Go Home, Noah. You’re Drunk.

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:


Moral Possibilities of the Catastrophic

Another short (with curiously bad sound—whither the static?). This time inspired by Primo Levi’s assertion that “things whose existence is not morally possible cannot exist.” And I think history plays a roll here, inasmuch as the morally possible shifts over time. And we cannot undo or unremember (though maybe we should investigate that) past moral reprehensibilities. Which would suggest a perpetual slide into the catastrophic.

Dualities in Catastrophe

“Progress and catastrophe are two sides of the same coin,” wrote Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism. Without the Joker, there is no Batman. How we weave together historical narrative is dependent upon crafting foils in order to highlight stories we mean to tell. Below is another brief soundclip, mainly me playing with the technology—and rehearsing ideas for an imminent podcast project (more on which soon). Dualities and dichotomies feature in how we approach the catastrophic, and I draw on a bit of fiction to help illustrate some of these.

Into the Abyss: The Catastrophic as Purely Atmospheric

How we engage with catastrophe has to show up in our social and cultural fears, anxieties, paranoias, and uncertainties. What scares us and how—and that things scare us—are a fundamental aspect of history. More on this in more detail, as I limp towards completion of my manuscript on toxic fear. But thinking more broadly about fears, and fears of the unknown, and unknown fears (fears we didn’t know we had?), these stories and imaginations probably shape a good deal of our histories. And we should acknowledge that. And, back to the catastrophic, it might help us to read more deeply into our cultural histories of fear—and how the catastrophic functions within the modern human condition. Below is another sound stub, linking three pieces of writing that resonated or helped draw on implicit connections that might not be there, but encouraged me to dig deeper into ideas about the uncertainties surrounding the abyss, the unknown, where catastrophe might lurk.

The Water Knife: Contemplating Aridity in the American Southwest

Look: the American southwest is already parched. Much of the early, excellent environmental history I encountered in graduate school straddled subdisciplines of environmental history and the history of the American West. Though I resisted the premise that the West was flat, arid, and treeless—courtesy of Walter Prescott Webb—I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, which was geographically west, but none of these things. So I didn’t really relate. Nevertheless, upon reading Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire, and Charles E. Wilkinson’s Crossing the Next Meridian, it became abundantly clear to me that my wet West was very much the exception, and that water or its absence was a defining feature of the western landscape and its history.

Below is a brief reflection on another book—a recent read—Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, set in the not-so-very distant future, where water scarcity has become even more severe. Earlier this week, I attended a sci-fi book club at the Ark + Anchor café to discuss The Water Knife. The great pleasure of participating was that my older two children read the book as well and participated, too.