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  • “Dreadful Visitations”: Witnessing Disasters
  • Alessa Johns

Writing this essay has given me occasion to return to a volume on disasters I edited in 1999, Dreadful Visitations: Confronting Natural Catastrophe in the Age of Enlightenment. Having followed successive reports about the Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes (1989, 1994), the literal fallout of the Chernobyl disaster (1986), the ecological and humanitarian destruction of the first Gulf War (1990–91), and Hurricane Andrew (1992), I realized that humanists had not amply weighed in on the study of disasters. Instead, the field was dominated by such scientists and social scientists as E. L. Quarantelli, Kenneth Hewitt, Anthony Oliver-Smith, and Susanna M. Hoffman (Quarantelli 1998, Hewitt 1983, Oliver-Smith and Hoffman 1999). So, I organized a day-long conference at UC Berkeley, and the success of that meeting soon resulted in the published volume.

Some of the issues addressed by the contributors have become better known than they were then: for example, how European colonizers used disaster to consolidate power and national identity (Arnold 1999, Taylor 1999, Tobriner 1999, Walker 1999; see also Walker 2008); social and environmental justice as an imperative for vulnerable populations and colonized peoples (Arnold 1999; see also Arnold 2016, 2020); the difficulty of fashioning both transnational and national solutions to global catastrophes (Arnold 1999, Gordon 1999; see also Hewitt 2013); attempts at best practices for applying scientific information to enable local political action and to communicate knowledge about disasters to and from the general population (Taylor 1999, Tobriner 1999, Walker 1999; see also Oliver-Smith and Hoffman 2002); the use of scientific information for mitigating hazards when building, re-building, and restoring communities (Tobriner 1999; see also Tobriner 2006); the racial and gender impacts of disasters (Arnold 1999, Johns 1999, Starr 1999, [End Page 9] Taylor 1999, Walker 1999; see also Johns 2014); cultural differences in disaster prevention and response (Gordon 1999; see also Oliver-Smith and Hoffman 2002); and the increasing urgency of climate events (Taylor 1999; see also Markley 2008, Menely and Taylor 2017, Menely 2021).1

In particular, the essays in Dreadful Visitations drew attention to “the changes in perceptions that disasters precipitated” (185), as Carla Hesse wrote in the Afterword. Studying historical disasters offered an opportunity to scrutinize ethical, emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic impacts with a more dispassionate approach than the study of contemporary disasters tends to elicit. Interestingly, one aspect of today’s pandemic experience appeared less directly in the book: the now-familiar “pandemic fatigue.” Indeed, in 1995 the field of trauma studies, drawing primarily on work about the Holocaust, was just taking shape. Notable scholars tended to foreground the difficulty of narrating trauma, its elusiveness, its unspeakability (see, e.g., Caruth, Blanchot). Yet today Jill Lepore, in a recent New Yorker article, suggests that the pandemic represents just another facet of living modern life under attack: “Lockdowns . . . are features of war, as if each one of us, amid not only the pandemic but also acts of terrorism and mass shootings and armed insurrections, were now engaged in a Hobbesian battle for existence, civil life having become a war zone” (29).

Lepore’s characterization clearly focuses on current life in the United States, but in many ways it calls to mind Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. I placed Defoe’s historical fiction back on my syllabi when we pivoted to online teaching in spring 2020. Defoe’s 1722 Journal famously takes a comprehensive approach to limning the Great Plague of 1665. My students were surprised at how familiar his representation was to them today: fear-inducing Bills of Mortality; decrees and regulations only partially able to control people’s behavior; unlawful strategies to avoid lockdown; quack remedies; wealthy businessmen, unreliable politicians, and self-serving preachers leaving for safer places in the countryside or abroad. Defoe describes a potentially chaotic, sauve-qui-peut situation which many Londoners appear to invite by shirking civility, going feral. They evade quarantine, cheat, steal, become scoffers and flaunt deviant behavior; some willfully spread disease. In our discussion, students easily summoned current examples of all of these behaviors.

George Starr, writing on Defoe in Dreadful Visitations, argued that to Defoe’s way of thinking, human beings...