When gadgets and rationality fail to provide answers

Friday, 21 March 2014 - 6:05am IST Updated: Thursday, 20 March 2014 - 8:20pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA

These days I feel scared going to bed: who knows what would have vanished when I wake up? All around me abound silly scientific explanations sans evidence. I won’t call a man dead till I see a man dead or am explained the events leading up to it. Perhaps by the time you are reading this someone would have made a breakthrough, and I sincerely hope someone does, but as of now we have nothing. Zilch.

The news broke on a Saturday two weeks ago. A plane had crashed. Then, through the day and over the days that followed the tone of news anchors switched from mock tragic to mock terror to mock comic: the plane had vanished. Every third day a new theory is pitched and is summarily rejected the following day. It is as if the entire globe is in denial: nothing has vanished or disappeared, something is missing, and they are two different things. Excellent. Makes for good copy but doesn’t make sense. As far as I am concerned, the plane has vanished. When something goes missing it is likely to be found; but if something disappears, an element of magic comes into play: there is no second or a third act and one can seldom get over it. The linguistic implications of choosing ‘vanish’ or ‘disappear’ over ‘missing’ are grave. Speak to a nuclear physicist who has learnt to live with electrons entering and exiting reality at will. Electrons don’t go missing. They vanish.

A decade ago two planes exploded into our reality. Now a plane has vanished. In all cases the airplanes had strayed off their regular route, all were loaded with lives and all went beyond all rational radars.

Perhaps, such events, dripping with reality, are best dealt with by literature. In his great poem, The Second Coming, Yeats says, ‘The centre cannot hold/ mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’… Isn’t this an apt description of the situation at hand and of 9/11? An upturning of the world — as we know it — by a petulant power that wants us to know it is here. Is this the dawn of a new age — history shedding some skin silently without a bang or a whimper? A short story by Haruki Murakami titled: The Elephant Vanishes is another first rate example of how literature can help. Nothing happens in the story except that an elephant disappears. The town, which had adopted the elephant, wants it back at all cost. An investigation is mounted but the facts baffle everyone. Beyond reason, everyone agrees. For a few days children who paid the elephant a regular visit are sad. Then everyone moves on. Only the narrator sits alone on a hill overlooking the shed where the elephant lived. In his seminal work, The Sublime Object of Ideology, philosopher Slavoj Zizek writes how a few years before the Titanic sank, a writer published a novel that predicted the tragedy to the last detail. There were minor factual differences like the exact length of both ships etc., but the similarities were uncanny: both ships were unsinkable, one was called the Titan the other was called the Titanic, both were ferrying the cream of high society and both were felled by an iceberg. Can we not say the same thing about the popular American TV series Lost?

This is a moment of collective anxiety. If this is a magic trick, it has gone on a bit too long; now’s the time for prestige, the resurrection. Unfortunately, there is no prestige in history. At times like this, when history leaves no footprints, on an extremely personal level, we have no choice but to discover poetry in the void or, settle for a hand-me-down magic bullet theory.

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