Saturday, September 11, 2010

Tom's New Zealand: A City Forsaken


"Not the God, but a God, at least." That's how Bill Murray describes himself after discovering that he's trapped in a purgatorial parochiality in which time never changes and his ability to predict the next few minutes marks him as a minor superhuman. The people of New Zealand don't think themselves a God (much less the God), but they have some idea who knows what's coming next, and they have a fairly good reckoning that if they just keep in touch with this entity (who must be deific in the pantheonic sense, if not the monotheistic), she [1] will be right.

That God, of course, is the numinous and omniscient "They[2]." Like the God of the Israelites, the true name(s) of God must not be uttered; They are nameless and without number. And like the God of all those who follow Abraham, They can will events simply by speaking of them: for Them to say a thing is so is to make it so. If They say it is to rain, then the washing comes in; if They expect a popular swing to the Right, the Labour party had best start arresting terrorist suspects and promising tax cuts.


But Christchurch, a city deceptively faithful to They[3], is so haunted by the motif of the impassible cup that an immovable monument to same has been erected in the town square. And just as such a cup heralds questions of divine abandonment, so the people of Christchurch, this week, have had to ask whether they have been abandoned by They.

When the woofters and wowsers of Wellington and the Aucklanders of Auckland were replacing their bricks and tram-lines with cement and cables and terrifying children with hard-sell preparedness, They assured Christchurch that this was Political Correctness Gone Mad, the Softening of Society. Christchurch kept her stone buildings and her solid frontages and her thick steel rails and her fearless youth.

And so when They turned out to have overlooked Christchurch's place on the Pacific Ring of Fire, Christchurch's people were unsure what to say. Uneasy about channelling their newly-fickle patron deity, Christchurchians ran to the words of favored son Chris Knox: across the breadth of news coverage, there were only cliches to get across the feeling. Everyone buckled down for 48 hours of equally punishing aftershocks, They having assured them that this was coming.

A brief respite, granted when They turned out to have been wrong again, turned to despair as They's assurances that the worst aftershocks were over turned out to be a third time wrong. Christchurch, unlike its namesake, had no way of predicting that it would be spoken against three times, so this was particularly galling.


It is this abandonment that Christchurch finds the hardest to deal with. The physical nature of the damage, it has overcome ably: community centers overrun with donations and contributions, even the Council had to post a "please stop helping" message on their website. Cordons and curfews, geographic and chronological concessions to They, have been dutifully obeyed, that their patron may be appeased.

But the blow to Christchurch's spirit is harder to bandage. Usually a city with a proud (some might say ostentatious) tradition of stiff-upper-lip-service, Christchurch's town paper spent a week talking as if the crisis had been so severe that the questions facing townsfolk were far more serious than whether or not we'd still get to host the Rugby [4].

When the people of Christchurch speak, they speak of They; when they have questions, they have always known that They have the answers. In a city where They saw nothing coming, and where nobody is scared of a little hard work if only They would tell them how to make everything stone-solid once more, this is the hardest thing to stomach: the notion that the earth could shake, and They would have had nothing to say about it.

[1] While the God of epistemology and teleology is Janus-like and genderless, the personification of circumstances themselves is feminine.
[2] For foundational thoughts on the nature of They I am indebted to Bill Pearson's masterful essay on the New Zealand character, Fretful Sleepers, and to my friend Cheryl Bernstein for alerting me to its existence.
[3] The Christchurchian, deeply egalitarian in his politics, spirituality and day-to-day affairs, harbours a deep-set mistrust of any one entity with too much going for them. He appreciates the effort that must have gone into creating the Universe in a week, but hanging around to dictate a book about it smacks of skiting. Civic nomenclature aside, that goes double for His son.
[4] A question nevertheless so pressing that the Press was asking it within hours of the initial tremor.


Silenceisplaid said...

The city will be back in time with the help of the good people of Christchurch. Thanks for another great read.

someonefromsometime said...

Great post! That felt like "news" recited by a poetic ancient roman crier conveying the sentiment and spirit of a hopeful but woe begotten city.

Jez Weston said...

I wanted to tear a strip of you for this post. I mean, for fuck's sake. There was an earthquake. Some buildings fell over. We can build them again. You fucking pretentious twat.

But then, I was in a Resene paint shop and found myself reading the paper version of this:
Contrast, colour and contradiction:
which includes such gems as:
"Escape remains top of mind. With the complications of busy modern lifestyles and the concerns of the economy and the environment we yearn to escape our daily routine. This escape is made possible with refreshing and dynamic colour inspired by exotic places and flowers."

And they're talking about paint. So I'm not going to complain about you.

Homage said...

I think we feel roughly the same way about the Christchurch earthquake, but as to the issue of pretension, there are lots of sites on the Internet with relatively unpretentious words on them, and then there is this one.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tom (hope that's not too pretentious),

Hope you and your family are all well after the earthquake. One thing that never ceases to amaze me about the human species is our ability to neglect any warning signs against the long term sustainablity of our current lifestyle if doing something about it will mean some minor inconveniences in the present, and then when the predicted disaster actually strikes, our ability to come together and help rebuild even if we're not directly effected ourselves.[1]

Since you mentioned the pacific ring of fire, here's some more on that from one of my favourite scientists:

Oh, and we sort of worship "They" in Norway as well and blame them for every bad and sometimes even good thing that happens be it to us as individuals or soceity as a whole.


[1] One thing that's not amazing is my ability to construct sentences and use punctuation.

Homage said...

@Ramses: That's interesting, I'd been wondering how widespread the worship of They in fact was. They don't have anywhere near as strong a base in Wellington, as far as I can see.