A PERSON IN PAIN is a pariah. Misfortune always strikes twice: there is the calamity itself, and there is the marginalization that comes in the aftermath of the calamity, as the rest of society, all the lucky people who were untouched by the flood or the fire, the war or the famine, continue to live according to the customs of the normal world, and are disinclined to have the satisfactions of normality complicated or disrupted by the adjacent misery. They are not mean or selfish. They are merely creatures of their mild experience. They have no natural understanding of its opposite, of the terrible things that typically happen to other people. They are not indifferent, they are ignorant; and when the ignorance ends, when the news gets out that there are people in need of help, they sometimes help. But the ones to whom the terrible things have happened, the wounded ones, are hardly ignorant of the life from which they have been expelled: after all, it was just yesterday. They know the before and they know the after. The world has not stopped—only their world has stopped; and in their fear and their impotence they wait, wondering when they will be re-attached to the otherwise persisting world. Its proximity reassures them and it tortures them. They may note ruefully the expansion of their own understanding: so this is what the affliction is like, the one they heard about before they were themselves afflicted. Adversity enlarges consciousness, though the benefit in awareness does not come with heat and light and food and water, and man does not live by consciousness alone. As a taxi brought me from Kennedy through Manhattan to Brooklyn, a few days after Hurricane Sandy attacked the city, I witnessed two New Yorks: one in light, one in darkness. They were blocks away from each other, and universes. The lifelessness of those streets was shocking, but there was worse to come. One occupies only one’s own position, I thought, and so one must correct for the exclusiveness of that position, for the solipsism of situatedness. Such a correction can be achieved only by the imagination, without which sympathy is provincial, a prisoner of circumstances. It is fine for morality to appeal to memory (“for you were once a slave in Egypt”), but we must prepare ourselves to grasp also enormities that we have never endured. If we do not practice the imagination of suffering, the wretched will truly be alone.
FOR MY FAMILY, the imagination of at least one variety of suffering will no longer be necessary. We now have memory as a foundation for compassion: memory, and a FEMA number. This time the other people to whom terrible things typically happen included us. In Manhattan Beach, a halcyon archipelago of bourgeois contentment, the waters of the bay to the north and the sea to the south rose angrily and, like armies of pillaging invaders, met to destroy. The flooding was vicious. The waters climbed six feet, eight feet, ten feet. They smashed in doors and knocked down walls. Brick and cement crumbled before them. As the waters began to attack our mother’s house, my sister phoned me, and I do not believe I will ever shake the sound of her terror. Our impossibly frail mother was upstairs, sweetly oblivious to the danger. The SUV was underwater and carried off into the garden. The phones were dead, except for the antiquated land line. The power went out. The live wires brought low by the wind started sparking, which threatened to ignite the fuel in the floodwater from the bay’s broken boats. As the waters began to recede—they came to kill and then fled—the extent of the devastation was revealed. The nights were cold and black; we lived in dread of sunsets. The police created a checkpoint at the entrance to the neighborhood because looting was feared. We kept our mother warm with propane heaters and then with a gas generator, which also restored her hospital bed, though it required heroic dead-of-night searches for canisters of gas. We felt ruined, helpless, indignant, severed, confused. Our spirits were smashed. I smiled twice that week: the first time when I heard about some of my old books, Goethe and Croce and Strawson, floating serenely through the wreckage, the second time when a plumber reported that “Nathan’s frankfurters are floating down Surf Avenue.” For purposes of resistance and escape I read by flashlight, and was mordantly comforted to learn that the ancient philosopher Chrysippus wrote a work called On Things Not Worth Choosing for Their Own Sakes.
AFTER TWELVE DAYS the power came on. This was not the case in the Rockaways, in Breezy Point, in Staten Island, in New Jersey. Doctors Without Borders in Staten Island: that’s globalization! I marveled at the mayor’s skill in evading any accountability for the city’s lack of preparedness and quickly wearied of his cashmere swagger. How can anybody named Bloomberg be so utterly lacking in the common touch? The class analysis of the city’s ordeal, this latest and most extreme illustration of Manhattanism, was hard to refute. The center was dining and damn the peripheries. Perhaps there was a risk analysis somewhere, a cost-benefit cleverness, that justified the city’s lack of precaution and the pace of the recovery. There were policy considerations—banalities, really, but now endowed with a crushing force—that suggested themselves even to those of us who have no way to know whether sea walls will work. The first is the primary character of infrastructure. Is there a less glamorous subject in America? We do not like to dwell on our roads and our rails; they are so expensive, and so not digital. As if catastrophes are not expensive, too. Our non-physical environment ripens, our physical environment rots. The second is the incontrovertible reality of climate change, and the historical meretriciousness of its denial.
After Sandy, and it is only the most recent of the devastating proofs, the repudiation of climate science deserves to be universally regarded as intellectually and socially disreputable, the ravings of cranks and the schemings of capitalists at their most contemptible. From the rubble in Brooklyn in early November, I watched America have its sense of reality tested by an election and a hurricane: it was a week in which we were asked to recognize the actually existing country and the actually existing planet. The proper description of reality is not always an easy task. But the new America is here, and so is the new Earth.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 6, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Who By Water.”