THIS WEEK IN NYC 
 
 
MANHATTAN CHRONICLES ESSAY
by CARMEN FIRAN
Published: September 2010
 
THE NEED FOR CATASTROPHE  
 

If, for a while, there has been no drama looming on the horizon, some people become suspicious, even restless. The non-traumatic normality is perceived as a boring, uneventful transition from bad to worse. They perceive just the calm before the storm, the apathy of the senses waiting for a burst of adrenaline in front of an unfolding drama which, with the right media attention can transcend tragic into the greatness of sacrifice or into the force that conquers the irreversible.

The evolution of humanity at a certain point can be also perceived as an involution, in the sense of a technological triumph and the conquest of cyberspace to the detriment of the spiritual territory. According to one of these theories of involution, the more technologically sophisticated we will become the more our cultural matrix will change genetically until we will resemble robots who simulate humanity, capable of amazing performances but with a castrated sensibility, unable to shed a tear at a love movie or in front of a tree in bloom. Anyway, obsessive materialism, avarice and lack of scruples, the loss of value systems or the supremacy of only one- money and the aggressive rush to have it- runs everything today, to the point where love movies have gone out of style and trees bloom unnoticed. Very well, cynics will raise their shoulders, sentimentality is ridiculous, emotions look bad. But everyone is always interested in a drama. A drama eventually purifies and stimulates the economy, creativity, philosophical thinking, it brings fresh energy and opens up new channels of survival.

And if there is no real drama for the moment, it can be provoked, invented or imagined. Triggered by politicians, invented by big financial corporations or imagined by artists...A drama looks good anytime. And out of it will benefit the bearers of dramas who are on the lookout, ready to build out of ash and ruins other empires made of numbers. The number and the size, the ones that ended chaos and ruled the world, have become in turn sources of disorder. A controlled disarray, but ruled by malefic forces, not less seductive within a metaphysics of self-destruction which haunts the minds of those who imagine that they can draw a profit out of every tragedy or that the end, no matter what it looks like, is a selective one, which avoids them.

The need for catastrophe is old. It has biblical roots and scientific or trivial recurrencies. From the details of the Inferno to Noah's flood to the Apocalypse preached by the New Testament. The first sign of life on Earth is also the result of a cosmic drama- the Big Bang, or, in biblical theory, the molding of the world by a divine hand, an equally traumatic process. Even the birth of man, either banished from Paradise, or as a genetic accident, or following a natural disaster, is the result of a drama. But in all the cases the end is beneficial, after every drama comes a new beginning, a period of flourishing. The law of compensation functions naturally, alternating at a macro and micro cosmic level sin and punishment, rotating good and bad, guilt and payment in a karmic wheel, pushing the vehicle of existence and growth on a road with meaning. Renaissance, some say, would not have existed without the dark Middle Age. Wars are also necessary in the mysterious and cruel balance of history full of farces and dramas which curl further up, repeating errors or provoking others of even greater intensity.

On another, subconscious level, the more an individual is scared of catastrophe, the more he calls for it. Fear, the strongest chimera that came out of Pandora's box, is also the most important human limit, the barrier towards eternity, or the elf which is still drilling the chaos bringing us back from time to time in bones samples of the cold and the darkness from beyond, of infinity and disorder.

The fear of drama makes people invoke it with the hope that they could tame it. Popular wisdom says that it is better to expect the worst in order to prevent or diminish the shock of unfortunate events, but it also says that you won't escape what you fear most, an equally fatalist and realist vision. The belief that every bad time is followed by something good cannot heal our fear of the unknown and the unpredictible and cannot contradict the Murphyan law according to which every bad event can be followed by something even worse, or the saying that a misfortune never comes alone.

The most powerful news is the worst. Happiness is assumed, we feel somehow entitled to experience it and the good news is part of a normality to which we secretly aspire. Major emotions are caused by tragedies. They capture best the curiosity, the interest, and the sympathy for scenarios which explain the causes, maintaining a state of tension and alert speculated by different institutions of power. Media knows this best and manipulates our emotions, counting on the slogan no news, good news, meaning that news is only news if it is bad news. In old ages the messenger who brought bad news was decapitated. Today he is rewarded with a large audience.

News channels all over the world exist for dramas. Dictatorships are based on fear and threats and even the great powers of the Western world resort to creating mass panic attacks and uncertainty by maintaining areas of conflict in different areas of the world or by invoking the threat of international terrorism. The vision of drama is constantly flaunted in order to dominate, and the fear of the future, unhappiness or death amplifies its authority, legitimizing different forms of domination, be it political, religious or spiritual.

Often, personal unhappiness gives birth to a desire for large-scale drama. When struck by a misfortune, people instinctively look around for misfortunes that are larger than theirs. Pain seems to wear off with the feeling that they are not alone in their pain or that others are even more unhappy than them. To weigh and to compare one's personal suffering with others'  as a survival skill is human. As it is human to feel compassion and the need to know that suffering is common, that dramas can strike anywhere and anyone. There is even a voluptuousness of bad news. The sender feels important because he is provoking a surprise, an emotional shock, the receiver is happy because he is not the afflicted one.

The idea that personal drama leads to the need for catastrophe is not new. In Greek tragedies crimes of passion shook the Earth and the Gods. When the world is in a long term impasse, be it economical, political, or spiritual, when hopes are thwarted, eyes raise towards the sky in search for a resolution. Often they are waiting for a dramatic one, capable of radically changing the state of things. It takes a long time in order to establish the good, on a field which has to be carefully prepared, and consequences will appear only later, when things will have well-settled. In order to enjoy the effects of the good one needs patience, resistance, sacrifice, tenacity and a complex existential understanding. Meanwhile the evil strikes abruptly and the changes it brings are violent and rapid.

The need for catastrophe comes also from the loss of illusions. And today, more than anytime, the idea of the end as a paradox of salvation smoulders in many people's minds. At a time when technological development has reached performances that were hard to imagine even a few years ago, which make it possible to fit the sky in a computer screen or in a gadget hidden in the ear, the more we advance along the cosmic spiral, the more illusions evaporate and God runs further away. Have we become just sad conquerors? Are material gains useless if everyone is complaining of loneliness, depressions and anxieties? Tormenting states of insecurity and unhappiness unsettle the empty hearts of the standardized soldiers who have to pedal to the end inside more and more performing mechanisms. Let the end come and absolve us! think the exhausted champions. 

But the obsession with the end of the world has become trivial after the failure experienced in 2000 when the expectations for collapse were deceived and the world kept going. It is true that there are more and more severe world-wide economic crises, escalating nuclear threats, natural calamities, which happen more often, and are increasingly devastating...TV channels like History, Discovery, National Geographic or the Weather Channel dedicate more and more space to possible catastrophes which can hit humanity and the Earth, from the magnetic pole shift to the effects of planet alignment, the melting of glaciers to the increase of solar intensity, from volcano eruptions and tsunamis to nuclear wars. Recently we found out that even the moon, a romantic element, towards which we feel a beneficial attraction, could turn against us. If it moved further away from the Earth, we are told, a catastrophe could happen. Nostradamus is always in the spotlight, with his meaningless quatrains in which specialists with a variety of diplomas see only upcoming tragedies. Conspiracy theories are proliferating, preaching the end caused by viruses released from laboratories on purpose, be it through the black hole of the particle accelerator in Switzerland where the God particle is supposedly being recreated, and together with it, of course, the initial chaos and the Apocalypse. Some invoke the ending as if it were a punishment for the spiritual degradation of humanity, others as a necessary result of the multiplication of the global population and the dramatic reduction of resources. Even Americans, notorious for their optimism and their positive attitude, are overwhelmed by the fear of financial collapse and the disappearance of the dollar, the breakdown of the empire and the loss of global supremacy.

It is fashionable now to think the world will end in 2012, as predicted by Nostradamus, the Mayan calendar, as well as countless self entitled experts in water, sky, earth and future. The ending is supposed to come once money and time, the two enemies of happiness, guilty for the fears and the alienation of the modern world, will disappear.

The desire for catastrophe is more alive than ever. But secretly everyone hopes that they will survive it and that they will end up rubbing their hands somewhere above. I am afraid that we are in for many more disappointments.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Carmen Firan is a novelist living in New York City