The Wasteland, Lucifer’s Hammer and the Problem of Believing A Disaster Can Befall Us

Sharon July 28th, 2008

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe, 
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water. 
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.  - The Wasteland

The Wasteland is fundamentally a narrative about an internal disaster - one of my college Professors, the remarkable John Burt, used to say that you could actually track Eliot’s trip through Boston and Cambridge through the narrative, watching as he walked, engrossed by his own depression and misery, decompensating with each step.  And it raises an interesting question, I think - which is how our imagining, our understanding shapes what is happening around us.

A while back I wrote a post arguing that we are experiencing a rapid crash in food and energy, and we can’t see it - that is, we are in the midst of a disaster.  But because most Americans and other rich world denizens are comparatively wealthy, and comparatively insulated - although that insulation is fraying rapidly - we can’t see the disaster when it strikes us as a disaster.  In a way, most of us see the world through brighter lenses than most people actually experience it.  Simultaneously, those of us who are aware of peak oil, aware of the realities of our changing climate and economy see the world through darker glasses than most of our neighbors in the rich world.  It is impossible to ever find a “normal” perspective - that is, there is no point at which we are seeing all the truth, or seeing clearly - it is common to want to say that one group sees the future better than others, but all of us pick and choose and see partly through the lens of what is, and partly through the lens of who we are and where we are and a host of other things.   

There’s a fascinating moment in _Lucifer’s Hammer_ at the end of the narrative of Harvey Randall’s survival preparations.  He doesn’t really believe that the Hammer will fall, but he thinks it would be prudent to prepare.  But the experience of preparing seems, in itself, to make the thing real.  Niven and Pournelle write,

 “Because I’ve got Hammer Fever, and my wife knows.  Loretta thinks I’ve gone crazy - and I’m scaring her, too.  She’s convinced I think it is going to hit.

And the more he did to prepare for Hammerfall, the more real it became.  I’m even scaring myself, he thought.”

I thought in my last post of this month’s discussion, we might talk about whether this experience Harvey has is true.  Eliot provides a more subtle exploration of the question of the relationship between anticipation and experience, but also suggests that there’s a great deal of danger to both knowing, and thinking you know what will happen in the future.

My own experience is that choosing to look at the future as I have does sometimes make it feel much more real and immediate - I sometimes have to make sure that read a wide range of material, because it is a little too easy to read only the bad news, only the things that push one to greater immediacy.  I also find that I warn myself against a sense of artificial scarcity - that is, we are not now where Eileen and Tim were - and while I don’t want to be wasteful, I also don’t want to stop giving things away, to cut my charitable donations before the time comes that I have to.

But I also think that what doesn’t appear here is the sense that knowing (or rather, believing, because while I think the future I predict is likely, I do not claim to know anything with certainty) is empowering.  That is, the fear that Harvey reports is partly a real response to a real danger, partly a perceptual response, but it is, IMHO, most lessened by taking action, and making things happen.  That is, it does simultaneously seem to increase and ease fear. 

 I talk to a lot of people whose partners, like Loretta, don’t want to know things, because they are too scary and too hard.  And I think sometimes people do need their information doled out in small bits.  But I wonder sometimes whether the need not to look sometimes adds to the fear - the fear caused by a partner who does know, is afraid, but without any of the empowering pieces? 

It seems fitting, then, to end as Eliot ends things, with the question of whether we should, in fact, at the very least, set our lands in order even as things are falling down falling down.

I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling downPoi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam ceu chelidon-O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.

Shantih shantih shantih

“The Wasteland” is, on one level, the account of a human being having a nervous breakdown - the disaster is internal, rather than external. It is in part a narrative of an internal world that looks, from inside, as though a vast disaster has already occurred. 

I think it raises the question of how our internal understanding of the world shapes the experience we’re having - “The Wasteland” could be viewed as an exercise in pure pathology, the transformation of something clean into something damaged - or the transformation of real fears into something quite a bit greater than those ordinary fears - both simultaneously.

There is, I think, a danger in seeing disaster behind every tree, the end of the world in every action

14 Responses to “The Wasteland, Lucifer’s Hammer and the Problem of Believing A Disaster Can Befall Us”

  1. jerahon 28 Jul 2008 at 2:21 pm

    Aha. But that’s why all poets have nervous breakdowns, isn’t it? Writing poetry is all about layering the external over the internal over the external until you have an existential lasagna and you eat all of it at once and get horrific metaphysical indigestion. I suppose you’d advise poets to put the lasagna in the freezer and save it for lean times? :)

  2. Susan Buhron 28 Jul 2008 at 3:11 pm

    My experience is that the acts of becoming prepared do sometimes seem so urgent and overwhelming that it can scare me. There’s so much to do and know, only so much I can do at a time, that I fear I won’t be prepared enough or it won’t matter. And yet, I sometimes remind myself not to be completely freaked out with the family-we aren’t struggling now and should act wisely, not reactive. The research base is there that says acting when the writing is on the wall can help us to accept the possibilities and help manage the emotions.

    I work with educators and scientists on communicating about climate change, and some of the most research-based strategies are to provide ways that people can take action and see solutions, and for communicators to be aware of the role fear may play in triggering denial. This is a hard one for many scientists, who think that the facts speak for themselves and the implications should be self-evident, and who aren’t used to strategizing around people’s feelings. But it’s part of what needs to happen.

    Also, I think that preparing can help our families to not be scared. Oddly, my daughter said that if there was no food she’d want to be at my house since I would know how to make earthworms taste good. Theoretically, I actually do know how to do that, and I am glad she sees me as a resource in hard times. But I don’t want her to be scared because I know that. I don’t expect to use that knowledge-funny what you end up knowing. Instead, I am hoping that having stores and knowledge helps my family know how resilient we can be and can know what’s going on without being scared, not just be unaware and not scared. The former is a more secure position.

  3. Susan in NJon 28 Jul 2008 at 4:03 pm

    The thing I found troubling about Harvey’s preparations is what haunts him later — he prepares but still puts his film career first, by traveling downtown instead of evacuating his wife or staying at least to calm her fears. He takes action, but when it’s necessary he doesn’t believe even though now he’s scared his wife who is, for literary macho-male purposes, a simple soul who thinks of packing her make up and pantyhose as necessities. As a plot device, that ties in with his attitude toward his wife, and he does in a way deserve the contempt of his son for that, I think. For Harvey, in the end it all works out, he gets the new girl and the kingdom, where if he stayed at home instead of following his calling, (if the comet didn’t hit) he wouldn’t get the story, and if it did, he would end up “saddled with” Loretta, or perhaps even dead with her.
    There’s nothing wrong with the motto, Be Prepared, but you can’t let the preparations paralyze you. You still have to live in the world. I guess, for Harvey, living in the world meant leaving Loretta behind on that day.

  4. MEAon 28 Jul 2008 at 5:40 pm

    I have to confess, I tend to see something behind every tree, or actually, something behind everything I read. For me, it’s mostly a goad — keeps me going, though there are times when it overwhelms me. Since it doesn’t paralize me (for the most part) and since I don’t shoot at the shadows, I don’t think seeing the odd threat that isn’t there hurts me too much.

    I think there are people who filter out threats one way or another, and those are the ones I worry about being able to take care of themselves. Or the ones who don’t seem to reconize threats. I don’t know it’s it stupidity on there part, or what, but I remember seeing I guy shouting at his kid to get of ice that was making cracking sounds, and then yelling, I’m going to get you, and running towards him. He slipped and skidded off. Meanwhile, a woman I know who is an EMT was on the bank, calming telling the kid to lie down and push himself towards her. It all ended fine, buy why did the dad who realized his child was in danger start running toward thin ice as it his added weight wasn’t going to make things worse? Panic, I guess?

  5. Rosaon 28 Jul 2008 at 8:41 pm

    Panic, or lack of training.

    Either one will get you. All the training in the world won’t help if you freak out, but being calm won’t get you far if you don’t have the training or experience behind it.

  6. Susan Buhron 29 Jul 2008 at 12:13 am

    Simpatico with Loretta: Last weekend my 10 yo daughter was learning our food storage inventory software. She thought she should store lip gloss as a necessity of life. To each her own-say the crazy happened-she would be the barter queen of preteens.

  7. Sharonon 29 Jul 2008 at 7:28 am

    Susan, I think that’s actually it - the thing about preparations is that it is very easy on one level to maintain a kind of schizophrenic reality, where you do this stuff but don’t really believe you’ll need it. I do it myself. When push came to shove, Harvey couldn’t believe it was real enough.

    Jerah, I like the idea of preserving existential lasagna a lot - what a great way of thinking about it. I don’t think that all poets do have nervous breakdowns, though, at least not on the scale that Eliot - there are poets of the nervous brekadown type, of course, but then you have Wallace Stevens, calmly selling insurance ;-).

    Susan B - If I were stocking up for TEOTWAKI with a teenage girl, I’m pretty sure I’d want her to have lip gloss - psychological tools are very important.


  8. Greenpaon 29 Jul 2008 at 7:36 am

    Existential lasagna!!?? That’s a keeper! Hilarious.

    I have a quote I’ve been trying to track down for years- according to my father, who was in the Navy in the Pacific in WWII, this came from a general:

    “It ain’t what you don’t know- that will get you killed. It’s what you DO know- that just ain’t so.”

    I can’t find the actual source for that anywhere, so far. Anybody know?

    It strikes me as relevant here, in spades. We’re talking about preparations, and foreseeing threats- and indeed a major threat is seeing bogeymen who don’t exist. You can waste a lot of resources. Remember Y2K? Good grief, what total nonsense. I wasn’t in the least sucked into that silliness; but many were.

    Actually, I’m quite certain that what you don’t know CAN get you killed; what the general was pointing out that false beliefs are at least as dangerous to survival.

    Which leads me to two nice trite responses: don’t put all your eggs in one basket; and; test your beliefs, constantly.

    There, problem solved! :-)

  9. Rosaon 29 Jul 2008 at 8:32 am

    But then you do end up completely overstretched, trying to keep a foot in each world as they get farther and farther apart.

    I’ve always had that problem, but my two worlds used to be political & work. Now it’s work, family (and, omg, if I’d realized how much extended-family work would go along with having a baby, I might not have done it) and the simple living/low carbon/preparedness stuff. It’s making me crazy, and not from worry, just from overwork.

    A whole bunch of people I used to know think I’m a big sellout; my family thinks I’m just insane and hurting my partner & son and possibly my future by focusing on the outside-of-work stuff I do; and I can’t quite take the 9-5 seriously enough to get promoted into decent money.

  10. MEAon 29 Jul 2008 at 10:10 am

    Rosa, for what it’s worth, I think you are getting both feet in the right place. Sorry your family thinks you’re nuts. I’m luck in that roughly 1/2 my family is on board, so I get lots of support. Wish I could pass a bit on to you.

  11. Rosaon 29 Jul 2008 at 11:57 am

    Thanks, I appreciate it. I get a lot of support from the blogosphere…but then I worry that I’m neglecting my local life to get it.

    More and more I think the real problem is my wage job…but just watch my bf’s heart drop out his ass when I mention finding a part time job. Because canning & gardening (and sleeping and eating and parenting) aren’t good uses of time when I could be click, click, clicking for cash.

  12. Sharonon 29 Jul 2008 at 1:18 pm

    Rosa, I think you are right, it is crazy-overwhelming. But it is awfully hard not to keep those feet stretching. I don’t know that I can offer much but sympathy and the sense that you always have to make compromises - I know sometimes the ones I make piss people off, and sometimes the ones others make piss me off - it is human nature to be judgemental. But there’s no life with purity.

    Greenpa, I think a slightly different variant of that quote is by Mark Twain originally - I used it as the chapter heading for the population/can we feed the world sustainably section of _A Nation of Farmers_

    “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it is what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”


  13. Rosaon 29 Jul 2008 at 2:26 pm

    It’s like you said about your house - it’s easier to just live in a house that’s set up for low-power, instead of trying to live low-power in a modern house.

    Speaking of which, you should see the jumble of retrofits inside our walls. Gaslights, old electric wire, newer electric wire, cellulose insulation, blown insulation, fiberglass insulation. Big lead plumbing, small lead plumbing, copper plumbing, PEX… change is messy ;)

  14. Hummingbirdon 30 Jul 2008 at 4:27 am

    Read The Wasteland twice, but couldn’t make much out of it. But Rosa’s comment about keeping a foot in each world struck me as very apt. It feels like that to go through daily life, interacting with people I know do not have the expectation of serious change in the forefront of their minds. It is a weird schizophrenic feeling.

    The thing about the act of preparation causing fear also struck a chord. I have found that, as my preparations increase, I become increasingly aware of how inadequate they are and will continue to be no matter how much I do. What if there are no seeds and water to make my garden grow? What if lack of electricity ruins the food I have stored in the freezer? What if I can’t get my blood pressure prescription ? Once I deal with those problems, the next layer becomes apparent.

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