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Bernard-Henri Lévy

Bernard-Henri Lévy

Posted: April 19, 2010 05:58 PM

The Lesson of the Volcano

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We can argue all we like.

When order is restored, we can go on about the test flights that were, all the same, held, the planes that were sent back to their bases without passengers -- and without incident -- and about the Russian President Medvedev who fearlessly braved the column of ashes high in the sky to attend the funeral of his Polish colleague.

As usual, we can grouse about the excesses of the precautionary principle and about the aversion to risk that has become the golden rule of our societies and of their overcautious States.

The fact remains that an event has taken place.

Huge and minuscule, much like the butterfly effects that are forever referred to, and this time not without reason.

Colossal and insignificant: colossal because it is initially insignificant, just like the science fiction scenarios, the great tales of antiquity and the cataclysms of the Bible.

A volcano has awakened.

A very little volcano, smaller than the one that destroyed Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae in 79 A.D., smaller than the Laki, whose eruption, also in Iceland, transformed 1783 into a year of ashes on a planet-wide scale. Minuscule, almost pathetic, in comparison to the dreadful Tambora in Indonesia, whose explosion in the late 19th century sent particles several times around the globe before they finally scattered and whose power, equal to a hundred times the force of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, claimed nearly 100,000 victims.

It's just a silly little volcano, in a country normally of no consequence, one that three quarters of humanity had never heard of until yesterday, while the other quarter thought its State had removed itself from the working map of the planet by its own bankruptcy triggered by last year's Crisis.

And now this volcano that has been dormant for the past 187 years, this little volcano that starts spitting up a bit of its entrails, now this eruption of fire, gases, and molten rock is enough to nail thousands of planes to the ground and spread confusion throughout the economies of developed countries, sending some into a state of paralysis while others are panicked or simply dumbfounded. In the very image of what occurred during the great financial crisis; it is not the flow of capital but the flow of communication and the circulation of men and goods that is jammed, closed down, like blood frozen in the veins.

Who is the strongest, asks the little volcano, you or my cloud of ashes? Who is the cleverest, my stealthy, almost invisible dust whose slow and crazy course no one dares to predict from one hour to the next, or your battalions of volcanologists and other meteorologists who saw nothing, predicted nothing, and who, even today, despite their science and technology, their ultra-sophisticated systems of prevention and intervention, and their gigantic observatories, are reduced to scanning the sky like Roman oracles watching the erratic flight of birds?

Who will have -- who has -- the last word? Man, the self-proclaimed master and possessor of Nature, planning to control even its inmost fits and starts, even dreaming, like the alchemist Almani in the Marquis de Sade's Nouvelle Justine, of becoming the volcano himself and espousing the womb that vomits flame? Or me, the tiny little volcano who, in my atomized depths, my infernal ejecta, and then my dust clouds, wandering and suspended but capable, if you're not careful, of gobbling up airplanes like Aetna did Empedocles, has just reminded you that Nature exists and that she resists, and that no one has the power to give her notice, or to absolutely confine her, or, by persisting in bringing her to reason, to make the desert grow?

Is the die cast, in other words, to such an extent as the certainties of technoscience would have us believe, between the marvelous tools capable of fashioning, transforming and, in principle, domesticating and pacifying the real and those other Forges where the Ancients believed Hephaistos's laborers -- those monstrous Cyclops who were also, at the same time and paradoxically, the guardians of the Being -- worked at the foot of the volcanoes?

Prosopopeia of the volcano.

The wrath of the little volcano, inflamed by the immense and indecent arrogance of men.

Silence, says the volcano, silence, I'm the one who is speaking now. Nobody move. Until further notice, your flying machines are no longer allowed in the sky. Each of you stay exactly where you were at the instant my eruption of sulfur, nitrous gas and bitumen (Marquis de Sade again) began. And no one, it's true, is stirring. And the planet, in fact, is holding its breath, waiting for the volcano to become silent. And a shiver goes through us all, at the idea of a force which extends beyond our will and suddenly dictates its own law.

That is the lesson of the volcano. Under the volcano, certainly not the beach, but the necessary patience of things. From the burning throat of the volcano, a message of humility and a call for moderation. Blessed be the volcano. Fortunate the chaos it foments. And this time, may Empedocles remain standing straight in his sandals.

Translated by Janet Lizop.