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Friday, 23 April 2010

Ashes and Dust, Dust and Ashes

Once again we see how fragile it all is. A volcano erupts in a far-off land – and the disruption to our well-ordered lives is immediate. Hundreds of thousands of UK citizens are stranded away from home, the skies of Europe empty, anxieties take off about the toxicity of the air we are breathing, schools and hospitals are unable to function, families are separated and lives are inconvenienced, there is annoyance and sometimes distress – and the vulnerability of our casual dependence on air travel is revealed in stark and discomforting ways. But nobody has died – this is not a tragedy.

The fantasy of omnipotence that modern life promotes – that it’s possible (within reason) to do anything we want, any time we want it – has been challenged over this last week. Through air travel and the internet and satellite communications technology we come to rely on the experience of inter-connectivity: that we live within a vast web of being in which we can be anywhere at any time, connecting to anyone, that goods and ideas and news and we ourselves can transcend the boundaries of locality and space. That we can (in effect) be like the gods of old - all-knowing, all-seeing, ever-present, not restricted by inhabiting a physical body that sets limits to what is possible. (Yet simultaneously we also become more and more dependent on basic resources like oil and electricity to keep the whole illusion going).

These last 20-30 years of extraordinary technological development is affecting our psyche in ways we still barely comprehend. As ‘virtual reality’ becomes integrated into our everyday down-to-earth reality, the boundaries of who we and what the limits are on what we can do are become blurred. This leads to deep inner confusion and disorientation – for our consciousness of what it means to be a human being is changing, subtly, indefinably.

Yet in the midst of this rapid transformation into new ways of living, old ways of thinking remain. I’ve been fascinated by the language used to describe the volcano’s activity. A few days into these events, I heard the journalist for Channel 4 News – usually the most solid and unmelodramatic of news outlets – open his report of the still-erupting volcano with a description of how "angry" the volcano still was; and then immediately his voiceover went on to talk about the effects this "act of God" was having on stranded tourists. And in the Observer this past weekend one commentator who had recently visited the volcano wrote of the privilege on a recent visit to Iceland of being in the presence of the volcano where he could "feel the breath of the beast and hear it stir".

Now of course all this anthropomorphism is on one level just journalistic colour – a reaching for a familiar metaphorical language to describe what is happening or being experienced. And yet it harks back to a way of thinking that suggests to me how thin is the carapace of rationality in which we wrap our consciousness.

We know volcanoes are not angry beasts and we know that they aren’t controlled by a vengeful (or playful )‘God’ – but perhaps we turn so quickly to this atavistic language because when a volcano does erupt, and the smooth ordering of our lives is radically disrupted, we glimpse how little control we have over the deep life of the planet; that the movement of mountains and seas and tectonic plates defies all our collective ingenuity as a species, that all our conquering of time and space and all our great civilisational achievements in science and technology fade into insignificance (and impotence) in relation to the random and meaningless activity of the planet’s own continual going-on-being.

At an unconscious level an event like this eruption puts us back in touch with an infantile helplessness that exists dormant within us all. And our language starts to reflect that mode of thinking – that our deep wishes for a safe and well-ordered, well-contained life are somehow under threat from powerful but arbitrary forces around us.

One of the unexpected consequences of the suspension of air travel was that many world leaders were unable to attend the funerals in Poland of those who had died in the catastrophic plane crash - this was a tragedy – near Smolensk on April 12th. The terrible echoing irony of the disaster hardly needs spelling out: the Polish President and nearly 100 senior figures in Polish society were on their way to Katyn to commemorate the Soviet massacre there of 22,000 Polish military officers and intellectual leaders during the Second World War. (The Soviets hid the crimes of Stalin’s secret police by blaming the Nazis for the murders, a lie that British and American governments colluded with after the War).

One of the deaths that I found particularly haunting to hear about was that of the sculptor Wojciech Seweryn who had campaigned for years for increased official awareness of Russian responsibility: his father had been murdered at Katyn in 1940 and he had joined this flight alongside the other Polish dignitaries in order to pay homage to his dead father’s memory.

Only silence is a suitable response to this. Or maybe - in extremis – Shakespeare’s extraordinary words from King Lear; ‘As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport'.

Let me finish by sharing with you parts of a letter sent by Rabbi Burt Schuman from the Progressive Jewish community in Warsaw, which offers a personal perspective on what this tragedy has meant:

Not only did we lose President Kaczynski and his wife on that fateful plane crash yesterday … but much of Poland’s political, economic, military, and diplomatic and religious leadership, including the chiefs of all branches of the military, the presidential chaplain and army chaplain, the deputy foreign minister and other foreign ministry staff, the president of the National Bank, the head of the National Security office, leaders of the Institute for National Memory, the head of the Olympic Committee, the civil rights commissioner, officials of the Ministry of Culture, the Deputy Speaker of the parliament, several presidential aides and former three members of parliament. In addition, the leaders of veterans’ groups, the last President of the Polish Government in Exile and several heroes of the Polish resistance also perished in that flight. Many of these individuals were people that I either I had met and conversed with or had seen at official functions, adding to my own personal sense of shock and grief.

… these leaders were en route to the Katyn forest at the invitation of the Russian government to observe the 70th anniversary of the hideous massacre of tens of thousands of Polish officers, among them approximately 900 Jewish officers … As Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has eloquently stated this is the greatest tragedy t o befall post-war Poland… Many in our community lost close personal friends. Moreover, the Jews of Poland have lost a great friend and advocate in President Kaczynski’s who not only spoke often and eloquently about the Jewish contribution to Polish history, on many occasions, including commemorations at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial and this past summer at the 65thanniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto this past summer… Moreover, he demonstrated that support in deeds as well as words as in his financial support for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews and his visit to Israel on the heels of the Second Lebanon War…

A bit of perspective on evennts does not, I suppose, do us much harm.

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