(9/11/11: the first in a series)

Long ago loosed from popular memory, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 was not only a natural catastrophe but a crisis of the enlightenment mind as well. The quake is estimated to have lasted ten minutes, with three distinct jolts. Modern seismological estimates, based on recorded observations of the temblor’s effects, are that the quake was a 9.0 on the Richter scale, the same as the 2004 Indian Ocean quake off Sumatra. It was felt in North Africa and Central Europe and was quickly followed by the three tsunamis, with waves of perhaps fifty feet, sweeping out to sea not only thousands from shaky ground, but many who had sought refuge from the disaster in boats. Then came the fires. Much of Lisbonwas destroyed. Varied estimates are that up to sixty thousand people lost their lives. And it happened the morning of All Soul’s Day.

A common sentiment at the time, among those both more and less Christian, was that the disaster was God’s punishment on a sinful world. Even among those of less apocalyptic bent, there was a crisis of faith. Why would God unleash such punishment so indiscriminately upon even the innocent? Voltaire, among other thinkers and artists across Europe, was profoundly influenced by the historic calamity, and he went to intellectual war, in Candide and elsewhere, with Leibniz’s optimism that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Artists depicted the event well into the next century. Yet the Lisbon earthquake was also a turning point in the development of natural science and the rationalist response to life on earth. Vast efforts were made to understand the quake as a natural phenomenon. Modern seismology may be said to have been born from the event. The prime minister of Portugal, Sebastião de Melo, amid much political infighting and contestation, organized probably the first modern governmental disaster relief and reconstruction program. Lisbon was rebuilt.

There is a comparison to be drawn between the Lisbon earthquake, over two hundred and fifty years ago, and the 9/11 attack on the United States. Though an obvious dissimilarity is that the quake was a natural disaster, and 9/11 decidedly not, that distinction was not so clear to mid-eighteenth century Europeans, and there were far too many, those who are religious (including, obviously, the perpetrators of the attack) and even those who are not, who considered 9/11 to be, if not God’s, at least some form of ideologically righteous judgment upon the United States. Another argument against the comparison is the number of monstrous and very inhuman human catastrophes that came between. What is 9/11 compared to the Holocaust, to choose an easy example? Yet for many, 9/11 still seems hugely significant, its dramatically visual and its symbolic character not to be overlooked.

A crucial consideration in the making of analogies, however, is whether one intends them to elucidate or in actuality delimit. In the former instance, the analogist seeks to understand the unavoidably new and different in the light of the old and suggestively prototypical. In the latter instance, the thing compared is captured in the net of what it is compared to, the analogist’s purpose to deny the thing the freedom to be more and other than its predecessor, even though everything in this world, for all the haunting similarities, is irreversibly other than everything else. The analogies of political argumentation are usually of the latter kind. To use a popular set of political terms, while they pretend to liberate the imagination, their intent is to occupy the reason. For that reason, metaphor, like a lepidopterist releasing his catch from the net, will always be superior to analogy. Of course, with the literary it is never necessary to decide; one may remain delightedly undecided – in no place exactly at all – inhaling the ambiguous breeze. In politics there is a different reason not to make decisions – one may comfortably believe what one is determined to believe, analogies be dammed, or used.

One reason, then, that I invoke the Lisbon earthquake is that it so profoundly influenced even those who did not directly experience it. Those who were neither in New York City nor Virginia nor Pennsylvania were terrified, distraught, grief-stricken, sleepless, angry, confused, disillusioned. People all have their own stories, including me – a New Yorker living in Los Angeles – thousands of miles away at the time, in Prague. And if the historical is not personal in the end, it is purposeless. If the personal is not situated somewhere in time, in history, then it is aimlessly, absurdly adrift – which may well be….

But history will make its claim on us nonetheless, most unexpectedly, like a 350,000 pound jet flying at over 500 miles per hour into a 110 story building containing 87,000 tons of steel, even if you are merely some tourist in from Japan hoping for an early start to the day and a chance at the unparalleled view.

Now it is ten years since 9/11 and the Afghan war that followed, and it has become a commonplace, in the period since the lead up to the Iraq war that followed later still, to say that America squandered the goodwill directed toward it in the aftermath of 9/11. This facile commentary is both demonstrably true and false. It is true that large numbers of ordinary people around the world felt sympathy for Americans in the manner that most people are touched by the vividly knowable ill fortune of others. The implicit proposition in references to these squandered sympathies, though, is that such feelings had significant political implications, specifically regarding people’s understanding of, and relation to, America’s role and power in the world. I think such a proposition arguable at best. The “squandered goodwill” truism is demonstrably false because of the extensive public record documenting a widespread lack of goodwill at the time of 9/11, from various quarters, both predictable and unexpected. In fact, outright hostility emanated not just from Islamic extremists and confusedly aggrieved segments of the Arab populace, but, very prominently, from the political left, including the American left – that very quarter (which would widely oppose action in Afghanistan too) from which, after Iraq, the squandered goodwill truism later emerged like a carefully cultivated hothouse flower, humid and flushed with forgetfulness.

In truth, whatever goodwill we find absent among many, it was not squandered but already long withheld, before George W. Bush, the easy and obvious scapegoat, became President. September 11, 2011 revealed – should really have only reminded – that despite the fall of the Soviet bloc and the death throes of state communism, the ideology, the historical analysis, and the political sentiments that bore, supported, and rationalized them live on in all the usual quarters. The labels are different – scholarly and theoretical – or the same Marxian as before, but sewn on an inseam instead of a breast pocket. New developments in cultural and political contest have been clarified – Islamism and a new reactionary Republicanism – to skew perceptions and fundamental judgments about where to stand between them. But the contention is the same: the plutocratic and militaristic only confirm the Marxist-inspired, postcolonial challenge; the latter only justifies the imperialistic reaction. Liberals, not uncommonly, remain toothless, and often nominally in charge, until they are not.

And now we are two-hundred and fifty-six years since the Lisbon Earthquake, already ten from 9/11.

AJA

 

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