Saturday, 16 January 2010
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.