Noise and Signal – “The Corner That Held Them” – Chapter 4

“May the Road Rise to Meet You” goes the song. “May the wind be always at your back.”

It’s a song that deals mainly with fortune.

In histories on happiness, the ancient idea was that happiness appeared almost at random. You were either in favor or out of favor with the gods.

“The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going,” was the teaching in John 3:8.

This the sort of wind found in chapter four of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s book. “The Spire” had a calamitous middle, and then so far a sputtering end. In a gale of wind overnight, pieces of the spire broke off, and Dame Susanna, either filled with madness or intent on stopping the pieces falling with what she believed to be divine intervention, knelt underneath the falling marble.

She was crushed and killed instantly.

The wind is not only violent. The young girls of the convent overhear of the possibility of levitation from abroad, and have a desire to try it themselves. Some of the young girls swear they have flown, when in truth they have simply bruised their bottoms.

Sir Ralph has grown tired of typical hobbies and has found a new one: hawking. In this new pastime, he sees the convent at Oby the way the hawk does, and the change in perspective lends to the advice given later: nothing so bad has happened as that shown in our imaginations. It is similar to the quote by Twain of terrors real and imagined.

I have had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.

Yet Dame Susanna had foreseen the spire coming down far earlier in the chapter, had she been given the skilled eyes to see what the imagination lay bare. “Heaven would not allow such a thing, and certainly not for so many years. There would have been a sign. A dream would be sent, a toad would jump from the chalice, the spire would fall. The spire! She turned and looked at it. It was tall now, pure as a lily-stalk in its cage of scaffolding.”

The sign that Dame Susanna refers to is the sign of a “priest who was no priest.” Which happens to be the case, as we know.

So is the spire falling an act of divine providence? Is God trying to tell the nuns that they have a false priest in their midst?

In the talk of lawsuits that follow, the masons believe that the structure is cursed, after another such accident breaks the thigh bone of a young builder.

The nuns believe that the construction by the masons is pervasively bad, citing other incidents of accidents and shoddy craftsmanship.

The masons lean against them, citing that the amount of changes during the construction of the spire weighed the marble unevenly, causing problems in the distribution, leading to the collapse.

The result: all that careful attention to the divine is lost in litigation and in looking for people to blame.

Could it be any more ironic that Dame Susanna happened to the best teacher of the choir in recent years? She had improved the singers dramatically because of her calm demeanor and her musical talent, and the ladies looked expectantly to singing in the choir.

What is singing if it is not the exhalation of breath, the movement of wind along the vibrations of vocal cords before exiting the body? It is the taking of the random noises of sound possible among all the ranges of human pitch and drawing them out in unison, producing a beautiful sound we recognize.

Predictions and Assumptions

At all times we are making adjustments for the world. We assume that 2020 will be much like the year 2019. Even when there is talk about a virus in Wuhan, we shrug it off and continue on with our day. Students in classrooms may jokingly sneeze and yell out “corona!” much to their friends’ delight. And then there is talk of the expansion of the virus to Europe, and there is some trepidation. “The virus will go away on its own,” said one powerful leader. We make predictions based on personal, lived experience, because none of us have lived through another pandemic like it.

Unfortunately, the virus did not go away. What’s more, we saw that not only could we have seen this coming, it was something close to inevitable. Movies like Contagion predicted with startling accuracy the method of infection, the cause of spread, and even the problems of maintaining social cohesion. Bill Gates and his TED talk made the rounds on YouTube in every household as he predicted five years ago what we experienced now. Michael Osterholm’s book on disease, Deadliest Enemy, came out in 2017. Some people were right, many were not.

What is more strange to think about is the idea that this could just as easily have happened in 2030 instead of 2020. There was no reason to think that the combination of interactions with animals, the globalized supply chain, and the suppression of early warning signs could not have happened now as in a later date. What would our predictive methods have said then?

The resultant arguments from the spire falling in the Townsend’s fourth chapter reads eerily like our blame game in an election year for the coronavirus. To be sure, going over a month without a proper test here in the United States, either due to problems with federal government’s response, or to the FDA’s slow, bureaucratic acceptance of tests as they developed, will go down as a particular failure. But for a new virus that is highly contagious and one that spreads asymptomatically? It was going to be a problem for every nation around the world.

We only have the powers of history to come to terms with what ends up being noise, and what ends up being signal. With greater technology and knowledge of patterns, we can see what can be a storm, and what can instead be nothing.

Thousands died in the Hurricane of 1900 that hit Galveston, Texas. Making a prediction, having it believed, and engendering trust in experts enough to leave one’s entire livelihood, would have been nothing short of a miracle back then.

In a new century, we’re realizing that not only listening well to the patterns of our world, but creating national guidelines, and building enough trust to have them followed, has proven just as difficult.

What was the spire to the nuns at Oby in the end? Hubris I suppose. After it fell, some took to it as a sign that they had forsaken and turned away the homeless and destitute because of the expenses of the spire, when really those funds should have been used to live simply, pay off debts, and take care of those in need. Now the building has become far more than simply a structure, it became a symbol for the nuns of a future at Oby of warm winters and the finer things. To have something given and taken away is worse than to not have it at all. Here is Adela de Retteville’s spite at the end of the chapter:

“‘Very well. No one shall repair it. Since you wish, it can go to ruin like everything else.'”

Time makes signals and noise out of everything, which lends to the randomness and messiness of life as it is lived. What is the meaning of life if it can be taken away so haphazardly?

Already some of the people I had gone to high school with have died. They were random accidents mostly, dying in one’s sleep, or falling off a balcony and landing on one’s head, and while some of them have been so egregious as to beg for death (high speed motorcycle accident), others seem like they tilt equally on a balance board. They could have lived or died and just a hair’s breath could have kept them from either result.

My sister lost her best friend to “difficulties during surgery,” a loaded term that could mean anything from careless accident to unforeseeable event.

These are young, healthy people.

Live long enough, and you begin to see that God really does play with dice. But what may be hard, for nuns and modern citizens alike, is to see how the act of looking for responsibility, the act of attempting to gain control over transitory actions of life, has its limits.

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