As I write, heroic workers in Japan struggle to prevent what one headline called potential “nuclear catastrophe” in the wake of the record-breaking earthquake and devastating tsunami. I was struck by the use of the word, so I looked up catastrophe in my 1975 hardcover edition of The American Heritage Dictionary.
Catastrophe 1. A great and sudden calamity; disaster 2. A sudden violent change in the earth’s surface; cataclysm 3. The denouement of a play, especially a classical tragedy. The root derives from the Greek katastrophe from katastreiphen: to turn down, overturn. Kata-, down and strephein-, to turn. From the root Strebh, to wind, to turn, to twist.
At first the root meaning is not obvious to me. Then I think of the earth turning, like its own tides and storms, like the twisted strands of DNA. In a tragedy, literary or literal, there is also a turning. The tragic hero overreaches, underestimates, or both, and the tide turns against him, the people turn against him, the furies, the very elements. He is overturned, overthrown like a corrupt regime, downturned like our economy. We live in catastrophic times. Humans, as a species, share the tragic flaw of the hero, the illusion that we can control what is beyond our control for our own ends. And now we face global catastrophe.
Earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones, volcanoes (earth, water, wind, fire) are natural disasters not caused by human agency (though increased storm activity is linked to global warming). They are the earth shaping and re-shaping itself, losing and restoring balance, as it always has, as all life does. This dramatic flux is nothing new on planet earth. A cataclysm (kata, down kluzien, to wash) is catastrophic because we cluster in huge numbers along the coasts or on the slopes of volcanoes or on flood plains where the soil is fertile. And if we must build a power plant on a fault line to meet our needs, we do, hoping for the best, preparing (however inadequately) for the worst—all of us, in every nation that has the capability.
As we appear to be in a period of denouement in our collective drama, we might ponder the meaning of tragedy. The hero in a tragedy is not just flawed but heroic. Our advances in technology, medicine, agriculture that have hugely increased our population and our expectations all began with noble intent. The tragedy, as a form, gives us a chance to identify where the hero (us) lost his way. The survivors of the tragedy (us too) have chance to restore the balance that was lost and begin again.