I set my alarm clock late last night (early this morning, actually) to go off three hours after I went to bed. I wanted to know what was happening in Japan and I could only grant myself three hours' worth of suspended vigilance. That's because, minutes before I turned the light off, I read a report about radiation releases at the earthquake-affected nuclear plant. Expert opinion contained in the report, as well as what advertised itself as expert opinion in the appended comments section, suggested that even if there should be a 'meltdown' (a word that I understand chiefly in its vulgar form, as a sort of uncontrollable tantrum, but whose technical, scientific definition I'm enough aware of to be chilled by) there was little to fear in terms of... What, exactly? What are the terms of fear these days?
Second Coming Signs?
Events that are Revelatory of Humankind's Radical Dysfunctionality and Point To A Coming Conmprehensive Trauma?
Even more than an update of the headlines, it was some answer to this question of measurement, some sense of how to calibrate my instruments for registering calamitous news, that I went to bed apprehensively desiring. An earthquake and a tsunami within one day were a lot to take in, but nothing I wasn't equipped for; add in a technological disaster, though, and the whole combo was a bit too much. Natural catastrophes, I had a box for those. Fiery collapsing buildings too, unfortunately. And yes, because I'm old enough, I had a place to put nuclear stuff as well. But all at once? Even Hollywood has failed me here. Though a few of its omnibus CGI apocalypses have served up all of these elements and then some ('Independence Day,' '2012'), the underlying scripts were so contrived that the horrors didn't horrify, they merely impressed.
Meaning this was new, this news.
It feels like there's been a lot of new news recently.
So anyway, when the alarm clock woke me up, my laptop computer was right there by my pillow. I rolled over on my side and clicked. The building around the reactor had exploded. I watched a brief video of the accident. I watched it several times. That's how it works now: the five or ten seconds of critical footage, initially an impressionistic blur, is played and replayed until it yields its message, until its act-structure becomes perceptible. And then, once it has, you can fix a caption on it. Mine in this case was: They Said When it Started It Probably Wouldn't Go This Far, But I Was Absolutely Sure it Would. Or, to frame it another way: What is it about reality lately that bad dreams grasp it better than informed analyses?
Now, a few hours later, things have calmed some. Certain key boundaries have held, it seems. But I still don't know how to graph what's going on. I still lack a unitized basis for comparing Japan to Haiti to Libya to Katrina to 9/11 to what might be coming in Saudi Arabia to what could happen tomorrow in, say, Los Angeles or -- as suddenly seems plausible -- in Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Oslo simultaneously. Though maybe not Oslo. Scandinavia still seems safe somehow. Nothing awful ever happens in Scandinavia.
Which, these days, probably assures that something will. And that the something will be something other than the unthinkable somethings that have preceded it.
I suppose what I'm saying is: The Richter Scale, how quaint.