Public tragedy, private pain: In a sea of powerful images, where do we find catharsis?
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 6 September 2005)

For long periods of the Middle Ages, the greatest European best-seller, the manuscript most often painstakingly copied by hand, was a sixth-century book, The Consolation of Philosophy, written by Boethius while Theodoric the Great, King of the Ostrogoths, was holding him in prison for treason.

What Boethius did for that long-ago time needs doing for this moment in history. Where, in the melancholy summer of 2005, should we look for comfort? Last week, television delivered soul-lacerating helicopter pictures of New Orleans people standing on rooftops, begging for help. Each morning, newspapers brought still photos that intensified our pain.

If we were alive to our surroundings, we were overwhelmed by terror and pity, for ourselves as well as for the wretched people on the Gulf Coast. Catastrophe made us freshly aware that our life is supported by invisible webs of communication and interdependence. Snap these and humans are helpless and desolate.

We must someday assimilate all this and draw at least fragments of understanding from the pain. Eventually, it becomes the business of literature and philosophy to impose order and meaning on chaos; but that comes later, often much later.

Meanwhile, we have to deal with the scars left on our memories by last week's images. Intimate pictures on live television have charged the famous words of John Donne ("Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in Mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee") with an unprecedented force. Charlie Chaplin once remarked that life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but comedy in long-shot. Today the world's most appalling events come to us only in unrelenting close-up. And who among us so lacks empathy that they can look at those pictures and not imagine themselves standing on one of those roofs, or holding their babies in their arms and crying out to the void for justice or mercy?

In the crisis, nature asserted an inevitable tyranny, and humans displayed an infinite capacity for confusion and incompetence. America, unaccountably paralyzed by an often-predicted disaster, unable to supply even clean water to its citizens, has suddenly looked like a miserable disappointment. America failed itself. Efficiency, organization, a sense of priorities -- all these deserted America. Chains of command dissolved under pressure. For five days or more, no one was in charge, no one gave the orders or the reassurance that everyone awaited. It was as if George W. Bush's administration, including the President, had gone into a shock-induced coma.

Those of us who love America looked on in horror, and its enemies exulted. Muhammad Yousef Al-Mlaifi, who runs the research centre for the ministry of endowment in Kuwait, wrote a jubilant article on Aug. 31 in Al-Siyassa, a Kuwaiti daily. Under the heading, "The Terrorist Katrina is One of the Soldiers of Allah," he recalled a statement by the Prophet Muhammad to the effect that the same wind can bring torment to some people and mercy to others. Al-Mlaifi suggested that Katrina was a wind of torment and evil "that Allah has sent to this American empire."

During the past weekend, as the situation of New Orleans grew less chaotic, it became clear that we are moving into a period of mourning. This greatest of all North American natural disasters has marked off an epoch in history. New Orleans and the Gulf coast may recover in some ways, and no doubt New Orleans will reach back to regain the joie de vivre that made it famous; even so it seems inevitable its history will be stamped pre-Katrina and post-Katrina.

It's possible to mourn a historic period. (I think I mourn the pre-9/11 epoch as much as I mourn my parents.) It's also painful. In The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius remarked on the great emotional difficulty of recalling, in a period of wretchedness, an earlier and happier time. Two of the book's most distinguished readers, Chaucer and Dante, liked that passage so much that they translated it and used it themselves, Dante in The Divine Comedy.

Sigmund Freud, in Mourning and Melancholia, a paper he wrote in 1917, depicted mourning as labour (he called it "grief work") that must be thoughtful and unhurried. His essay is the basic text for the army of grief counsellors who flourish among us with their "coping responses" and "tactics for healing." Freud's main tactic was time. He left us with the view that mourning requires patience and a slow, bit-by-bit survey of the person to be mourned. He makes it plain that "Let's just move on" is a dumb idea. A sprightly refusal to acknowledge sadness can leave the human spirit like broken equipment, with wires sticking out of the wrong places.

Perhaps that's what W.H. Auden was talking about when he decided he didn't much like his most celebrated poem, September 1, 1939, which ends with "Show an affirming flame." It was much reproduced on the Web after Sept. 11, 2001, and this year Christopher Hitchens called it "the greatest poem ever written on American soil." Auden thought not. He came to believe it was "infected with an incurable dishonesty," a kind of preachy smugness, as if the author had the one simple answer to worldwide tragedy. It was too easy. He omitted it from later collections.

Auden might have argued that in contemplating disaster we need instead to reach for the catharsis, the purging and cleansing, that Aristotle discussed when he wrote about tragedy in drama. We need to remember what was good and understand why it vanished. If we are to remain sane and yet also sensitive to our times we need to let ourselves know pity and fear on the road to catharsis.

Private life never fails to reassert itself, even in moments of collective tragedy. People will laugh this morning at everyday jokes, and others will weep by themselves over private miseries. Some of us will make money today, some lose it. Babies will be conceived. We cannot act otherwise, but we also cannot forget. On the weekend, remembering to remember, I listened once more to the 1920s records of Johnny Dodds, the greatest clarinetist of the first jazz period. Some find them awkward, but in every note he plays we can hear the brilliant, brave and honest sound of New Orleans as it was, pre-Katrina.

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