Catastrophe (part ten)
It seems to me, when my mind’s eye evokes the spectacle…it seems to me that I become stupid again, as I was when the boat stopped, and a canoe landed me on the beach.
Once, from a savage, I received a knock-out blow to the head, so violent that for a moment I had no thought of defending myself; a thing parallel to viewing Saint-Pierre in its immense ruin…a ruin we have no name for.
It felt evil. The acrid stench, a fetidity, and then another thing I don’t know… The moist ashes browning, the putrescence catching in the throat. A stupefaction as of drunkenness, that mounted to the brain, a daze. Stupidity…nothing other.
I was, in effect, a moron. I looked, and did not know whether I saw. I tried to observe, to notice, and did not know whether I thought. Not a line came to mind for my notebook. I had no notion of stirring to make use of my camera.
The physicians tell us that when there are too many soundwaves, or too many light waves, our ears can no longer hear, our eyes no longer see. Is a similar thing produced in our brains when impressions too many and too violent strike it all at once?
It was one of the gravediggers who brought me out of this trance. We went along a beach covered with debris; there were powdery ashes with nails pointing up in the air.
“Take care,” he said to me, “you are going to step on that. You will be punctured, and you know in this country, when a man gets a wound of that sort, he gets tetanus more easily than a pension…”
And this little detail, of my not stepping on the nail, not to catch tetanus, restored to me my legs and eyes.
I looked, and I saw. And I know now what terror is, and what horror is…
And if one wants to know the reality, of those grand words we find difficult, outlandish, magniloquent, words a little mysterious for their distance, their unreality, such words as are said of cataclysm and catastrophe…
Let him meditate on a pile of broken things, formless and putrid, which a landscape once so lovely has become; on Saint-Pierre the laughing city…
Let him go…let him go, as I, to that place. And if the nuisances we bear in life seem heavy to him, after, he has only to recall Saint-Pierre and how little, before the least quiver of the earth, humanity counts.
In the twenty years I have circled the globe, to place myself at the given hour, in those theatres where mankind seeks his brutal glory, I have seen beautiful wars and destruction.
In the months before Saint-Pierre, this winter at Saint-Domingue in Haiti, I saw with what admirable efforts, what patience, what will, what cunning, what relentlessness, what genius, and what cruelty, men will set to their hateful work, when—for a few sous, for puny pride, to assault an ephemeral power—they will flock for glory’s sake, into the breach.
The Martinique volcano makes a better showing, as to the destruction of a country. A magnificent work—imagine the accolades for an artilleryman who could in the landing of one blow dispatch a city, ten villages, and forty thousand men.
And we curse the mountain Pelée.
And to my own lips, as I wandered among the ruins, I felt anathema rise against the Mountain of Death.
Yet she works without anger, in the fatal serenity of Providence, where inanimate matter, deaf to the anguishes of animate matter, boils, whirls, bursts, flies, and settles, balancing—for so moves the universe—the supreme law of Things and Beings.
No one could imagine, or describe, the results of this “work”…that I saw.
You may know from museums these reproductions of cities, done in pasteboard and painted wood. Dream of one stomped by an elephant, burned afterwards, drowned at last with mud and ashes, and you will see what I saw in Saint-Pierre.
Only there, what was stricken, churned, and set afire, was a city of three thousand houses, covering eighty hectares, with one hundred and three streets, a developed area of more than twenty kilometers. A city where nearly forty thousand inhabitants had found themselves, when it was extinguished by disaster.
Others have said, of this disaster, that it was “like a giant piledriver had worked over the city”.
At a distance, we thought we saw the lines of low walls, as they have in cities of Southern Algeria, and the ashes gave them the appearance of Saharan huts at the feet of dunes. We could have the illusion of something that was still a city.
Nearer, we saw nothing but debris. Stones in heaps, in the streets, in the inside of what had been houses. Piles of stone everywhere, a shower of rubble and plaster. Elsewhere stone, nothing but stone. With lines of cracked walls, very low, two meters, three at most… The sections still standing in the quarter of the Mouillage are only those parallel to the shoreline; in the quarter of the Roxelane, on the contrary, they are found along the axis of the valley.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2018, translation, Stephanie Foster)