Containing radiation and containing information

Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy, Serhii Plokhy, Penguin.

Chernobyl (TV miniseries), dir. by Johan Renck, HBO.

After the first American atomic tests Robert Oppenheimer famously evoked the Hindu scriptures to convey the dark enormity of the power unleashed. After the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, many felt inspired likewise to seek understanding in scripture, and it was easy to see a biblical prophecy being eerily fulfilled – namely, the Book of Revelation’s reference to the fallen star of Wormwood. As well as Chernobyl taking its name from the Wormwood plant that grows in the area, the stellar connection was easy to make, for what is a star if not a nuclear reactor?

In Serhii Plokhy’s account of the Chernobyl disaster the damaged reactor takes on the status of something from apocalyptic literature, an almost unimaginable monster. Observers reach for beastly metaphors, Plokhy himself calls it a ‘nuclear monster’, as well as a ‘nuclear hurricane’ and ‘volcano’. The responding firefighters and military seemed to be battling a monster from another dimension, something from a rift in space and time (as in the TV series Stranger Things). They had no prior experience with something so otherworldly – an enemy they couldn’t see, hear or feel and that no-one could hide from – like God, some survivors alternatively said. The apocalyptic descriptions of the almost indescribable were apt. In HBO’s new TV series Chernobyl, this is neatly conveyed through the puzzled and fearful expression of a firefighter as a he gazes upwards to the looming, glowing remains of the reactor hall.

As with apocalypse, a nuclear reactor explosion was for the Soviets unthinkable. The operators had been told that it was an impossibility, which was why initially they were confused as to what had happened. (The harsh portrayal in HBO’s TV series of Anatoly Dyatlov, who was in charge of the control room when the explosion occurred, gives some idea of the arrogance and lack of awareness Plokhy describes). Yet the explanation is simple enough. The reactor was housed in a giant, seventeen storey building connected to a turbine hall. Enriched rods of uranium were housed in a graphite core, with control rods that could be lowered or raised into the core to moderate the rate of fission and slow or speed energy production, surrounded by a water-cooling system. On 26 April 1986 the capability of the reactor to deal with a power outage was being tested. Failures in following procedures and a flaw in the reactor’s design allowed a catastrophic chain reaction during the test process.

Like a bicycle, a reactor is unstable at high speeds but also at low speeds. Operators slowed down the reactor beyond recommended levels during the test, which destabilised the core and the operators’ ability to control the reaction, which then began to accelerate again at an alarming rate. Operators initiated an emergency shutdown, which involved lowering the control rods but a design flaw (which had been noticed at a Leningrad plant in the 1970s but which in typical Soviet style had been kept secret) in the control rod mechanism prompted an initial spike in the reaction. This spike was fatal, cracking the graphite casing and jamming the operation of the control rods. The temperature soared, hot fuel burst through the core casing into the surrounding water, causing a steam explosion. This first explosion blew a 200-tonne concrete lid off the reactor and demolished the cooling systems. The reactor heated further, causing another, larger, explosion which blew the reactor building to pieces, flung radioactive material around the site and started a radioactive fire. Radioactive particles poured into the night sky, like a laser beam, some observers noted.

Like a cyclops emerging from its concrete cave, radiation roved the countryside devouring living things. It had to be somehow corralled, and the military dumped thousands of tonnes of sand on the fire. The merits of this were debated – the sand contained the fire but when dropped from helicopters it also created further clouds of radioactive material. It was also, says Plokhy, a ‘miracle’ that it didn’t collapse the structure underneath the core.

What was happening below the core was another threat. There was a danger that the nuclear fuel – 200 tonnes of it – was heating further, exacerbated by insulating effect of the sand which was necessary to contain the smoke, turning the fuel into a magma which would at some point, scientists feared, create another explosion when it seeped down to the 20,000 tonnes of water that had pooled in the levels below the core. This potential explosion would decimate the surrounding land and render much of eastern Europe uninhabitable. There was also a danger that the radioactive magma would burn down to the groundwater, eventually contaminating Europe’s seas. Inside the concrete cave was a dragon waiting to devour the world.

The knights sent in to battle the dragon were hundreds of miners who in record time tunnelled under the reactor core in order to drain those 20,000 tonnes of water and install a concrete barrier and cooling system. Hundreds of them would die in the following decade from radiation poisoning, but these heroes prevented apocalyptic devastation. ‘Someone had to do it’, one said, and they described the camaraderie and sense of purpose.

While local authorities struggled to contain the spread of radiation, national authorities tried to contain the spread of information, in order to, they later said in justification, prevent panic. Plokhy describes how the old attributes of the Stalinist beast came into play – bullying, misinformation, denial, paralysis. The government kept the level of the danger from those who did the cleaning up. As with the Minotaur of Greek legend, humans were sacrificed to the monster. The early clean-up crews, labelled ‘liquidators’, were given little protection as they shovelled radioactive material onsite, a job they could only be exposed to for seconds at a time. Most fell ill with radiation poisoning. These victims became radioactive material themselves, and in hospital were not allowed near loved ones. They had become zombies, living dead, capable of spreading death to others.

Officials were sacrificed too. Scapegoats were needed. Designers blamed operators. Moscow blamed the designers. And those telling the truth were punished. The deputy of the atomic energy institute (and main character in HBO’s Chernobyl TV series), Valery Legasov, the top scientific advisor at Chernobyl after the accident, seen by some as a ‘careerist’ and ‘believer’ in the Soviet system, criticised his fellow scientists rather than government policy, which initially endeared him to Gorbachev, though when he attended a conference in Vienna months after the accident and was lauded by the international press for revealing the failures at Chernobyl, he was ostracised at home for being too honest. Suffering from radiation sickness, he committed suicide two years after the accident, a victim of both the Chernobyl beast and the Soviet animal that ate its own.

Later a giant concrete sarcophagus would be built to contain the nuclear dragon. No-one quite knew what the core was up to because monitoring equipment would fail under the bombardment of radiation. The Chernobyl ‘Zone’ would be, like the Zone in Adrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, a place of mystery. In 2017, finally, an enormous arched hanger covered the old sarcophagus, at a cost of 1.5 billion euros. This is one of the few costs easily accounted for. Although the initial disaster caused relatively few immediate deaths, thousands of workers died prematurely in the following years, children suffered deformities, lingering physical and mental health problems remain, tens of thousands of kilometres of countryside were contaminated, thousands of residents were uprooted and the exclusion zone will be uninhabitable (by humans, anyway) for 20,000 years. Even more substantially, one beast devoured the other. Radiation, Plokhy memorably says, dissolved Soviet ideology. Although initially Mikhail Gorbachev played by the Soviet rulebook, he said that he realised soon after that Chernobyl spelled the end of the USSR.

Communists turned back to God. The designer of the concrete sarcophagus reportedly crossed himself and mumbled ‘Glory to God’ when a huge aluminium cupola that was meant to crown the sarcophagus crashed to the ground from a helicopter but no-one was hurt. Many thought God had spoken against Soviet hubris. How else could one conceptualise the scope of the disaster? In her oral history book Chernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich describes the accident as prompting an existential crisis. People turned back to religion from a faith in science.

Soviet ideology has always been entwined with atheism, but the USSR also had a religious belief in technological progress (which was not confined to the USSR. The Americans, as the Apollo program showed, thought that post-war technology was ushering in an era when anything was possible). Technology came first, before the people, and before the natural environment. Plohky notes that Chernobyl galvanised action for green issues in the USSR, in the new space opened by Gorbachev’s glasnost. In 1988 there were mass protests against the environmentally destructive Soviet technological policies, and Plokhy suggests that the freedom to talk about such issues was what brought the USSR down.

If one were inclined to American comic book simplicity one might suggest the cartoon villain that unleashed the monster was eventually consumed by it. In the Chernobyl television series, the Legasov character says, ‘there was nothing sane about Chernobyl’. But the danger of nuclear power was not a uniquely Soviet phenomenon (nor is keeping information from the general public). Alexievich writes that Chernobyl ‘cracked’ the global perception of nuclear power and showed its uncontrollability. Yet nuclear power plants continue to be built. Some might contest Plokhy’s assertion that the generation of nuclear power is no safer that in 1986, but there is no denying the global proliferation of nuclear plants and therefore the increased potential for emergencies caused by terrorism or natural disaster (as at Fukushima), even if, as Plokhy says, recent global attention has been on weapons rather than power plants. And the hubris of those who think technology can answer any problem we currently have has only been renewed in recent years, as is evidenced by the talk of tech billionaires colonising space or eradicating ageing so they can live forever. Plokhy writes that the new arched ‘shelter’ over the still-active core (a corpse still with breath, says Alexievich) stands as a warning against the dangers of putting all our faith in technology.

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Fishing and chopping wood

The Way Home: Tales from a life without technology, Mark Boyle, Oneworld.

Mark Boyle once wrote a book called The Moneyless Man and now he’s taken it a step further, becoming technologyless man. He recalls how a few years back he was working at an organic food supermarket and when walking down an aisle was suddenly struck by the fact that he was surrounded by ‘wall-to-wall plastic’. Despite good intentions, some of our attempts at green living are tokenistic, and he wondered what it would be like – well, had a burning desire – to do it properly, to go offline and off-grid. Technology is ubiquitous – as he says, even a pencil is still a form of technology – but he decided to forego the obvious modern technologies – plastics, petrol, chemicals and electricity – those conveniences that take a major toll ecologically – and see where that led him.

Instead, inspired by Henry David Thoreau and Wendell Berry, he builds a cabin in the woods for himself and his free-spirited and tolerant girlfriend, and this book, which developed from a column he contributed to the Guardian, describes their year living off the (very local) land, eating their own vegies, fruit and eggs, fishing, chopping wood and shovelling manure. He has an enviable, robust purpose and energy (probably from all the healthy food he’s eating) as well as a typically Irish community spirit and swear-word-spiced sense of humour.

People tell him he’s mad living apart from ‘civilisation’ (read: rat-race, debt, social media pressure, pollution). Publicists tell him he’s missing out on valuable interaction with his readers and promotional opportunities by not being online. ‘So be it,’ he says. And, after a while, living his life (and even reading about it) makes one think, rather, that it is the modern world that is mad, with, he says, its sameness, busyness and ‘purposelessness’ (not to mention unsustainability). Unsurprisingly, his new lifestyle gives him a different perspective on the oddities of modernity. He rarely sees advertising and is surprised, when he comes across it, at how incongruous it seems in a rural setting. He notices that a neighbour spends most of the day on his tractor, doing his work without his feet touching the ground.

Alternatively, Boyle’s lifestyle makes him attuned to the land in the same way, he recalls, that walking barefoot through the bush makes one step differently. Friends and acquaintances are surprised, even outraged, by the modern conveniences he has willingly lost, but, he wonders, why are they not outraged at the loss of elements of the natural world?

He says he now gets his sense of self-esteem from what money he doesn’t have to spend, rather than how much money he makes. He describes being content, rather than merely happy or excited. But this is not just about self-sufficiency. As well as leaving a toxic modernity behind, he is also reliant on neighbours, as, he notes, people were in the past. Part of his desire to get back to basics is that he wanted ‘intimacy, friendship and community’.

At one point he says that fishing is about learning the river, which could stand as a metaphor for a much-needed, more holistic understanding of human dependency, both on the human and non-human world. In her recent book The Mushroom at the End of the World, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing writes that we need to look around rather than simply ahead. There are alternatives, as Boyle shows, to industrial ‘progress’ ending in calamity. The usual response to tales like Boyles’ is that not everyone can run off to the woods, especially in a house we’ve built ourselves. Then again, we can’t all be Olympians or celebrity chefs either, but these people can inspire us to better our fitness or cooking skills, and likewise Boyle can inspire us in various ways and to varying degrees. I probably won’t give up my electric guitar, hot showers and coffee at the local Greek café anytime soon, but I am certainly thinking harder about how I can avoid wall-to-wall plastic.

More message than messenger

Angels: A Visible and Invisible History, Peter Stanford, Hodder.

French theologian Jacques Ellul once wrote, in typically contrarian fashion, that the Old Testament idea of angels is more message than messenger, and that speculating about what kind of individuals they are is a distraction from focussing on God’s word. But of course, over the centuries there has been much speculation. Saint Augustine thought angels were beings of pure light. Thomas Aquinas thought they were made of condensed air. As is clear from this nonsense, it isn’t easy to describe something without physical existence. And the history of angels is one of confusing the metaphoric with something that can be proven.

Weirdly, among Westerners, belief in angels surpasses belief in God. Peter Stanford, in his cultural history of angels, suggests that there is a New Age influence at work here, and an attraction to something more personal than creeds and doctrines, as well as the fact that in a suppressive scientific age, angels are a way to talk about the spiritual. During hard times it is also comforting for some to believe they have a personal, spiritual guardian.

Indeed, the more recent idea of an angel is a guardian angel. Stanford mentions it only in passing, but in the nineteenth century there was a huge trade in paintings and prints of guardian angels watching over children on rickety bridges or cliff edges, the most famous, almost iconic, images being by Bernhard Plockhorst and Hans Zatzka. To our eyes these might seem sentimental and kitschy (which actually endears them to some collectors), but they express a commonly held belief about the role of angels. Yet this concept of a guardian angel is a tricky one. When children die, are their guardian angels incompetent and negligent?

The earliest Christian art didn’t depict angels with wings. They were in appearance more seemingly human, like the visitors to Abraham (but subdued). These Genesis angels are far from the cherubim and seraphim of Isaiah, although the angels that bar re-entry into Eden are closer to Isaiah’s fiery creatures. In the Old Testament angels and God are often conflated, as in the story of Jacob wrestling with God/an angel, which brings us back to Ellul’s point. Karl Barth wrote that we can’t think of angels as independent individuals, as humans are. He rules out the concept of guardian angels. Saint Paul, too, thought angels a distraction from Jesus, who replaces angels as connections to God.

Over the centuries, though, ‘angelology’ only got stronger, and, says Stanford, the concept of hosts of angels was so ingrained in a Western spiritual worldview that their existence was simply not questioned. In the organisation of the cosmos (in Stanford’s image), God was the CEO and angels the middle-management, handling the details. The Jewish scholar Maimonides suggested that the ‘message’ the angels carry can be thought of as force and movement originating from God. Angels were sorted into hierarchies, depending on their roles, as in a lovely illustration that originally accompanied Hildegard of Bingen’s writings, of concentric circles of cartoon-y angels surrounding a white void at the bull’s eye to symbolise God’s mystery.

Rather than merely guardians, monastery founder Saint Benedict thought that angels report back to God on our bad behaviour, which fits with the Islamic idea of the angelic as both protection and surveillance. In the Middle Ages angels found competition from dead saints, though Saint Francis was an angel man, frequently seeing them and conversing with them, as painted by Giotto in Assisi. Giotto’s angels in a chapel in Padua do anguished somersaults as they witness the crucifixion, at odds with the older image of angels as passionless, characterless creatures.

In the Renaissance, angels were given more character, and got mixed up with the cupids of Greek mythology to create the familiar, comic image of winged toddlers. Probably the most reproduced image of these putti is Raphael’s portraits of two bored-looking cherubs at the bottom of the Sistine Madonna painting seemingly leaning on the altar. These messy-haired scamps are far from Augustine’s beings of pure light.

The contemporary proliferation of images of these cherubs suggests an emotional connection, a longing for something or someone to bridge the personal and divine, to connect God and human beings, close to us, sharing our fears but able to communicate with God. Stanford is sympathetic to such a longing, but, then again, as Saint Paul notes, we already have that figure in Jesus.

Likely to be unconcerned

The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, Thomas Laqueur, Princeton University Press.

Saint Francis told his followers to throw his dead body on the rubbish tip when he died. (They didn’t oblige.) This is one story that isn’t related in Thomas Laqueur’s massive and not necessarily morbid book, but it parallels the Greek philosopher Diogenes’ question (which Laqueur’s book is largely a response to), why don’t we just throw dead bodies to the dogs (seeing as we generally recognise that when our loved ones are dead they are no longer ‘here’)?

Dead bodies aren’t, contrary to popular opinion, generally unhealthy, but, Laqueur suggests, an un-cared-for dead body is mentally unhealthy for the living. The living have an understandable connection to the recently deceased, and we also generally share an unease about what might happen to our own bodies after we die, even if we can also admit we are likely to be unconcerned at the time. Therefore, despite being dead, the dead still have a pull on the living.

Care for the dead is culturally ubiquitous (and can be traced back to the earliest of human archaeological evidence) and is not dependent on religious views of the afterlife. We can see this in the atheist Soviet Union’s reverence for and preservation of Lenin’s body (although there was also the issue there that just maybe modern science would be able to resuscitate Lenin).

In his recent book Underland Robert Macfarlane writes that sometimes we are more tender to the dead than the living. (Maybe this is because, like babies, the dead completely lack autonomy.) In previous centuries riots and revolutions were caused by relatives of those dead disturbed by military or other authorities. Sometimes this reverence took on weird (to modern readers) forms, such as radical writer William Cobbett ‘owning’ the bones of Tom Paine, whose skull Cobbett engraved with his name (a not uncommon practice, Laqueur tells us).

We have a connection to the dead because there is something of the person still there, even if, as Francis recognised, the soul is gone and the body is dirt. Saint Augustine agreed, but suggested that reverence for the dead helps the living and shows a religious disposition. The body is still remnant, like a dead person’s clothing and possessions, and we connect memories to physical objects. People are combinations of the physical and mental.

Despite traceable universals, Laqueur also tracks shifts in the way we care for the dead. Churchyards were a change from the ancient practice of keeping the dead away from sacred spaces. (Early Christianity’s reverence for the dead perhaps fits with their care of the other marginalised entities in society, orphans and widows and the like.) Christian churches became sacred partly because of the proximity of the dead. Whereas in the classical era the dead were often thought of as exiled, in early Christianity the porousness of the division between the physical and supernatural also included connections to the dead. The treatment of relics evolved from the desire to be buried near the saintly. Augustine, despite saying that the fate of the body didn’t determine the fate of the soul, thought that the saints’ dead bodies had power and being buried near them certainly couldn’t hurt.

The English churchyard (where Laqueur spends a lot of time wandering, at least metaphorically) was a natural extension, a community of believers, both living and dead, sharing sacred space. But who was allowed in became an issue. At one end of the scale, proximity to the altar showed the status of the gentry, and being buried in the church rather than outside it became a matter of pride. In contrast, there was debate about how far from the church the poor, suicides, the unbaptised and irreligious should be, where they should be relegated, and whether they should be allowed into the churchyard at all.

This changed fundamentally in the early nineteenth century with the creation of city cemeteries, beyond the direct control of clergy. Laqueur also notes the shifts from church to government and from priest to doctor in care of the dying. With the latter came a shift from death being a community affair to being hidden away. Death (as distinct from a funeral) shifted from public to private, and from being thought of as natural to something akin to disease.

These topics are but the tip of the gravestone in Laqueur’s monumental book. He also covers the Mormon collection and storage of millions of names of the dead in a vault under Utah, the deathbed confessions of atheists and their use in propaganda, hysteria over dead bodies, especially of the poor, piling up in the eighteenth century graveyards of Paris and London, which were as crowded above as below, and the proliferation of Great War monuments to the dead. Through all this, his careful attendance to the way practices change indicates that the dead don’t always rest peacefully.

A serious, possibly fatal, disease

Falter: Has the human game begun to play out? Bill McKibben, Black Inc.

Clear, Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being, Paul Mason, Allen Lane.

Losing Earth: The decade we could have stopped climate change, Nathaniel Rich, Picador.

We shouldn’t need reminding that politically and ecologically things are rather grim globally, but there seems to be a lot of denial about, so maybe all the books out there sounding the alarm, of which these are merely three of the more prominent, are necessary. Bill McKibben tends to write on green issues – the decline of wilderness and the rising of seas, Paul Mason on politics and economics, but of course the two are linked (as they are in Nathaniel Rich’s book Losing Earth), and the problems we see – hoarding wealth, quashing dissent, passing problems on to our grandchildren – are the result of rampant self-interest.

When it comes to the literal and metaphoric gathering storm clouds of climate change, it’s not very pleasing to be reminded, as Nathaniel Rich does, that we already knew the dangers of global warming in the 1970s, and we have gone backwards since, partly because fossil fuel companies have spent billions sowing the seeds of doubt regarding the science. Rich’s book describes a different world: in the 1980s George H W Bush was calling himself an environmentalist, oilmen acknowledged the problem and talked about the opportunities in developing alternative energy sources, and the majority of Americans agreed global warming was a serious problem. But eventually politicians lost interest (except Al Gore) and oil and coal executives began to fear loss of profits.

Bill McKibben’s book Falter catalogues what has happened subsequently, and what problems we face, not just in a far distant future but now: extinctions, famines, sea level rises, plastics contamination. (He has a flair for picking out the arresting anecdote to bring home the message, such as the fact that recent permafrost melting in Europe released anthrax from thawed deer carcasses, and that the supposedly impenetrable seed vault in Norway, which is meant to safeguard against climate change catastrophes, was flooded by unprecedented permafrost meltwaters created by… yes, climate change.) This is happening not simply because of equivocation, but because of the determination of powerful people to halt attempts to curb emissions and find renewable energy sources. McKibben describes these efforts as crimes against humanity (as does Nathaniel Rich, who thinks that at some point we will begin to see major litigation against polluters). For McKibben, global warming is an issue of justice for the poor and future generations, created by a deliberate ideology of individualism (inspired in particular by Ayn Rand) rampant in elite circles. It is odd, he notes, that environmentalism is seen as radical, because it is a form of conservatism, whereas it is the minority wrecking the planet through their selfishness who are the true (dangerous) radicals.

Paul Mason, who some would pillory as a radical, likewise catalogues a series of ills: prejudice rife, kleptocracies in power, journalists in jail, humanitarian crisis in Syria, Orwellian dystopian fiction becoming fact in China. He notes the forces arrayed against community and truth, the irony of a glut of misinformation in an age when we are more connected than ever, the deliberate misuse of information technology to aid the self-interest of those in power, and the way human beings are prey to the uncertainty of global markets.

Interestingly, McKibben and Mason’s concerns converge on the new frontiers of technological innovation. It is not just presidents and miners who are the villains. They describe AIs ‘learning’ how to be racist by mimicking social media, biotech entrepreneurs desperate to be allowed to create designer babies, Silicon Valley billionaires signing up for cryogenics so they can live forever and launching rockets to colonise Mars (and spreading the idea that humans are inferior to silicon-based ‘intelligence’s), web data being mined to rig elections, trolling, the deliberate undermining of the democratic potential of the internet. They are concerned not simply that robots will take our jobs, but that the human (and the natural world) is being pushed aside in technology’s relentless march, and that technology is increasingly being used for the betterment not of humanity in general, but a select few.

It is all pretty depressing reading (especially for a book entitled Clear, Bright Future). I admit to feeling at times something akin to the reaction I might have to being told by a doctor that I have contracted a serious, possibly fatal, disease. Then again, hope happens where progress seems impossible, not inevitable (as Terry Eagleton points out in his book on hope). McKibben writes that despite the selfishness in the world, and the grave prognosis, we do have the capacity for community and cooperation, and a slim hope of redress. Mason agrees (though he thinks in typical Marxist fashion that religion is part of the problem. For all his insight into global politics, his characterisations of religion are hopelessly generalised and caricatured. McKibben, rather, says that in order to progress the political left needs to get over its prejudice against churches, which are, after-all, places of community, stewardship and altruism. And indeed, churches, despite the way self-interest also warps the people that warm their pews, hold to a highly subversive ideology).

The conclusion McKibben, Mason and Rich all make is that restraint is needed but would be unprecedented. (Human history is generally one of expansion.) As Rich says, there is no global police force to enforce emissions reductions. And not only are we witnessing those with power globally using that power for their own interest, they are also encouraging the rest of us to be merely self-interested. One might be driven to think we need divine intervention to save us. Nathaniel Rich, for one, reaches for the language of sin in order to judge the gravity of deliberate, greed-driven malevolence. These are not matters just of economic prudence, but are deeply philosophical, ethical, religious.

Doing his own thing

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Miles Hollingworth, Oxford.

Miles Hollingworth’s new biography of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is a natural follow-up to his biography of Saint Augustine because Wittgenstein was much taken with the Church Father, and they covered similar themes – the relation of the personal and emotional to truth and logic, human freedom, how the way we talk about things covers deficiencies in our ways of thinking. And both tended to do their own thing, roaming widely in philosophy, unafraid to tackle unorthodox subjects. But reading Hollingworth’s biography of Augustine doesn’t quite prepare the reader for this extraordinary Wittgenstein book, which raises the level of Hollingworth’s writing.

Wittgenstein is rightly famous for his wariness of the modern attention to facts as described by language, the tendency to think facts explain life. Rather, life is often squeezed into the shape of facts, distorting it. This is relevant to our own time when Western society is subservient to the scientific methods of efficiency, utilitarianism and naturalism. Famously, Wittgenstein argued that such language is not just descriptive but prescriptive, and he was concerned about the way a focus on logic lessened the human. In a similar way, Augustine argued that emotions mean human thought is not always logical (which is not necessarily a bad thing).

With this in mind, and when it comes to biographies of figures such as Wittgenstein, Hollingworth thinks it is absurd to fit a life into 400 or so pages, into a neat parade of biographical facts, and that much of the essence of a life is lost. (Think, further, of a eulogy and how diminished, unreal and remote the life as described by a eulogy sounds.) This becomes especially paradoxical in the case of a ‘genius’ such as Wittgenstein (which he undoubtedly was), Hollingworth argues, when the traditional biography supposedly sums up in rational, logical fashion how the subject of the biography became a genius, which should really be beyond simple explanation.

So, in order to write a biography in this spirit, in order to be true to Wittgenstein’s life – which was not that of a desk-bound academic – he fought in a world war, inherited a fortune, gave it all away, designed aircraft and houses, taught in a remote primary school, lived like a hermit – Hollingworth tries to show how Wittgenstein lived out his philosophy, with all the ambiguity this involves. And, more than this, Hollingworth tries to, as biographer, show how a biography can wrestle with its subject rather than just put it on a pedestal. As quixotic as it may sound, this biography battles against the deadening effect of biographies, it drags the hidden biographer – the disengaged biographer being a pose, an act – into the light.

It’s a personal style, but it’s not easy. Following the thread is sometimes like hanging on to a crocodile’s tail in order to not be eaten. At times Hollingworth puts his arm around your shoulders and whispers in your ear, at other times he grabs you by the collar. He is conspiratorial, angry, excited, side-tracked. He cajoles, complains. In short, he is emotional, not disengaged. Indeed, he says, what is the point of disengagement? One needs to dive into one’s subject. (Think about it: your best science teacher was passionate about the subject, not cold and clinical.) At one point he exasperatedly says, in effect, look, if you want just the facts, I can do that too, and here they are. And he lays out some of the (extraordinary) facts of Wittgenstein’s life. But this is as much to show what is lacking in this approach to ‘explaining’ Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein is not an immediately obvious promoter of Christianity, but beyond a reported deathbed reconciliation with the church, and some ‘weird’ statements about Christ, Wittgenstein’s subject was often God even when God was not mentioned, says Hollingworth. And we can see how his philosophy relates to seeking God, if we think about how, along with Augustine, Wittgenstein argues that if we predetermine that what counts as reality is what is immediately before us, then we are likely to miss some aspects of reality, including God.

More generally, Hollingworth argues that Wittgenstein lived out a calling (in a spiritual sense), in a similar way, we might add, to how the early church showed what it believed by living out, rather than simply arguing for, those beliefs. Indeed, Hollingworth points out that Christianity consists not just of ideals, but rests on action in history. Christ was a real person, and Christianity involves primarily not believing facts but living with passion.

This is perhaps why philosophers, and people in general, are sometimes scared of Christianity. Philosophy, as Hollingworth points out in his book on Augustine, wants to draw a line under things, make definitive statements, stand back and analyse from a comfortable distance and from the certainty of logic. The work of God, on the other hand, is ongoing, and Christianity asks for commitment and action in the face of uncertainty. It is not just that Christianity proposes things hard to take as logical, but it asks us to, like Wittgenstein, live out our beliefs in the midst of human unpredictability.

One or more spirits every day

Ghosts of the Tsunami, Richard Lloyd Parry, Jonathan Cape

Earthquakes rock Japan as regularly as thunderstorms and are simply part of Japanese life. Massive quakes cause massive destruction and it is often said that what looked solid before looks like a toddlers’ discarded toys after. The world of humans is the plaything of nature. Although Japan is one of the world’s most earthquake-prepared countries, catastrophe is almost inevitable, and governments numbly plan for big quakes that will inflict casualties in the hundreds of thousands.

Tsunamis are of course caused by earthquakes, and they hit Japan once a century, or more frequently, and giant tsunamis every 1000 years or so. Geologists find fine sand in layers under low-lying fields, deposited regularly, and inevitably, by these tsunamis. A tsunami, says Richard Lloyd Parry in Ghosts of the Tsunami, is more destructive than any other natural disaster. Only an asteroid hitting the Earth (such as the one that killed off the dinosaurs) or a nuclear bomb is more destructive, though even in Hiroshima, skeletal structures were left standing. A major tsunami wipes almost every trace, as it flattens, churns and, finally, deposits stinking mud on top of the ruined landscape. It is not so much the water that causes destruction, but what it carries – trees, buildings, bridges, cars – that pulverises everything in its path. Tsunami witnesses describe clouds of dust hanging incongruously over the raging black waters. At Oppa Bay, far north of Tokyo, where the 2011 tsunami hit with full force, and the site of Parry’s story, thousands of sturdy pine trees were ripped from the beach front and became battering rams.

In the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami it was not only the deaths of children and neighbours that shocked, but the obliteration of towns. The scale was so big that it seemed incomprehensible, unreal. Parry’s book focuses attention on one particular town, where, tragically, 74 primary school students died because teachers underestimated the danger and didn’t evacuate adequately, in order to try and comprehend how such a large-scale disaster affects particular communities. The Fukushima power plant is barely mentioned. Rather than an overview, Parry’s book is a character study. Looking closer and lingering is a way to bring clarity.

It is a book, in essence, about how communities deal with loss, and how a tragedy causes divisions – how a disaster can prompt heroism and pull people together, but also leaves a wake of psychological destruction that lingers after the physical clean-up. Unsurprisingly, anxiety and depression prevailed after the tsunami, exacerbated by the feeling of villagers that the rest of the country didn’t really understand what they were going through. There is a court case – some parents of lost children sue the education department for negligence, but other parents feel that the school cannot be blamed for such an extraordinary event. Some parents want the school ruins kept as a memorial, some want them bulldozed in order to move on. Relationships disintegrate, especially between the parents whose children died and those whose children survived. Families who get moved on from temporary housing quicker than others are the objects of envy from those left behind, who feel abandoned. Some parents get angry about the loss of their children, others think this is not the Japanese way, and resent the outspokenness. Getting angry at officials is, says Parry, simply not done. It is ‘unthinkable’.

Part of Parry’s exercise is to contemplate the foreignness of Japanese culture to an English observer. He becomes angry at the lack of anger and passivity of some victims. This culture can have positive results, he notes. Evacuation centres are places of almost ludicrous calm and diligence. The Japanese value orderliness. At the same time, Parry notes a lingering resignation to the malaise (to use Jimmy Carter’s word) that contemporary Japanese society finds itself in, the failure to adequately deal with the tsunami and the wider slump in Japanese prosperity. He describes Japanese politics as a kind of natural disaster, like earthquakes, that the Japanese people simply accept. I suspect Parry concentrates on particular individuals in his story partly because they don’t necessarily fit the stereotypical image of the stoic, polite, deferential Japanese person.

As well as being somewhat metaphorical on a couple of layers, the book’s title comes from the chapters dealing with the more literal spiritual aspects of the tsunami’s aftermath. Japan, says Parry, is often thought of as a particularly secular society but that tends to be because spiritual practices fly under the radar – the spiritual for Japanese people is simply a matter of common sense, and reverence for ancestors is a common practice that only becomes apparent in the intimacy of homes, where the living speak to dead ancestors as if they are present. The tsunami, by not only killing loved ones but also destroying ancestor shrines, is particularly effective at cutting ties between generations. The scale of the tsunami makes the religious language of ritual and consolation inadequate. One priest notes that all the priests can do is accompany.

After the tsunami the region receives hundreds of hauntings, and priests, Buddhist or Protestant, are called on. There is even a symposium at a university about the number of ghosts from those killed in the tsunami. Some people comment that they don’t believe in ghosts but it is no wonder that with all the trauma people are seeing them. Whatever the explanation, a priest says, people see them, and that is enough. The book certainly relates some inexplicable incidents. A taxi driver stops and picks up a forlorn looking client, but a few minutes later, when the driver looks in the rear view mirror, the back seat of the taxi is empty. A young woman describes spirits of the dead pressing around her, and every day for weeks she visits a priest, who encourages out one or more spirits every day. The spirits, talking through the woman, typically describe being at the bottom of the cold river.

Parry’s account of the tsunami’s ghosts is another part of his commentary on events that is not sensationalised; rather, simply an aspect of Japanese culture that he reports on with sympathy. He seeks to understand the tragedy of connections lost without warning, of victims themselves trying to understand. Perplexed ghosts try to contact loved ones, loved ones try to connect with the dead, seeking explanations, seeking final goodbyes.