‘All alike burned in its fire’ - a line taken from the fragment below - captures something powerful about the impact of disasters, moments when worlds bend and break. How to make sense of the nonsensical? How to comprehend the incomprehensible? What to do when reality outstrips imagination?
… the main event has been several hundred people speaking of their dead parents, brothers, sisters, partners and children. I listened to the man who spent the night lying on the road beside the body of his dead two-year-old daughter, just to be with her one last time. I listened to the man who lost six (yes, six) members of his family in one instant and then saw people robbing their bodies within seconds. They were profoundly ordinary people, all luminously eloquent in their pain and loss. They were an unforgettable lesson in what it is to be human. I hadn’t expected to report on a murder trial and learn almost everything there is to learn about love. And perhaps to learn the ballistic specifics of what happens when love meets its opposite.
All were heartbreakingly unanimous in how deeply corroded they were by guilt. The guilt of surviving, of not saving loved ones, of not sufficiently helping the injured or dying. All alike burned in its fire.
“It will be very difficult for them to live without her,” their grandmother said. “This life has no sense at all.”
In reference to two sisters who lost their mother when a missile hit a train station in Ukraine, from a piece by Megan Specia on the impact of the war on children.
Recently the war killed one of my Kyiv acquaintances — the rector of Borys Grinchenko Kyiv University, Viktor Ognevyuk. He was 63 years old. He killed himself and left a note that he couldn’t live like this any more.
I would like to believe that Ukrainians are not afraid of death and are not afraid of Russian aggression. But this is not always the case.
Lesha Aleksandrov, a musician, my old friend and neighbour, was walking along one of the most beautiful streets in Kyiv, Yaroslaviv Val, last Tuesday, when the siren sounded again. And then, before his eyes, people quickly left the cafés and the cafés closed. Only the local beauty salon continued to work and the lone beauty salon employee beyond the window continued to give her client a manicure. One would like to think that beauty is more important than death!
Kurkov’s words immediately bring to mind two images from my life in Japan.
The first is from 11 March 2011 when the massive earthquake and tsunami struck the country. I was in Tokyo. After our office had been evacuated, there was considerable confusion about what to do. There was limited phone reception as the networks were completely overloaded, public transport had stopped, everyone was in shock and unsure of what had happened and what might follow. One of the clearest memories I have of this afternoon is walking past a beauty salon and seeing a woman having her hair and nails done. I was in disbelief that people were able to restart normal life so quickly. In the intervening years, however, I have come closer to Kurkov’s thinking, people have a remarkable capacity - in good and bad ways - to find normality in abnormal conditions.
The other image that Kurkov evoked is one of the most poignant parts of Kenzaburo Oe’s Hiroshima Notes, in which he recounted the story of a young dentist who committed suicide:
… the young dentist strung a rope from a bolt jutting out from a broken wall and hanged himself. He realized that not only were people suffering now that the war had ended but also that they would continue to suffer for many years to come. A different kind of tragic battle was just beginning and would go on affecting later generations for decades. It was too much; in despair he killed himself. This young man's imagination was extremely human; but the strain of what he foresaw was more than he could bear. Only when we appreciate the tragic but by no means unnatural fate of this young dentist can we fully appreciate the remarkable effort of the Hiroshima doctors ‘who did not commit suicide in spite of everything.’
I have considered this in more detail in a prior note, here I just wanted to highlight the similarity, the strain that reality can place on the mind.
When we say that someone isn’t acting rationally, what we mean is that we do not understand the world in which the person’s actions are rational. The problem is not so much that Putin is irrational; the problem is that there is a world in which it is rational for him to move ever closer to a nuclear strike, and most Western analysts cannot comprehend the logic of that world. Robert Jay Lifton, the pioneering psychiatrist and historian who has written about nuclear arms for half a century, is fond of quoting the philosopher Martin Buber’s phrase “imagine the real.” That is what we fail to do when we talk about Putin and his nuclear threat: we can’t imagine the very real possibility that he will follow through.
Overall I find this piece considerably less compelling than most of Masha Gessen’s excellent work, but this observation is an important one. In the same way that Russia launching an all out invasion of Ukraine in February did not appear rational, it happened, and there was a logic to it. There are worlds in which Putin using a nuclear weapon ‘makes sense’, it is worth considering what those might be.
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