The earthquake in the living room

LIKE the war in Vietnam and the famine in Ethiopia, the earthquake in Soviet Armenia entered the living room. The weeping faces, the bare hands digging with makeshift metal scrapers at the rubble, became visions to be witnessed on the 7 o'clock news while chewing the last mouthful of dinner. People in warm, well-built houses tens of thousands of miles away have been touched to send money to this place they could not have located on a map a month ago. Firemen from Houston, medical units from Seattle, teams from Britain, France, and West Germany, have descended on the perilously overcrowded airports at Yerevan and Leninakan to do what can be done.

In all this there is the promise that shared grief brings the world together in a brotherhood, a truly international glasnost that must make it impossible, after such weeping, for one nation to launch even the smallest nuclear missile - producing, of course, a devastation that would make the Armenian earthquake look like a hangnail on the scale of human injury.

More than the earth has been shaken.

In 1755, just a month after the Lisbon earthquake took a toll estimated at 60,000 lives, Voltaire composed his ``Poem on the Disaster of Lisbon,'' asking his readers (as television asks its viewers) to ``Approach in crowds and meditate awhile/ Yon shattered walls, and view each ruined pile.''

``What crime, what fault have these children committed?'' Voltaire wondered in agony and anger.

Four years later, in ``Candide,'' he would bring his guileless young hero to stricken Lisbon to put upon his lips the question: ``If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?''

What the 18th century had to rebuild after the earthquake, in addition to Lisbon, was its faith in a Creator who might be interpreted as capable of destroying His creation.

The goodness of God is not a problem most people wrestle with in the 20th century. Our special agony is the goodness of man. What we are shaken by is our capacity to destroy what we have created - all the bricks and mortar of civilization. ``Candide'' is less our text than ``Faust'' - the tragedy of a man who made his compact with the devil in exchange for unlimited power.

An earthquake, in a humanistic rather than a religious culture, is relatively simple to think about. Dealing in terms of technology rather than theology, one blames the architects and builders of these flimsy Armenian cities for the extent of the disaster. And afterward, where were the high-tech cranes?

On the whole, human nature rises to its highest level in emergencies. In the world's sympathy for Soviet Armenia, we see, if you will, a ``kinder, gentler'' humanity, and in this glow we dare to pronounce the end of the ``cold war.''

But behind the devastation in Armenia we also see, like a double image, the devastation of Hiroshima - the scene that haunts the last half of the 20th century: technology turned against fellow human beings beyond the scope of all ``natural'' disasters.

A small parable:

The Marquis of Pombal was the hero of the earthquake of Lisbon, throwing himself into saving lives and rebuilding the city. But with the power he acquired as savior he turned tyrant and persecutor of not a few of those lives he saved. Thus he stands as a model - and a warning.

The Lisbon earthquake was immeasurably more terrible than any fire and brimstone the Marquis, at his most vindictive, could bring to bear. By contrast, here we are, 2 centuries later, equipped with the power to lay waste, not one city, but the planet - and still we struggle with the same divided nature of the compassionate-and-militant Marquis in ourselves. And still we try to revere life, as if it were a religious matter after all.

Whatever the terms of this meditating, if it saves us from the thousand-earthquakes disaster of World War III, we can afford to ``meditate awhile'' longer than the Marquis on the latest ``shattered walls,'' even as the rebuilding starts.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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