On 17 January 1995, an earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale hit the city of Kobe, the largest earthquake to have devastated the region since 1923. In merely 20 seconds, the disaster killed more than 5000 people, injured tens of thousands, and rendered more than 300,000 homeless. The house that belonged to the parents of writer Haruki Murakami were among those destroyed by the Kobe earthquake (also known as the Great Hanshin earthquake). At the time of the event, Murakami himself was not in Japan. But in the aftermath of the disaster, he returned to his homeland after years of self-imposed exile. After the Quake, a series of short stories, was the result of Murakami’s return and his attempt to come to terms with the catastrophe. Like the author, the characters in these poignant stories were absent from the scene of the disaster; the catastrophe exists on the periphery of their consciousness, even as it continually haunts them.


All six stories are set roughly one month after the Kobe earthquake, and the characters reflect on the disaster in their individual ways, mostly through their losses and the vacuity of their daily lives. As with his other works, Murakami seems fascinated by characters who experience existential emptiness. In ‘Landscape with Iron’, a runaway girl befriends a painter who had abandoned his wife and children in Kobe; next to the bonfire she experiences a sudden realization: ‘There’s really nothing at all in here […] I’m cleaned out. Empty’. The first story in the series, ‘UFO in Kushiro’, follows the journey of a man whose wife leaves him suddenly in the aftermath of the earthquake; she leaves a note reading ‘You have nothing inside you that you can give me. You are good and kind and handsome, but living with you is like living with a chunk of air’. The abandoned husband, Komura, then goes on a strange voyage to Hokkaido where, watching images of ‘tilted buildings, buckled streets, old women weeping, confusion and aimless anger’, he tries to figure out the state of his own life. In a conversation with a companion he met in Hokkaido, Komura denies that his wife’s departure had anything to do with the earthquake, to which his companion replies, ‘I wonder if things like that aren’t connected somehow’. That is precisely the idea that Murakami is suggesting subtly with these stories of loss, betrayal, confusion and regret – that all these things are connected somehow, and that the human heart is linked to seismic activity.

Beneath the complacent surface of life, tremendous subterranean forces are threating to disrupt the calm, to change the world irrevocably. In that sense, disaster is always just around the corner. As Murakami writes in ‘All God’s Children Can Dance’:

‘And then it struck him what lay buried far down under the earth on which his feet were so firmly planted: the ominous rumbling of the deepest darkness, secret rivers that transported desire, slimy creatures writhing, the lair of earthquakes ready to transform whole cities into mounds of rubble.’

Disasters are reminders not only of the physical fragility of our cities, but also the fragility of love, of human connections. Murakami’s characters are concerned about connections, even if they remain isolated and their lives are continually fraught by the difficulties associated with those connections. In the beautifully written ‘Honey Pie’, short-story writer Junpei is caught in a love triangle involving his two best friends. Like the painter in ‘Landscape with Iron’, Junpei has family in Kobe, whom he failed to contact after the earthquake; he tried to resume life as if nothing happened, and avoided news about Kobe. But denial does not work. Junpei is forced to admit that

‘Whenever anyone mentioned the earthquake, he would clam up […] He hadn’t set foot on those streets since his graduation, but still, the sight of the destruction laid bare raw wounds hidden somewhere deep inside him. The lethal, gigantic catastrophe seemed to change certain aspects of his life – quietly, but from the ground up. Junpei felt an entirely new sense of isolation. I have no roots, he thought, I am not connected to anything.’

Internal upheavals, not unlike earthquakes, cannot be averted, and require tremendous time and effort to recover from. In many ways, the emptiness and isolation experienced by Murakami’s characters are a result of their own frailties, their lack of social responsibility towards others, particularly those whom they love. As with Kleist’s ‘Earthquake in Chile’, there is much here about the possibility or impossibility of human community, about what people do to one another, and the emotional or social catastrophes that wreak havoc upon our mental lives. (It is of interest that a European story and one set in Asia should both ask questions about community and disaster.)

The connection between the heart and the earthquake is made even more explicit in ‘Thailand’, in which the main character, a pathologist, vacations in Thailand and through conversations with her driver, reflects on her past. When asked about the Kobe earthquake, she recalls how the man who had abandoned her lived in Kobe:

‘She had spent thirty years hating one man. She had hoped that he would die in agony. In order to bring that about, she had gone so far as to wish in the depths of her heart for an earthquake. In a sense, she told herself, I am the one who caused that earthquake. He turned my heart into a stone…’

The suggestion that a single thought could cause an earthquake is compelling, if not terrifying. The mind is responsible for much. And the psychological and the geological are inextricably intertwined. But if the mind can cause earthquakes then, theoretically, it can also avert disaster. This is one of the suggestions behind ‘Super-Frog Saves Tokyo’, the most surreal and fantastical story in the collection, featuring a giant frog who enlists the help of Katagiri to save Tokyo from a devastating earthquake by battling a giant worm that lives underground. Absurdity aside, the fact that Worm could be stopped suggests that disasters can always be averted, even if nature itself cannot be controlled. After Tokyo is saved, Frog tells Katagiri something that could be seen as the kernel of the collection: ‘The whole terrible fight occurred in the area of imagination. That is the precise location of our battlefield. It is there that we experience our victories and our defeats.’ The fight – and the disaster – is entirely internal, a psychomachia, and without defeating ‘the me inside me’ – what Frog calls the enemy – then there can be no hope for community, for the ‘intensive collectivity known as “city”’.

After the Quake ends with an affirmation of the possibility of change. Junpei, the writer, decides at the end that change is needed, that responsibility needs to be taken in the aftermath of catastrophe, and from the ruins something new can emerge. In Junpei’s words, ‘I want to write stories that are different from the ones I’ve written so far […] I want to write about people who dream and wait for the night to end, who long for the light so they can hold the ones they love.’ Of course, such change is never easy, and the problems of human community continue unabated, as Murakami discovered. Two months after the Kobe earthquake, Japan faced another catastrophe: the gas attacks on the Tokyo subway, which claimed the lives of fifteen people and injured thousands of others. In Underground, which resulted from interviews with survivors and members of the Aum cult, Murakami sought to analyse the Japanese psyche, and what he found were multiple fractures in Japanese society. The gas attacks, like the Kobe earthquake, are indications of the precariousness and violence that will continue to complicate processes of building communities and forging connections. Like the reconstruction work that takes places after earthquakes, such processes are always painstakingly drawn out. But at least we know that in these instances of difficulty, human beings – not God, and not the stars – are largely to blame.


The Seismicity of the Heart

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.

The Fault in Our Stars

In the aftermath of catastrophe, the inescapable question arises: Who is responsible? The term ‘disaster’ has its roots in the French word désastré (‘disastered’), which was in turn derived from the Italian dis-astrato, signaling the state of being abandoned by the protective stars (literally de-starred). So to be in disaster is to be left to one’s miserable fate by the cosmic agencies that are ultimately responsible for earthly calamities; in this interpretation of disaster, human beings are not responsible for the destruction. As Edmund in King Lear remarks, ‘When we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit/ Of our own behavior, we make guilty of our/ Disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars’.

However, since the emergence of the modern discourse on disaster, following the Lisbon earthquake, the idea of disaster willed by God or controlled by cosmic forces was replaced by one of ‘human-engineered calamity’ (Marie-Hélène Huet). Disaster became politicized, and could only be understood outside theological terms. As Chateaubriand writes of the 1832 cholera:This plague without imagination has encountered no cloisters, no monks, no graves or gothic crypts; like the terror in 1793, it has strolled mockingly in broad daylight, in a brand new world’ (translated by Huet). This brand new world is a world of risk, in which humans are capable of manufacturing great hazards that harm the very communities that civilization has worked so hard to construct. Some disaster sociologists would even go so far as to argue that there is no such a thing as a natural disaster, for all calamities are channeled, enabled or amplified by human systems.

In the philosophical debate that followed the Lisbon earthquake, Rousseau unrelentingly placed responsibility for the disaster in the hands of humans. In a letter to Voltaire, Rousseau writes that, ‘The majority of our physical misfortunes are also our work…If the residents of [Lisbon] had been more evenly dispersed and less densely housed, the losses would have been fewer and perhaps none at all. Everyone would have fled at the first shock’. From Rousseau’s perspective, it was poor construction that claimed the lives of the citizens; the catastrophe is therefore a social matter. The residents also perished because they refused to leave their possessions, and were therefore buried in the rubble along with their treasures (NB: Before the earthquake, the city of Lisbon was known for its wealth). As Rousseau states in the Second Discourse, the new man, perfected and thus corrupted, have built far from Eden an unstable city that he prizes above his own well-being. His subsequent downfall is thus a result of his own greed.

This shifting of focus from God’s wrath to man’s own corruption brings forth a new understanding of disasters that is still valid today. We only have to look at the poorly constructed levees in New Orleans and the decisions to build nuclear plants in earthquake-prone regions to grasp the full extent of the role that humanity plays in catastrophes. Disaster prevention and reconstruction remain fraught processes due to mismanagement, financial obstacles, social inequality, and inefficient bureaucracy, all of which fracture the precarious sense of solidarity built in the aftermath of destruction (Fukushima is a case in point – a topic for another post).

There are also other instances in which human activity directly causes disaster. It has long been suspected that industrial drilling, or hydraulic fracturing (otherwise known as fracking) causes tremors in regions otherwise not known for earthquakes. Fracking is a process by which highly-pressurized fluids are pumped into the earth to shatter rocks and release natural gas; the waste liquid is then injected back underground. While the research results remain inconclusive, it is almost guaranteed that companies will continue to drill even if fracking does cause earthquakes. The absence of ethics in this case could lead to the death of thousands. And when that occurs, it would no longer be possible to blame ‘the sun, the moon, and the stars’.

[To Be Continued]

On the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755


“Come, ye philosophers, who cry, ‘All’s well,’
And contemplate this ruin of a world.
Behold these shreds and cinders of your race[…]

Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?”

Voltaire, On the Lisbon Disaster (1755)

On 1 November 1755, an earthquake devastated the city of Lisbon, killing approximately 30,000 people, and causing extensive damage throughout Portugal, southern Spain and northern Africa; the seismic waves were felt as far away as Britain, Holland and Germany. A tsunami and raging fire followed, and the conflagration swept through the Portuguese capital for almost a week. Scholars estimate that 17,000 out of the 20,000 houses in Lisbon were destroyed by either the tremors or the fires, plus half of all churches, and several palaces that contained collections of precious art. Eyewitness accounts describe ‘a Spectacle of Terror and Amazement, as well as the Desolation of the Beholders, as perhaps has not been equaled since the Foundation of the World’. This catastrophe – one of the worst to have struck Europe in the eighteenth century – marks what is known as the beginning of the modern discourse on disaster. The following is a brief summary of my readings on this subject.

It is frequently claimed that the Lisbon earthquake prompted western philosophy to turn away from the idea of God as the origin of rationality. If God is just and almighty, how can we explain devastating, unpredictable events such as an earthquake? What is the source of all this evil? On one side of the debate, theist philosophers such as Leibniz argued that providential order lay behind the seemingly disorderly event. On the other side of the debate, Voltaire asserted that nothing lay behind the destruction, no meaningful order or rational explanation, only the contingencies of a violent universe; the world is therefore not the ‘best of all possible worlds’. Voltaire’s line of argument marked a turning point in philosophical discourse, and sought to overthrow the optimism that had previously informed visions of a harmonious millennial state. In the words of Gilles Deleuze, from a lecture on Leibniz, ‘After the Lisbon earthquake: how is it possible to maintain the least faith in a rationalism originating in God?’

In the poem ‘On the Lisbon Disaster’, Voltaire criticizes Leibniz’s theodicy, and asks the ‘bloodless thinker[s]’ to gaze upon the ‘appalling spectacle of woe’ that has befallen Lisbon. If God is indifferent, then these philosophers are equally unsympathetic towards the ‘quivering mass of flesh’ that strewn the streets of Lisbon, nor are they moved by the ‘scattered limbs beneath the marble shafts’. Voltaire’s use of such visceral images brings attention to the human element in the scene of disaster, the fragile flesh that lies upon the ruins. While the philosophical debate precipitated by the Lisbon earthquake cannot be said to have answered questions about God’s justice, or about good and evil, it did push the idea of disaster and human suffering to the centre of western culture. In the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake, disaster appeared in art, literature, popular prints, and operas; this tradition is followed in our own era by depictions of mass destruction in film and other media. In other words, the Lisbon earthquake fueled ‘the spectacle of woe’. As Marie-Hélène Huet writes, ‘our culture thinks through disasters […] [which] mediate philosophical inquiry and shape our creative imagination’.

Through fictional and cinematic representations of catastrophe, we form a collective imagining of disaster, which in turn shapes how we act or think when confronted with real calamities. It is partly the understanding of human suffering that drives the rescue and reconstruction processes that follow catastrophic events; for the culture of disaster focuses as much on the catastrophe itself as on the fragility or strength of the human society when dealing with devastation. Each disaster shatters anew the system or order that we have imposed on chaos. We know this is not the best of all possible worlds, yet the wrecks and fragments still need to be reassembled into renewed wholes.

There is also the need to deal with the possibility of future disasters, which returns us to the age-old question raised by the Lisbon earthquake: Who is responsible? If God is not responsible, then who (or what) is? What is the origin of all this senseless suffering?

Contemplating Disaster

Disasters linger in cultural memory. Recent years have brought a long list of natural catastrophes, notably the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, typhoons in the Philippines, and the hurricane and tornadoes in the US. Reports of disaster circulated, and call attention to the cultural representations (photographs, narratives, eyewitness accounts) that record for posterity the personal losses and collective traumas suffered. And in the wake of drastic climate changes that threaten our world with further cataclysms, now is the time to speak of disaster. For a new research project, I am looking at the culture of disaster and the human capacity for reconstruction. The main goal is to undertake a comparative study between eighteenth- and nineteenth-century discourse on disaster and the current approach to catastrophe, particularly in the context of urban destruction.

The formidable forces of water, earth, wind and fire have brought some of humankind’s greatest cities to their knees – one only has to think of examples such as Pompeii and Herculaneum to be reminded that destruction was never far from human civilization. Disasters bring into question the durability of all human constructions, and starkly reveal the fragility of our cities. But aside from toppling buildings, disasters also disperse communities, and the reconstruction process is as much architectural as it is socio-political. When the grounds have stopped shaking and the fires have been put out, what then? Where do we start? How do survivors regain a sense of normality? What role does the international community play? And more importantly, how do we deal with the possibility of further devastation?  Philosophers and urban planners would like to see the ruined site as the locus of resilience. But the work of reconstruction is, in fact, much more complicated than this, as attested by the post-disaster rebuilding in Japan where, despite the three years that have elapsed, reconstruction remains a fraught process.

Over the next little while, I will explore various aspects of this topic. Any feedback or suggestion is very welcome!

John-Martins-The-Destruct-001John Martin, The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, 1822

The March of Bricks & Mortar

The March of Bricks & Mortar

My primary research project focuses on the modern city as a cultural and material phenomenon – specifically London in the early 19th century. Much of the London that still exists today is in fact ‘Romantic’ in the sense that many areas, buildings or monuments find their origin in the early 1800s – these include Regent’s Park and Regent Street; Hyde Park Corner & the Arch on Constitution Hill; Trafalgar Square; the National Gallery; Bloomsbury;  the (new) British Museum;  and the Royal Opera House. ‘Construction’ enjoyed the spotlight on the stage in the Romantic era. When the German prince, Hermann Puckler-Muskau, visited England for the second time in 1826, he remarked on England’s ‘universal rage for building’, which saw the acceleration of urban development and the advancement of architecture as a trade and profession.

But expansion was not always looked upon favourably. The disappearance of green spaces was one obvious consequence of urban sprawl. George Cruikshank’s popular 1829 print, ‘London Going Out of Town, or the March of Bricks and Mortar’ (see above) is a well-known critique of the urban developments that were encroaching upon the countryside surrounding London. The print shows an army of robotic bricklayers that have chimney pots for heads and picks and shovels for limbs, advancing towards rural Hampstead, building rows of grim factory-like houses on the way, and forcing trees and haystacks to flee for their lives. One tree cries out ‘Ah, I am mortarly wounded!’ Flying rocks and invasive black smoke also threaten the survival of the rural landscape. Urban sprawl meant not only that green spaces were gradually eroded but that familiar places would be irrevocably changed by these developments. The place that was once familiar is no more; as Baudelaire writes of Paris, ‘Le vieux Paris n’est plus (la forme d’une ville/ Change plus vite, helas! que le coeur d’un mortel)’.

Of course, this kind of critique of urban sprawl and nostalgia for the countryside is not new. London remains relatively green, in spite of Cruikshank’s critique/ warning, and the urban developments of London have come to be loved by the people. However, other cities might not be able to say the same. Today’s problem of urbanization is no longer confined to large metropolitan regions such as London, and the army is no longer composed of bricks and mortar, but concrete and steel. Everywhere we see uniform houses being constructed along new roads, skyscrapers reaching ever newer heights, promoting a vision of  prosperous, advanced modern world – a vision that is usually consumed voraciously. This is most evident in Asia – a subject for another post. But we must ask ourselves whether such developments, both in terms of the cityscape and social infrastructure, come at a great cost, something of which the Romantics knew only too well.

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