On disaster rhetoric
‘I have sung of the flood for all men. Listen to it!’
These are the words that bring the episode of the deluge in the Babylonian myth of Atrahasis to a close, dating from the second millennium AD the myth is destined to influence the epic of Gilgamesh and, later on, the Old Testament and the Qur’an.
Individual and collective fear is an inescapable element of the catastrophic events of every age, and historical accounts of disasters are as old as human civilization. The simplest way for the people of ancient times to ‘explain’ natural disasters was through the supernatural, the divine. In reality the recourse to such, let us call them ‘irrational’ explanations, is also a characteristic of modern and even contemporary cultures. The earthquake which struck Lisbon on All Saint’s Day in 1755, as is widely known, was regarded by many as a ‘divine punishment’ descending on an era, that of the Enlightenment, which had turned its back on spirituality, putting its trust in rationality and science and thus rejecting God. Then there was the overflowing of the Tiber river in Rome in December 1870: occurring just a few months after the breach of Porta Pia, the flood, which forced Victor Emanuel II to delay his visit to the new capital of the kingdom, was ‘read’ by extremist Catholic circles as a mark of divine anger at the insult made to the Pope.
Anathemas and superstitions apart, not even the most enlightened men of the 19th century, however much faith they had in the possibility of improving the conditions of the human race through technological and scientific progress, were under the illusion that they could completely dominate the elements or the vagaries of nature through their own efforts. Moreover, every time this appeared possible, nature itself, or chance, took steps to remind human beings of its power. This is a warning that has also held true in the 20th century, for the natural disasters (examples of which are innumerable) that...