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."]