Seven Seals, No Pictures

Death hides its horrors in Chile disaster reportage

Guilt settles in quickly, but still not fast enough to quench that awful first reaction—“Again?”

It’s late afternoon and the kettle’s bubbling for coffee as I read online that there’s been another natural disaster, an earthquake, this time in Chile. The website has a slideshow—mangled cars, split buildings, efficient foreigners ferrying in aid. As always, there’s a sense of arriving late; the disaster’s already happened, the Red Cross is already there, and stringers have had time to send in not only a first report but two or three updates. All the same, it is horrifying. And so that initial thought spasm—“God, not another one”—is accompanied by an entrenched sense of remorse. Thinking of it as “just another disaster” discredits the horror of this particular event, an 8.8 magnitude shock that’s left hundreds dead and millions displaced.

Such an impulse, I know, didn’t emerge from thin air. Students of the apocalypse, disappointed in the failure of July 1999 to carry out Nostradamus’s prediction (a great “King of Terror” was supposed to descend from the sky to restore Genghis Khan) will find ample substance for speculation in the recent string of natural disasters—Sri Lanka in 2004, New Orleans in 2005, Sichuan in 2008, Haiti just under two months ago. Coming so close together, they become easy to blur into symbols of something larger—or worse, to ignore. It reminds me of what V.S. Naipaul wrote when he returned to India after several decades and saw families in dirt and rags in the street: “Two generations separated me from that kind of poverty; but I felt closer to it than most of the Indians I met.” See it enough, and you simply cease to see.

No matter how difficult, it’s essential to consider each disaster individually, resisting the urge to run it into a trend line. Submerging it in some larger structure only discourages real compassion and action—and in moments of disaster, it’s action that’s needed more than anything.

Unfortunately, the way in which disasters are reported often encourages precisely the opposite reaction. I first read about the Chile quake on the New York Times website, where beside the images, an op-ed by Al Gore admonished that “We Can’t Wish Away Climate Change”—the title assuming a generalizing reaction like the one I’d worked so hard to overcome. Below, another link plumbed voyeuristically for more information: “Are you in an affected area? What are you seeing?” and requested that readers send in “pix.” Where the Olympics slideshow had been the day before, and would be the next day, disaster images moved by in matter-of-fact procession. All of it was impressively slick—disconcertingly so. Chile could have been replaced by any other country, and nothing would have changed.


One effective means of particularizing, for instance, is through photography—once you’ve seen those images of mass graves in Haiti, it’s impossible to forget them. But rather than suffering Chileans, most of the photos on the New York Times front were of industrious and healthy-looking aid workers. Far from being desensitized, we’re hardly shown scenes of death at all.

Part of this is that in our culture any real depiction of death is taboo. Julian Barnes writes of “lemon tables” in China at which dinner guests are not only permitted but expected to speak freely of death. In many cultures, corpses are tenderly washed and wrapped in shrouds by members of the family. Modern hospitals and undertakers, in contrast, make contact with the dead virtually nonexistent—when Woody Allen jokes about the Grim Reaper, it’s practically avant-garde.

At times, certainly, the arts pages do attempt to humanize the dead of the affected country, publishing excerpts from the national literature or inviting its authors to set down their feelings in print. (Only when the country is non-western, of course: if an earthquake hit France, we’d hardly be treated to the “unknown” works of Stendhal. As it happens, most of the recent disaster-stricken areas have also been poor ones.) This was what happened after Haiti, such as with Edwidge Danticat’s moving piece about her dead relatives in The New Yorker.

There’s nothing wrong with keeping home in mind, of course. On the coffee table here I keep a copy of the Times Literary Supplement. With a cover reading “Golden California,” its bright orange-gold sky often comes as great comfort in a country where dribbling rain means a good weather day. If an earthquake ever hits the Bay Area’s San Andreas Fault Line like it did in 1989, part of the process of coping would likely involve writing something out.

But as well-intentioned as they are, all of the slideshows, finger-wagging articles, and delicate stories from famous authors simply sanitize the disaster and transform it into a fait accompli. Danticat’s description is not necessarily a pleasant read, but the way she tells it makes tragedy seem almost beautiful—lilting, and very far away, beyond the reach of human hands. What we need to see instead is actual blood, and pain, and suffering, and then—maybe—it will all seem real. For now, rationalizing Chile and Haiti into mere plot points only compounds the tragedy as, in those God-fearing countries, divine fury cracks the earth.

Jessica A. Sequeira ’11, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House currently studying abroad at the University of Cambridge. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.