A Paradise Built in Hell

How natural to distrust any guide who directs you, for the purpose of inspiring uplift, toward a study of the grisliest disasters that have befallen human communities. In the case of Rebecca Solnit’s new book on mass destruction and its effects, this logical impulse is, well, dead wrong. For what she witnesses, borne up on the smoke from earthquakes, fires, and explosions, is nothing less than the highest aspects of human spirit. This is a paradox she examines fully and fruitfully, even if the prescriptive lessons she finally asks us to take back into daily life seem unfortunately impossible: Utopias arise from the embers of calamity, as she recounts again and again; yet they, too, inevitably burn.

The focus is on five great disasters — the 1906 San Francisco earthquake; an explosion in Halifax in 1917; Mexico City’s earthquake in 1985, which not only leveled the city but also its political structure; September 11th as a local tragedy; and post-Katrina New Orleans, reported first-hand by the author — but the book is by no means limited to these. Solnit (whose previous, poetically varied work includes River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West and A Field Guide to Getting Lost) is not the kind of writer who is limited by anything. Here, without quite saying so, she considers human biology from a social viewpoint: we evolved as communal animals and then survived because we did.

The heavenly locale of the title is situated in that strange place where disaster begets joy — the surpassing joy of coming together over the fallen ramparts of social divides. Anyone who has experienced a white-out snowstorm in a big city knows this feeling, a freedom from walls both literal and metaphorical. People empty into the streets, to communicate, to help, to join. Trouble there may be but happiness, too, in temporary relief from the old order that keeps us separated, in line. Even in events during which widespread death and injury occur, “a paradise of unbroken solidarities” is reported by people as a source of happiness that sometimes changes lives forever.

The explosion of a munitions-laden ship in Halifax Harbor on December 6, 1917, was “the largest man-made explosion in history before nuclear weapons.” Three thousand tons of powder detonated; the blast — heard 200 miles away — lifted the hull of the Mont Blanc a thousand feet into the air, and the ensuing shock wave and fireball destroyed every building within a mile, erupting into a massive conflagration. More than 1,500 people died and 9,000 were injured. Horrific as the scene was, it became the stage for transformation of both individuals (into heroes capable of “generosity beyond reason”) and the city at large: a historian observes that the town, “with its rigid class structure — divided by religion, class, and country — briefly integrated” as helping the injured became the primary goal of all.

As Solnit’s exploration proceeds, these examples accrete to the status of scientific data, and it becomes impossible not to see this selfless behavior as instinctual, something in our nature that only blooms fully when it meets the exigencies of need. It is, it seems, what we were built for. Crisis allows us to express our true selves — and is thus a form of relief. A paradise indeed.

Yet not a perfect one. From the beginning, Solnit repeats “Beliefs matter,” and shows the fatal result of holding beliefs that are patently wrong, since they can cause us to act dangerously. So police restrict crowds, believing in a human impulse to chaos when social strictures are temporarily loosened; or vigilantes, believing property is at risk, take aim using amateur racial profiling (numerous unarmed African Americans, merely trying to survive or help others, were shot by whites in New Orleans). “Elite panic” of this sort has long been a feature of the sudden event, from the fear of ring snatching that is “a major component of urban disaster myths” to the distrustful anxiety of the rich, and especially of the reigning political powers, that the new communal order might become permanent. That is when they call out the National Guard. And that is when the trouble really begins.

One of Solnit’s main points is that disasters can be revolutions of sorts, imposing new order in a cataclysmic overnight. In the case of the 1972 earthquake in Nicaragua, this was literally true, because as the people came together to help each other in its aftermath, finding new strength in solidarity, the Sandinistas had their way prepared.

This rather unexpected aspect of her subject permits the author to venture to the far territories of thought — she is an experienced long-distance traveler — and she spends a while in the precincts of political theory (Kropotkin, anarchy, utopianism). Not for the sake of establishing her intellectual credentials, however (these are sealed already), but to reiterate that theory matters, since decisions that affect the outcome in disaster scenarios are made on the basis of beliefs about how people behave. Believe wrong, and people can die. This happened, graphically, in San Francisco, when extensive fires were set by law enforcement agents, with fatal results.

Again and again, “the authorities” expect one thing — chaos, lawbreaking, panic, despair, collective regression — and again and again humans instead engage in mutual aid, spontaneously creating precise operational systems to ensure survival. Here, then, is the paradox at the heart of this intriguing book: disasters can be good for us, even as they are undeniably tragic. “They provide relief from that old web of griefs, habits, assumptions, and fears in which we are ordinarily caught: the effects are as psychological as they are practical.” Solnit is, morally, bravely treading on thin ice in a gray area, to necessarily mix metaphors: from several quarters, one can already hear the angry dissenters, shrieking, Oh, so here’s an author who finds death and destruction a good thing? Um, yes, but only because she is an author with a subtle mind, one that can make a case for, in her term, “redemptive disaster” (even as she recognizes that “it is a dangerous thing to say that disaster is liberating”). In just one of the brick-load of examples the book is solidly built from, “The earthquake is a mythic moment in Mexican history, and civil society is the phoenix that rose from its rubble.”

The book has many such beauties, both in what it recounts and in what it is: a reflection of the writer’s athletic mind at play, moving surely and sinuously across wide territories. Along the way we spot 19th-century social history, Dorothy Day, a survey of the carnival as rite of social inversion, the Diggers, TV’s Survivor, man-made horrors such as the Blitz, and a brief but lively study of Hollywood conventions as applied to disaster storylines.

Oxfam reported in 2007 that in the previous 20 years, the incidence of weather-related disasters had quadrupled. One can only fear the future statistics on terrorism. With this ahead of us, Rebecca Solnit’s multivalent work is not only of great pertinence. Events to come may well pull a transformational trick on this book’s genre: literary exploration to instruction manual, in one terrible blow.