Not even illness could keep me this weekend from devouring the remaining half of The Earthquake Observers, sucked in as I was by its winning combination of an inherently interesting topic and the atmosphere of European modernism that pervaded most of the work.* I was especially fascinated by Coen’s discussion of various scientists’ late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century attempts to form something of a universal catalogue of seismic activity, to “be perfected from year to year, [and] become the fundamental repertory of the entire seismological science of the future.” But unsurprisingly, this aspiration was short-lived, given the number of qualifying occurrences in even one year, for just one country or region. As one sponsor noted, once it had become possible to record “macroseismic and microseismic observations… on the surface of the globe with the necessary fullness of detail and generality, the work of the annual global catalog will become completely unrealizable; the central office will be literally overwhelmed… can one imagine the International Meteorological Association publishing an annual catalog of rainfall on the surface of the globe?”**
The enchantment here for me was the fact that this endeavor, and the resigned reactions to its impossibility, seem as if they could have come straight out of Borges, a natural-sciences add-on to “On Exactitude in Science,” or “The Library of Babel,” maybe even “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” For all we know (Coen devotes only a couple of pages to the wished-for catalogue), the project may have driven some of its real-life booster-creators to obsession or worse, even after its necessary sponsors and support staff had withdrawn under the pressures of reality and the ever-increasing numbers of events that transcended human abilities to pin them down in any meaningful way. Given our contemporary technologies and their superhuman recording and processing abilities, maybe such an undertaking is more achievable than ever before– but, thanks to the natural world’s wonderful ability to slip out of our grasp via the masterfully unseen cracks it’s created, I’ll place my bet on its never happening.
Even though this aspect of seismology seems still doomed to failure, the way in which the science has always been and still is dependent on “lay” observers may be one of the reasons I’m such a fan.*** Indeed, I especially appreciated Coen’s pointing out of the not-just-science-benefitting ways in which this participatory model might (have) enhance(d) the lives of those who go in for observation of the earth’s motions. Including the entirety of one woman’s letter to geologist Hans Schardt as an example, Coen notes that talking to people about what they experienced during a bout of shaking or shifting “was a social opportunity, particularly for those living in solitude… [within] the atomization of modern society,… [it] offered a welcome excuse to penetrate the social walls that separated neighbors from each other.”**** Such an aim never was part of “pure science”– but if one of its branches not only benefits from, but also bestows boons upon, the people of all sorts working to further it, I’ll call that a win, even if the universal knowledge we like to believe is such an unalloyed grand thing never materializes.
* N.b., it also continued to feed my need for modernist– or in this case, neo-modernist, as I’ll call it– literature, as I also swallowed whole W.G. Sebald’s excellent set of essays, A Place in the Country.
**Deborah R. Coen, The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), 175, 177.
*** In my earthquake-zone-dwelling days, I would get stupidly excited and grateful any time I had even the most minutely plausible opportunity to fill in information on the U.S. Geological Survey’s “Did You Feel It?” website.
**** Coen, 94.
All this talk (or rather, reading) about the development of seismology to which I’ve been exposing myself lately has instilled a burning need for some honest-to-goodness modernism. All of those earnest 19th-century Europeans tromping around and beyond the continent’s borders, trying to be objective and proper and to note dispassionately the time and duration of a temblor when thrown out of their beds for the first time: well, the bearing of those eager beavers had me thirsting for the particular variety of literary clarity only someone like Robert Walser can provide, and so I flew straight into the arms of his Jakob von Gunten.
I especially love when tales from this particular subset of time and place also happen to be set in an educational environment, one of my favorite examples being Robert Musil’s Young Törless. The fact that said genre’s depictions of boarding school life are often stark and cruel*, and that they still have me feeling slightly cheated that I never experienced that form of institutional existence, speaks volumes for these authors’ way with words– but in particular, for their ability to bring out those environments’ pervasive, saving air of mystery, especially with regard to instructors. Anyone, even lowly public school kids like me, who’s ever had a crush, whether platonic or more, on some beloved teacher, will know what I’m talking about.** I can only imagine how much more heightened is the intensity of sick teenage infatuation when everyone’s living on the same premises, and when adolescent imaginings and naïveté only feed off of and strengthen each other without respite. At the same time, those authority figures who seem so immune to your own youthful anxieties, and who have no desperate need of guidance or intense friendship, become even more alluringly mysterious and (because they have to be even more purposeful than their off-campus counterparts about guarding their privacy) maddeningly out of reach.
There’s so much to love about this book– but as should now be no surprise, I zeroed lovingly in on its way of portraying students’ obsessions with their teachers, and the disappointments or uncertainties that may emerge if said authority figures actually end up reciprocating a young person’s desires for a personal relationship. And so, Jakob lets us know early on that “… [he was] always thinking of him, of both of them, of him and Fräulein, the way they go on living here with us boys. What are they always doing in there, in their apartment? How do they keep themselves busy… perhaps one day I shall penetrate into these inner chambers… I know it, somewhere here there are marvelous things.” And as his daydreaming invades his reality, we’re sometimes unsure of how Herr or Fräulein Benjamenta is really acting, whether either or both is truly confessing to him (precisely what the love-struck student hopes for!)– but we do catch glimpses of Jakob’s disillusionment as the brother and sister become a little more human for him: “Everything’s collapsing, the classes, the effort, the rules… Something is going on and I don’t understand it yet;” “I’ve been, at least, in the authentic inner chambers, and I must say, they don’t exist.”***
Even though Jakob looks as though he might finally set aside his fantasies of the principal and his sister (and maybe even of his own aim in being at the institute), his acceptance of his own self-delusion reveals what we may all be longing for on some level, and why so many of us will agree to the tenets of doubtful, yet guiding, propositions, beliefs, and people: namely, at least having something to hold onto. As Jakob decides, “This person suits me and I’m not asking myself why any more.” **** Even if it means having to continually repair and reconstruct– and overcome being let down by– an image crafted of your own imagination and longing; even then, it’s a bit of a relief to stop having to ask yourself why.
* This characterization doesn’t really apply in Jakob von Gunten– but the school in it is still really not a model of educational aspiration.
** I still have very little understanding of why I, at least, thought teachers possessed some transcendent quality, that their everyday routines were somehow fraught with special allure. Yes, yes; I’ve always wanted to learn everything anyone could teach me– but that doesn’t even come close to explaining this particular emotional mystery.
*** Citations in this paragraph are from Robert Walser, Jakob von Gunten, transl. Christopher Middleton (New York: New York Review Books, 1999), 17-18, 128, 139. Probably the most devastating tale of what schoolgirls’ naïve fantasies about their teachers could result in is depicted in the 2002 film, Blue Car, with David Strathairn turning in a creepily, believably brilliant performance of a could-have-been.
**** ibid., 176. Also, this is the completely wrong place for this question, especially since I’m addressing the end of this book– but who is this brilliant translator and introducer-of-the-work, Christopher Middleton? I don’t believe I’ve ever been driven to find out more about the introducer’s own work, based on his/her introductory remarks– but this Mr. Middleton has made me terribly curious about what other literary output he’s got up his sleeve.
I mentioned not too long ago that I thought Diane Ackerman had a tendency in A Natural History of the Senses to make too-quick assumptions about general human feelings vis-à-vis the environment and its many phenomena– and I illustrated my discomfort by citing her assertion that “we” associate winds with destruction. Well, the following has nothing to do, really, with warnings to authors about making more humble characterizations– but it does have to do with wind, and with some fun poked at bygone naturalists with a tendency to exaggeration. Behold, some satire from Mark Twain, directed at popular earthquake reporting and forecasting:
Oct. 22–Light winds, perhaps. If they blow, it will be from the “east’ard, or the west’ard, or the suth’ard,” or from some general direction approximating more or less to these points of the compass or otherwise. Winds are uncertain–more especially when they blow from whence they cometh and whither they listeth. N.B.–Such is the nature of winds.*
I’m not sure why I almost choked on my roll at “Such is the nature of winds”– but that stifled chuckle was soon followed by another when reading just a few sentences later “Oct. 26–Considerable phenomenal atmospheric foolishness.”
This quotation is featured in a chapter on earthquake-centered humor in Deborah R. Coen’s book, The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter. I’ve long been fascinated by earthquakes, to the point of being so charmed and surprised to find myself in one for the first time that I didn’t even think of moving to safety until the madness had already passed. (Sometimes, as in this case, the stupid get very, very lucky; that one came in somewhere in the middle range of the magnitude scale.) And so, from the start, I knew that the information in this book could even be presented in less-than-stellar style, and I wouldn’t really mind. But Coen’s scholarly exposition makes good use of humor and very human (i.e., quirky, limited, or otherwise engagingly foible-laden) assumptions from the history of disaster science. Even the crotchety Karl Kraus makes a noticeable appearance, with, among other things, his commentary on tone’s ability to convince people of all manner of falsities, citing as an example a satire of an earthquake observation accepted as the real thing by a major press.**
I’m not even halfway through this exploration of how earthquake science developed in tandem with the popular press and scientific practice and discourse as a whole– but if the rest of the book is as thick with lovely linguistic nuggets from long-gone scientists and commentators as it has been thus far,*** the rest of this sunny weekend may just be spent devouring it whole.
* Cited in Deborah R. Coen, The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 58.
** I’ve long been meaning to read Kraus via more than secondary sources; now I’m doubly determined to see what he had to say about the “fake news” of his own time, and whether it might help us understand why so many people, in a day at least technologically different from his own, are still so willing to be swindled by what would seem to be obvious misinformation– or, as some might call it in certain circumstances, propaganda or ideology. Another nugget of Kraus-wisdom Coen offers us sounds like it could be a condemnation of a sizable chunk of contemporary social media users: “The idiocy that would never have thought of emerging from its life in private has discovered an opportunity for immortality; banality has been lured out of its hiding place; average humanity has been hauled out in triumph. A consuming greed to be named has taken hold of the Mr. Nobodies.” (Coen, 67.) Kraus was no friend to the average human being– but behind the sneer is nothing other than a more detailed version of the truth-kernel expressed in (what may not have actually been) Andy Warhol’s dictum, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”
*** e.g., describing Iceland as one “of the earth’s great safety-valves,” or the way in which false reports were received as evidence of “the heartlessness of a belief that has been disappointed” (that latter quote coming from Kraus again). ibid., 49, 66.