La Catastrophe de la Martinique: ten
It seems to me, when my memory before my eyes evokes the spectacle…it seems to me that I become stupid again, as I was made when the boat had stopped, when a canoe landed me on the beach.
Once, from a savage, I received a knock-out blow to the head, so violent that for a moment I had no thought of defending myself. A thing parallel to Saint-Pierre in its immense ruin…in the ruin without name.
It felt evil. From the acrid stench, a fetidity, and then another thing I don’t know: the moist ashes browning, the putrescence…it caught in the throat. A stupefaction as of drunkenness mounted to the brain. And of dazedness. Stupidity…no other thing.
I was, in effect, a moron. I looked, and did not know whether I saw. I tried to observe, to notice, and I did not know whether I thought. Not a line came to mind for my notebook. I had no notion of stirring to employ my photographic equipment.
The physicians tell us that when there are too many soundwaves, too many light waves, our ears can no longer hear, our eyes no longer see. Is a similar thing produced in our brains when impressions too many and too violent strike it all at once?
It was one of the gravediggers who brought me out of this dazed state. We followed a beach covered with debris; there were powdery ashes with nails pointing up in the air.
“Take care,” he said to me, “you are going to step on that…you will be punctured…and you know in this country, when a man gets a wound of that sort, he gets tetanus more easily than a pension…”
And this little detail, of my not stepping on the nail, not to catch tetanus, restored to me my legs and my eyes.
I looked, and I saw. And I know now what terror is, and what horror is…
And who will want to know the reality, of grand words one finds hard, barbarous, magniloquent, words a little mysterious in their distance of unreality, these words said of cataclysm and catastrophe…let him go in meditation, on a pile of broken things, formless and putrid, that has become the landscape once so lovely, of Saint-Pierre the laughing city…
Let him go…let him go, as I, to that place. And if these annoyances which come to men seem to him heavy…after…he will have but to recall Saint-Pierre and how little, before the least quiver of the earth, counts man.
In the twenty years that I have circled the globe, finding myself well-placed, at said hour, in such theaters as the human brute seeks Glory, I have seen beautiful wars, and destruction.
The months before Saint-Pierre, this winter, at Saint-Domingue in Haiti, I came to admire what efforts, what patience, what will, what cunning, what relentlessness, what genius, and what cruelty, sets men to their hateful work, when—for a few sous, a little pride—to assault an ephemeral power they will flock…unto the glorious breach.
The Martinique volcano shows better the destruction of a country…a magnificent work…imagine the monuments to an artilleryman who could confound you thus, in the landing of one blow…a city, ten villages, and forty thousand men. And we curse the mountain Pelée.
And to my own lips, as I wandered among the ruins, I felt anathema rise against the Mountain of Death.
Yet she works without anger, in the fatal serenity of Destiny, where inanimate matter, deaf to the anguishes of animate matter, boils, whirls, bursts, flies, and settles, balancing, for so moves the universe, the supreme law of Things and of Beings.
And no one could ever say, and no one imagine, the results of this “work”…this that I saw.
You know, in the museums, these reproductions of cities, done in pasteboard and painted wood. Dream of one stomped by an elephant, burned afterwards, drowned at last with mud and ashes, and you will see what I saw in Saint-Pierre…
Only there, what was destroyed, stricken, churned, set afire, was a city of three thousand houses, covering eighty hectares, with one hundred and three streets, a development of more than twenty kilometers… A city where nearly forty thousand inhabitants found themselves, when it was snuffed in the disaster.
Others have said of this disaster, that it was “like a giant pile-driver had worked over the city”, and left only ruins.
At a distance, we thought we saw the lines of low walls, as they have in cities of Southern Algeria, and the ashes gave them the appearance of Saharan huts at the feet of the dunes. We could have the illusion of something that was still a city.
Near, there was nothing but debris. Stones in heaps, in the streets, in the inside of what had been houses. Piles of stone everywhere. A shower of rubble and plaster. Elsewhere stone, nothing but stone. With lines of cracked walls, walls very low, two meters, three at most… The sections that remain standing, in the quarter of the Mouillage, are not, for saying so, only those that are parallel to the shoreline; in the quarter of the Roxelane, on the contrary, they are found in the axis of the valley.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique, 1902; translation, Stephanie Foster, 2018)