Saturday, July 28, 2007



I expect you, like me, were grabbed by the warning on Monday’s Evening Standard :


After seeing those first two words, I was hoping the third one might be "DIE". I saw that headline, bought my shopping, and trudged back home in the rain. I refuse to wear a jacket or carry an umbrella during the summer, whatever the weather, so by the time I got to my front door, my shirt was clinging to me. I felt quite heroic and manly.

But when I stepped outside on Tuesday morning, the feeling had turned to disappointment. I had read flood experts analysing the waterlogged soil and the over-worked drainage systems and the detritus-clogged sewers, and concluding that the worst was still to come. I knew that the floods were spreading eastwards to the capital. An Attack of the Looters was even expected :

Yet on Tuesday, the sun was shining. The Thames had not, after all, burst its banks in the capital. London had not turned into a drowned world. All those apocalyptic promises had come to nothing. We had been robbed of excitement. We logged onto BBC Weather to see when the rain might come next.

Natural disasters are thrilling and frustrating for the same reason : that we cannot blame anybody when they occur. The government might have done more to strengthen flood defences, and we all might do more to stop climate change - at least, this is the wisdom we receive. But we are denied the chance of pointing at somebody and saying “it’s his fault,” and this annoys us. Galvanises us too, for if nobody’s responsible for it, nobody can get us out of it.

Of course, the media presents disasters (or Disastertainment, as it was referred to at Lenin's Tomb earlier this week) according to a specific agenda. Firstly, as per my previous paragraph, nobody is to blame. Criticising anybody, or any party, or any economic system, is below-the-belt opportunism. We must all pull our socks up, pitch in and do what we can. We pay lip-service to the victims, sympathising with their plight (and note how any human loss is always secondary to loss of property), but jouissance is never far away. We enjoy watching the destruction, we enjoy the stories of looting and vandalism, and we especially enjoy the thought that it might happen to us next.

Most cultures have floods or deluges somewhere in their mythical make-up, and they are usually caused by an excess of human life.

The Atrahasis flood

The Babylonians believed that one particular deluge came as a result of human fertility. More than a century of prolific human sexual activity had made the world overcrowded. This displeased the god Enlil, who ordered the destruction of mankind via a succession of plagues, droughts and famines. Yet each disaster was succeeded by further burst of human fertility, and the problem presented itself over and over again. Finally, Enlil settled on flooding the world as a final solution. This might have worked but for Enki, a rebel god who found Enlil’s plan objectionable and advised Atrahasis (whose name meant “exceedingly wise”) to build a vessel which would save mankind. To prevent the gods ever needing to come up with such drastic ideas in the future, Enki invented infant mortality and miscarriages to curb our productive extremes. This tension between excessive creation and excessive destruction is at the heart of most flooding myths.

The Matsya flood

The Bhagavata Purana, a dialogue describing the supreme truths of Hinduism, describes the flood which arose when Satyavata washed his hands in the river and found a fish, who begged him to save its life. In return, the fish warned him of an impending flood which would destroy all life. Satyavata built an ark and, being the only survivor of the flood, re-established life on earth via life-giving "seeds" :

Long ago, when life first appeared on the earth, a terrible demon terrorized the earth. He prevented sages from performing their rituals and stole the Holy Vedas, taking refuge in a conch shell in the depths of the ocean. Brahma, the creator of the world approached Vishnu for help and the latter immediately assumed the form of a fish and plunged into the ocean. He killed the demon by ripping open his stomach and retrieved the Vedas. Four forms emerged from the demon's stomach representing the four Vedas: Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Atharva Veda, and Yajur Beda.

The Dreamtime flood

Here and here you can accounts of an Australian aboriginal legend about Gurukman the frog, who caused a drought by swallowing all the water during Dreamtime. After an arduous journey, a council of animals came together in central Australia and discussed the best way to make the water return. They settled on a plan to make Gurukman laugh, a task which required a truce between the warring species. First, the kookaburra told some jokes - but Gurukman would not laugh. Then the emu performed his funniest walk - but still Gurukman would not laugh. Then the kangaroo hopped about so exuberantly that he fell down a hole - and still Gurukman would not laugh. Finally, Nabunum the eel performed a dance in which he got stuck in the dry ground - at which Gurukman laughed and laughed, and water and life returned to the earth.

The drowned world

The modern mythology of catastrophe is best represented by J.G.Ballard. The Drowned World was one of a series of books written by Ballard in the 60s and 70s depicting environmental or man-made cataclysms, and how humanity might react to them. For Ballard, catastrophe becomes an architecture onto which he sets his core theme : that humans will not run away from disaster, but will instead strive for it. The nature of the crisis is not too important, though there is something about water which makes a flood particularly suitable.

In The Drowned World, global warming has turned London into a swamp. Its inhabitants have long since fled, but the central character Kerans, continues to move south, towards the heat, towards death. To paraphrase Will Self, the book opens the lid of the human psyche, and observes the drama played out between Eros and Thanatos. The only way in which Kerans can pursue life is by setting his compass towards death. Like his heroes Bosch and Dali, Ballard pays special attention to the absurd union between the quotidian and the dreadful.


At one stage, Kerans dons a diving-suit and makes a journey into the unconscious :

He lay back, spreadeagled across the steps, his hand pressed numbly against the loop of line around the door handle, the soothing pressure of the water penetrating his suit so that the barriers between his own private bloodstream and that of the giant amnion seemed no longer to exist. The deep cradle of silt carried him gently like an immense placenta, infinitely softer than any bed he had ever known. Far above him, as his consciousness faded, he could see the ancient nebulae and galaxies shining through the uterine night, but eventually even their light was dimmed and he was only aware of the faint glimmer of identity within the deepest recesses of his mind.

This particular dreamtime is much the same as that of the Australian aborigines : both for humanity and the individual man, it represents "the archaeopsychic past," a past which existed before the need for civilisation, before the Oedipal break, when we sought pleasure for pleasure's sake, and didn't worry about reality. The catastrophe allows us to return to this primal state, for in a state of emergency, the primary concern is survival ; civilisation is no longer of importance. It is inevitable that we should view such a state with a degree of jouissant excitement : the pleasures that civilisation denies to us can at last be satisfied.

So of course the reaction to the floods has been hysterical, and of course hysteria sells copy. But tabloid screams betray a significant repression, and one that we hope may return. "Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory," Ballard writes in The Drowned World. One day, will those tributaries burst their banks?


Anonymous Mike B said...


11:09 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home