Dr Nicholas Herrmian
First published on The Conversation on 22 February, 2013.
This summer another bout of floods, fires, and cyclones has struck, culminating most recently in out-of-control fires across Victoria in which at least one home was lost. When we see the loss of property and life, we struggle with what seems senseless suffering. The suffering overwhelms.
This distressing topic is difficult to write about from the detached approach often used in anthropology. Still, the way we struggle to make sense of the world also tells us a lot about culture. In fact, the anthropologist James L Peacock’s half-serious definition of culture is “that which survives the struggle to survive”. When people face obliteration, culture becomes crucial.
My high school history text book recounted that in the early 1900s, young revolutionaries were educating the peasants in Russia on the marvels of the new age. They told the peasants scientists had discovered a planet named Neptune. A peasant responded, “it’s not so amazing that they found this planet, what’s really amazing is that they knew its name”.
If the story is true and my memory of it is correct, it would seem that the naive peasant assumed that the name of “Neptune” was inherent to the planet and that the clever astronomers somehow worked it out. The peasant did not realise that names are merely arbitrary signs we attach to things. Yet it is very easy for us to slip into the same way of thinking as the peasant.
Spoken words, morse code, writing, art are all things with meaning. The word “coal” signifies that black rock which can be easily burnt to produce heat. But those black rocks; the earth in which they are found; the universe in which earth is suspended; as well as the lives of the humans which reside in it; have no inherent or natural meaning.
So, it makes sense to ask, “what is the meaning of the word coal?”; but it makes no sense to ask, “what is the meaning of life?” Life doesn’t belong to categories of things which have inherent or natural meaning that we can “uncover”.
By contrast, meaning is something humans create. And we do this far better than other animals. Among us, the sages, artists, “mad” people, can excel at this. They sometimes live in a world that seems to overflow with meaning. Prophets see “signs” everywhere; for poets dead trees seem to speak.
Wilfred Owen, the most poignant of the WWI poets, wrote to Siegfried Sassoon:
This is what the shells scream at me every time: ‘Haven’t you got the wits to keep out of this?’
Shells almost literally spoke to him. The bombs were suffused with meaning. For the rest of us, by contrast, if there is a struggle it is often against the opposite problem – a deficit of meaning in life.
The lack of meaning in everyday life can become especially pressing when dealing with misfortune. In this sense, the destruction of floods and fires can appear meaningless. Why does one house burn while the one next door is spared? Because we are humans, we seek to make these events meaningful.
There was a time when we might have seen such things as “an act of God”. It could have been God’s punishment to sinners; or God testing us just as he (or she) tested the righteous Job; or maybe just the actions of a “my-ways-are-not-your-ways”, inscrutable and unknowable God. The response in all scenarios is the same: repent and pray. Some Australians still see the hand of God in disasters, but many, including believers, do not think he plays an active role in the affairs of this planet.
Another related attempt to make the fires and floods meaningful relates to climate change, “extreme weather events” as they are labelled, and sometimes accompanied by dire predictions of the earth’s future. But these understandings are often overshadowed by a national story.
The basic idea is that Australia is a harsh, brutal, and capricious land. Against the overwhelming power of nature, my colleague John Carroll observes, a stoic individual fortitude as well as community spirit is pitted. Generally, the meaning we make of it is that when disaster strikes, Aussies (or sometimes, more specifically, Queenslanders or Victorians or wherever the disaster may be) band together and rebuild with a “she’ll be right” attitude. The disaster is conceived as a triumph of courage, bravery and togetherness in our unforgiving country. Through these events, a sense of community is created and reinforced.
It is uplifting to see people working together and volunteering to help the victims of fires and floods. Yet, like any explanation in a meaningless world, the story is not a perfect fit. The “firebugs” who often start the blazes; the looters who profit from floods; and the insurance companies who hike premiums or fail to pay up. While admonished and hated, they also present a problem in the story we tell ourselves.
As a matter of law, these people are Australians too, but the mateship is lacking. Still, rather than face a meaningless disaster, making sense of some of it is better than making no sense at all.
So the dominant story, as noted by Dr Annona Pearse in her research on the Port Arthur massacre and Thredbo landslide, is one of mateship and heroism. The media acts as a conduit for this. They have a part in creating these stories, including who and what is left in and out.
Many Australians are struggling with misfortune, misery and grief caused by the floods and fires. Their struggle to rebuild is also a deeply emotional struggle for meaning. Let us not forget that existence can seem confusing if not empty at times like this. Meaning, in many cases, is not something that can be taken for granted.
Dr Nicholas Herriman is an anthropology lecturer at La Trobe University.