We have to look forward to a long and terrible age of increasing and fearsome devastation. I am sorry to be so gloomy but all the evidence is there. Of course, we must seek – and indeed have even more incentive than before to salvage – joy, comfort, interest and achievement in our individual daily lives but, in general, humanity is fated to endure great misfortune on a growing scale.
For a start, the impact of global warming and climate change will increasingly visit the earth with natural disasters. Category five, perhaps new category six, hurricanes will soon become the norm. Trends increasingly noticed now – the melting of mighty platforms of ice, the gradual changing of ocean currents, the imperceptible rise of temperatures and sea levels – will reach their tipping points and suddenly unleash unprecedented disasters. The terrible suffering visited on the Caribbean in the 2017 hurricane season will be repeated more frequently.
What is worse is the destruction which man will inflict on his fellow man with increasing ruthlessness. The growth of terrorism, the clash of faiths, are not avoidable. Even less avoidable are the deadly conflicts which will take place over rapidly depleting resources, especially water. Whatever civilized norms of behaviour between nations have been established after long endeavour will increasingly break down.
Since September 11, 2001, the world has entered an era of accelerating brutality and unstoppable destruction. Ruthless terror is met by equally pitiless preemptive war. Indiscriminate, merciless, devastation is visited on all sides in endless revenge and counter-revenge. The world is becoming a nest of scorpions set upon stinging each other to death. The limits which humanity has tried to place on torturing, cruelty and killing are being steadily dismantled.
Man’s vendetta against his fellow man is getting worse but of course it has always existed. In WG Sebald’s calm and damning book The Natural History of Destruction, one of the themes is the horror and agony which man inflicts on his fellow man throughout history. He makes us agree with an early Dowager Empress of China who said before she died that history consists of nothing but misfortune so that in all our days on earth we never know one single moment that is genuinely free from fear.
Here is Sebald writing about the British and French punitive expedition into China in 1860:
“In early October the allied troops, themselves now uncertain how to proceed, happened apparently by chance on the magic garden of Yuan Ming Yuan near Peking, with its countless palaces, pavilions, covered walks, fantastic arbours, temples and towers. On the slopes of man-made mountains, between banks and spinneys, deer with fabulous antlers grazed, and the whole incomprehensible glory of Nature and of the wonders placed in it by the hand of man was reflected in dark, unruffled waters. The destruction that was wrought in those legendary landscaped gardens over the next few days, which made a mockery of military discipline or indeed of all reason, can only be understood as resulting from anger at the continued delay in achieving a resolution. Yet the true reason why Yuan Ming Yuan was laid waste may well have been that this earthly paradise – which immediately annihilated any notion of the Chinese as an inferior and uncivilized race – was an irresistible provocation in the eyes of soldiers who, a world away from their homeland, knew nothing but the rule of force, privation and the abnegation of their own desires…”
Sebald writes with sombre and devastating clarity about the bombing of civilians in the Second World War – 45,000 killed in the London Blitz, 600,000 in 131 German cities, 100,000 in Tokyo and 200,000 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and these are a mere sampling of a few cities in one war. He brings home the horror by quoting a diary entry of Friedrich Reck who tells of a group of refugees from bombing trying to force their way into a train at a station in Upper Bavaria. As they do, a cardboard suitcase “falls on the platform, bursts open and spills its contents. Toys, a manicure case, singed underwear. And last of all, the roasted corpse of a child, shrunk like a mummy, which its half-deranged mother has been carrying about with her…”
Bombing is part of the natural history of destruction but there are other, even more terrible things human being have to cope with. The Belgium resistance fighter, Jean Amery, describes being tortured by the Gestapo:
“In the bunker there hung from the vaulted ceiling a chain that above ran into a roll. At its bottom end it bore a heavy, broadly curved iron hook. I was led to the instrument. The hook gripped into the shackle that held my hands together behind my back. Then I was raised with the chain until I hung about a metre above the floor. In such a position, or rather when hanging this way, with your hands behind your back, for a short time you can hold at a half-oblique through muscular force. During these few minutes, when you are already expending your utmost strength, when sweat has already appeared on your forehead and lips, and you are breathing in gasps, you will not answer any questions. Accomplices? Addresses? Meeting places? You hardly hear it. All your life is gathered in a single limited area of the body, the shoulder joints, and it does not react; for it exhausts itself completely in the expenditure of energy. But this cannot last long, even with people who have a strong physical constitution. As for me, I had to give up rather quickly. And now there was a cracking and splintering in my shoulders that my body has not forgotten to this hour. The balls sprang from their sockets. My own body weight caused luxation; I fell into a void and now hung by my dislocated arms which had been torn high from behind and were now twisted over my head. Torture, from Latin torquere, to twist.
Perhaps such torture deserves such retaliatory bombing. Perhaps that was one of the thoughts which prevailed when the disposal of Saddam Hussein and his evil regime proceeded with relentless force. But it is never morally justified to fight evil with evil. Look what horror has come to Iraq – and has inexorably spread. There will be no end to the tit for tat of indiscriminate death and destruction.
In an interview Sebald once said that there are questions a historian is not permitted to ask because they are metaphysical. For him, the truth lies elsewhere, somewhere yet undiscovered in myriads of overlooked details of individual existences. “I think how little we can hold in mind”, Sebald writes after a visit to a Belgium prison used by the Nazis, “how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, at it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on”.
These days, these terrible days, do we not indeed feel the world draining itself of something infinitely valuable? What will be left for our grandchildren?