October 25, 2008

A Wreck on the Shore

Spectatorship. To watch the world's passing calamities, vast and public, or small and domestic, and take their measure. Are they, from that point of sanctuary and safety, seen as essential destructions, unavoidable eruptions, essential sacrifices? Made for the sake of an unfolding future, or what Hegel calls the "true result of history"?

Or is the saving quality actual distance, which is described by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, where the European man, over his breakfast, reads in the newspaper of a Chinese village swallowed by an earthquake and  feels pangs of pity, a true tremor of sadness; then meditates on life's fragility or geological risks, only to continue soon enough on with business, pleasure, life? Or does even the witness of some proximate disaster bring the selfish relief of the survivor?

In the tragic mode, that which is unjust and deplorable is worked over and eventually harnessed by reason, which may well allow for the great gift of pity for the unfortunate, but not the sustained fear and trembling at human vulnerability.

The spectator keen to see the drama of history on the stage, avoids the brutality of the waves of passionate dislocation, and instead rests on "the calmer shore and, from a secure position . . . look[s] on at the distant spectacle of confusion and wreckage." One must, as a living being, a brute with an "eye of prey," become a spectator to suffering, including one's own; give it cause, plot, parameters, justification, reason. But be it by rising tides, geological upheavals, or the scandals on the stage that seem mere drama, something other, the figurative shipwreck is almost always a destiny in one form or another, a point of contact with what cannot be escaped through political cant, self-satisfying judgment, or the vast refusals of ill-purpose.

Photograph: "The Wreck of the Viscata," San Francisco Bay, by Carleton Watkins.