Catastrophe and Disaster

As Hurricane Sandy prowled her way up the East Coast earlier this week, fear of her arrival bore an unmistakable whiff of anticipation. Restocking pantries and hauling out the generator took the form of dramatic ritual, and there was a sense that we were all bound together in the communion of impending catastrophe. On a global level, the prospect of annihilation has a curious way of inspiring us to pare down our priorities and possessions to only the most important. It makes us wonder, what would matter most if the human race were threatened with extinction? Below are four works that take very different approaches towards the question of disaster and its hold on our collective imagination.

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

Invasion by extraterrestrial creatures occupies a special place among disaster scenarios: In these stories, humans are not to blame, and their fear spawns a hatred that takes aim at the ugly things that have whizzed down to Earth. In Wells’s classic tale of alien invasion, Martians that look similar to octopi with engorged head-bodies install themselves in giant tripod-like machines to stalk the English countryside and set entire towns on fire with blasts of “heat-ray.” They hoot, rattle, and whir. They can’t be called sinister, really, because there’s no glee to their method; they’re more like fine-tuned machinery hardwired to exterminate. “Never before in the history of warfare had destruction been so indiscriminate and so universal,” states the narrator, an unnamed witness of the novel’s events. But of course, as he also muses, humans have for centuries wiped out weaker creatures—animals and people alike—without so much as a second thought. After all, disaster is only that which happens to you.

White Noise by Don DeLillo

DeLillo’s characters probably have read The War of the Worlds. They are fluent in the language of disaster because they have been exposed to it to the point of desensitization—in books, movies, and the evening news. When an overturned rail-car causes a chemical spill near a small college campus, Professor Jack Gladney leads his wife and children away from “the feathery plume” that quickly turns into “the black billowing cloud” and finally transmogrifies into “the airborne toxic event.” Helicopters position their lights on the cloud, making it less of a disaster and more of a spectacle that inspires “a sense of awe that bordered on the religious.” The Gladneys examine the faces of others to see “how frightened” they should be. Jack finds it difficult to appraise the airborne toxic event in any direct fashion; it is too thickly shrouded in language, meaning, and ceremony to be seen for what it is—whether that’s a life-threatening catastrophe or nothing serious at all. “I feel sad for people and the queer part we play in our own disasters,” he thinks.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

In his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, McCarthy catapults over the dizzying pyrotechnics of disaster and proposes that they are mere prologue to its truest, cruelest stage: the quiet aftermath. A man and his son drift through a world left gray and barren by a cataclysmic event some years before. Pathos no longer belongs to the deceased. Instead, we pity the survivors who are unfortunate enough to possess the will to live, but have nothing to live for. Fueled by the little food they can scour from deserted homes, the man and the boy travel down a long, empty road whose primeval suggestion of wind-in-your-hair freedom has degraded into one of soul-crushing aimlessness. Instinct demands that the father protect his boy against the cold, the hunger, and the man-eating “bad guys”—but to what end? “Some part of him always wished it to be over,” McCarthy writes of the man. The fact of this terrible wish, one senses, is the greatest catastrophe of all. But perhaps redemption is found in the reader’s wish to the contrary: for the man and his child to persevere, for the book to never end.

“The Imagination of Disaster” by Susan Sontag

In this selection from her brilliant collection Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Sontag looks to science-fiction films to answer a question that underlies much of her criticism: What do these works say about us? She observes that these films are not about science, but disaster—the totalizing kind that causes theater walls to throb and audience eyes to squint, affording a pleasure not unlike pornography in its grotesque excess. We like to watch disasters on the big screen because, having been cooked up in Hollywood back lots, they render our greatest fears manageable and fantastical. This bothers Sontag, who published her essay just a couple decades after “collective incineration and extinction” showed that global self-destruction was not just a movie trope, but a real possibility. The films, with their clichés and big-boom thrills, “inculcate a strange apathy concerning the processes of radiation, contamination, and destruction which I for one find haunting and depressing,” Sontag writes. The bigger the disaster in a film, the smaller it seems to become in real life.

Esther Yi is a writer based in New Jersey.