The Story of Our Humbling


July 26, 1993|By ANDREI CODRESCU

New Orleans. -- I went to Hannibal, Missouri, to write a story about the flood in Mark Twain's boyhood town. The waters of the Mississippi stretched wider than anyone remembered.

People had driven hundreds of miles to stand silently and watch them. A father with his 14-year-old son told me, ''I brought him to see history. When I was a boy my father brought me to watch the flood in 1951.'' Someone standing nearby piped in, ''My father brought me to watch in 1973.'' Some other people joined in and, one by one, they recalled all the major floods of their lifetimes. That was their history.

In New Orleans, where I live, the conversation turns often to hurricanes. People remember each one and mark the past with its gales. In California, it was earthquakes. In Europe, when I was growing up, folks remembered all their wars, big and small. At family gatherings, the oldest people would sing World War I songs until they fell asleep. Then it was the turn of World War II, until only the youngest were still awake, laughing at their elders but knowing in their bones that their own dark hour wasn't far off.

History is an unrelenting chain of disasters in the memories of individuals. Sure, people remember happy occasions too, but they are usually ones that mark the conclusion of some great disaster: VE Day, VJ Day. If we have happy memories, they are usually private. What we share with the world is an unbroken lament.

But it isn't just sorrowful. Catastrophes make us feel insignificant: We are in awe of great forces like raging rivers and quaking earth, events that show us just how puny we are in the scheme of things. Such lessons in humility are joyful occasions, actually. Deep down we are all doubtful of the illusion of control we pretend in our lives. We suspect our arrogance and feel guilty. When we stand corrected by larger instances we experience pleasure. History is composed of the stories of our humbling. We watch the floodwaters, secretly hoping to drown.

Andrei Codrescu is editor of Exquisite Corpse.

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