Talking about the Disasters to Come

This has been a strange week in my small world. It started with a cougar roaming around near my CTA stop and ended with an earthquake. In between was a series of computer code crashes and server failures and all-night conference calls and impatient managers to placate the next day. This week hasn’t been anomalous. Since last August my family and I have experienced the worst thunderstorm in at least half a century, the worst winter in 20 years, the worst real estate market collapse in living memory, the highest gas prices in history, and potentially the worst recession in 15 years–or worse, an actual depression. Lakes big (Michigan) and small (our own Birch Lake in Wisconsin) are at historically low levels. Twenty-four Chicago schoolchildren have been killed so far this year.  Throw in the collapse of the Cubs, the White Sox the Bears, the Bulls and, quite possibly, Barack Obama’s chances at the presidency (thanks a lot, Hillary! May you get 3 AM calls every night for the rest of your life) and one starts to think that we’re in the midst of some slow-motion, multi-faceted disaster. As a friend said to me last night, "This whole area is on suicide watch."

If it’s hard to find solutions to many of these problems (one problem has already been solved: the cougar was shot later that day by Chicago police), it helps to make grim remarks about them. In The Writing of the Disaster Maurice Blanchot points out that the French word for disaster, désastre, literally means "from the stars." Because disaster is something that is thrown down, like dice, from indifferent gods, it’s neither a catastrophe nor a tragedy. Blanchot says disaster "dismisses all ideas of failure and success." It "impoverishes all experience, withdraws from experience all authenticity." If Walter Benjamin is right, impoverished experience (Erlebnis) can’t be effectively narrated and made meaningful in a larger sense. Impoverished experience is one damn thing after another. Confronted with startlingly high prices at the gas pumps or a cougar stalking the streets, people complain or trade fact and speculation, but no coherent narratives emerge, at least none that can be told by ordinary people have to live through these experiences. Disasters big and small don’t conform to our normal means of constructing cause and effect. They’re outrages, pure and simple; they’re monstrous provocations.

"This whole area is on suicide watch"–what a telling remark. It’s a point at the beginning, or the end, or a story. It’s also a bit of black humor, an ironic twist on a cliché doubly ironic in the context of a notorious suicide of a local resident. In its multiple meanings, the remark is a literary meme. Blanchot would call the remark "skeptical gaiety." He cites Levanas’s assertion "Language is itself already skepticism" to make the claim that to write about a disaster is to practice a happy skepticism, to set in play the As If in the face of the menace of disaster. If we can’t tell stories to console ourselves, we can play with language, spinning out pregnant metaphors, implying stories that won’t ever be told. This play is a way to avoid just throwing up our hands and accepting fate, for there is no refuge in fatality. That would assume we’re the intended victims of disaster. "The disaster is not our affair and has no regard for us; it is heedlessness unlimited," Blanchot writes.

Indulging in black humor may seem like a futile or inappropriate gesture, but Blanchot would see it as countering dreadful ambiguity with a playful, even hopeful ambiguity. Read enough news stories on the web and in print about a failing economy and a deteriorating environment and after a while you don’t know what to think or how to feel. Figurative language, the kind largely banished from journalistic writing, interjects the possibility of feeling differently about how badly things are going. It opens up the possibility that no matter what happens, we will learn from the experience.

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