Saturday, March 12, 2011

These Terrible Events and the Matter of their Size

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?



'Senseless' Deaths-per-Minute?

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.


  1. It's the problem of witnessing too many remote cataclysms, and trying to stitch them into your world. Something I wrote about it awhile back, for what it's worth:

  2. Yes, noble savage, that's true. that's precisely what it is. the dreamwork required to relate and process these massively bewildering spectacles of hurt simply doesn't have time to take its course. in our individual minds and in our group minds there's a backlog of unsorted unpackaged energy.

    bot oh, what a luxury problem it is for us to deal with images and so on compared to feeling the physical world liquify and go sweeping over our chests.

  3. Hey, who's the super-hot chick in the photo?

    Hi, Walter. Terrific piece. Glad to have more of you. And hi, Amanda.


  4. hi to you and your super-hot chick. in nyc right now as it happens, writing in a hotel

  5. Perhaps the Richter Scale begs a new definition given today's world and the super-hot chick simply has great genes. Love, Her Mother

  6. And great post, BTW. Explains clearly what we are all feeling. Love, PK :)

  7. I'm sure people have always felt like the events of their specific existence were the most life-altering of all time, with certain generations more justified in those feelings than others. But man, it's hard not to feel like these are momentous times indeed.

  8. Hey Walter...I got here from a tweet from a tweet via a link.

    With that said things seem to be "Quickening" up Wiki Wiki fasssst these days.

    Yes it does seem like the Richter Scale is a measuring stick for morons.

    Great blog post from a great writer.

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  10. i had a similar thought which is that why is it the feeling that height is a good statistic to capture the severity of a tsunami? surely it has more to do with apocalyptic aesthetics -- with this non-horrifying hollywood impressiveness?

  11. It's on a macro and micro scale, I think - the first measurements are always macro: Richter scale, meters of flood water, feet of snow, F-scale for tornadoes. Within a few days, the micro begins to emerge, with the stories of survivors and the mute replies of victims.