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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, October 16, 2008

disaster redux

Autumn descends on us, with the mornings turning chilly and damp. Roofers have been at work on our building over the past two weeks, and in the past three days have been right over our unit, ripping and thumping, making the wooden structure tremble. Down here in my office I'm as far from that action as I can get, but I do have young guys passing to and fro by my office window, carrying sheets of plywood and answering calls to their cell-phones.

Kimmie is still undergoing the long tail of this headcold (mine is pretty much completely gone). Her voice is still wispy and her ears are plugged. Another way of marking the change of season.

In the wider world we have the ructions of the financial and stock markets. We're overdue for an economic depression, so I'm expecting one--and expecting it to be long and severe. I believe that when historians look back on this era, they will shake their heads at how so many government policies and private practices could have been undertaken that were so wrongheaded and that led so surely to disaster--much as historians now look at the policies and practices that led to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Ben Bernanke, the head of the U.S. Federal Reserve, is a scholar of the Great Depression. But policymakers, like generals, are always refighting the last war rather than addressing the situation before them.

I've mentioned before how events have the look of the three-stage unfolding of an ancient Greek tragedy: koros, hubris, and ate (surfeit, outrageous behavior, and disaster). By the time of the great tragedians of Athens, ate had come to mean objective, external disaster--retribution for one's ill-starred actions. But as E. R. Dodds observes in his book The Greeks and the Irrational, the term ate in earlier, Homeric times had a different meaning:

Always, or practically always, ate is a state of mind--a temporary clouding or bewildering of the normal consciousness. It is, in fact, a partial and temporary insanity...

But what is insanity? Literally, it means mental unhealthiness or unwholesomeness. A disconnect from reality.

That sounds like what starts the tragic cycle. For koros is "surfeit" according to Arnold J. Toynbee--doing too much of something. But doing too much of something is itself a sign of lack of realism: you have too high a regard for your own powers to control things, to make things go as you wish. You lack humility, and so are led on to hubris, "outrageous action"--doing things that reflect your unrealistic self-assessment. You make big mistakes. And the locomotive of big mistakes pulls a train of painful consequences--ate.

So I suppose ate, the painful consequences, can be viewed from either the external angle (disaster) or from the internal angle ("insanity"). For external disaster in itself is neutral, you might say; it is our response to it, our feelings about it, that constitute its pain and suffering. Ate then seems to be both the disasters caused by our foolish actions, and the suffering that results.

One dark note of the "insanity" model is that it doesn't suggest learning. The crazy person, after an "episode", gradually becomes quiescent again. Peace returns--and further opportunities for surfeit...

I think it was Voltaire who said:

History never repeats itself;
Man always does.

What can I say? Here we go again.

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