I would like to dedicate this post especially to my American friends. And taking advantage of a very well written article on a portuguese newspaper last summer, I will anticipate the reflections that are certain to happen in the media when we reach the first anniversary of the Katrina, in order to take that catastrophe as the starting point to write about life and its meaning, which is something we don't speak or write much about these days...
THE LIFE OF THE CITY WHICH IS NO MORE
New Orleans is no more. An entire city, one of the most symbolic and rich in the world, has disappeared under the overwhelming disaster. Overnight, the town of rythm and warmth, the unique combination of cultures, the distinct personality has ceased to be. The Big Easy is no more.
It will certainly be rebuilt, but the new New Orleans will never be the old New Orleans. The new places will not replace the old alleys. The smell of fresh paint will cover up three centuries of History. Above all other things, the lost lives that used to give life to the old New Orleans will never come back. The new New Orleans will certainly be big and beautiful, will certainly have warmth and rythm, but it will no longer be New Orleans. New Orleans is no more.
In the wake of the disaster, the media culture engages in the most disgusting and useless of tasks: to denounce responsibilities and to admonish the guilty parties. It has performed these same tasks in that same way at every ocurrence of a natural disaster. In the portuguese forest fires, in the tsunami that swept the Indic Ocean for Christmas or in the hurricane of New Orleans. The guilt is to be assigned to the ministers, to the economic interests, to the mayors or to the national presidents. The Government is guilty of the drought, of the ageing, of the desertification process. Facing the calamity, one discusses politics and demands technical resources. As if those were the causes and the solution. Of course there were mistakes and of course resources are short. Of course efforts and new measures are required. But there is something much beyond all that.
One forgets that, no matter how good the hurricane or the tsunami detectors are, no matter how strong the dams or the firemen, no matter how much we clean our woods or how many fire-fighting airplanes we buy, there is a dimension of irreducibility and unavoidability in our vulnerability. The human power is tiny in the face of a catastrophe.
Plinius and the whole Roman Empire were schocked by the destruction of Pompey on August 24th of 79. Voltaire and the whole of the Enlightenment were shocked by the destruction of Lisbon on November 1st of 1755. Now we were all schocked by the destruction of New Orleans on August 29th 2005. Volcanoes, earthquakes, hurricanes. We haven't improved much in two thousand years. When the wealthiest and most powerful nation of all times loses one of its great cities in a few hours, there must be something much beyond all that.
What there is beyond all that is the supreme absurdity of losing a city in a few hours. All the beauty, all the uplifting and the elegance, all the boiling and animation, all the heat and rythm, all the life of New Orleans is no more. That is the supreme absurdity that remains beyond all the debates. But this absurdity is the absurdity of all life. What happened to New Orleans in a few hours is what happens to every city through the course of time. The old Rome is no more, just as the old Pompey. The old Lisbon is no more, yesterday's as the one of 1754. Those who die peacefully today in their beds are no more, just like New Orleans. The supreme absurdity is the loss, the change, the end, to which everything is subjected. There is nothing more certain than death. Suddenly or slowly; and sometimes the slow agony is even more absurd than the sudden one. The end is the supreme absurdity of all life.
But the meaning of everything comes from its purpose, just as the meaning of the journey is the destiny. The loss and suffering gain a meaning from what comes after. The horrible labour pains are justified by the birth. The surjeon that performs an amputation is not stupid, because he saves the entire body. The sower that buries food is not stupid, for it will blossom. Seen from the perspective of what death transforms it into, life gains a meaning. Like the seed.
Every age, every culture, have always understood that life, all life, only has a meaning when considered after death. Be it a slow or sudden end, life only gains a meaning when it goes beyond death. This is a universal truth, present in all cultures. All, except for this mediatic culture that watches New Orleans disappear without understanding where it has gone.
Published in Diário de Notícias, on 12/Sep/2005, by João César das Neves