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An essay by Robert Lynd

On Disasters

Title:     On Disasters
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

It is a remarkable thing that human beings have never yet got reconciled to disaster. Each new disaster, like the ship on fire, the burning mine and the wrecked train inspires us with a new horror, as though it were something without precedent. Occasionally in the history of the world horror has been heaped on horror till people became indifferent. During the Reign of Terror, for instance, the tragic death of a man or woman became so everyday an affair that before long it was regarded with almost as little emotion as a stumble on the stairs. Luckily, the periods are rare in which this terrible indifference is possible to us. It is only by keeping our sense of disaster sharp and burnished that we shall ever succeed in stirring ourselves into action against it. On the other hand, it is amazing for how brief a period the impulse to action in most of us lasts. On the morrow of a great preventable disaster it is as if the whole human race stood up with bared heads and swore in the presence of Heaven that this abominable thing should never be allowed to occur again. But, alas! a full meal and a bottle of wine do wonders in restoring the rosy view of life. Our tears which at first seemed to flow from the depths of our hearts soon give place to commonplaces of the lips and to sighs that actually increase our sense of comfort rather than otherwise. We who but yesterday realised that trusting to luck was a crime far deadlier in its effects than a mere passionate murder will to-morrow accommodate ourselves once more to the accidental medley of life which at least justified itself in letting so many of our fathers and grandfathers die in their beds.

This accommodation of ourselves to life, it is curious to reflect, is just the consenting to drift without a star which is condemned by all the religions. Life is conceived in the religions as a vigilance. If we are not vigilant, we are damned. It is the same in politics, where we all quote Burke's sentence about eternal vigilance being the price of liberty. But religion and politics do not long survive the dessert. We are as much in love with drowsiness as the lotus-eaters, and at a seemingly safe distance we are as careless of the ruin of the skies as Horace's just man. Preachers may tell us once a week that we are sentinels sleeping at our posts, and, if they say it eloquently enough, we may possibly raise their salaries. But we have got used to sleeping at our posts, and what we have got used to, we feel in our bones, cannot be regarded as a very serious sin. Once, in the fine wakefulness of our youth, we summoned the world out of its sleep. But our voices sounded so thin and lonely in the sleep-laden air that we felt rather ashamed of ourselves, and we soon climbed down out of our golden balconies and took our places with our brothers among the hosts of slumber. Upon our slumber, no doubt, there still breaks the occasional voice of a prophet who persists--who bids us arise and get ready for the battle, or flee from the wrath to come, or do anything indeed except acquiesce with a sleepy grunt in the despotism of disaster. It is to fight against disaster and destruction that we were born. Our prophets are those who put wakeful hearts in us for the conflict.

There should perhaps be no prophet needed to belabour us into making an end of such disasters as have recently taken place in so far as they are preventable. Even our common-sense, it might be thought, would be strong enough to insist upon the ordinary rules of caution being observed in ships and railways, and, though most of us are in little danger of dying in a pit explosion, even in coal-mines. Sometimes, when I read the evidence of the cause of a railway disaster, and find a managing director or someone else in authority confessing, without repentance, that his committee for one reason or another ignored the recommendations made by the Board of Trade for the general safety, I marvel that the public never rise up and demand that a railway director shall be hanged. I have small belief in capital punishment, but if capital punishment must still be permitted in order to add a spice to the lives of newspaper readers, then I should confine it to railway directors and other magnates who, though they never commit a murder privately for the delight of the thing, still run a system of murder far more sensational in results than any that was ever planned by French motor-bandits. Think of all the railway accidents of recent times--the accidents of every day to the men on the line, and the accidents of red-letter days to us of the general public. There have been so many of these lately that even the most stupid devotees of private ownership are beginning to think that somebody must be responsible; and if somebody is responsible, then in a society which resorts to penal measures somebody deserves punishment. It is ridiculous to send weak-minded women to gaol for borrowing knicknacks off a shop counter while you send strong-minded railway directors to Belgravia and Mayfair for maintaining a system of sudden death for workmen and travellers. In the days of the Irish famine, coroners' juries, whose business it was to report on the death of some starved man, used to bring in a verdict of wilful murder against Lord John Russell. Is there no coroner's jury of the present day to bring in an occasional verdict of wilful murder against the directors of a railway or a factory? When we see a railway manager sentenced to seven years' penal servitude as the reasonable consequence of some disaster on the line, I have an idea that the number of railway accidents will diminish. When we see the directors of a shipping company fined a year's income and a captain dismissed from his post for sending a ship full steam ahead through a fog, we shall be thrilled by fewer accidents at sea. But it is the old story. One's crime has only to be on a sufficiently grand scale to be as far above punishment as an act of God. What punishment can be too severe for a half-witted farm hand who burns his master's haystack? But as for the railway lords who burn a score of men, women and children in the course of a railway smash by their carefully calculated carelessness, why, one might as well call down punishment on a thunderstorm. It pleases our indolent brains to regard accidents associated with dividends as the works of an inscrutable Providence. It is not enough that Providence should be the author, at least passively, of earthquakes and gales and tidal waves. He must also be held accountable for every breakage of bones that occurs as the result of our passion for saving money rather than life. Some day, I hope, the distinction between Providence and the capitalist will be a little clearer than it at present is. The confusion between the two has hitherto led to the capitalist's being invested with a sacrosanctity to which we offer up human sacrifices on a scale far surpassing anything ever known in Peru or the dark places of Africa.

It would be folly however to prophesy a world from which disaster has disappeared on the heels of the mastodon. One can do little more than regulate disaster. We already regulate death by offering a strong discouragement to murder. Pessimists may contend that, in a world where so many deaths are taking place as it is, one or two more or less can hardly matter. But all the advances the human race has ever made have only been an affair of one or two--the distribution of one or two women, of one or two privileges, of one or two pennies. Consequently, even in a world where disasters grow as thick as trees, we are bound to fight them so far as they can be fought. If we do not, the wilderness will swallow us. One is usually consoled by the leader-writers, after a disaster has taken place, by the reflection that it has taught us certain lessons that will never, never be forgotten. Unfortunately, we knew the lessons already. We do not want to be taught our A B C over again by having the alphabet burned into our flesh with a red-hot iron.

At the same time, the leader-writers do well in trying to arrive at some philosophy of disaster. But the true philosophy of disaster is one which will teach us to rage where raging will be of avail and to endure where there is nothing for it but endurance. Most of us in these days are content to have no philosophy at all, philosophy being a name for serious thought about the universal disaster of death. To read Montaigne, who lived blithely in conversation with death, is to step right out of our modern civilisation into a wiser world. It is to become an inhabitant of the universe instead of a rather inefficient earner of an income. Montaigne tells us that, even when he was in good health, if a thought occurred to him during a walk he jotted it down at once for fear he might be dead before he could reach home and write it down at leisure. He made himself as familiar with death as he was with the sun or his neighbours. He explains what a happiness it would have been to him to write a history of the way in which different great men had died, and his essays are in great part an expression of interest in the caprices of death among the heroes of the human race. History was to him a procession of disasters--disasters, however, seen against a background of faith in the benevolence of the scheme of things--and he made his account with life as something to be enjoyed as a privilege rather than a right.

"If a man could by any means avoid it," he said of death, "though by creeping under a calf's skin, I am one that should not be ashamed of the shift." Somehow, one hardly believes him. He seems here to be speaking for our reassurance rather than historically. On the other hand, he is right a thousand times in summoning even the most timid-kneed to go out and shake hands with disaster as with a friend. To hide from it is only a kind of watered-down atheism. It is a distrust of life. It is easy, of course, to compose sentences on the subject: it is quite another thing to compose ourselves. Matthew Arnold relates in one of his prefaces how he once failed to bring any consolation to the occupants of a railway carriage at a time when a panic about murder in railway trains was running its course by bidding them reflect that, even if any of them died suddenly by violent hands, the gravel-walks of their villas would still be rolled, and there would still be a crowd at the corner of Fenchurch Street. It is a very rational mind that can get comfort out of a thought like that. Even when we are not troubled by thinking of our work or our family, we cannot but cry out against the corruption of this flesh of our bodies, and many of us quake at the thought of the enforced adventure of the soul into a secret world. Marked down for disaster, we may add to our income, or win a place in the Cabinet, or make a reputation for singing comic songs, but death will steal upon us in our security, and strip us bare of everything save the courage we have learned from philosophy and the faith that has been given us by religion. We spend our hours shirking that fact. Cowardice and pessimism will avail on our death-beds no more than wealth or stuffed birds of paradise. Logically, then, every circumstance shouts to us to be brave. But, alas! bravery, though in face of the disasters of others it is easy enough, in the face of our own disasters is a rare and splendid form of genius, To attain it is the crown of existence.

[The end]
Robert Lynd's essay: On Disasters