On Natural Disasters and Their “Tranquil Spectators”

I was always a tremendous nerd, a literary nerd. One strange, science-y topic stood outlier: I was obsessed with natural disasters in very quiet but specific ways. Earthquakes were one thing; I was retrospectively very proud of myself for having slept through the 1994 Northridge earthquake, at the tender age of almost three. Volcanos were another. I read and re-read this one children’s history book about Pompeii, practically until it fell apart. I had a mesmerizing and terrifying recurring dream, about standing at the edge of the ocean and watching a mountain belch smoke and lava, which became the water and encroached toward me, creeping two steps forward, and one step back, like the tide. The dream was always silent, like an old movie, but illuminated in the red-gold light of lava. I would be frightened but unmoving, and I think several times, the lava waves crashed over me. If I was burnt, it didn’t register.

Dreams aside, not that they ever are—volcanos. They’re amazing, in the sense that awesome means something awe-inspiring. They are these otherworldly giants breathing alongside us, dormant for years, then extinct, like dinosaurs but better because they don’t lose their shape. People who are more educated than I can reconstruct what dinosaurs might have looked like from the blueprints of their bones, but they might be wrong about the details. Any third-grader, bespectacled or not, can look at a mountain and see its sheer size, and raw shape. I had a book about Pompeii that I read over and over again; I spent cumulatively, several hours in the small, I guess geology-themed subsection of my elementary school’s library, over the course of many brief visits (we never had enough time). At camp, my favorite song was about Mt. St. Helens, a volcano in Washington, whose 1980 eruption was, I believe, unexpectedly intense. Why this song was having a resurgence in popularity at a Jewish summer camp in California, in the early 2000s, I will never know. Many questions.

In college I took this brilliant course called Green Romanticism, one of those classes that’s so inspiring that everything I did was underwhelming. I often have this experience—when I am most excited about the ideas being discussed and most want to impress the people with whom I am discussing them, I am kind of an idiot. My research for the course was something that has stuck with me and continues to be a “research interest” when I am trying to pretend that I still belong in academia: the imagination of (natural) disasters—to borrow and modify a phrase from Susan Sontag—in literature. Which is to ask, what role did real life natural disasters pose in the shaping of literature, and what do those pieces of literature reflect about how people perceived natural disasters? I studied two particular events: an earthquake in 1755 that wiped out most of the city of Lisbon and large swaths of surrounding Portugal, Spain, and Morocco, and the year 1816—more the time rather the event—the rather violent eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, a stratovolcano, or composite volcano, so extreme that it sent the northern hemisphere into a volcanic winter. 1816: “the year without a summer,” or “eighteen hundred and froze-to-death,” which is a little less quippy, but I believe was actually said, around the time.

1816 is perhaps best known in the literary world not for crop failure and subsequent food riots (which certainly did happen), but as the beginning of science-fiction as we know it. Villa Diodati, Lake Geneva, Switzerland—you may have heard the story, and if you haven’t, it’s amazing—George Gordon, better known as Lord Byron, his doctor friend John Polidori, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (soon to be Shelley), and Claire Claremont, Mary’s step-sister, all vacationing alongside each other. It was sheer debauchery. Mary seems to have been of soundest mind, recording a lot of useful information about the weather, how cold it was, how often it rained, and this gem: “the laden clouds made the darkness almost as deep as that of midnight; but in the west an unusually brilliant and fiery redness occupied an opening in the vapours…” Otherworldly!

[This was also when the painter J. M. W. Turner started revolutionizing landscapes and produced a series of very beautiful, very moody, sort of apocalyptic red sunsets. Definitely creative but maybe less creative than we think—if that’s what the sky actually looked like.]

Sailing, horseback riding, wine-drinking, drug-taking, writing. After a vivid nightmare, Mary Shelley had the idea for Frankenstein. Byron produced several poems, including one appropriately called, “Darkness,” which opens with an image of the sun extinguished and the world frozen. Polidori wrote a short vampire story that would go on to influence Dracula, and Percy worked on whatever he was working on. Claire got pregnant.

In my opinion, Frankenstein was the highlight of the summer (apologies to Claire and Allegra, her daughter). The text asks a lot of powerful questions about life and responsibility, complicated by technology. Victor is god-like, yet not. He brings the creature to life, and is then disgusted by him; he abandons his creation and spends a lot of time being ill and feeling sorry for himself. There’s a lot of talk about fate, destiny, the power of nature, and the ramifications of humankind interfering with nature. Hold on to these ideas and go back in time with me to 1755.

The Great Lisbon Earthquake would have been between an 8.5 and a 9.0 on the modern Richter scale; it killed over 75,000 people and started a fire that raged for several days. While the Romantics were unaware of Tambora’s eruption and thus why the weather was so awful, the earthquake in Lisbon was difficult to miss. Influential poet and essayist François-Marie Arouet, more commonly known as Voltaire, wrote a cheerful text called “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster; Or an Examination of the Axiom, ‘All is Well.’” We all know someone who ardently espouses the belief that “EVERYTHING’S FINE,” when everything is decidedly not fine, probably because they hope that if they will it, it will be. We all know that person; we hate that person. That person is exactly the sort of folk that Voltaire couldn’t stand in the wake of the quake (sorry, couldn’t resist). He questioned their certainty in “the great eternal cause, that knows all things,” and wrote:

“God holds the chain: is not himself enchained;
By his indulgent choice is all arranged;
Implacable he’s not, but free and just.
Why suffer we, then, under one so just?”

If God is just, how could he do this to us?

It’s a question that has been asked a thousand times or more throughout history and chronicled in literature; I’m not going to ask it again now.

Voltaire pointed out, “All peoples, trembling at the hand of God, / Have sought the source of evil in the world,” highlighting a cross-cultural trend, wherein people have interpreted natural disasters as moral damnation, a punishment for humankind’s behavior. I want to jest, How self-centered! that over time, we’ve obsessed over this idea—particularly in the 1700s and 1800s, when these events really had very little to do with us. Post-industrial humankind has a little more to answer for, not unlike Victor Frankenstein.

American philosopher Susan Neiman writes, in Evil in Modern Thought (2002), that “[Natural disasters] inhabit the borders of human meaning. We want to understand just so much about them as might help us gain control.” The Great Lisbon Earthquake was a remarkable event because it created a demand for less theological, more intellectual discussions of disaster; it was actually the first earthquake studied for its impact across a large area. Neiman’s point would ring very truly to Voltaire, who was actually doing something quite radical in questioning the idea that natural disasters are our deserved punishment by a higher power. If natural disasters are not the result of human actions, people are “absolved of responsibility not only for causing or compensating them but even for thinking about them, except in pragmatic and technological terms.”

What a dangerous, yet accurate observation. People turn to faith when they feel powerless, but they also use God’s will or a more general idea of karma to shift blame.

Just at the end of August, Ken Storey, a professor from the University of Tampa, lost his job for opining that Hurricane Harvey is the karmic result of Texas’ tendency to vote Republican, writing that Texans “need to do more to stop the evil their state pushes.” Voltaire could have been writing today:

“Tranquil spectators of your brothers’ wreck,
Unmoved by this repellant dance of death,
Who calmly seek the reason of such storms,
Let them but lash your own security;
Your tears will mingle freely with the flood.”

I find it especially cutting to equate Storey, who must be feeling really moronic right now, what with Hurricane Irma approaching Florida, with Voltaire’s “tranquil spectators.” He apparently wrote that Floridians who voted red also would deserve some kind of karma; the University of Tampa added, apologetically, in an email sent out to students and faculty that, “As Floridians, we are well aware of the destruction and suffering associated with tropical weather,” which would dovetail nicely with Voltaire’s description of “your brothers’ wreck.”

Proving more salaciously that Twitter really is the foreground of people saying ridiculous things, Ann Coulter wrote in the same week: “I don’t believe Hurricane Harvey is God’s punishment for Houston electing a lesbian mayor. But that is more credible than ‘climate change.’” I say: would that lesbians had such influence over the weather; undoubtedly though, they would use such power for good.

Scientists, who do truly “seek the reason of such storms,” as Voltaire put it, were paying attention. They knew that Harvey was going to happen; they knew it would be unprecedented in its scope and extremity. Certainly, the Gulf coast has always been victim to hurricanes and flooding, as far as we know, but Harvey follows an increase in rainstorms and flooding in the Houston area over the past several years, and is now the heaviest rainstorm in US history. Climate change may not have caused it, but it certainly has exacerbated the severity, and it’s alarming to think of how this pattern is just going to continue, especially as 45 has stacked the EPA with oil tycoons and recently slashed some of Obama’s standards on building new infrastructure…just important little things like evaluating the potential impact of climate change and rising ocean levels.

There’s something powerful to consider in how we’ve shifted yet not really moved from Voltaire’s day. The Coulters and Storeys are still setting blame (or result, I suppose) on moral action, yet our real culpability is largely unaccepted. The earth has always been a powerful, moving force; life originating in so-called primordial soup, Pangaea breaking apart in the Mesozoic area and giving us tectonic plates as we know them. It’s not that our actions are causing natural disasters, simply that industrialization, pollution, and global warming are making these disasters worse.

Our knowledge of science manages to demystify disasters, a small advantage we have over Voltaire, Byron, and the Shelleys, but 2017 will appear on the timeline of major natural disasters, and whatever knowledge we have is no comfort. On the same day that all five living former Presidents of the United States banded together in launching, “One America Appeal,” a joint fundraising effort for Harvey relief efforts, the news is reporting that Hurricane Irma, which has already devastated several Caribbean islands and set a record for the Atlantic, of maintaining 185 mph winds for over 24 hours, will hit Florida as a Category 4 hurricane, just recently downgraded in the last few hours.

Writing about the Great Lisbon Earthquake, Neiman draws another point relevant to our time: “The consciousness that emerged after Lisbon was an attempt at maturity. If Enlightenment is the courage to think for oneself, it’s also the courage to assume responsibility for the world into which one is thrown.” People were forced to reconsider the world, to question how they had previously viewed it—something only some of us are doing now. Neiman continues, “Every time we make the judgment this ought not to have happened, we are stepping onto a path that leads straight to the problem of evil,” and this is not so much a historical problem as a moral one. It is our fault that the severity of these storms has increased so drastically; it is now our responsibility to care for our planet and its citizens, those near and far from us, in the wake of disaster. We must not be the “tranquil spectators” Voltaire loathed in 1755. The facts of global warming have been around long enough; that warning, to not stand by as others suffer, has been around for much longer.

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