In the novel Strong Motion, Jonathan Franzen uses earthquakes to describe love – the love that moves us, uproots us, that always carries with it the potential for destruction. As Franzen says in an interview, ‘the phenomenon of humanly induced seismicity’ is enticing literarily, and a novelist can make effective use of the elusiveness of earthquakes. Franzen had, in fact, worked in a seismology lab, so he understood that earthquakes are still relatively enigmatic phenomena – to this day, the ways in which earthquakes interact with other disturbances are shrouded in mystery, as are the exact causes of tremors. No one knows for certain what sets earthquakes off and why. Franzen, along with others, situates this mysterious cause inside the human heart. In the same interview, Franzen mentions the ‘bridges between the geologic scale and the human scale, between the large forces of nature and the small forces of the heart.’ While poor construction and ineffective management are socio-political instances of human responsibility for disasters, there are subtler, more incalculable ways in which human society is linked to seismic movement.
Such metaphoric readings of earthquakes, while not necessarily scientific, do provide fecund soil for literary invention. One of the most famous stories set in the aftermath of an earthquake makes precisely this nebulous link between the human heart and catastrophe. Heinrich von Kleist’s short narrative, ‘Earthquake in Chile’ (1807), is set against the background of the earthquake that devastated Santiago on 13 May 1647 (though Kleist most likely had in mind the Lisbon earthquake that challenged the optimistic theodicy of the Enlightenment). The story follows the fate of the lovers Jeronimo and Josefa, who were condemned for fornication and sacrilege (Josefa refused to give up her lover even after she was forced into a convent, and henceforth became pregnant). Prior to the earthquake, Josefa was on the verge of being executed, and Jeronimo was prepared to hang himself in prison. But the earthquake toppled church and prison, thus freeing the lovers, who reunited in the forest outside the city, along with their infant son. The disaster destroyed both the just and the unjust, and was initially seen to be a social leveler. Survivors who met in the forest showed each other great kindness regardless of social rank; great acts of compassion were witnessed, and the air was filled with the ‘spirit of reconciliation’. In the idyllic woods, the survivors experienced human sociality at its purest, freed from the institutional obstacles that were leveled by the earthquake. After the seismic activity subsided, some of the survivors decided to return to the city and pray in the only church left standing. Jeronimo and Josefa joined the congregation, only to be recognized by someone in the crowd, who condemned the lovers for having caused the disaster with their sin. The furious mob descended on Jeronimo and Josefa, and clubbed them to death; their son was, fortunately, saved by a companion.
Kleist, as always, maintains a neutral tone throughout the story, but to a certain extent he invites the readers to sympathize with the lovers. While the first part of the story deals with the destruction wrought by nature, the second part deals with the destructiveness of human society. Jeronimo and Josefa survive the earthquake only to perish in the social catastrophe of the church. Thus it is society, not nature, which is placed under scrutiny; or rather, it is the moral limits of society that are being examined. In the words of Isak Winkel Holm, ‘What is at stake is the weakness not of a society’s institutional but of its moral infrastructure. When vulnerable houses and institutions collapse, it is still up in the air whether the ties of the human community are fragile or robust.’ Although Kleist does not offer unambiguous answers, the tragic ending of the story suggests the moral frailty of a society unable to look beyond its need to condemn. The sociability established in the woods was only temporary, and physical devastation did not impart lasting lessons about right and wrong. It is perhaps not so much Jeronimo and Josefa’s affair that caused the earthquake as the cruelty of the Santiago society itself. Disasters thus have much to do with the possibility or impossibility of community. In the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake, French Jansenist Laurent-Etienne Rondet rightly remarked that ‘Earthquakes are a symbol of disturbance among peoples’. The disharmony already inherent in Santiago society was writ large in the cataclysmic collapse of its buildings and institutions. If catastrophe is a wake-up call that jolts the survivors out of everyday complacency, it is also a challenge to human morality, and demands a reexamination of the limits of sociability.