More catastrophic thinking. Günther Anders writes about the Flood and Noah’s preparations. Because this is, in many traditions, the first real catastrophe on a massive scale. From Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s fabulous book, A Short Treatise on the Metaphysics of Tsunamis, a translation of Anders’s account:
Only a man who was mourning [the death of] a beloved child or his wife was allowed [to clothe himself in sackcloth and cover his head with ashes]. Clothed in the garb of truth, bearer of sorrow, [Noah] went back to the city, resolved to turn the curiosity, spitefulness, and superstition of its inhabitants to his advantage. Soon a small crowd of curious people had gathered around him. They asked him questions. They asked if someone had died, and who the dead person was. Noah replied to them that many had died, and then, to the great amusement of his listeners, said that they themselves were the dead of whom he spoke. When he was asked when this catastrophe had taken place, he replied to them: ‘Tomorrow.’ Profiting from their attention and confusion, Noah drew himself up to his full height and said these words: ‘The day after tomorrow, the flood will be something that will have been. And when the flood will have been, everything that is will never have existed. When the flood will have carried off everything that is, everything that will have been, it will be too late to remember, for there will no longer be anyone alive. And so there will no longer be any difference between the dead and those who mourn them. If I have come before you, it is in order to reverse time, to mourn tomorrow’s dead today. The day after tomorrow will be too late.’ With this he went back whence he had come, took off the sackcloth [that he wore], cleaned his face of the ashes that covered it, and went to his workshop. That evening a carpenter knocked on his door and said to him: ‘Let me help you build an ark, so that it may become false.’ Later a roofer joined them, saying: ‘It is raining over the mountains, let me help you, so that it may become false.’
This story captures so many elements of my interest in catastrophe and future-thinking and so on. And there is a powerful suggestion of human resilience and hope, even in the face of total collapse. I find this moving.
But there’s another part of Noah’s story, which has as profound an influence on the Old Testament and the human condition that follows. Noah’s son Ham is cursed, because he sees Noah in his nakedness, drunk in his tent, and tells his brothers about it. And this brings us back to the internal suffering that is a largely un-investigated aspect of the catastrophic: Ham, but also Noah himself. Historians stress the complex powers of memory and remembering—and also the social politics of forgetting—the past or elements of it. Theologians have posited that Noah did not understand the intoxicating powers of his wine. Maybe Noah knew only too well, but sought to blot out the disasters he has witnessed?
On that, a brief audio thought: