When Events Defy Human Understanding


As I wrote last year when the earthquake hit Haiti, all human language, even literature, comes up short when faced with disaster and death. Literature is language by humans about humans, and destruction on this scale seems to laugh narrative and image to scorn.

Nevertheless, being human, we try to bring even apocalyptic disasters into a narrative that we can comprehend. It’s why Genesis has the story of Noah, the narrative of an angry God punishing a sinful people. It’s not a happy story but at least the unexplainable is brought into the human sphere. Today there are Christians who find the Japanese tsunami in the Book of Revelations and Muslims who say it was foretold in the Koran. Such religious stories offer the consolation that horrific events serve some larger purpose, even though we may not know what that purpose is.

Of course some, claiming to know the inscrutable mind of God, are all too willing to tell us what He has in mind. I’m thinking, for instance, of evangelist Pat Robertson claiming that the Haitian earthquake was caused by a 19th century deal with the devil to kick the French out.

As ridiculous and offensive as Robertson is, all of us do a version of his explaining. Our minds probe away at the disaster, trying to find some human fallibility that accounts for it. After all, if humans helped cause it, then we might be able to prevent future disasters.  We just have to do something different. An explanation, almost any explanation, gives us the illusion that we are not powerless. Probing into the cosmic meaning of an event is the premise for Thornton Wilder’s fine novel The Bridge over San Luis Rey.

The Japanese tsunami challenges us because nothing about it can be attributed to humans.  This is not a narrative of abused nature rising up in wrath at what humankind has done to the earth. This is not the Dionysus of Euripides’s The Bacchae striking back at an arrogant Pentheus. Prehistoric villages would have been destroyed no less than Sendai, even though they left a far lighter footprint on the earth.

True, there would have been fewer inhabitants and they would not have had nuclear reactors. But fewer deaths would have made it no less tragic.

In his poem “Hap,” Thomas Hardy puts forth the terrifying possibility that our suffering is meaningless. In fact, he says that he would prefer that there were some malevolent god above us who was dishing out misery than no god at all. The suffering caused by such a god would at least fit within some framework. After all, we understand human malevolence.

But, Hardy asks, what if “joy slain” and hope cut off are nothing more than blind chance.   What if “crass Casualty” and “dicing Time,” two “purblind [dim-witted] Doomsters,” are the sole reason for the cataclysm. Then suffering has no meaning and, by the same reasoning, neither does our happiness.

Here’s the poem:


If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh:
“Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”

Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.

Hardy’s vision is as stark as it gets.

Yet paradoxically, just by writing a poem that voices our despair, Hardy gives us hope. Language, inadequate though it may be, still rises up to register a protest. We are still fighting to use the tools we have to grapple with the unknown.

And perhaps struggling is healthier than calmly reassuring ourselves that there is a higher reason for these deaths.God’s higher plan” can become an abstraction allowing us to look past flesh-and-bones suffering.

When others are suffering, it is not the time to be focusing on finding consolations for ourselves.  Think instead of the victims and their families and friends.

In that fellow sympathy, I believe, we will find a higher meaning. In our love for humanity, we give our lives purpose. I believe that this was Jesus’s message, but one doesn’t need to ascribe a particular religious framework to it. Do our hearts break at the images coming out of Japan? Yes, and they should break. Now, can we take our sympathy and apply it to those close around us who are also suffering?

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  1. Posted March 21, 2011 at 5:29 am | Permalink

    Good Morning Mr. Bates,

    thank you for posting. I do believe tat we are not powerless in preventing future disasters by doing something different, and that is doing positive things everyday.
    helping a nieghbor, the homeless, a friend, and even an enemy. I miss the old website I used to post on because, I would have read heartfelt poems by my friends ever since the disaster happened. ( The site is closing, and a new ones are being built) The cause, and effect thing happens everyday. Things get broken up all the time, that is why buiding on, and around a good foundations are very important.
    Poetry is a document of that time, and it leaves a mental tattoo. I could only write, like a prayer type of poem, because their loses resonates inside, I couldn’t write anything other than that because pointing a finger has four more pointing back, but that may be healthy only shall one see it that way. I was on youtube trying to find Poets for the Bleed for a Cause project, and was searching Poets in Japan, and I had gotten stuck, I was like what can I say to them, I felt an invisible arm thrown up on me, and I didn’t like that, so I am thinking it really does bother me that we are mainly, and mostly defenseless after things events, but not prior. So yes we can write, about strength, courage, and solutions to things, so they sung in ones hearts when these tragic things happen. You teach me a lot Mr. Bates, along with my Poet friends, and Poetry Teachers, thank you…… So I’ll carry on in faith, and postive thinking hoping it rubs off on folks, :).. John E

  2. farida
    Posted March 21, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    I think the idea that Hardy posits that maybe there is no unseen ‘Powerfuller’ force creating these disasters, that it is what it is…is definitely unsettling. And yet also oddly comforting, in the context of the challenge you proffer, that if we don’t have the consolation of some “grand design” then we are pushed not to focus on explanations but focus rather on the world and people around us, and our place in it. You are here now, do something….

    I know literature and words have their limits. But the way the 24hour news channels present these tragedies is increasingly unsettling. There is something self-aggrandizing in the person of some of the journalists telling the stories on the news, something callous. All experience is reduced to a spectacle and it’s no wonder we become inured to horrifying images on television. I agree with what you say: “Literature is language by humans about humans, and destruction on this scale seems to laugh narrative and image to scorn.”. Perhaps that’s the problem with the news, that they think they can explain it all and capture all the suffering, the horror of death and joy and guilt of survival; when really they cannot truly capture that which defies our full comprehension.

    I appreciate the challenge Robin: “When others are suffering, it is not the time to be focusing on finding consolations for ourselves.”

    As someone who kind of seeks explanation and consolation in the face of disaster, I was glad when I re-encountered the following two poems, that both draw on nature to articulate an almost elusive (to me) truth about the world we inhabit. They don’t offer consolation and or because I don’t necessarily fully understand them.

    For me, they both evoke the idea that there is grace in the understanding that there is so much (both good and bad) in the universe that is beyond our comprehension. They both seem tinged with sadness and yet there is something hopeful and graceful in each poem. And each seems to have a quality almost of prayer.
    The first, “Small Song” by A.R. Ammons:

    Small Song

    The reeds give
    way to the

    wind and give
    the wind away

    The second a haiku by Kobayashi Issa that I discovered some time back. According to Wiki he wrote it after the death of his two young children in the space of three years. I think that in an almost self-reflexive way Issa’s poem reminds me of what you said…that literature has its limits in helping us comprehend suffering, and yet at the same time that words (even a few words) can often capture the essence, (if only in part) and however fleeting, of what we feel. Here’s the poem:

    The world of dew
    is the world of dew.
    And yet, and yet—

    —”Haiku” (1819) by Issa

    Thank you Robin.

  3. Robin Bates
    Posted March 22, 2011 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    Sharing poems in the wake of disaster is one resource that we have, Farida. As you understand very, very well.

One Trackback

  1. By Misery Loves Poetry on March 29, 2011 at 5:20 am

    […] string of disasters we are encountering.  (See for instance my posts on the Haitian earthquake and the Japanese tsunami.)  Sam Tanenhaus asserts that “one of the enduring paradoxes of great apocalyptic writing is […]


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