A Literal Girl

Leaf

Notes on disaster pornography, helplessness, and the light of the stars going out

First there is the bad thing that happens. Then there are the videos. We live in an age of disaster pornography; we can literally watch the wave rolling in, over and over again. We can see the destruction as it happens, and then relive that moment as often as we can bear, or oftener. I don’t just mean in Japan, of course. I mean everywhere, all the time. Horror is such a part of daily life – not personal horror but horror on a grand scale, a universal scale, a scale such that it ceases to seem horrific, starts to seem ordinary.

Google searches reinforce this sense of helplessness; we see the water sweep away roads, the photograph of a house far out at sea, the cars dwarfed by disaster, driving fast but not fast enough. There is not only nothing we can do because these things are so big, so utterly beyond us – can you swoop down like superman, pluck the house from the sea? – but also because they have already happened. The waves cannot be reversed or the quake contained, the damage undone.

***

I find myself watching The Wonders of the Universe. I have a beer while Brian Cox describes the arrow of time, the inevitable end of everything. “Events always happen in the same order. They’re never jumbled up, and they never go backwards,” he says, watching chunks of ice from a glacier fall into the lake below, then sifting through sand in an abandoned mining town in the Namibian desert. He looks calm when he says these things. I don’t feel calm watching clips on YouTube: aerial shots of the aftermath, “first person raw footage”, though I’m compelled to click on the suggested videos, to keep clicking. And this disaster pornography leads eventually to a climax of complete helplessness.

***

“Calm is only an interval between chaos. Nothing is guaranteed, not even the ground we stand on,” Alain de Botton writes. We see this manifested somewhere else, we take it home, apply it to what we know. We think it gives us perspective. And yet when people say things like, “oh, this really puts things into perspective,” or, “oh, it’s really hard to pity someone who’s dealing with [for example] a mashed potato ‘shortage’ with global events being the way they are,” or whatever, what are they actually saying? I mean, are they saying, ‘no one should complain because someone else always has it harder’? Or, ‘no one who lives in a developed country that hasn’t recently been hit with a natural disaster or ravaged by warfare and has enough, fundamentally, to get by on should complain’?

I think like this too, but only when something big happens, and surely it would be appropriate for us to think like this all of the time. To think, every day, how grateful we should be, how little right we have to complain. Except that what a stupid thing to think. How unlikely that anyone ever could, really, think like that. Not because it isn’t true but precisely because it is true. Precisely because we would soon drown in the waters of our own gratitude; because there is just too much to be grateful for, in the same way that there is just too much to be afraid of.

***

The fact is this: the light of all the stars in the universe will go out someday. But a stubbed toe still hurts. Compassion, even understanding, does not make our own tiny problems any less problematic, though to see a house swept out to sea may allow you to rethink the urgency of these problems. On the 11th of March lots of people on Twitter were saying, “my heart goes out,” “my thoughts are with all those people,” “pray for Japan.” But these are the things we say to console ourselves, not to make things better, they are what we say when we have reached that climax of helplessness.

***

Which is not to say that prayers and thoughts are worthless. Their worth is a very human worth; in the same way that sometimes the way the afternoon lights passes through the trees pleases a passerby for no particular reason, to say, “my thoughts are with them” is to try to connect in a language that does not exist, but can nonetheless be felt. A language of helplessness but also of hopefulness. We are struck by the weight of disaster because we suddenly understand how equal we all are. We watch the videos again and again, we broadcast them and comment on them, precisely because they highlight the vastness of what we collectively do not know, do not expect.

***

Seneca: ‘Nothing ought to be unexpected by us. Our minds should be sent forward in advance to meet all the problems, and we should consider, not what is wont to happen, but what can happen. What is man? A vessel that the slightest shaking, the slightest toss will break. A body weak and fragile.’

***

And yet everything is always unexpected. Our minds cannot meet all the problems; we consider what is wont to happen and what can happen in equal measure, unsure how much time to devote to worrying about each possibility. We remain breakable vessels, bodies weak and fragile. “Perhaps tonight or before tonight will split open the spot where you stand securely” (Seneca again). In California, where I grew up – “a society built on quicksand, where everyone is getting new lives every day,” as the writer Pico Iyer describes it – we were always both worrying and not-worrying about the spot splitting open where we stood securely. It was fires and mudslides mostly; and at night in my dreams I made lists of what to pack and take away with me if we had to evacuate, but I did not live each day in fear, you cannot live each day in fear. Meanwhile our Italian relatives, living practically on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, said, how do you live there, with all the earthquakes? One relative remembers when the volcano erupted in 1944; he was a boy, having a haircut, and the barber told him to go home to die, so he did go home, but he did not die, not then. Not like all the people of pompeii, whose frozen figures we visit now summertime hordes.

The volcano will erupt again, perhaps. The fires do not care for the patterns of human settlement; the earth shifts, the tide sweeps in and out. We make more mashed potatoes, because it is easier than trying to account for everything that could go wrong, every crack that could appear. We are surprised-but-not-surprised, again and again, by what we both know and do not know: that everything can happen, everything will happen, that is within our power to imagine.

***

We can, as I understand it, make fairly concrete predictions about how and even when the universe itself will cease to exist. I find this profoundly comforting, this idea that the universe is not forever, even if its eventual inevitable death is still so far off that we do not really have the vocabulary to describe how far off it really is. I guess it’s this idea that everything is bigger than you – that’s nice, isn’t it? I watch a simulation of what it would be like, if there was a place from where to watch the light from each star fade, like candles being extinguished. I mean, that’s perspective. The light from every star gone, or nearly gone. The whole of human history and potential completely irrelevant. All of us who ever have been and ever will be, all irrelevant together. It calms an anxious mind, to feel, every once in awhile, a little helpless. To feel at the mercy of the arrow of time rather than able to steer it.

***

I start to think about how the language of science is really just metaphor. Never mind the chemistry and the equations. We talk about the birth of the universe (itself an analogy – the birth of the universe, which we only say because we have really no other language for it, it is too far outside even our collective experience and understanding of things) in terms of ice crystals forming out of steam as it cools. We talk about entropy in terms of sand castles, nuclear fusion in terms of a child blowing bubbles.

So all these things that happen to us, all of these things that we can predict and equally not-predict, can be described in a language that is simple, relatable. It is their effects, I suppose, that we have a harder time understanding. The implications, the meanings. What it means that all the carbon in the universe, that lends life to us, was produced as a result of the death of something else. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything at all, but there is really no way to tell.

***

Maybe what I really want to say is that it feels unnatural to watch a natural disaster unfold. Like we have been given this great vantage point from which to do nothing. And I don’t know what good it does to watch, to feel helpless and sympathetic, to watch again; I only know that it is somehow better than not watching and not knowing.

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About Miranda Ward

California-born, UK-based author and PhD student. Read more...
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