Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Chilean Earthquake: The Devil's in the Details, or: Kleist vs. Robertson (resist [P]at answers)

That the tragic earthquake in Chile came so soon after the one that devastated Haiti, seemed cruel beyond belief.

• My first thought of course was for the people of the region.

• Speaking of cruelty and belief: My second thought was (and I will not forgive him for this) of Pat Robertson. Given that he had so credulously and callously attributed the Haitian disaster to a supposed episode of devil-worship over two centuries ago, I could only wonder (as I said on Twitter):
What will he blame it on this time--Allende and socialism?
• My third thought was, as in the case of the Haitian tragedy, to turn to history. As chance would have it, the natural disasters of the Baroque era found prominent reflection in the classics of European literature and philosophy. In my earlier posting, I cited the problem of evil as reflected in Voltaire's poem on the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755. This time, I thought of Heinrich von Kleist (who, incidentally, also wrote of the Haitian Revolution). His "The Earthquake in Chile," though nominally about a disaster of the year 1647, also reflects the impact of the Lisbon earthquake, and is a masterpiece of concise prose fiction.

In their Penguin Classics edition of Kleist's The Marquise of O—and Other Stories (1978), David Luke and Nigel Reeves aptly present the plot and its meaning:
A young girl [Josefa], forced into a convent against her will, cannot renounce her lover [Jerónimo], becomes pregnant by him, and eventually collapses in labour pains on the steps of the cathedral during a solemn festival. She is condemned to death for fornication and sacrilege, and an enormous crowd makes elaborate preparations, in a spirit of sanctimonious vindictiveness, to watch her execution. A matter of minutes before what they describe as divine justice can take its course, Josefa's life is spared by the earthquake, which at the same time kills thousands of other innocent people. The earthquake also saves her imprisoned lover Jerónimo only seconds before he is about to hang himself in despair, shattering the walls of his prison and terrifying him into renewed desire for mere physical survival. It destroys both the just and the unjust, those who like the Abbess have been merciful to the young couple and those who have condemned them. The common disaster brings out in human nature both the best—heroic courage and self-sacrifice, mutual help and compassion, and the worst—the frenzied search for a scapegoat and the religious zeal that serves as a pretext for sickening cruelty. In the central section of the story the lovers are reunited, along with other survivors, in the countryside outside the stricken city, and in this idyllic interlude, the eye of the storm, as it were, hope temporarily revives— the fabric of corrupt civilization has collapsed and what Rousseau regarded as the natural goodness of mankind has apparently been restored. But in the conclusion, with dreadful irony, Jerónimo and Josefa perish after all: returning to the only church in the city left standing to give thanks to God for their deliverance, they hear their sin denounced from the pulpit and are then recognized and lynched by a fanatical mob, only their child surviving when the wrong baby has been savagely killed instead. If the earthquake has been an 'act of God', then human reason can make very little of God's deeds, unless on the hypothesis that he is an omnipotent and highly sophisticated devil. (pp. 16-17)
For Pat Robertson, everything is logical, reassuring, and simple. For Kleist, everything is chaotic, tragic, inexplicable. Who, ironically, is more reflective of the modern condition: the aristocratic author who committed suicide in 1811, or the televangelist who is still going strong in 2010? Which better presents a view acknowledging a complexity of existence that corresponds either to a world without God or to a God whose ways in the world are, in the deepest religious and philosophical sense, mysterious: Robertson's "sanctimonious vindictiveness" or Kleist's agonized quest for meaning?

Resist Pat['s] answers. Keep seeking.

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