December 8th, 2012

Ever heard of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755?

The topics of the 1918 flu pandemic and the Lisbon earthquake came up yesterday in this discussion thread, which sparked a train of thought for me.

The very first time I read about the flu epidemic was when I was a child of about ten, but I didn’t know that’s what I was reading about. Bored one weekend and rooting around in my parents’ bookshelf, I’d come across the Katherine Ann Porter long story “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” and opened it in curiosity. The tale gripped me from the start and I read it right to its conclusion, even though I didn’t understand it at all and hadn’t a clue what the mysterious illness it described might be.

It was Porter’s vivid, poetic language (here is a passage from the story’s beginning, describing a dream the heroine Miranda is having) that cast its spell:

The stranger swung into his saddle beside her, leaned far towards her and regarded her without meaning, the blank still stare of mindless malice that makes no threats and can bide its time. She drew Graylie around sharply, urged him to run. He leaped the low rose hedge and the narrow ditch beyond, and the dust of the lane flew heavily under his beating hoofs. The stranger rode beside her, easily, lightly, his reins loose in his half-closed hand, straight and elegant in dark shabby garments that flapped upon his bones; his pale face smiled in an evil trance, he did not glance at her. Ah, I have seen this fellow before, I know this man if I could place him. He is no stranger to me.

She pulled Graylie up, rose in her stirrups and shouted, I’m not going with you this time—ride on! Without pausing or turning his head the stranger rode on. Graylie’s ribs heaved under her, her own ribs rose and fell, Oh, why am I so tired, I must wake up. “But let me get a fine yawn first, ” she said, opening her eyes and stretching, “A slap of cold water in my face, for I’ve been talking in my sleep again, I heard myself, but what was I saying?”

Slowly, unwillingly, Miranda drew herself up inch by inch out of the pit of sleep, waited in a daze for life to begin again. A single word stuck in her mind, a gong of warning, reminding her for the day long what she forgot happily in sleep, and only in sleep. The war, said the gong, and she shook her head.

Well, excerpts are excerpts, and they don’t really convey the power of the story, but I suggest you read the whole thing. Pronto. The Porter story was published in 1939, but it referred back to 1918, when Porter herself contracted the flu and nearly died. She is speaking from very personal experience; the story is semi-autobiographical, and probably quite a bit more than “semi.”

Then there’s the Lisbon earthquake. This time I first heard about that was from a different book: one of the volumes from Will and Ariel Durant’s humungous Story of Civilization series, which I came across under similar bored circumstances during a protracted stay at my in-laws’ house while I was helping my husband recover from knee surgery. Until then I’d never even heard of the Lisbon earthquake, although I was in my mid-twenties.

Like WWI and the flu epidemic, it was a cataclysmic event—not just because it killed a lot of people, but because of what it meant to those who survived. It was a case of that overused word: the narrative. If WWI precipitated a loss of faith in human progress, the Lisbon earthquake precipitated a loss of faith in faith itself. As I wrote here:

How many remember anything about the great Lisbon Earthquake, fire, and tsunami of 1755, which struck at 9 AM on All Saints’ Day and virtually destroyed a city that was one of the major capitals of the world at the time, collapsing churches filled with worshippers and filling Europe with horror? The earthquake struck not only at the city and its inhabitants, but at the attitude of optimism that had characterized the first half of that century, and caused many to question their previously unshakeable faith in divine providence, advancing the Enlightenment and the science of seismology.

There have been many disasters that have killed more people; the entire death toll from the earthquake and its attendant sequela (tsunami and fire) was probably “only” about 100,000. But its psychological effects were much greater than the numbers would dictate, because of the time and place:

In the morning of November 1, 1755, a large earthquake struck Lisbon – a great city legendary for its wealth, prosperity and sophistication. It was Sunday and the religious holiday of All Saints. Most of Lisbon’s population of 250,000 were praying in six magnificent cathedrals, including the great Basilica de Sao Vincente de Fora. Within minutes, this great thriving city-port of Lisbon, capital of Portugal and of the vast Portuguese empire and seat of learning in Europe, was reduced to rubble by the two major shocks of this great earthquake and the waves of the subsequent catastrophic tsunami. A huge fire completed the destruction of the great city…

The destruction caused by the earthquake was beyond description. Lisbon’s great cathedrals, Basilica de Santa Maria, Sao Vincente de Fora, Sao Paulo, Santa Catarina, the Misericordia – all full of worshipers – collapsed, killing thousands. Lisbon’s whole quay and the marble-built Cais De Pedra along the Tagus disappeared into the river, burying with it hundreds of people who had sought refuge.

The psychological and philosophical effects were profound:

The earthquake had wide-ranging effects on the lives of the populace and intelligentsia. The earthquake had struck on an important church holiday and had destroyed almost every important church in the city, causing anxiety and confusion amongst the citizens of a staunch and devout Roman Catholic city and country, which had been a major patron of the Church. Theologians would focus and speculate on the religious cause and message, seeing the earthquake as a manifestation of divine judgement. Most philosophers rejected that on the grounds that the Alfama, Lisbon’s red-light district, suffered only minor damage.

There are natural events that particularly resonate with the ethos of an age and help to shatter it. The flu and the war, and the Lisbon earthquake before it, had that effect. They are the quintessential Black Swans, the unforeseeable and uncontrollable events that help determine human destiny. And curiously, they are often forgotten (or nearly so) by posterity.

[NOTE: In this post I speculated on the reasons for what I call "the forgetting."]

17 Responses to “Ever heard of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755?”

  1. Gringo Says:

    My first exposure to the Lisbon earthquake was in reading Volatire’s Candide, where Dr. Pangloss claims that all are for the best- including the Lisbon earthquake.

  2. Sam L. Says:

    Having mentioned the flu, I remember reading about the earthquake, but where and when I do not recall. I grew up in Missouri, and read about the 1811 quake. Makes a lot of difference when it hits a sparsely settled area, rather than it would now that the area is well-populated. And it would mess up the river traffic.

  3. Sam L. Says:

    As for the forgetting, I know a woman who survived that tsunami.

  4. vanderleun Says:

    She wasn’t alone. So did I.

  5. GoneWithTheWind Says:

    My father was 12 years old in 1918. He got the flu and the city put a quarantine sign on the house and later that day a horse drawn wagon came around and stopped at homes with the quarantine sign and they took away the person who was sick. The dead were laid in the back and the still living were seated up front. They took the living to the “pest house” and the dead to a burial site. My father was one of the lucky ones and after a few days he was able to go home. I heard that story many times and remember wondering who was the genius who came up with the name “pest house”, and always thought the job of the wagon driver must have been hard to fill.

  6. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    [the Lisbon earthquake] “was a cataclysmic event” and “precipitated a loss of faith in faith itself”…”The psychological and philosophical effects were profound:”…”There are natural events that particularly resonate with the ethos of an age and help to shatter it”…”The earthquake struck not only at the city and its inhabitants, but at the attitude of optimism that had characterized the first half of that century, and caused many to question their previously unshakeable faith in divine providence, advancing the Enlightenment”…

    The Lisbon earthquake, so psychologically impactive upon Europe and, no doubt its colonies, occurred just 20 years before the American revolution.

    While it can’t fairly be said to have led to the American revolution, it may well have led to preparing the ground for our revolution, in that it impacted the confidence of Europe in its heretofore ‘certain faith’.

    There are indeed “unforeseeable and uncontrollable events that help determine human destiny”, boy do we need one now.

  7. Barnabus Says:

    I suggest a small change in “praying in six magnificent cathedrals” and “Lisbon’s great cathedrals.” Replace “cathedrals” with “churches.”

    A cathedral is the bishop’s church, so there is only one to a diocese. A basilica is a church with special privileges; there can be any number of them, for example, Rome. St. Peter’s is a basilica, but it is not a cathedral.

  8. SteveH Says:

    I’m not so sure we can legitimately seperate events as natural vs man made. We are after all creatures of and from the Earth.

    We think as individuals, but the political tsunami of sorts that has swept through America the last 50 years was not the fault of any one person or even one group. One could possibly argue that it was the natural progression of prosperity’s effects on the psychology of human beings.

    We don’t normally think of humans as herd creatures that engage in mindless stampedes. But the reality may be, that’s exactly what we are.

  9. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    SteveH,

    No ‘legitimate separation’ between the Lisbon earthquake and the attack at Pearl Harbor? Really? We are simply and solely our physical bodies?

    Prosperity naturally progresses to socialism?

    Certainly humans are susceptible to acting as “herd creatures that engage in mindless stampedes”. Yet the evidence for individualism is at least as great.

    Does it have to be one or the other?

  10. SteveH Says:

    GB, I don’t know. I’m just asking the question i suppose. I just see these events, and if i didn’t exist or you didn’t exist as individuals, the wave toward socialism would have occured anyway. Maybe like a tide that can’t be stopped even if man created the tide?

  11. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    SteveH,

    I suspect that the ‘wave toward socialism’ is a result of the rise of Nietzsche’s nihilism and the post-modernist movement. Both posit that there is no such thing as objective reality, only subjective opinion. That everything is relative and that there is no such thing as objective truth. (they avoid things like gravity, which is certainly an objective ‘truth’)

    The left’s acceptance of post-modernism springs from a psychological condition known as ‘arrested development’ the left’s arguments spring from the infantile protest; “That’s not fair!” and the immature juvenile’s view that their opinion is as valid as any others.

    Ironically, it was Europe’s prosperity that led to individuals like Marx looking at the disparity between the haves and have not’s and, failing to understand the natural mechanisms responsible for that phenomena and their absolute necessity, he condemned and rejected Capitalism, which of course is simply an economic system in harmony with natural economic laws. But Marx, a contemporary of Nietschke, also embraced nihilism and so rejected the very concept of ‘natural’ economic laws.

    The result of Europe and later the American left embracing nihilism and post-modernism’s tenets is the concomitant rejection of a Supreme being. Which of course eliminates any reason to believe in an afterlife.

    Which in turn leads the left to conclude that there is only the here and now, on this planet. Lacking belief in an afterlife and confronting life’s essential ‘unfairness’ presents the leftist with but two choices; depression and acceptance that ‘life sucks and then you die’ or a determination to do something about it, that people must be persuaded if possible but forced when necessary, to comply with the strictures they believe will make the world a better place.

    Ironically, in liberals trying to essentially create a utopia, they are really trying to create a heaven on earth, which of course is the only condition in which ‘unfairness’ is absent.

    Given the essential unfairness of life, it’s an impossible goal of course but that factual objection is rejected both because the ‘journey toward the paradise of a utopia’ gives their lives meaning and because for liberals, the alternative is to accept that “life sucks and then you die”.

    The left is literally ‘at war’ with reality.

    To compound the irony, liberals all and ideological leftists, fail to understand not only the necessity but the advantage of life’s essential unfairness.

    Without life’s essential ‘unfairness’ there would be no individual mutation and biological evolution would be impossible. Intellectual, musical and other forms of ‘genius’ would be unknown. Without the ‘unfairness’ of personal wealth, the fulcrum upon which societal opportunity is leveraged would not exist, which is why economic systems that forbid private property fail.

  12. Baltimoron Says:

    The chapter on the Lisbon earthquake in Candide is one of the few pieces of literature that ever made me laugh out loud. Having said that, it was fascinating and a bit depressing to read what is basically an account of how upper class Europeans had to come to grips with the fact that a philosophy they’d invested so much in couldn’t hold up to reality.

  13. matthew49 Says:

    Beside the influenza epidemic, the Lisbon earthquake, and the Yangtze flood of 1931, I think the polio “epidemic” of the ’30s to the first half of the ’50s (FDR got it back in the ’20s as an adult) has had a surprisingly small impact in the popular memory and in art and literature. It was not just the deaths and the crippling of children and teens but the fear in the hearts of parents that should be better remembered. I know Philip Roth’s last novel was about polio in the ’40s and I remember seeing the disease dealt with in an episode of the Walton’s, but I can’t recall much else about it in the popular culture.

  14. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    I vaguely remember standing in line as a young child in the mid-50′s to get a polio shot. There were two strong emotional undercurrents active within the crowd, strong enough that even a young child noticed and even now remembers.

    Firstly, that this was something the adults took very seriously and second, the palpable sense of relief, that we now had the Salk vaccine, which prevented one from getting a dread disease.

    I also remember a general attitude prevalent at that time, a false optimism that soon, medical science would solve all of man’s common ills.

    I think its the aspect of prevention, that this was something that no longer needed to be feared and, that false optimism, that led to the “surprisingly small impact in the popular memory and in art and literature” you correctly note.

  15. blert Says:

    I well remember fellow school children who’d been struck by polio — in the 1960s.

    Leakers, if you will.

    BTW, the famous vaccines did NOT function as advertised. Namely, they didn’t stop you from getting the disease.

    That’s why there were still some ‘leakers’ that suffered even a generation after Salk.

    The way the vaccine really worked was kept a public secret by the medical profession: it stopped an infected person from re-transmitting the disease.

    Hence, the government pressure to have everyone, especially the children, ‘immunized.’

    In fact, it offers no immunity at all.

    But, when all of society is vaccinated, the parasite/ virus can’t jump to a new host and the epidemic abruptly stops.

    The very nature of the vaccine, and its downside, has many omitting it. The current scheme is to mass inoculate for polio only upon its recurrence.

    The cure for polio is one of the few instances where the coercive power of big government actually paid dividends.

    The downside is that our betters think that such results can be replicated across all government policies.

    Such is not so.

  16. blert Says:

    Folks, I’m surprised that this commentariat is unaware that Central/ aka the First Directorate of the KGB et. seq. was actively behind the debasement of Western culture — democracy in particular.

    Their term of art was:”Active Measures

    The decline of the West was not sui generis, not at all.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5gnpCqsXE8g

    ======

    Please, please stop imagining that the flow of social events in the West was self-directed, random motion or based upon some astrological events.

    I’ll snap-shot Feminism, an exemplar of Central’s command of today’s PC narrative.

    {

    The First Directorate prioritized Feminism as a cultural weapon against marriage and babies – and Western Culture, generally.

    It was not an accident that this or that Feminist icon gained her prominence. The KGB, literally, ran around buying up her political tome, so much so that she rose high on the NY Times list of top selling books.

    From such prominence, she was then able to command radio and PBS airtime to spew her lesbian philosophy of life.

    [ For what is Feminism but lesbianism, the way of the lesbian to make her way in the world, a world filled with the hated enemy and rival: men. ]

    So now we have cohorts of women who are living their priorities — as lesbian see them.

    Not surprisingly, marriage, family and childbirth are not any kind of priority.

    In a nutshell: Feminism is a war on husbands; bare toleration of men as draft-laborers.

    Such perverted ‘norms’ now flood the cable channels and broadcasts.

    Since Reagan, the European segment of the American polity has plunged from 90% down towards 65%. It’s headed much, much lower. This vast transformation is primarily due to unmarried European American women.

    They’re either having bastards or marrying too late.

    Hence, their total fertility ratio is way below replacement — while open borders has non-European American women flooding in — if only to have anchor babies.

  17. njcommuter Says:

    The Lisbon Earthquake marks the date in Oliver Wendell Holmes’s poem about the Deacon’s wonderful hundred-year shay. That’s where I learned of it. “It was on that terrible earthquake day/That the Deacon finished his one-horse shay.”

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