The Derivation of Catastrophe

by Elizabeth Cunningham

As I write, heroic workers in Japan struggle to prevent what one headline called potential “nuclear catastrophe” in the wake of the record-breaking earthquake and devastating tsunami. I was struck by the use of the word, so I looked up catastrophe in my 1975 hardcover edition of The American Heritage Dictionary.
Catastrophe 1. A great and sudden calamity; disaster 2. A sudden violent change in the earth’s surface; cataclysm 3. The denouement of a play, especially a classical tragedy. The root derives from the Greek katastrophe from katastreiphen: to turn down, overturn. Kata-, down and strephein-, to turn. From the root Strebh, to wind, to turn, to twist.

At first the root meaning is not obvious to me. Then I think of the earth turning, like its own tides and storms, like the twisted strands of DNA. In a tragedy, literary or literal, there is also a turning. The tragic hero overreaches, underestimates, or both, and the tide turns against him, the people turn against him, the furies, the very elements. He is overturned, overthrown like a corrupt regime, downturned like our economy. We live in catastrophic times. Humans, as a species, share the tragic flaw of the hero, the illusion that we can control what is beyond our control for our own ends. And now we face global catastrophe.

Earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones, volcanoes (earth, water, wind, fire) are natural disasters not caused by human agency (though increased storm activity is linked to global warming). They are the earth shaping and re-shaping itself, losing and restoring balance, as it always has, as all life does. This dramatic flux is nothing new on planet earth. A cataclysm (kata, down kluzien, to wash) is catastrophic because we cluster in huge numbers along the coasts or on the slopes of volcanoes or on flood plains where the soil is fertile. And if we must build a power plant on a fault line to meet our needs, we do, hoping for the best, preparing (however inadequately) for the worst—all of us, in every nation that has the capability.

As we appear to be in a period of denouement in our collective drama, we might ponder the meaning of tragedy. The hero in a tragedy is not just flawed but heroic. Our advances in technology, medicine, agriculture that have hugely increased our population and our expectations all began with noble intent. The tragedy, as a form, gives us a chance to identify where the hero (us) lost his way. The survivors of the tragedy (us too) have chance to restore the balance that was lost and begin again.

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Elizabeth Cunningham March 16, 2011 - 5:40 pm

Maeve here, as always. Elizabeth has thought a lot about tragedy. Red-Robed Priestess is one and my own long lost daughter Boudica is a great tragic hero. Which is not to say there are not moments of beauty and humor. A tragedy must have those moments. Our lives must.

faerian March 16, 2011 - 8:08 pm

a catastrophe also winds it way around our hearts squeezing our souls into new forms – some of us never completely unkinking – feeling overwound (my daughter's very accurate description of her state when she has hit overwhelm) with all the anguish going on in the southern hemisphere right now (not looking up for the view of the anguish in the Middle East)
also on my blog is a recipie from my beloved friend to help deal with radiation (her family were survivors of the WW2 nuclear bomb drops)

love to the hero/ine in all of us

Brooke March 16, 2011 - 11:47 pm

Very interesting post, Elizabeth. Your words contain a kind of movement, and as I ride them with you, I feel myself more a part of these forces. There is something calming about these forces being nothing new in the big picture. I feel myself able to move with them feeling less resistance, when they are just a fact of life.

And isn't the tragic hero merely the human embodiment of the continuous, even if often alarming, shifting and reshaping process always active in experience?

I wondered if we would ever hear from Maeve's long lost other daughter! oooh, yipee!

Unknown March 17, 2011 - 1:14 pm

Tragedy does seem right as a description of our current plight–'our' being the world in general.

But, even the ongoing catastrophe in Japan, its nuclear plant going out of control, doesn't seem to shake the hero's hubris in this part of the world: we still appear determined to pursue nukes as part of the strategy to reduce imported oil use and to minimize contributions to global warming.

Anonymous March 25, 2011 - 11:43 am

See the power of positive thoughts within you. God bless you.

Neferhuri March 27, 2011 - 12:42 am

Thank you, Elizabeth, for this sobering analysis of catastrophe as a concept. The news from Japan makes me wonder if the Mayans were right after all–perhaps the year 2012 will indeed be the end of history.

A depressing thought. I hope I get to read Maeve's latest adventures before 2012.


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