“The problem is an economic system in need of more energy than it can find safely, and too willing to take risks. So one has to see the coal mine disaster, the BP oil spill and the Japan tragedy as all part of the next phase of the post-industrial world. The catastrophes are not unlike the sinking of the Titanic, (which EJ saw so clearly) which threw into relief the naive technical optimism of the first industrial age…. We just can’t go back to watermills though.”
I’d like to elaborate on this comment from Elliot Neaman that emerged in correspondence on the titanic nature of the natural and man-made catastrophe in Japan. It leads to an understanding of the true tragedy of a contemporary titanic mankind that can only go forward, “come hell or high-water” – or both.
This fact is particularly obvious in the case of a country that could never have reached its present level of industrial development without a titanic unleashing of the elementary powers of the atom – and cannot possibly continue without further resort to these powers. But it applies equally to the Gulf of Mexico disaster and to all the future industrial catastrophes, which must inevitably come to be.
(We should not concern ourselves too much with the earthquake and other natural causes – like the sinking of the titanic, it is the fragile, yet arrogantly and naïvely implemented human infrastructure that is the real catalyst of this tragedy. Natural elementary powers have always existed; those released by titanic technology are limited in time – they extinguish themselves sooner or later, be it through exhaustion or explosion.)
Thus it is that mankind begins again to understand its role in a tragedy: it presses forward, as it must, towards the catastrophe that all tragedy must traverse. There is no way back to the watermills, there is only the hope that we can penetrate through these catastrophes to new worlds on the other side, or perhaps above our material “reality”. From Eumeswil, more or less: “Blazing curtains of fire separate the metamorphoses”.
Unfortunately the tragic outlook is no longer understood in a world that strives only for material salvation. Nevertheless, if there is a silver lining on this radioactive cloud, let it be that the tragic outlook, the only one that can offer any salvation as titanic catastrophes loom, gains a new understanding and position.
Here is now an excellent piece from Das Abenteurliche Herz, Zweite Fassung (The Adventurous Heart, Second Edition, my own unofficial translation). It illustrates very well the terrifying and simultaneously fascinating clash of natural and man-made powers and orders that we are witnessing in these days.
Bits from the beach 3 – Helgoland
During my first circuit of the highlands, I was taken by surprise near the north cape by a raucous many-voiced clamor; it reminded me that one of the curiosities of this island was its summer colony of northern murres.
Shortly thereafter I saw the birds soaring out from the cliffs; their nest sites were hidden from the eye by the overhanging bluffs. Only the birds whizzing to and from the cliffs were visible; they soared straight as an arrow to their breeding spots, like bees to an enormous beehive, and then turned back from there to their fishing grounds. I tried to no avail to follow them with my eye; they flew far out to sea, disappearing as points in the infinite. In just the same way, the returning birds popped back out of the emptiness of the horizon.
The spectacle possessed a magical orderliness, the sight of which elicited a certain torpidity. The sea assumed the aspect of a blank disc from whose circumference the winged beings streamed together like rays towards a secret midpoint, only to disperse back in the same formation. The soporific gleam of this mirror seemed further intensified by the fine network of flight paths that was laid out over it like a rigorously delineated scale.
Such figures also elicit a particular refinement or crystallization of the eye; like double-polished lenses, they seem to confer greater acuity to one’s glance. In their telluric mathematics, a mighty spectacle is presented to us, one in which the earth’s forces and orders are displayed more openly than usual. As in the second canto of the “Messiah”, terror is also blended into these visions – as if a terrifically restrained power stirred before one. But above all we sense something familiar, like a primordial melody, sounding in them – the bold double-dealing of the spirit that is so deeply absorbing to us and yet so deeply concealed. On the one hand, this game aspires to a supreme, metallic development of consciousness; on the other, it loses itself in untamed regions of elementary power.
In both tendencies, which so differ and seem to contradict each other like dream and reality, the unity and multiplicity of our mysterious world is hidden. We encounter them in every important issue of our times, in each of its theories and significant phenomena, indeed in the character of every individual of distinction. Nothing characterizes us better than the coexistence of this tremendous unchained power with a calm boldness of perspective – this is our style, one of volcanic precision, whose uniqueness will perhaps only be recognized after us.
Nonetheless, there are some things that historical consciousness will scarcely reconstruct, such as the wild and fortuitous manner in which the elementary and the organizational aspects of our powers alternate like fire and ice. We move through our world as if traversing a titanic city, lit up here by the glow of dreadful fires, while there workmen are busy on the foundations of an immense construction. Images of a deep and dull suffering that seems to happen in a dream alternate in rapid succession with a demonic invulnerability of the spirit, which vanquishes the chaos with the spell of its lights and lightening and its crystalline figures.
But as the image of the sea’s surface is united here with the ingenious movements of the insect-like birds, so places are imaginable in which these two great motifs approach each other and fuse; it may be in this congruence that the metaphysical part of our task lies.