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  will be right.
That God, of course, is the numinous and omniscient "They." 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, 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 .
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.
 While the God of epistemology and teleology is Janus-like and genderless, the personification of circumstances themselves is feminine.
 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.
 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.
 A question nevertheless so pressing that the Press was asking it within hours of the initial tremor.