“Hieronymus Bosch, a Flemish artist of the otherworld, titled one of his drawings The Trees Have Ears and the Field Has Eyes. He drew eyes embedded in the ground and propped human ears on the edges of the forest. Artists know: unbeknownst to you, the wild is watching. It disappears when the human eye perceives it.”-Sylvain Tesson, The Art of Patience: Seeking the Snow Leopard in Tibet
I’m of the opinion that the experiential sort of writing ought not be abused. On the other hand, my parents built a family home in Varybobi, a forested suburb just north of Athens, and a holiday home in (or rather near) Pefki, on northern Evia. You may smile at the irony, I won’t be offended. Except that, although in Varybobi everything is fine and it’s only the forest that’s become charcoal, in Evia we weren’t so lucky. I arrived at our house there on Thursday. Part of the place has burned down. Because I am an incurable rationalist, I do not believe that people get a free pass that lets them say whatever they want just because they have firsthand experience. I always try to consider what is actually the case. That is what I will do now.
Mass disobedience in Evia
I stayed in Varybobi, as some of you may have gathered, even after the evacuation order, which meant that I was breaking the law. I stayed for as long as I thought was safe, violating the state’s directives and trusting in my own sense.
I always keep near firefighters during a fire in order to ensure that there is communication with trained specialists and radio contact. And afterward, I left. In Evia a whole wave of people chose to break the law in an attempt to save their houses. And several of them managed to do so.
I was surprised to see that even Kathimerini praised the residents for their heroism, instead of castigating them for disregarding the official evacuation order. What, then, is the lesson the state wound up teaching these people?
By obeying you lose your home and by disobeying you save it. Was that the intent? No. But I’m afraid that, when you handle everything as if it were a PR matter, this kind of thing is a wholly predictable side effect.
When you govern by lying, the loss of public confidence will at some point make crisis management difficult.
The order to evacuate is normally issued as a last resort, and with the unspoken agreement that the state will try to protect people’s homes.
When it became clear that the government’s obscene objective was simply to avoid fatalities (I will come back to this, to provide explanations for the gravediggers who accuse us of not caring enough about human life) and entire areas were evacuated with no regard for animals, forests, and homes, the people stopped obeying.
Is this a good thing? I’ll surprise you: it’s not.
We need to have faith in the firefighters’ expertise so that, if it really is necessary, when you tell the people to leave the people will obey. This blatant: “Evacuate the place, we’ll return after the fire, forests grow back,” leads to people acting on their own in situations of immediate danger, and that is not something I consider good.
Were all those who violated the state’s directive right to do so? Yes. I did it too. Is this a good thing in general? I don’t see it as a revolution. I would rather not play PR games when the object is firefighting.
Let me put it another way: why did the state permit violation of the evacuation order? Shouldn’t it have enforced it, if it really was a matter of life and death? The state permitted the mass, public and severe circumvention of the order precisely because it lacked the legitimacy that true necessity bestows. If you think only in terms of PR, sooner or later you make a fool of yourself.
Cold disregard for human life masquerading as compassion
The government accuses us, via an army of internet trolls, of devaluing life when we say that “just” people escaped the flames. How can we say “just”? Are we so indifferent to the value of human life? Isn’t life the highest good? Mind you, I’m not going to say that life requires trees and memories, otherwise it’s not life. I would rather survive and have to start over than the alternative. The problem lies elsewhere.
When we say that this “evacuation culture” shows, quite simply, that they’re hoping for favorable comparison with Syriza’s handling of the 2018 fire in Mati, we’re not saying it because we’re indifferent to human life whereas they really do care. We’re saying it because the bar for firefighting should not be set so low that we say, when a fire burns for ten days without wind, that we ought to praise Mitsotakis because we didn’t have another Mati.
When an animal or a house is lost, that’s a failure. What is the point of making a comparison with a disastrous, tragic failure, just so you can feel better? What inhuman mind ever reckoned that half of Greece could burn without wind and we’d say, “Fortunately there weren’t (many) (human) victims”? That’s all we needed was to have victims of a fire that was approaching for three, five, ten days while the roads were still open. That was all we needed!
If a city is destroyed by the kind of flooding we expect in winter, will they ask us to say “Good job!” because nobody drowned?
Obviously, what’s most important is for no human lives to be lost. But seeing as you and I are not in a PR competition with Alexis Tsipras and we’re just trying to live our lives, the answer is quite simply that the last thing we needed was for (even more!) people to die in a wildfire with no wind when there were roads with escape routes!
I can’t help but think about whether I could have done something if I had managed to get to the house. I didn’t because, by the time we’d caught our breath after Varybobi, the fire had gotten so close to Kastri on Evia that they wouldn’t let us through.
When I talk now about the disasters at my vacation house, I certainly realize that I’m talking about a vacation house. It’s not the house I live in, nor is it my workshop or shop. And yet, there’s a tiny part of me that hurts. And I think that, seeing as the same kind of reasoning can always be used both to your advantage and to your disadvantage, I think it better to avoid comparisons of pain. Let me explain: the person who lost their shop may not have lost their house. The person who lost their house at least had a house, unlike the homeless person who had no house at all. And someone who lost everything still has the power to fight and rebuild because they are alive.
Comparing pain might encourage us to keep quiet in the face of absolute tragedy. But as important as it is not to have the audacity to forget the pain of others around us, it is just as obscene to ask the person who has endured something minor to keep silent. Especially if that minor thing could have been handled better. Let me explain a little more: I must speak with restraint, knowing that I am going through something minor and that many people next to me are going through much worse. If, however, the person who decided not to renew firefighters’ contracts and who lies about aerial resources says to me, “How can you act like this when others have died?” my answer might be, “Fuck Mitsotakis” or else something more appropriate, but which still constitutes an angry outburst.
Papagiorgis wrote that, at the end of the day, you don’t avoid sacrilege by watching war footage and civilian massacres on television as you sip a drink and soak your feet in a tub of hot water.
So, it never makes sense to compare adversity, not because there is no hierarchy which dictates that the person who lost a finger must respect the person who lost a hand, but because if there were such a hierarchy then we’d all have to keep quiet at the martyrdoms of the saints. We do not keep quiet; we speak, and above all we ask that these fraudsters provide support to fire departments that goes beyond “You didn’t die, so say ‘thank you’.”
These days my wife has been working mornings and I’ve been working in the afternoon so that we can trade off taking care of our kids. I won’t change the subject for long. I’ll only say that it’s harder to have kids around when you’ve got other things to do.
Because my mind has been constantly on the news, on Tuesday I decided to take the kids to the Museum of Illusions.
We took photos in which it looks like our heads have been cut off, where the grown ups appear small and the kids appear big, and where we seem to be walking on the ceiling; we had a great time. We had a great time because our illusions about whether we are alive or dead, big or small, walk right side up or upside-down, all end the moment we leave the museum.
We stand very much in need of being able to see the world upside down, provided we know what is illusory. The pain of real life is that illusion lurks in every corner of life.
Kostas Sfikas, translator of Balzac’s Illusions Perdues, renders the title in Greek as Lost Dreams and not Lost Illusions, playing on the double sense of illusion as that which we desired and that which has disappointed us.
I say this as someone who has just shoveled ashes and broken tile from what was once a room, knowing full well that there is nothing more real than fire. Someone who disobeyed a first evacuation order couldn’t disobey a second one, and thinks very hard about when to run, when to fight the fire, and when to burn. Firefighters are a starting point for defining what is real in our lives. The village of Gouves on Evia is a part of my childhood’s mythology, with its local heroes and taverns where I used to nod off as a kid.
I was looking at all these shocking photos and seeing various friends write “The people will save the people” about Evia’s inhabitants, and I was thinking that, as the world burns, the prime minister is changing up the government spokesperson. Our only hope is to take another, clearer look and make a start on what each of us has to do amid the ashes.
We entered the memoranda because we listened to liberal intellectuals telling us that Greeks have their hands permanently outstretched to the state, and now we’ve wound up in a place where we can’t even expect that when our house is on fire there will be a fire department or a doctor when we get sick.
I say this with the strange energy of a person who wasn’t there, but who tried and wanted to be there to participate in Evia’s collective disobedience.
Fire teaches a strange lesson in solidarity because if everyone thinks they can face it in their own backyard all of us burn. This, then, is the most painful solidarity lesson there is. The current battle is a battle with illusions, about who is with us and who is against us. The dragon of the governing elite will never care about anyone or anything. The human chains we’ve seen are all we have.
This passion for working together when disaster strikes ought to be the bitter lesson of the day.