Saturday, 16 January 2010

Disasters proper

When it comes to the scale of Haiti, or, before, Phuket, or all the other places where a catastrophic event - an event that within a year is half-forgotten - overtakes a more than comprehensible number of people at one time, our consciousness takes a severe jolt. I speak for myself only, as ever, but I suspect it is the case with us.

Because, in the first place, it is a little like having a limb, a small limb, of the body sapiens actually removed. We experience it as a loss to ourselves. The number is that significant. It is not that each individual caught up in the disaster feels it more acutely than he or she might if it had happened to a smaller group, or indeed just to the individual. That seems unlikely. Do we say to ourselves: I am part of a universal disaster? Or, The whole damn ship is going down and I amongst them?

I did dream once - maybe more than once - of being caught up in a disaster. Apprehension had thickened to knowledge.It was dusk. There were silent groups waiting in public places for their doom, and they weren't welcoming, and yet they would have been congregating for a reason. Maybe it offered some melancholy comfort. (Some of this dream material surfaces in the last section of 'An English Apocalypse' series.) In the dream I was aware of those others but I did not think they were either a comfort or a threat to me. Their very clumping together seemed an important aspect of the melancholy. The uniting factor was, after all, the common knowledge of impending disaster. No panic, just an oppressive melancholy.

Do we each die alone? Is that the sensation? Does it help to have a companionable death or does it make death worse?

Nobody knew they were going to die in Haiti. It happened too suddenly. The mind has only very little time to adjust to the disaster. A moment or two of panic. And then, if one has survived, the seeking of a way out back to normality, a way that might or might not appear.

Part of us - for 'us' please read 'me' if it doesn't suit - lives in the consciousness that disasters happen, almost inevitably, in disaster-threatened places. Geological fault lines. Volcanoes. Lands prone to flood or famine. Desperately poor places. Places with a long history of war. If the disaster is on large enough scale it appears we lose a limb, but it's a limb we can afford. We give money to help what can be helped. Within a month we are back to normality.

It is the puzzle of vast numbers. I can image 200,000 in a stadium. I have seen 200,000 people gathered together for a political purpose in a vast square in Budapest. It did not seem in the least likely that there would be large scale loss of life (say 25, or even 100) that day, though we must all have been aware that 200,000 people gathered semi-legally for a political purpose is a riskier option than attending the Maracana Stadium. We are aware of risk.

I cannot comprehend Haiti. I couldn't comprehend it before either, but now it has a meaning that is incomprehensible in a parallel fashion. Now it does feel as though I have lost a limb - a finger, or just the end of a finger - and I know it will grow again but the shock of its vanishing remains.


James said...

Haiti has become a metaphor for planet earth.

Gwil W said...

"Haiti has become a metaphor for planet earth"

...although as George correctly hints the sinking ship (invariably the Titanic) is the powerful metaphor; the place where some interesting questions may be pondered.
Do I stay in the ballroom with the band playing on or choose my spot on the deck...

George S said...

I take the point about planet earth - though it was, in fact, planet earth that produced the disaster and I don't think anyone is saying this one was man-made. It might not a metaphor for planet earth then: it might simply be planet earth, naked and without a stitch of metaphor to wear.

It might also serve as a reminder that earth has never been a prehistorical paradise where everyone was happy and there was peaceful commerce between man, beast and vegetation. I don't, and never have, bought into that popular myth.

My sense may be just the small, and probably insignificant, feeling that a large loss in the family of man is like a wound to the psychologically conceived body. More precisely, it is not just like a wound that proceeds through an intellectual act in which the metaphor serves as mediation (which is, I take it, what you are suggesting): it is apprehended more directly. It is a wound, albeit a wound that heals.

I have read of people who have felt such things quite directly, and am told it may be more general among women. I have no desire to be mystical about it - but perfectly sensible people can sometimes accept the suggestion that twins might have a keener sense of each other's difficult and dramatic condition however distant. I don't know. I don't assert that it happens, and have no rational explanation as to how that process might work. I cannot entirely dismiss it however.

But then that is also to be mystical, I suppose The rationalist in me wants to dismiss the idea, but cannot quite. I don't, of course, claim any such psychic powers myself.

So let's call it a metaphor after all, but perhaps a peculiar class of metaphor, one about vulnerability and insecurity - about bodies in general. About our sense of wholeness as concentrated in the body.

Gwil W said...

George, may I through your comment box promulgate my blog post of today - Simple Haiti Rescue Plan. Many thanks in anticipation.

George S said...

Of course, Gwilym..

Gwil W said...

Once again, thank you!

Unknown said...

Here's the link, gents:
Simple Haiti Rescue Plan

(Another James, not the planet earth metaphor one)

tom said...

Slight flaw in that plan. Instead of already obviously difficult problem of getting relatively mobile aid/helpers to affected areas you are suggesting to reverse that and multiply the problem by requesting all the injured/displaced people to somehow get to the aid.

Billy C said...

Tom, PiR's idea is not a novel one. It happens elsewhere where there is famine etc. And it works. However, I do think in this particular case, it's a non-starter. Too many people would have to give up their holiday in these floating hotels for it to happen.

Gwil W said...

James, thank you!

tom, if helicopters dropped thousands of leaflets leaflets with information about the plan on Day 1 there would be no problem. Lack of information is that causes most of the problems.

Billy C, The people giving up their cruise holidays would of course receive discount vouchers to be used against future bookings. It should be a UN rule that cruise passengers accept this 'emergency aid' condition before boarding.

Gwil W said...

I have e-mailed the Canada office of Reporters Without Borders in the hope that some influential journalist with the relevant contacts will pick up the idea and run with it. We can but hope. We can but do what we can.

Gwil W said...

BBC World TV reports Guantanamo may take 10,000 refugees.

Billy C said...

"It should be a UN rule that cruise passengers accept this 'emergency aid' condition before boarding."

Then it would work.

I do believe one of Haiti's rap heros has been on the tv advocating that as many as possible relocate out of town and nearer to the aid. It makes good sense to me. Far better than remaining in the city having to maraud and cause unrest to scavenge for whatever they can get their hands on and hampering the teams of rescuers. Why it wasn't done as a matter of priority is puzzling me.