Predicting Disaster

January 3, 2005
Category: Uncategorized

Hey Ellen,

After 9/11/01, when the world was reeling in shock from the hideous attacks on the World Trade Center, I wrote a column about what it was like being a book editor during a time of intense breaking news. “While my colleagues were busy covering the horrific events of this past week, reporting on rescue efforts, chasing down local reaction and writing commentary,” I wrote, “I felt adrift. As a book editor, what could I add to the cacophony of voices expressing disbelief and grief that would help us get through this extraordinary moment in our history?”

I couldn’t help but think of that column as we faced news of truly biblical proportions last week.

In that post-9/11 column, I concluded that there was one thing I could offer during such incomprehensible times: the solace of literature. Many people, I pointed out, were quoting these lines from W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” in an attempt to express how they were feeling: “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

The Irish author’s terrifying poem imagined an inhumane world about to be born, and his words, although written 80 years before, seemed to be speaking about current events. That, of course, is what great literature can do — allow us to share in our common humanity across time. 

Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” at the end of World War I, when Europe was facing the rise of fascism. Thirty years later, an African writer, Chinua Achebe, wrote a novel using one of Yeats’ phrases — “Things Fall Apart” — to describe the wrenching dislocations and losses his people were feeling as the evils of colonialism broke apart his continent’s traditional societies. The particulars in each case were different, but the emotions of loss and confusion remained stubbornly the same. And that, to me was the strangely comforting solace of literature.

But can literature offer any solace in the face of the most recent global disaster, which, after all, was not caused by any human failing? I could think of only one book I had recently read that might be of some comfort: “The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith,” by David L. Ulin. Ulin, shaken himself by a 1994 earthquake in California, interviews seismologists as well as earthquake “predictors,” only to conclude that earthquakes are not about us. They belong to cosmic, not human, time. Although that may not offer much comfort, it does tell us to keep on keeping on — because there’s nothing you can do about it anyway. Can you think of any other book to recommend? 

Hi Margo,

“The Myth of Solid Ground” holds special interest for me, given that, like Ulin, I sit atop the “Ring of Fire,” the earthquake-prone Pacific Rim. But his book about the unsteady nature of the planet, while containing literary elements, remains non-fiction — the form better equipped to answer the “what” than the “why” of natural events that result in extreme human misery. There may be no real explanation for last week’s disaster beyond the “what,” of course, unless you ascribe such events to the wrath of the Divine. But even then, it seems to me, it’s presumptuous to assume His reasoning. “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport”: That’s Shakespeare’s famous, shoulder-shrugging line. Still, I believe some literature CAN throw us a lifeline for exploring the mystery.

For example: I’ve been thinking about Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago’s novel, “Blindness.” In the tradition of Dante’s “Inferno” and Camus’ “The Plague,” Saramago’s book is a master of postapocalyptic literature. “Blindness” revolves around an epidemic of sight loss that begins to inflict a nameless city and ironically “sees” the unfolding events through an ophthalmologist who becomes blind and his wife, who does not. So what the heck does this have to do with current headlines? A lot, actually. Saramago’s fictional epidemic is both a plague AND a leveler, because no one is immune. The book explores not only the common humanity you mention but also our individual responsibility to those who suffer.

This is my context for contrasting the natural disasters in Southeast Asia with manmade tragedies unfolding in Sudan and Iraq. There is nothing about the tsunami itself that is good. And yet, in the face of the terrible destruction wrought by nature, we see survivors’ responses that demonstrate incredible kindness and sacrifice (even among those of us so far away who have felt compelled to make a donation to the humanitarian work that must be done). We see healing hands, and the best part of OUR natures coming forth. For me, this contrasts dramatically with those other events, which show the HUMAN capacity (hunger?) to destroy, the places where the center cannot hold.    

I have watched and read with fascination about the tsunami and the response. I have searched, mostly in vain, for thoughtful op-ed pieces that grapple with the more metaphysical aspects of the tsunami. (The best I’ve found so far, to run on page one of the New York Observer Jan. 10: Ron Rosenbaum’s commentary, “Disaster Ignites Debate: Was God in the Tsunami?“) At this point, I don’t need to hear from one more earthquake expert or track the death count. Facts and numbers can’t address the more fundamental questions that roll in like rogue waves after the first initial shock. As you so rightly point out, literature can.

Dear Ellen,

Journalists do seem obsessed during these times of disaster with numbers: how many killed, how much money pledged, etc. We either get “human interest” stories of loss or survival or we get a tallying of figures. I agree that fiction is especially well-equipped to get beneath the facts — and go beyond the merely voyeuristic — but don’t count out non-fiction that is willing to ask deeper, more philosophical questions.

Journalists tend to want answers, which is why they usually have a hard time covering science. As one scientist told Ulin in “The Myth of Solid Ground,” “Science is not about answers. It’s about questions. After you know an answer, it’s not science anymore.”

I don’t think journalists should shy away from trying to place their investigations into larger contexts, even philosophical contexts, as Ulin has done in “The Myth of Solid Ground.” He was willing to back away from the human perspective and its narrow view of time and take a look at earthquakes on a cosmic scale.

“To live with earthquakes,” he concludes, “is to have one foot in the present and the other in the deepest reaches of the past. It is to find a balance, to understand that everything is always up for grabs.”