My wife and I recently came back from an extended on-again-off-again summer break in work. Of course, I stayed on the emails throughout and kept working on a few odds and ends, however, I also had time to get through some ‘recreational’ books. The first was a book that I probably should have picked up some time ago – Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (2009). This is one of Solnit’s less-celebrated books, but it is fairly well-known amongst natural hazards scholars as a (rare) non-academic text trying to theorise the diverse and often contrary reactions people have to major hazard events. In the book’s introduction she adopts a familiar framework, which is to pose disaster events as ‘windows’ into the immanent potential of human community:
Disasters provide an extraordinary window into social desire and possibility, and what manifests there matters elsewhere, in ordinary times and in other extraordinary times.
Further, while conceding that talk of essential natures is unfashionable (rather than unjustified), she proposes that ‘the question of human nature’ is ‘at stake’ in disasters. Why? Because they produce ‘constellations of solidarity, altruism, and improvisation’ in the communities that suffer their consequences. In another senses, though, these constellations are not ‘produced’ by disaster events. Cooperation, extraordinary giving (or, more accurately, giving-in-mutuality), etc. are expressions of latent energies, crystallisations of an immanent order of communality that Solnit describes as ‘paradise’:
The possibility of paradise hovers on the cusp of coming into being, so much so that it takes powerful forces to keep such a paradise at bay. If paradise now arises in hell, it’s because in the suspension of the usual order and the failure of most systems, we are free to live and act another way.
Thus, for Solnit, disaster events ‘suspend’ those forces and ideologies that have sedimented themselves into our everyday lives, severing us from one another and our commonality/communitas against our ‘natures’. In fact:
We have, most of us, a deep desire for this democratic public life, for a voice, for membership, for purpose and meaning that cannot be only personal. We want larger selves and a larger world. It is part of the seduction of war William James warned against—for life during wartime often serves to bring people into this sense of common cause…
I struggled a little with the book’s easy celebrations of moments of communalism, and was frustrated by the selection of events, but the exemplary Romanticism and anti-capitalism of Solnit’s argument is something that I need to keep thinking about.
I’ve also started to pick back up an old habit I had when I worked in a bookstore of reading the long-list for the Samuel Johnson Prize. For various reasons – one of them being that I know several medical doctors and often pester them for stories – I started with two books about medical practice. The first is Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery (2015) and the second (which I cannot seem to stick with) is Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (2014). Marsh’s book, which I’ve been raving about to a few friends, progresses through a tripartite device, explaining particular maladies of the brain (and their surgical treatments) through anecdotes about specific cases, using the anecdotes as opportunities to reflect on the nature of medical practice and his own life as a doctor. Part of the appeal of the book is Marsh’s unflinching account of medical practice and practitioners, providing ‘back stage’ access to a realm of professional expertise that, for all its adulation, can be obscure in its particularities (of course, go read Annemarie Mol’s The Body Multiple, for a different account of medical practice). Marsh writes about himself and his colleagues as arrogant, over-confident, and detached, characterising these facts as at once necessary (attending to such a volume of trauma everyday requires certain strategies) and counter-productive. I had not realised how many tumors in the brain come back, and therefore how often neurosurgery is palliative rather than curative. As he suggests, the result is that:
[Neurosurgery] can become a sort of folie à deux, where both doctor and patient cannot bear reality.
Why? Because – as Gawande’s book also suggests – contemporary medicine is shrouded in the myth of the technical fix, creating situations in which doctors and patients cannot bare the longterm prognosis and so end up pursuing (immediate) surgical interventions over quality of life. Marsh’s stance could easily be dismissed as ‘abandoning hope’ – and he tells of how he has been sued for declining to perform surgery on certain patients – though this would be too easy and implicitly techno-optimistic. Needless to say, there are some crossovers here for how we think about natural hazard events and the tendency, in the aftermath of crisis, to prefer technical responses above sociocultural ones.
More soon, honest.
Dangar Island, Hawkesbury River (January 2016)