Sunday, September 11, 2011

Reflections on catastrophe

Ten years ago the U.S. homeland was attacked by Islamic terrorists. The Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon near Washington, D.C. were the targets of airliners, while a fourth plane failed in its target and went down in a field in Pennsylvania. I went through photos yesterday, looking for something different for this blog, and discovered the one above highlighting another NYC icon, the Statue of Liberty. No matter how many times I am downtown, and sometimes I am even on the Hudson River in a kayak, my eyes always seek out the statue.

To signal this tenth anniversary of the attacks, I will not dwell on my response, which I recorded at the time and sent to friends. Maybe on the 20th anniversary, I will dig it out and look at it. There is a lot of controversy concerning the U.S. response to the attacks, and I feel that it is still a bit soon to be able to properly assess them. I want to talk here about another catastrophe, not of men's making, but a natural one, namely, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Goethe wrote about it over half a century after the event, in his autobiography Poetry and Truth.

It seems to me that the advanced thinkers of the 18th century would have had little difficulty in responding to the attacks of 9/11. Clearly, these were attacks of war, similar to Pearl Harbor, if not backed up by the military resources of any particular nation. It is a different kind of army that is waging this war, but the 18th-century thinkers had given lots of thought to war. Mostly they thought that religious conflicts were behind wars, though even in the case of 9/11 it is not only religion that propels the terrorists. The 9/11 terrorists, after all, were not products of madrasas but of Western education. Nevertheless, for 18th-century thinkers, a military response to an attack like 9/11 (as in the invasion of Afghanistan) would not have been considered intelligent or rational. War was bad.

The memory of the Thirty Years' War was still fresh in the early decades of the 18th century, when Bodmer began his literary career. In his Critical Observations of 1741, he talks about the effects of certain phenomena on the emotions, the first two of which are beauty and grandeur. Both of these are "natural" phenomena and can be said to be universal in their operations: as humans, we all respond to beauty and to grand objects like the starry skies above. He included a third group, however, which turns out to fit oddly with these two phenomena, namely, the effects of what he calls "das Ungestueme" (or violent). Among these are violent storms, plagues, shipwrecks, and so on, in a sense "natural" phenomena but ones that cast us down rather than elevate our emotions. He also mentions in this category wars and the operations of "Pulver" or weaponry.

This last, however, cannot be considered natural in the same way as a tsunami, but Bodmer was not engaging in philosophical reflections here. He was writing about the effects of the representation of these phenomena in poetry. Thus, his examples of the category of "das Ungestueme" are all taken from literature. For instance, he begins by discussing the shipwrecks in the Odyssey and the Aneid. On the effects of the representation of war he introduces his favorite poet, Martin Opitz, who was alive during the Thirty Years' War. I haven't looked at his work in years, but Opitz did, in a sense, poeticize about contemporary events (for instance, the marriage of his princely patron), perhaps even about the battles that plagued Germany before 1648. (Although I think Opitz may have spent many of the years in Holland.) But even Opitz drew his literary inspiration from earlier poets, and his treatment of contemporary battles was saturated with earlier literary representation.

By the time Goethe wrote his observations on the Lisbon earthquake, however, even poets were reflecting on natural phenomena and trying to give voice to their reaction to them, stripped of mediated literary garb. In doing a little research for this post, I was surprised to discover that Kant had written three texts on earthquakes, inspired by the one in Lisbon. Earthquakes, of course, were a subject of reflection on the sublime, but Kant seems to have been interested in the geology. Goethe's response to the earthquake, like that of many in the 18th century, was to question the supposed providential design of the world. Here is a portion of the reaction of his six-year-old self. (Goethe was born in 1749.):

God-fearing persons were moved to wise observations, philosophers offered consoling arguments, and clergymen preached fiery sermons. ... [T]he demon of terror has perhaps at no other time spread its chill over the world as quickly and powerfully.

Having to hear all of this repeatedly, I was more than a little disconcerted by it in my boyish mind. God, the Creator and Preserver of heaven and earth, who had been presented to me as so very wise and merciful in the explanation of the first article of the Creed, had shown Himself by no means fatherly when He abandoned both the just and the unjust to the same destruction (transl. Robert R. Heitner).

Goethe is here documenting the contemporary philosophical and theological reflection concerning the causes of the Lisbon earthquake. As Theodor Adorno wrote concerning Voltaire, the earthquake caused him to abandon his Leibnizian theodicy. Goethe's response is slightly different, accusing God of having been wrathful. The latter response, however, seems normal or usual; people are always inclined to think things might have been different had they only acted differently and to consider bad things a judgment on them. I am not so sure we should get over our feeling of connectedness, even if we don't really influence the course of natural phenomena.

I notice, however, that the occurrence of catastrophic natural events -- tsunamis, etc. -- always brings out the skeptics and cynics who make fun of people who do believe a divine hand is at work. These cynics introduce the theodicy argument: why would a benevolent God allow such bad things to happen, to the just and unjust alike, as Goethe wrote? These skeptics have a point, but I notice that when the catastrophic event is not natural, but is rather mad-made, as in the case of 9/11, the skeptics are the first to say we should not start casting blame. As with violent natural phenomena, there must be an explanation. This is a legacy of the Enlightenment, when we began to understand the workings of the natural world and even to have some control over them. I can't help thinking that the current fears about global warming tap into our belief that we might have some control over nature, if we just change our bad ways.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. I struggle personally with the "glass half empty" mindset that gets me nowhere fast...Even the non-believers I've talked to admit to me that they would be "much happier" if they could somehow believe. For me, part of it is keeping the mind elevated. One could read the New Testament which helps a body keep his "eye on the prize" or the "bright hope" of 'resurrection,' as the Holy Father put it recently. Or, one could even attempt to read Hegel, who appears to be striving mightily to give an account of God and "providence" and "reason" and "categories" among other elevated and not-so-elevated topics (nature!) the meaning of which the tradition (including Kant) was taking for granted--or so it seems!

I'm very grateful for this introduction to German authors of note I'd not heard of.

יונתן said...

very interesting and enlightening post, as always. I'm too grateful for the efforts taken to produce such an informative and enriching posts.

By the way, this post made me think about the jewish concept of Mitzva, which dervie form the hebrew verb to obey and does not allow the followers to dwell upon the question of their behavior's influence, but rather reinforces the 'good deed' (though there is the Reward and Punishment system). said...

Very interesting! Thank you for this article!

Anonymous said...

On the comment: Thanks for the meaning of the Hebrew, "mitzva." This comment, in turn, made me think of the Greek (Aristotelian) concept of the "kalagathia," the THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE GOOD--otherwise put: the noble and the just. Anyhow, in The Philosopher, too, noble deeds are "choiceworthy" for their own sake, without any ulterior motive. For Aristotle, as I recall some forty years later, moral virtue, moral standards and moral deeds...these all have an ultimate status. Our professor translated them simply as "facts," using our idiom. "There are certain things that are simply not done; there is a difference between right and wrong." Of course, in Aristotle, as in all the Great Ones, the story goes on and on. David Brooks has a sharp op-ed piece out today that warns against any and every kind of "rigid" or "insular" thinking especially where the fate of the world is at issue. The U. of Chicago grad does his profession proud. Would that our president would listen, ie, "obey." I want to chime in too and praise this blog for its always fresh and thought-provoking content. I continue to gravitate, as do many, to things German. By the way, we need to keep in our thoughts and prayers Angela Merkel who is having to make some extremely tough, historic decisions vis-a-vis Germany vis-a-vis the European Union (with its impact on the world economy at present). Let us stay positive--and realistic too.