Howard Jacobson: The dark, remorseless destiny that binds two tragedies on opposite sides of the world

The two sites - new Orleans and the Shia temple - represent the extreme opposite of our natures
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The Independent Online

In the poem it is the Titanic and the Iceberg that collide. "And as the smart ship grew/ In stature, grace, and hue,/ In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too." Also a passion of attraction of sorts, each needing the other to fulfil its destiny. No blame attaches to either party. The great ship is simply being itself, an expression of human "vaingloriousness"; and the Iceberg is just an Iceberg. Things jar, that is their consummation.

"The Convergence of the Twain" came into my mind as I was watching almost simultaneous newsreel footage of the inundation of New Orleans and the hundreds of pilgrims crushed to death in Baghdad. Neither event was the cause or occasion of the other. Even those who seek to blame Bush for the fall of every sparrow cannot make him the architect of either of these catastrophes. And yet one felt one could detect, to use Hardy's word, some "welding" in them. "Alien they seemed to be:/ No mortal eye could see/ The intimate welding of their later history."

In so far as we can talk so soon of "later history", some convergence is already beginning to strike observers. If the National Guard and army had been less stretched by their duties in Iraq, would they not have been more immediately effective in New Orleans? And had the country been less preoccupied with fighting terrorists and insurgents, might it not have been better prepared for the storm?

No President could have talked Katrina into quiet, but the opacity of intelligence that has made Bush so ineffective as a war leader appears to disqualify him for dealing with domestic emergencies too. Once again, never in the right place at the right time. Once again, a million miles from finding a felicitous word or expression. No light of humanity in the eyes. No gravitas on the face. Whatever the faith that sustains George Bush personally, it finds no exterior illumination. True, Gods that send men to war rarely have anything benign to illuminate. But today Bush is faced with a relief effort in his own back yard - an occasion for compassionate eloquence and action - yet the same God continues to fail him.

It's cold comfort, but if you are a Muslim who believes that the West values Western lives above Muslim lives, the American President's demeanour over the last days points to a more democratic reading: the leader of the Western world lacks a language in which to value any life.

It could, and no doubt ultimately will be argued, that the fear of insurgents which caused the panic in Baghdad is a direct result of the American invasion without which there would be no insurgency. I prefer convergence language myself. Go the cause and effect route and everything, not excluding metaphysics, immediately becomes politicised into innocent and guilty. Convergence, wherein a "sinister mate" is being prepared for each of us and all of our endeavours in turn, embraces a more bleak yet ultimately more serviceable view of the universe: a dark remorseless purpose controlling our destinies and at the same time exposing our essential natures - the human vanity that makes a Titanic "to ravish the sensuous mind", and the cold blank immovability of the Iceberg.

Pleasure-bent or austere, we are in trouble. As a non religious man I tear my hair at the dangers to which pilgrims ecstatically expose themselves. What is all that shouting? Why do people want to feel as thousands of their fellows feel? What is the meaning of that abnegation of the self? And how are they able to go on revering a God who has nothing to say when hundreds die cruelly - year in, year out, American invasion or no American invasion - in His service?

While at the other end of the world a city symbolic of our most wordly joys and freedoms sinks in a toxic lake. "In a solitude of the sea/ Deep from human vanity,/ And the Pride of Life that planned her, couches she."

I have never been to New Orleans but know it for its thousand musical, architectural, literary, culinary and multi-ethnic associations. Its odd, precarious geography was always part of its actual and its metaphorical appeal. It both belonged to the American mainland and was off it. "Transitional space", anthropologists call the position it occupied. Neither the one thing nor the other, like an island you can get to by a causeway, or a pier. By virtue of their ambiguity, such places offer us a breather from morality and judgement. They are the geographical equivalent of Carnival. For a brief hair-spring hour, separated from our culture, but not entirely severed from it, we can play the fool and act the goat there.

Hence the sadness felt by people who have never been to New Orleans in body. When a pier sinks back into the sea we feel that something indispensably festive to us has been lost. With New Orleans, not only a way of life but a way of thinking about life has drowned.

These two sites - New Orleans and the environs of the sacred Shia temple in northern Baghdad - represent the most extreme opposites of our natures. Our desire for spiritual authority, and our desire to live without it. What unites us in the end is neither. Where we converge is in our frailty.