I Think Catastrophe Always Arrives. It's Just A Matter of How You Deal With It.
This one is dark.
A few weeks ago I was sitting in my minivan on the streets of uptown Minneapolis. My side door was open and I was facing to the outside, feet resting on the sidewalk, eating tuna and crackers from a red plastic bowl. I feel a bit self-conscious looking like this, like a down and out street kid, random papers and possessions piled up in my car. Not that I’m opposed to looking a little feral from a purely aesthetic sense, but I’d rather not have people think I’m in need of charity. “Excuse me, sir,” a passing woman said to me, “I live nearby. Can I bring you some food?” “Oh no, I’m okay, thank you. I have plenty,” I said. “Okay,” she said and turned to leave. “Have a good one,” I said.
“No good deed…” I worried she might be thinking to herself.
I’m not homeless, I swear. I’m just cheap.
Later, it started to sprinkle. Then heavy rain followed. I closed my door and windows and continued my meal inside the car. But then the droplets on the roof started getting louder and louder, more violent. The plicking started hurting my ears. It wasn’t just rain. It had turned to hail. Big hail. Huge solid balls of ice were hitting my windshield. Sharp, scary raps on the glass. I could barely see through the windows. It all came on so fast and unexpected. I just sat there in dumb shock really. It sounded like my roof was going to cave in. The glass sounded like it was ready to shatter. I didn’t know what to do. So I just sat there, watching it all happen in front of me. Bicyclists were speeding by in the street. People were running for cover. After a couple minutes the hail storm seemed to die down a bit and I started my car and drove for cover underneath a nearby tree. Broken leaves and small branches were covering the roadway. I turned on the local public radio station to hear them giving updates on the storm. “We’re getting reports of golf ball sized hail out there. That is definitely going to cause damage. If you can find some cover and stay inside please do so.” Thankfully the report said that the worst of the storm had already passed over Minneapolis. But my windshield was cracked in a couple places. Little divots were scattered all over my hood and roof. I looked around at other people’s cars and their metal surfaces looked like golf balls themselves. One person’s car had three big spider web craters in their windshield. “God, that sucks,” I said to no one. I suppose I was relatively lucky.
When it was all over, I was struck by my response to the storm in the moment. I wasn’t thinking, what can I do about this? How can I avert damage to my car? Do I have anything to protect my windows? None of that. I just kept thinking to myself, this can’t be happening. There’s no way this is real. This is ridiculous. There’s no way hail could be this bad. This can’t be happening. What the heck? This can’t be happening.
Part of this had to do with the fact that I’m from California and I’ve never seen hail larger than the innocuous size of ball bearings. Surely it could never be worse than that. But it was worse. A lot worse. I was a little ashamed and frustrated at how I responded in the moment. Not that there was really much more I could have done in reality. Going outside would have been dangerous. I didn’t have anything to protect my car. Driving blindly also seemed dangerous. But still. It was just…, I couldn’t believe it was actually happening. And all my thinking was just struggling with that simple fact of the reality of the situation, not how to deal with the reality.
And, well, this made me think of that precise, grim, all too common human response to much higher stakes situations. There are people, I would hazard to say most people, who are undone by the inability to accept reality and then react quickly.
During the Spanish Civil War, the first real war against the forces of fascism, unfortunate internecine fighting occurred on the left-wing Republican side. Soviet controlled communist factions began suppressing anarchist militias for being “traitors” to the revolution. George Orwell, who fought with the anarchist POUM militia suddenly found himself the target of this suppression. “In spite of the innumerable arrests it was almost impossible for me to believe that I was in any danger,” Orwell wrote in Homage to Catalonia, his memoir of the war:
The whole thing seemed too meaningless. It was the same refusal to take this idiotic onslaught seriously that had led [POUM member] Kopp into jail. I kept saying, but why should anyone want to arrest me? What had I done? I was not even a party member of the POUM…. Patiently [my wife] explained the state of affairs. It did not matter what I had done or not done. This was not a round-up of criminals; it was merely a reign of terror. I was not guilty of any definite act, but I was guilty of “Trotskyism”. The fact that I had served in the POUM militia was quite enough to get me into prison.
I have done nothing wrong. Why should this be happening to me? This kind of response is a logical appeal to moral reason in the face of an absurd, morally neutral universe. Rarely does this thinking do anyone in such a situation any good. Primo Levi, a survivor of the Auschwitz death camp wrote, “Things whose existence is not morally comprehensible cannot exist.” Orwell could not ultimately reason with the Stalinist reign of terror in Spain. He had to run, hide, skulk in alleyways, sleep outside, and flee the country. It was either this or, as many of his comrades did, succumb to the liquidation.
In Kafka’s classic work, The Trial, a man who is arrested and accused of a crime he is not permitted to know the nature of and who is not permitted to speak to a judge faces a similar crisis of unbelief. “Who could these men be?” he wonders about his detainers. “What were they talking about? What authority could they represent?” He “lived in a country with a legal constitution, there was universal peace, all the laws were in force; who dared seize him in his own dwelling? He had always been inclined to take things easily, to believe in the worst only when the worst happened, to take no care for the morrow even when the outlook was threatening. But that struck him as not being the right policy here, one could certainly regard the whole thing as a joke…”
People who are accustomed to a relatively peaceful life are simply emotionally incapable of accepting the reality of catastrophe, though they may understand it intellectually. When it finally does arrive, when the hail is hitting hard, there is no preparedness, only incomprehension. Even for those who survive traumatic, world-ending violence, they often appraise the event as an unreality. As Susan Sontag notes in Regarding the Pain of Others:
“It felt like a movie” seems to have displaced the way survivors of a catastrophe used to express the short-term unassimilability of what they had gone through: “It felt like a dream.”
Part of what should be considered essential literature of the Holocaust is Marek Edelman’s first-hand account of his involvement in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. More than a bristling description of the horrid conditions in the ghetto or the utter depravity of Nazi soldiers and their Jewish and Ukrainian collaborators, Edelman consistently emphasizes that the Jewish people, with notable exceptions among young radicals, utterly refused to accept, until the very end, the true nature of their situation. After some escapees from the Chelmno death camp told their story to the Warsaw ghetto, a story of 80,000 Jews being “led into hermetically closed trucks containing gas chambers,” Edelman writes that the “Warsaw ghetto did not believe these reports. People who clung to their lives with superhuman determination were unable to believe that they could be killed in such a manner.”
Later, with reports of tens of thousands of Jews being slaughtered by advancing German troops on the Eastern front, “the uninformed public again took a near-sighted view of the situation. The majority was still of the opinion that the murders were not a result of an organized, orderly policy to exterminate the Jewish people, but acts of misbehaviour on the part of victory-drunk troops.”
As murderous acts began intensifying in the ghetto itself, people started to apprehend that they were being collectively terrorized, but they sought comfort in the notion that if they just followed the rules, death would not come for them. Edelman writes that, “[o]ver fifty social workers were dragged from their homes…by German officers and shot in the ghetto streets. … The following morning the entire ghetto, stunned, terrified, hysterical, tried to find the reasons behind these executions. The majority came to the conclusion that the action was aimed at political leaders, and that all illegal activities should have been stopped so as not to needlessly increase the tremendous number of victims.”
Violence is all around us. But we can escape it if we just keep our heads down. Don’t rock the boat. We will survive the war. This kind of thinking prevented large scale resistance to the Nazi violence. “The ghetto was dumbfounded by the terror of what was happening and by fear of large-scale retaliations on the part of the Germans,” Edelman writes, “Once more every effort to decide on armed resistance was nipped in the bud. The fear of the Germans and of their policy of collective responsibility was such that even the best refused to show any signs of protest.”
Rumors of “wholesale slaughters” were leaking into the ghetto. But they were only rumors, too lurid to countenance.
…people dismissed as untrue the story of the wholesale slaughter of almost the entire transport of German Jews brought the previous year to the vicinity of Lublin. The stories about the executions in the Lublin woods were too horrible, it was thought, to be true.
The ghetto did not believe.
The Lublin ghetto housed 300,000 Jews. Surely the Germans would not kill so many people.
People argued with one another and tried to convince others and themselves that "even the Germans would not murder hundreds of thousands of people without any reason whatever, particularly in times when they were in such need of productive power..." A normal human being with normal mental processes was simply unable to conceive that a difference in the colour of eyes or hair or different racial origin might be sufficient causes for murder.
Jewish radicals, Edelman among them, disseminated pamphlets arguing that this violence was a form of systematic extermination. “Our view, however, remained as isolated as it had been before. Only some youth groups…shared our convictions.” Even after detailed first-hand accounts from the horrific Treblinka camp came to Warsaw and were published in the ghetto, “the population stubbornly refused to believe the truth. They simply closed their eyes to the unpleasant facts and fought against them with all the means at their disposal.”
Even within the death camps themselves, the truth was too horrible to contend with. Filip Müller, a Czech survivor of Auschwitz recalls:
One day in 1943 when I was already in Crematorium 5, a train from Bialystok arrived. A prisoner on the “special detail” saw a woman in the “undressing room” who was the wife of a friend of his. He came right out and told her: “You are going to be exterminated. In three hours, you’ll be ashes.” The woman believed him because she knew him. She ran all over and warned to the other women. “We’re going to be killed. We’re going to be gassed.” Mothers carrying their children on their shoulders didn’t want to hear that. They decided the woman was crazy. They chased her away. So, she went to the men. To no avail. Not that they didn’t believe her. They’d heard rumors in the Bialystok ghetto, or in Grodno, and elsewhere. But who wanted to hear that? When she saw that no one would listen, she scratched her whole face. Out of despair. In shock. And she started to scream.
Those who surround themselves with shallow comforts believe in the stability of their accoutrements. People busy themselves with their day to day tasks and eke out some solace from it. “…no matter how difficult life had been,” Edelman writes, “the ghetto inhabitants felt that their everyday life, the very foundations of their existence, were based on something stabilized and durable; that one could try to balance one's budget or make preparations for the winter.”
This illusory comfort has been true for many of those who ultimately become the victims of war. “At the inception of every war I covered, most people were unable to cope with the nightmare that was about to engulf them,” writes former war correspondent Chris Hedges:
Signs of disintegration surrounded them. Shootings. Kidnappings. The bifurcation of polarized extremes into antagonistic armed groups or militias. Hate speech. Political paralysis. Apocalyptic rhetoric. The breakdown of social services. Food shortages. Circumscribed daily existence. But the fragility of society is too emotionally fraught for most of us to accept. We endow the institutions and structures around us with an eternal permanence.
When covering the war in Yugoslavia, Hedges came up against the illusions that people nurse until it is too late:
I would return at night to Pristina in Kosovo after having been stopped by Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) rebels a few miles outside the capital. But when I described my experiences to my Kosovar Albanian friends — highly educated and multilingual — they dismissed them. “Those are Serbs dressed up like rebels to justify Serb repression,” they answered. They did not grasp they were at war until Serb paramilitary forces rounded them up at gunpoint, herded them into boxcars and shipped them off to Macedonia.
Even in the very real face of death, mortality itself can seem ridiculous. Orwell wrote of his experience of being shot through the neck by a fascist sniper while standing in the Republican trenches in Spain:
Roughly speaking it was the sensation of being at the center of an explosion. There seemed to be a loud bang and a blinding flash of light all around me, and I felt a tremendous shock - no pain, only a violent shock, such as you get from an electric terminal; with it a sense of utter weakness, a feeling of being stricken and shriveled up to nothing…My first thought, conventionally enough, was for my wife. My second was violent resentment at having to leave this world which, when all is said and done, suits me so well. I had time to feel this very vividly. The stupid mischance infuriated me. The meaninglessness of it! To be bumped off, not even in battle, but in this stale corner of the trenches, thanks to a moment's carelessness!
I’ve often thought that if I were to be taken unexpectedly, by chance, by twist of fate, with just enough time to perceive what was happening to me, the recurring thought going through my fading head would be: God, this is so stupid. This is so stupid.
There’s a movie called Ex Machina that I’ve seen only once years ago and I remember literally only one thing about it. So, spoilers: One of the main characters, an inventor of human-like androids, finds that he can no longer control his creation (surprise, surprise). At the end, one of the androids stabs him, leaving a mortal wound. He doesn’t provide much resistance. He mainly seems incredulous about the whole thing. As he stumbles away, blood staining his shirt, he says, “Fuckin’ unreal,” and dies.
Fuckin’ unreal. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment. It rings true.
At the end of Kafka’s The Trial (sorry to spoil a book that’s nearly a hundred years old), after the powerless protagonist, simply called “K.,” has come up against and exhausted any bureaucratic avenues to arguing against his accusers, and after several frustrating, dreamlike encounters with those who could help him but just make matters worse and more confusing, a pair of men arrive to officiously, finally, dispatch K. These men, these “tenth-rate old actors they send for me,” repel K. with “the painful cleanliness of their faces.” The two men kindly but firmly lead the hapless protagonist to his doom. K. is at once expecting his fate, offering little physical resistance, yet remaining mentally unaccepting of it. After settling upon a spot carry out the deed, one of the men removes K.’s shirt in preparation for what is to come. The two men lay him down on the ground, awkwardly, in a position of somewhat sexual supplication. “But in spite of the pains they took and all the willingness K. showed, his posture remained contorted and unnatural looking.” In his final moments, K. imagines a miracle of sorts, a deluded hope of salvation:
His glance fell on the top story of the house adjoining the quarry. With a flicker as of a light going up, the casements of a window there suddenly flew open; a human figure, faint and insubstantial at that distance and that height, leaned abruptly far forward and stretched both arms still farther. Who was it? A friend? A good man? Someone who sympathized? Someone who wanted to help? Was it one person only? Or was it mankind? Was help at hand? Were there arguments in his favor that had been overlooked? Of course there must be. Logic is doubtless unshakable, but it cannot withstand a man who wants to go on living. Where was the judge whom he had never seen? Where was the high Court, to which he had never penetrated? He raised his hands and spread out all his fingers.
But the hands of one of the partners were already at K.’s throat, while the other thrust the knife deep into his heart and turned it there twice. With failing eyes K. could still see the two of them immediately before him, cheek leaning against cheek, watching the final act. “Like a dog!” he said; it was as if the shame of it must outlive him.
No one is coming to save us. This should be plain. But logic “cannot withstand a man who wants to go on living.”
There are those who apprehend the coming climate catastrophe. They make their choices. Some have elected death. Like others before them, they are called pessimists. They are derided as fear-mongers. The war will not come for us. We are safe here. “What do you tell a terminal patient seeking relief?” Hedges writes, “Yes, this period of distress may pass, but it’s not over. It will get worse. There will be more highs and lows and then mostly lows, and then death. But no one wants to look that far ahead. We live moment to moment, illusion to illusion. And when the skies clear we pretend that normality will return. Except it won’t.”
Edelman writes of the profound despair experienced in the railcars that transported condemned Jews to their death. It was in this despair that people finally understood their fate:
On the second day hunger begins to twist the stomach in painful spasms, cracked lips long for a drop of water. The times when people were given three loaves of bread are long since gone. Sweating, feverish children lie helplessly in their mothers' arms. People seem to shrink, become smaller, greyer.
All eyes have a wild, crazy, fearful look. People look pale, helpless, desperate. There is a sudden flash of revelation that soon the worst, the incredible, the thing one would not believe to the very last moment is bound to happen. Here, in this crowded square, all the continually nursed illusions collapse, all the brittle hopes that "maybe I may save myself and my dearest ones from total destruction"... collapse. A nightmare settles on one's chest, grips one's throat, shoves one's eyes out of their sockets, opens one's mouth to a soundless cry. An old man imploringly and feverishly hangs on to strangers around him. A helplessly suffering mother presses three children to her heart. One wants to yell, but there is nobody to yell to; to implore, to argue--there is nobody to argue with; one is alone, completely alone in this multitudinous crowd. One can almost feel the ten--nay, hundred, thousand--rifles aimed at one's heart. The figures of the Ukrainians grow to gigantic proportions. And then one does not know of anything any more, does not think about anything, one sits down dully in a corner, right in the mud and dung of the wet floor. The air becomes more and more stuffy, the place becomes more and more crowded, not because of the thousands of bodies and the odour of the rooms, but because of the sudden understanding that all is lost, that nothing can be done, that one must perish.
We are mostly uncomprehending creatures. Few have the clarity and the fortitude to name reality. “[We are] a people that want life and nothing more,” wrote a Palestinian journalist on a social media post that spurred the Great March of Return, where Israel killed around 150 Palestinians who protested at the Gazan border fence. “Nothing can delay this idea but the shackles of our self-delusions. We are dying in this tiny besieged place, so why not bolt before the knife reaches out throats? … If there must be a price to pay, then let it be in the direction of what is right, in the direction of returning to Palestine, where we can get new land and deepen the enemy’s existential impasse. Once we implement this idea and achieve a historic breakthrough, we’ll find out that we’ve wasted many years on hesitation and forbearance. Revolt! You have nothing to lose, but your chains.”
To revolt is to know your fate. To revolt is to comprehend. To revolt is to see clearly.
It was only with this understanding that the few remaining Jews in the Warsaw ghetto began to fight back with smuggled rifles, pistols, improvised grenades, mines, and molotov cocktails, taking perhaps a hundred Nazi soldiers down with them.
But down they went.
I just, I don’t want us to be uncomprehending when catastrophe hits. I want people to think about these things before they happen. I am not a depressive or morose person. These subjects do not bring me down emotionally. But disaster is coming. And I have seen time and again the people around me have absolutely no appetite for talking about such things. The feeling of surprise was one of the most unfortunate reactions to the 9/11 attacks. And I don’t even blame people for their ignorance prior to the attacks. The mainstream media assiduously hides any discussions of underlying causes and contexts when it comes to violence directed against the state, be it foreign or domestic. Of course the terror unleashed that morning would be shocking to a citizenry weaned on American exceptionalism in all their media. “Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together,” Sontag had the courage to write in print following the terror attacks. She was predictably pilloried. By all means, people are right in feeling horrified, in grieving, in being angry, in despairing, in not knowing what’s the right thing to do. These are all perfectly normal, human responses to disaster. Just, let us not be surprised when the time comes. That’s what I’m arguing for. Surprise suggests an utter inability to contend with the facts as they are, to face reality and to make your own choices.
I couldn’t believe the hail would do any damage; it seemed so silly; i couldn’t believe I would be wanted for arrest - i didn’t do anything; i couldn’t believe that the war would come to us - we are safe here; the ghetto did not believe - carefully nurtured illusions washed away; they did not believe that the catastrophe - the nakba - would come for them; it seems undeserved, i didn’t do anything wrong, as if all of life’s experience was not enough to prove that no good deed goes unpunished; it seems too severe to be believed, “even the Germans would not murder hundreds of thousands of people without any reason whatever, particularly in times when they were in such need of productive power..."; it seems surreal - and for those who have never experienced such things, it is surreal, it is dreamlike, it does feel like a movie - but then it happens. the bullet rips through your body. if you’re still alive to perceive it, it feels something like “being at the center of an explosion,” it feels stupid and pointless. am I dying? yes, i am. why? why am i dying like this? this is silly. I can’t believe it. god, this is so stupid. “fuckin’ unreal,” he said. fuckin’ unreal.
But real it is.
The knife is in our hearts, twisting. It is absurd, of course it is. Who said it would be otherwise? But it’s also true, forever. It really is happening. Whether you’re ready or not.
Anyway, fuck hailstorms. I need a new goddam windshield now.