Happy Mortal

This life, well-lived.

Fiending for Disaster

Scary tree Ever since transom’s post on The Great American Freak Out I haven’t been able to think about current affairs in other terms. We stand transfixed by disaster. It almost seems like we feed on it, hope for it…it wasn’t until today that I started to wonder if we don’t secretly want it.

I’ve been reading Jules Michelet’s La Sorciere recently, and it’s shifting my perspective on the our seemingly neurotic appropriation of disaster in the media. He idealizes pre-feudal Europe much like Rousseau does, but with a very different outcome.

Michelet suggests that the serf, who has been betrayed in his social contract with the lord, secretly longs for the return of the wild. Before the castle and boundary stones, before knights and wars, life was hard but it was life. If the serf belonged to anything it was to the land.

It is here we encounter the marked difference between land and lord. There is reciprocity between land and serf. The forest and river are certainly not the serf’s property, but in a way, they belong to him even as he belongs to them.

As the lords extended their lordship, city replaced forest. Michelet’s shocking logic is that the serf began to long for a great reversal. Forest over city. Magic over law. Wilderness over civilization.

Our seemingly neurotic desire for distasters may not stem from a death instinct, or a sublimated desire for control. It may be something as simple as a desire for return. A desire for reversal. A hope that the unexpected event will crush this juggernaut of civilization that we feel powerless to overcome. This desire is certainly beginning to manifest itself in our artistic sensibilities. Smashing Magazine has a great photo spread up right now called: The Beauty of Urban Decay.

Are we longing for a return of the wild? Is it so simple as that? That we hope for disasters not because we want to die, but because we want to live?


  1. Nice post. A little thread picked me and I will follow.

    First, it bears remembering that we can’t remember. Who knows how the serf’s psyches worked? Maybe they were just hungry and wanted good sex. So when rekonstruct brings Michelet’s ideas into play he opens up an imaginative space that might bear fruit in the present.

    Now for the thread: rekon calls the desire for disaster, “A hope that the unexpected event will crush this juggernaut of civilization that we feel powerless to overcome.” This seems like the point where the death and pleasure drives meet. Taken literally, we might think of a death drive as the compulsion towards death and destruction, and a pleasure drive as the compulsion towards onesies and pizza.

    However, Freud used the death drive to connote the compulsion towards imbalance, and the pleasure drive to connote the compulsion towards stasis. Where does a desire for disaster fit in to all of this? It would seem that in literal terms it is a death drive. But in the Freudian sense the desire to crush what we are powerless to control sounds like the pleasure instinct. We want balance restored to our system–we feel out of wack. All of this to say that, yes, we don’t want disasters because we want to live or die, but because we want internal stasis.

  2. Are we so different from the serf that we can’t project our “memory” back? Certainly there is a difference between us and them, between our culture and theirs, but much of that is the arbitrary make up of our signs. That is an arbitrary difference we cope with every day. Ours is never the other’s. And yet, communication is general enough that we convey the gist.

    Also, I think I misunderstand your comment on a desire for interal stasis. Could you explain it a little more. I’m not sure we ever want internal stasis. But rather a meaningful exchange: a transformation of the self into world and world into self. That is something that never arrives at stasis, but it is a basic creative process that can be interrupted by estrangement.