Tuesday, November 13, 2007

I'm a digger of holes in the land

From The Bridge of San Luis Rey:

p. 6: [After witnessing the collapse of the Bridge] Anyone else would have said to himself with secret joy: “Within ten minutes myself…!” But it was another thought that visited Brother Juniper: “Why did this happen to those five?” If there were any plan in the universe at all, if there were any pattern in a human life, surely it could be discovered mysteriously latent in those lives so suddenly cut off. Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan. And on that instant Brother Juniper made the resolve to inquire into the secret lives of those five persons, that moment falling through the air, and to surprise the reason of their taking off.

p. 134 on: Brother Juniper became convinced that the world’s time had come for proof, tabulated proof, of the conviction that was so bright and exciting within him. When the pestilence visited his dear village of Puerto and carried off a large number of peasants, he secretly drew up a diagram of the characteristics of fifteen victims and fifteen survivors, the statistics of their value sub specie aeternitatis. Each soul was rated upon a basis of ten as regards to its goodness, its diligence on religious observation, and its importance to its family group. Here is a fragment of this ambitious chart:

------------Goodness ----Piety----Usefulness
Alfonso G. ------4 ---------4 --------10
Nina ------------2 ---------5--------10
Manuel B.------10---------10--------0
Alfonso V. ----(-8)-------(-10)-------10
Vera N. --------0 ---------10--------10

The thing was more difficult than he had foreseen. Almost every soul in a difficult frontier community turned out to be indispensable economically, and the third column was all but useless. The examiner was driven to the use of minus terms when he confronted the personal character of Alfonso V., who was not, like Vera N., merely bad: he was a propagandist for badness and not merely avoided church but led others to avoid it. Vera N. was indeed bad, but she was a model worshipper and the mainstay of a full hut. From all this saddening data Brother Juniper contrived an index for each peasant. He added up the total for victims and compared it with the total for survivors, to discover that the dead were five times more worth saving. It almost looked as though the pestilence had been directed against the really valuable people in the village of Puerto. And on that afternoon Brother Juniper took a walk along the edge of the Pacific. He tore up his findings and cast them into the waves; he gazed for an hour upon the horizon of that sea, and extracted from their beauty a resignation that he did not permit his reason to examine. The discrepancy between faith and the facts is greater than is generally assumed.

p. 139: I shall spare you Brother Juniper’s generalizations. They are always with us. He thought he saw in the same accident the wicked visited by destruction and the good called early to Heaven. He thought he saw pride and wealth confounded as an object lesson to the world, and he thought he saw humility crowned and rewarded for the edification of the city.

The main theme of The Bridge of San Luis Rey is pretty evident from these quotes. Its not a new concept, looking for the hand of God in disaster. In fact, the idea is so universal, I’m tempted to say there’s something about it hardwired into the human brain: the search for meaning, the desire to understand and to control the world around us, assigning cause and effect to those events that seem emotionally significant to us.

I’ve been reading The Slacktivist lately, and Fred’s essays on American evangelicals seem relevant here. Whenever religion doesn’t sufficiently guard against it, and maybe even when a guard is kept as well as it can be, religious rituals become a form of magic, an invocation of a higher power for our own purposes rather than working toward the supposed purposes of the higher power itself. The human desire to control all of life and death manifests everywhere we let it.

I believe this is the same impetus that leads medical professionals and laypeople everywhere to believe that the sick are able to choose health, whether by prayer and piety or by practicing cheerfulness as described by Sontag. In this case, religion and psychology are two sides of the same coin, used to quell the fear that the universe is indifferent to our pain. Humans have trouble internalizing the idea that the world is large and cold and bad things happen because of causes outside our control and comprehension. Natural disasters don’t pick their victims based on piety, and illness doesn’t strike those who are more melancholy than they ought to be. People die, good and evil, wise and foolish alike, and no choice that we can make will change even a second of our misfortune.

Each of us is a speck of sand thrown about in a storm, and it doesn’t matter at all- not to the storm, not to our chances of survival- how we feel about the ride or how fervently we pray and wave our arms in religious fervor so that God will save us.

But this truth is antithetical to the form of the human mind, and so every time an illness strikes and doctors don’t know why the cause is psychological, and every time a flood sweeps away whole towns of people the wicked are being punished for their sins. This mindset blames the victims of misfortune for not ordering their minds or souls so as to avoid disaster; it's not fair to the victims to add blame on top of misfortune, but we do it. It comforts the safe to think that lives that are happy and easy and free will remain so because they are better than the ill and the ruined, so I don't suppose this mindset will go away any time soon.

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