Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Standing in the snow in Pripyat, the abandoned township across from the nuclear reactors in Chernobyl, I kept thinking about how apocalypses are alien to the American historical experience.
Perhaps that means Americans have less instinct for how to behave in such a scenario. And presumably this has much to do with American pop culture’s inclination to imagine destruction, whether through zombies or aliens or, representative of a different type of apocalypse, the collapse of a sociopolitical order thought to be stable, through Nazi conquest (The Man in the High Castle), which all of a sudden doesn’t seem altogether fictional.
The closest brush with total destruction that America has experienced is the Civil War. Over 600,000 soldiers were killed, in a country of 31 million as of 1860. But that figure, two percent of the population, doesn’t begin to compare with what many other nations and peoples have suffered. In World War II, the Soviet Union lost over 26 million people, or nearly 14 percent of its population. Poland lost about 17 percent. As many as 20 million Chinese died. And then there was the Holocaust.
And that’s just the 20th century. In the Middle Ages, the Black Death killed perhaps half the population of Europe. In the mid-8th century, the Anshi Rebellion may have killed two-thirds of the population of China, or one-sixth of the global population. As for apocalypses of the other variety, the Chinese have witnessed a dozen dynasties fall. Romans watched the Visigoths breach the gates of their “eternal” city.
Confronted with the end times, the traditional European response has been to try to peer through this surface world to discern a realm beyond. St. Augustine wrote The City of God in response to the sack of Rome to explain to the faithful that, although all earthly kingdoms must fall, the City of God endures. Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, inspired by the outbreak of 1348, tells of a group of young people who escape the plague by telling each other stories in the countryside — which is to say, through art, itself a religion, an attempt to discern the divine.
In the absence of Judeo-Christian notions, the Chinese dealt with their apocalypses by looking to nature in a kind of tragic transcendentalism. In the wake of the Anshi Rebellion, the poet Du Fu wrote one of his best poems, which begins: “The country is shattered, but mountains and rivers remain / Spring sees an empty capital overgrown with grass and trees.” (“國破山河在，城春草木深.”) Against nature’s constancy and grandeur, the Chinese thinking went, human affairs couldn’t truly matter anyway. Commemorating another period of disaster, the civil wars of the Three Kingdoms, which reduced the Chinese population from 56 million to 16 million and destroyed the Han empire, another poet wrote:
The Yangtze rolls eastward,
Both traditions of dealing with the apocalypse may seem wanting today. One of the forces now threatening apocalypse is climate change. Green mountains may not remain. And we’re not all coreligionists equally receptive to a Christian sermon. But on another level, both traditions hold up: Even if all the ice sheets melt, the universe with its trillion galaxies will remain indifferent to whatever cruelties we visit upon each other on this pale blue dot. Even non-religious people like myself can, without getting bogged down in any doctrine, conceive of a world beyond to which we may dedicate ourselves.
Chernobyl seems to embody both ideas, appeals to nature and to spirituality. Evacuation of the area by humans has made it a de facto wildlife preserve, and wild horses and wolves roam among the trees. A statue of an angel of the apocalypse blowing his trumpet stands in commemoration. In one empty village, the 19th century church is said to have been miraculously free of radiation during the reactor meltdown so that local people took refuge inside.
But the most important aspect of both traditions is implicit. Understanding that only the City of God endures does not mean abandoning the city of man. The rolling Yangtze may wash away all the heroes, but there were heroes to begin with, and the poem itself remembers them. So how do you live in the face of apocalypse? Keep a cosmic perspective to remember that none of it matters, which helps with your sanity. Then do what you can for the sake of those things that, from a human perspective, matter very much indeed.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."