by the time the tale was told.

First stories told by seaman would reach us, third hand or much more distant still. Then reports and letters sent over the months via couriers, traders, vagabonds, horsemen and ships would accumulate. A rising series of items would be published in the broadsheets -- first a column inch or so as a maritime announcement, then more and more reports until whole newspapers were consumed in dense, small black type relating in thicker prose the real, rumored, fanciful, false and, at last, mythic nature of the day a wave erased a world.

In time, travelers and survivors would be heard from, each one with a different tale, a different interpretation. Then lecturers would tour. Then books would complete the tapestry, and we would believe we knew what had happened much as we now believe we know what has happened. After all, we have the pictures, the videos, the internet reports, the views from space. We have the seismographic records. We have the computer models. We have oceans of data and mountains of information. Surely we know now, much better than our near or distant ancestors knew, exactly what had happened.

Better still we knew what to do, what could be done, and we were not, for once as a race, slow to muster the resources of nations to begin the effort of relief. We knew what to do and we have set about doing it.

It will go on for months and years and far into the future after that. The news will give way to television specials, the daily reports to articles in magazines that will swell into books. Here and there monuments will be raised along shorelines. Most of the dead will become known even if where they lay remains unknown. Their absence alone will announce them.

In a year or so, there will be feature films using all the special effects available at the time to place the viewers safely inside the event. Those that seek the ruined shores for relaxation are even now returning.

Finally, there will be the end of the multiple investigations and the ritual assigning of blame. There will also be a 'warning' system in place. And then, when all is done, we will -- being the most modern and rational collection of human beings ever to grace the Earth -- conclude that we really do know what happened and why. And by knowing the reasons we will tell ourselves we will be safer, more prepared, next time.

But we will know that it is a lie -- as clearly as I know my affecting of compassion was a lie. Because what has happened has already gone, beyond our power to recall it, into the realm of myth. We will remember it not as the Great Tsunami of 2004, but as the day that the sea swallowed up the land and all that were in its path. And we will all vaguely remember that it has all happened before, in smaller or greater ways, long ago, and will happen again. We have seen the myth of the deluge made real and as such it plunges deep down into our souls, far deeper than that shallow place where our modern, civilized emotions dwell.

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Posted by Vanderleun at September 14, 2005 12:24 PM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

How honestly you write. Thank you for that.

"Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work -
I am the grass; I cover all."

Carl Sandburg 'Grass' 1918

Posted by: Amy Byrd at January 9, 2005 5:40 PM
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