Catastrophes in Human Memory

Back today to devastating tsunami flooding off the Indian Ocean, with hundreds of thousands dead. Wait: no, I’m not referring here to the tsunami flooding of Boxing Day, 2004. I’m referring to the cyclone-driven big waves that inundated Bangladesh back in 1991, killing around 135,000. You say you don’t remember that disaster? Well, that’s the point here: what makes you think that you’ll remember the Boxing Day 2004 tsunamis for very much longer as Time resumes its inexorable advance? You may be concerned and alarmed now, but who (or what) is to say that for most of the world’s population (except those who have suffered losses, of course) this event in short order will simply be relegated to some list of disasters chronicled on an obscure (and, perhaps, a bizarrely olive-drab-colored) webpage?

Yes, as US Navy helicopters and other assorted equipment finally start moving in aid to those in Sumatra, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, etc. who need it, some of those of us left behind here in the West, with little else left to do to help (presumably after giving money), have already taken up the intellectual exercise of trying to assess the likely place of the Boxing Day floods within the world’s historical memory. Here EuroSavant once again resorts to Denmark’s excellent commentary newspaper, Information, and specifically to Mette-Line Thorup’s recent article The Catastrophe’s Metaphysics.

(“Mette-Line Thorup”: Ahhh . . . you just can’t get more Danish than that! Just remember to pronounce that “tt” not as [t] but as [d]. And by the way, other commentators back here in the untouched West are responding with rather more on-the-ground-practical suggestions, like this proposal for national disaster insurance – although he really means world disaster insurance – from Educated Guesswork, who was also the source for that list-of-disasters link.)

Ms. Thorup leans heavily for her analysis upon the commentary of historian Henrik Jensen of Roskilde University, who remarks that:

It is precisely the interpretation that one bestows upon an event that becomes decisive as to how it is remembered. This has nothing to do with the quantity of dead. There have always been natural disasters that have killed thousands, and most of these are forgotten. But a few stand out, if they acquire the nature of a turning-point.

(Language note: Jensen’s very-last word in that quote is brud, which translates from the Danish directly along the lines of “break” or “breach,” but which I’m interpreting here as “turning-point.” And, just as a warning to any amateurs out there who may be tempted to try performing this sort of interpretation themselves at home, if you’re not careful you could easily find yourselves misled by your Danish-English dictionary into translating that instead as either “bride” or “weasel” – those are also brud in Danish. Here’s a tip, for those determined to ignore my advice and try anyway: don’t forget the significance of the et you see in front of Jensen’s use of brud in the original quotation, as opposed to an en.)

(Further parenthetical note: Here I am trying to write about history – in particular, the history of instances of many thousands of people dying at once – and yet I allow the flow of my weblog entry’s narrative to get hung up on frivolous language points like the one just above! Yes, I guess that’s right, I do; I’m having trouble myself trying to understand right now what’s gotten into me, and especially why my mind seems to be wrapped around the question of the deeper hidden meaning, if any, of this strange confluence of “bride” and “weasel.” Could this just be left-over New Year’s Eve giddiness, more than twenty-four hours after the fact?)


OK then, it doesn’t necessarily matter how many die, but rather how the given tragedy is perceived after-the-fact – on what you could call its “spin,” I guess, although by-and-large natural catastrophes are not in the habit of caring so much about their public relations. Take as a prime example here the infamous September 11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Yes, that was fully a man-made disaster, but the point in this context is that, hey, “only” around 3,000 people died in contrast to, to take again the “bait-‘n-switch” example with which I started this piece, 45 times that many who died in Bangladesh in 1991. Yet “9/11” will surely be remembered far into the future – while “Bangladesh 91” is already forgotten – not only because of that snappy “9/11” label, not only because in the one case it was largely Westerners being horribly killed, 110 stories above the pavement, in what is perhaps the world’s media capital, while in the other it was “only” Bangladeshi peasants being drowned in their fields and in their homes, but mainly because of the way “9/11” signalled a new vulnerability to attack that Americans to that point did not believe they had, and then because of the resulting way it totally re-directed subsequent political, military, social, etc. developments. (Pearl Harbor – need I add “’41”? – was the same sort of event, which the world will commemorate for many centuries to come.)

Here’s another example, but this time more in the true “natural disaster” line: “Lisbon ’55,” or the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755. (That was an earthquake just off Lisbon of about the same magnitude as the one that just happened off Sumatra, with resulting deadly tidal waves, by the way. It killed between 30,000 and 60,000 in those less-populated times.) You say you don’t remember that one, either? Then that, my friend, may simply hint at the lapses in your attention back when you were (supposed to be) in school. For the Lisbon earthquake did have its own spinmeister in the form of the renowned French philosopher Voltaire, who used the event in his novel Candide to cast doubt upon the Enlightenment’s prevailing optimism and belief in the inevitability of progress (personified in Voltaire’s case by the German mathematician/philosopher Leibniz, but never mind). Indeed, the tragedy in Lisbon will be remembered for a long time at least by those studying the history of philosophy – Candide or no Candide – precisely as this sort of philosophical turning-point. (Ms. Thorup further quotes Jensen as pointing out that the French Revolution occurred not that long thereafter, but I myself would hesitate before assigning any of the credit for that to what happened in Lisbon.)


OK, so maybe we struck out with the Lisbon earthquake. What about the Black Death? Everyone has heard of the Black Death, right?, even though it raged six-and-a-half centuries ago. Now there’s your blockbuster natural catastrophe, wiping out around 25 million people, about a third of Europe’s population at the time. But do we remember it because of that horrific casualty toll? Actually, the Black Death did have its own spinmeister, at least according to Henrik Jensen: Martin Luther. In Jensen’s formulation, before the Black Death, Europe’s population believed in the Roman Catholic Church. But then, when the Church proved to be helpless to keep so many of its flock from unaccountably dropping like flies, people’s belief (those who survived, of course) shifted from belief in the Church to direct belief in God Himself, i.e. to the desire for a direct, unmediated relationship with God which was the common denominator behind the various Protestant “heresies” which began to spring up at the beginning of the following century. Here we clearly see a “turning-point” brought by the calamity in question, and this time the connection to the momentous political and cultural events that followed it certainly seems credible. No wonder we all remember the “Black Death” (although, just like “9/11,” that catchy moniker helps considerably with the all-important name-recognition – good job, Martin!).

As for “Boxing Day 2004,” our resident historian Henrik Jensen is pessimistic about whether our latest catastrophe will turn out to have much staying-power in the world’s memory. But Ms. Thorup has other perspectives available up her sleeve, and gets a contrasting opinion from one Christian Balselv-Olesen, currently country-coordinator for UNICEF in Eritrea. Yes, says Balselv-Olesen, “Boxing Day 2004” is sure to be remembered for a long while, principally (whether you like the reasoning or not) because of the large numbers of sun-seeking Western tourists who were caught up and perished in the mayhem. And that’s rather unfortunate, he says, because of the attention that is sure to draw off from the others in the world suffering just as much, in fact for rather longer, but not in a position to be able to suffer for the TV cameras – say, the persecuted tribes of Sudan’s Darfur region. In fact, he’s in favor of some sort of reform to United Nations institutions which would serve to keep reminding donor-countries of death and destruction going on wherever in the world, of the “forgotten catastrophes.” (The thought of all these “forgotten catastrophes,” if you accept that they’re happening all the time, might cast Educated Guess’ insurance proposal into serious doubt, though. It sounds like the financial drain on any such fund would be continuous. Or, if you try to separate “catastrophes” which merit being addressed with such money from “catastrophes” that do not, just how and where do you draw that boundary?)


Finally, Ms. Thorup brings up the philosopher Arno Victor Nielsen (Danish again, of course; in fact, “Nielsen” is so common a last name in Denmark that it’s the equivalent there of “Smith”) to remind us that there’s a good reason why historical calamities tend to recede out of our collective memory: it has to be so! (To be fair, Henrik Jensen also mentions this aspect.) Seeing such horrible things happen (and not being able to do much about them) is traumatic and, if unwisely thought about too much, can tend to erode many of our comfortable religious/philosophical assumptions. Doing something in response – sending money, usually – generally amounts to a gesture that in itself can do little but which helps to counter these feelings of helplessness (a “lie to oneself,” Nielsen calls it). It’s just better to forget, is his advice. (Indeed, he is completely ambiguous about whether one should forget after sending one’s token gesture of assistance, or right off the bat!)

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