History is No Longer a Circle, Nor is Progress Guaranteed

Szczepan Twardoch on Our Need to Give Meaning to Catastrophe

I am 40 years old and not used to history. History has never crossed my path before. History has not touched my life, not burned its frightening brand onto it. Frightening because when others are branded, that isn’t history, but events.

Much has happened over my life, of course, because much always happens.

When communism ended, I was buried in the books of Jules Verne, just as I was when the Berlin wall fell and when the USSR—that ultima ratio of every Polish political discussion back then—was suddenly gone.

And much kept happening. On September 11th, 2001 I was sitting in the cabin of a sailboat, anchored among the reeds on a lake, battling with a WAP protocol to get the small, orange screen of my Alcatel to load the truth about what was going on. My friend’s brother called to tell us that Egypt was bombing the United States, which even then didn’t seem particularly likely.

When John Paul II died I was at the movies. For the rest of the world, this just another death of a very famous person, but in Poland it was an event with the combined emotional power of the death of a monarch and the death of a prophet—far from merely the death of an old man.

When a plane carrying the Polish president and the most important figures in the country smashed into a forest in Russia, for a few hours we wondered whether this was the start of a war.

The conflict that did break out in Ukraine many years later proved that our fear that day hadn’t been as irrational as it had seemed a few hours on, once it had become clear no war was coming.

So there were particular times, periods of mourning, where the world would stop for a moment and then return to its circular track. We would drink, go outside, enjoy ourselves—summer, winter, mountains, sea. Events kept happening but no catastrophe touched us. Nothing interrupted the circle of time.

For we have always tamed time by arranging it in a circle. Without the circle, to us humans it would be a terrifying labyrinth with no light.

*

Ancient life was arranged in cycles. Every liturgical year was a cycle, persisting peacefully amid eruptions of joyful anticipation at Advent, then the winter solstice and the triumph of the Sun-God, then carnival, then the penitential fast once linked to the mass hunger before the harvest, then the relief of the Resurrection, which is not only that of Christ, but also the ancient return from the dead of Osiris, Tammuz, and all the other gods who lost their lives and regained them so that each year the world could be reborn into a new, unexhausted form.

Yet Mircea Eliade maintained that alongside the Hebrew religion and Christianity, a new, variant perspective appeared: of time as linear, aiming somewhere, in expectation of the End of Days. I am convinced this hope of salvation, and the resurrection of the dead to remain in perpetual union with God, is what led to the secular idea of progress, of improving the lot of humanity not in the hypothetical Beyond, but here and now—the Promethean attempt to tear human destiny free from the terror of nature, defying the fatalistic acceptance of suffering.

The idea of progress, meanwhile, can lead us to the concepts of human life’s inherent value and of inalienable human rights, which seem just as obvious to us as every living religious conviction that time has not yet managed to transform into ritual with its meaning effaced.

Yet we shield ourselves from this vector off time, because in actual fact, the thought that time is irreversible is unbearable. The countless forms of our lives therefore take on the quality of religious cycles. Cyclically, mass pilgrimages of tourists wash over Europe, paying tribute to the sun in summer and seeking snow in winter.

Like generals always ready for the last war and not the next, we also anticipated everything but the quiet catastrophe that has arrived.

Cyclically, we lose ourselves in ecstasy to the beating of drums at Coachella, at Glastonbury, at Rock am Ring. Cyclical forms define our ritual stories—the Oscars, the Berlinale, Cannes. Cyclically we pay tribute to beauty, in the unchanging sequence of one Fashion Week after another in New York, London, Milan, and Paris. Cyclically, in antique Olympic rhythm, we watch athletes, follow soccer leagues, tennis tournaments, car races.

All those joyful holidays, sacred without a personal deity, but sacred nonetheless, just as much as the Greek theater or Mayan or Aztec ball games were sacred. These cycles and many others are subordinated to the vital rhythms of industry, which stands in the background of these events, but also the rhythms of those people participating as ordinary believers.

These cycles make our existence bearable, stifle our panicked anxiety at the void we anticipate after death, and also defend the form of the world from exhaustion through its annual renewal. Until something disturbs or breaks the cycle, history will not happen to us.

History happens to the inhabitants of Damascus, history affects the Kurds, the Rohingya, the Israelis and Palestinians and many others in the world, and history happened to New Yorkers nearly 20 years ago, because catastrophe has touched all of these.

*

Catastrophe—meaning huge, shared suffering—interrupts the circle of time. Extending from this fractured circle is the linear time of history, for history is always a story of suffering. Suffering is invariably accompanied by the hope that it will end, so history can take on meaning and direction, can gain its telos.

Catastrophe interrupts the circle of time, interrupts it in our deepest imaginings about life, fate, and their structures; catastrophe breaks off our cyclical existence in the mythical reality of recurring holidays and festivals, in the rhythm of premières and new spring and winter collections, and forces us to accept the linear logic of history, in a painful and often tragic process.

We do not yet know what this latest catastrophe will be, though most of us who are not yet dying in overflowing Italian hospitals for the moment are experiencing it only as minor inconveniences, as the need for certain sacrifices. So we live in hope that this is only a temporary condition, that the world will get back on its old track, that maybe we’ll lose a year but we won’t lose the world we were living in.

Yet because we don’t know what this latest catastrophe is, alongside hope, we fear the unknown, the world this catastrophe will give birth to, and we fear this more than death. We fear whether our money—if we have it—will be worth anything, and what we will live on without it. We fear whether the sectors we find ourselves working in will collapse. We fear that even if we are not in a risk group, we will infect elderly men and women we love. We fear the anger that could explode forth.

This is the difference between catastrophe and the individual tragedies that affect one fate and one life, or a small number: in a catastrophe everyone loses and everyone is afraid. In a catastrophe there is no room for the compassion a personal, individual tragedy finds in a world where we tame time using recurring rituals. Yet perhaps collective suffering and fear build the potential for a different empathy, born not of compassion but of a shared pain; perhaps it is this empathy that allows us to endure.

This catastrophe therefore affects everyone, admittedly with different intensities, but everyone. Neither money nor power protect against infection, though of course they may guarantee a treatment the poor cannot afford. Yet no one is safe. If before the catastrophe we were living well and had everything, now we fear losing it. If we had little and were suffering, now we fear that, in the world that may come, we will have nothing at all and will suffer even more.

*

We did not like the world the preceded this catastrophe.

Regardless of worldview, from the left to the right, regardless of gender and class, we all felt something was wrong with the world, we were united in this basic intuition, and differed only in where we saw its weaknesses. The form of our world seemed to us more and more exhausted, faded, still unrenewed, because our cyclical rituals only scraped along the surface of reality, our world was not being reborn every year like the world of prehistoric, archaic societies.

We masked time’s linearity with cyclical ritual, yet the threat of history never vanished from our imaginings of life and fate. We even tried enclose the exhaustion of reality’s form within a concept already familiar to Heraclitus, a cycle of renewing catastrophes, hence the popularity of the tiresome historical analogies we tried to use to tame the unknown.

Now, shut up in our homes, we realize that all the while we’ve been living in a state of danger, in a world constantly threatened with annihilation. Though we didn’t speak of it, we did expect it, as recently as the 1990s somehow timidly suggesting that maybe this was already the Parousia, albeit one stripped of the figure of a returning Messiah—that the telos of history was fulfilled and so history was no more.

It’s impossible to live in constant fear of chaos, so we follow in the footsteps of the ancient Hebrews and valorize catastrophe to give it meaning.

This faith was surely shared by the knights of the First Crusade after the capture and slaughter of Jerusalem. But our illusion dissipated faster and we found ourselves nervously awaiting catastrophe, just as we were a millennium ago.

Was not one expression of this our culture’s constant fixation on an imagined apocalypse and the world that would follow it? From Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, to cinematic, literary, and virtual post-apocalypses, ocean and desert worlds, to apocalypses caused a nuclear weapon or a zombie plague—one of the favorite motifs of American gun manufacturers, who market many of their products based on the idea of fighting off hordes of the undead. The post-apocalyptic cults of pop culture have their own fervent followers.

Like generals always ready for the last war and not the next, we also anticipated everything but the quiet catastrophe that has arrived. It has left us with our beliefs being the first casualty. It has taken away from us what we thought could not be taken. We had dreamed up escape plans, but none of us suspected there might be nowhere to escape to.

As funny as it may seem to my parents, who grew up in a world of closed borders, I still can’t believe that Berlin—for as long as I can remember separated from me only by a four-hour drive—is now cut off by a wall unlike the one that fell, but equally impenetrable. When will those terrifying, dark red lines on Google Maps, extending at right angles from the suddenly restored Polish-German border, finally disappear? Maybe never?

So a catastrophe has come to us with no one dying in the streets, no one turning into monsters. We didn’t expect a catastrophe where, statistically speaking, few of us are really in danger—we’re still more likely to die in a car accident. But do not the preventative measures our society is obliged to take make life unbearable, deprive it of everything that gave it flavor and meaning, close it into this strange and awful time depriving us of our sociality, lucidity, and joy, and so ultimately of our humanity?

Community life is dying out. Still worse, we are filled with uncertainty at the prospect of civilizational collapse, a not-entirely unlikely consequence of these necessary protective measures: won’t the economic system break down? If it does, what kind of world will emerge from that breakdown? Has a Great Depression just begun, or maybe something much worse?

*

It’s impossible to live in constant fear of chaos, so we follow in the footsteps of the ancient Hebrews and valorize catastrophe to give it meaning. Since the world before the catastrophe was imperfect, its form exhausted, catastrophe therefore becomes a punishment for sin.

In Europe, which is what I am writing about, the list of behaviors we consider sinful differs from the one accepted by the great monotheistic religions—and we also bestow them with a different, non-divine sanction—yet the very concepts of sin and atonement persist nearly unchanged, retaining their sacred character.

We have no longer sinned against God or the gods, but against human rights, against the rule of law, against animal rights, against the climate, against the oceans, against the Earth.

I am listening to no one, though one of the many prophets is certain to be right, because all possible prophecies have been declared.

Eliade writes about how the ancient Jews could not bear linear time with its telos and so, weary of it, turned away from Yahweh to graven images, worshipping the earlier deities of the annually reborn world, Baal or Astarte, because they wanted to live in that sort of world rather than in a history that constituted the direct revelation of God’s will.

We are taking the same path. Just as the majority of Christians and the majority of Jews have never lived consistently in a world of historical theophany, in daily life turning instead to more easily bearable folk ritual to tame the passage of time, we have also sinned against the linear logic of the theosis of man, against the secular revelation of happiness; we have returned to our cyclical, annually renewing festivals, sports games, movies, and fashion shows, and so now we are performing atonement, shut up in our homes like lepers in lazarettes, while life itself has halted, died out in a form misleadingly reminiscent of the fasts and penances of all the world’s religions.

Gender ideology and global leftism is to blame, say the Catholic priests. It’s divine punishment for homosexuality, say the spokesmen of the Islamic State. It’s the meat-eaters’ fault, say the vegetarians. It’s capitalism’s fault. It’s the Earth punishing us for our sins, because there are too many of us, say the most vehement mystics of Gaia. But even these whose rigorous minds have never known mystical ecstasy have difficulty resisting the logic of valorizing catastrophe.

This catastrophe is an eruption of precisely the kind of chaos which we are all spiritually, characterologically, unequipped to withstand. Humans cannot live in chaos just as they cannot live without purpose—bringing order to reality is an essential condition for survival.

Meanwhile, reality is bringing us signs. Here are the canals of Venice, their waters clear and dolphins swimming through them. Here are the deer tourists used to feed, now venturing into the towns. Is not the fact that we find this important and moving not equally transparent evidence that we cannot resist endowing a catastrophe with sacred significance? That for us, History must become theophany, even if the deity behind the revelation is neither Absolute nor personal? The further we go into catastrophe, the more of these signs there will be.

*

Yes, I am 40 and I was not prepared for history. I would prefer spending my life in the archaic, annually renewing cycle, in the world of the capitalist rituals of postmodernity, yet History always comes like a thief in the night, always to the unprepared.

I don’t know what the weight of this catastrophe will be. I don’t know how quickly we’ll return to business as usual. I am listening to no one, though one of the many prophets is certain to be right, because all possible prophecies have been declared.

I know I must not cast blame, because in a world of universal catastrophe there is no place for blame. Except among our loved ones, silence is the only way we can feel compassion for one another and share our pain; in speaking, we would only be trying to outdo one another.

I don’t know, in the end, if the world that is coming when this deluge recedes will be better or worse, I don’t even know if it will be different or the same. Yet we who have now experienced History, seeing it not in the media but firsthand, shut up in our homes, separated from our herds by the invisible prison bars of fear, dressed in the hair-shirts of penance rituals whose importance we take on as much faith as our ancestors praying for rain—and so, in essence, helpless—we can only await its end, endlessly bestowing on this waiting and this time passed some sort of meaning.

Translated from the Polish by Sean Gasper Bye. This essay appeared on Saturday, March 28th in both Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza and Germany’s Die Welt. 

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Szczepan Twardoch’s novel The King of Warsaw is available now.

Szczepan Twardoch
Szczepan Twardoch
Szczepan Twardoch is the author of the bestselling novels Morphine, Drach, and The King of Warsaw. He is the recipient of numerous honors for his work, including the Brücke Berlin Preis, Le Prix du Livre Européen, and Nike Literary Award: Audience Award. Rights to his novels have been sold in over a dozen countries. The King of Warsaw is the first of his books to be translated into English, by Sean Gasper Bye. A TV series based on the novel is being produced by Canal+. He lives in Pilchowice, Upper Silesia. For more information, visit www.szczepantwardoch.pl/en/home.





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