Presently been reading The Atlas of the World’s Worst Natural Disasters which concludes with what you’d imagine is a very handy section. The section in question consists of a set of regional maps. On each map are plotted the crucial natural disasters known to have hit that particular region. By looking at the preponderance one can basically work out which areas have a propensity for a particular type of disaster to hit.
The devil is in the detail, however. As a comparison, a couple months back I mentioned a study linking incident of childhood traumas (as identified via a widely used and accepted psychological test) as a predictor of adult difficulties including drug or alcohol abuse, a conviction for a criminal act, depression or psychological difficulties. The stand-out statistic was one stating that, among the test group – music stars of the last fifty years – possessing four or more of the eight key childhood traumas meant an individual was 80% more likely to endure adult difficulties; a compelling sound-bite. The obvious lesson to take was that kids having to endure bad things made them more likely to turn out badly. Again, let’s hold on.
In the case of the maps of world natural disasters, the addition of further information and detail complicates the simplicity of the map. As an example, the thousands of volcanoes worldwide are not necessarily a threat; the majority are dormant – but that doesn’t mean ‘dead’, it means resting. Therefore a decision about location based on volcano location has to accept that during the course of one’s own lifetime the chances of the volcano exploding beneath you are limited. Similarly, locating away from a volcano doesn’t necessarily mean being immune to their effects; an 1815 eruption of volcano Tambora destroyed marine life killing 80,000 from famine hundreds of miles away – the damage is often something that extends further than the reach of the visible danger. Similarly, how does one locate to evade the massive potential danger posed by outbreaks of disease – 90% of the former population of America was killed by Old World germs after the ‘discovery’; cholera originating in India in 1817 killed millions across the next twenty years including 100,000 in Hungary, 10,000 each in Stockholm and Paris, the 7,000 in London; Spanish Flu managed 22 million worldwide in 1918-1919? Simultaneously what would one have to give up in order to establish safety? No, instead, on a day-to-day basis we prioritise small securities on an ad-hoc and often ludicrously non-evidential basis traded off against convenience, social pressure and a sense of fitting-in.
On that level we don’t consider the silliness of repeatedly encasing ourselves in metal and glass boxes then hurtling ourselves along restricted passages at speeds the human body will have difficulty surviving if anything goes wrong with our decisions or, more importantly, with the hundreds of other decision-making entities (i.e., other people) each of which impacts our existence. Instead, we value the benefits that experience brings and then pinpoint other particular bogie-men to over-emphasise and fear.
And is this in anyway relevant to discussion of Kurt Cobain? Well, I’d argue what’s shared is a desire to reduce the world down to simple messages. Cobain’s life is written as a morality tale in which everyone has their “ah HA!” moment pointing toward a fatalistic and inevitable ending. It’s a statement of belief in destiny essentially to claim that Cobain’s fate was set by anyone element or by decisions often long previous to his ending. The culprits, ad infinitum, are parental break-up, unsettled youth, genetic predisposition to depression, the money and the fame, the choice of wife, the pressure, the drugs.
There is truth and responsibility in many of these elements, no dispute, but not one of them is an inevitability. In the case of life on the side of a volcano, all the joys and sadnesses of life proceed for whatever period of time, numerous deaths and injuries take place in numbers that, the majority of the time, outweigh any foreseeable eruption. Therefore, while drawing lessons from Cobain’s life, there’s a tendency to overlook the more likely endings — death in a car accident, eventually death from a medical condition, years of coping with depression — that outweigh the oft-pointed culprits in his life and to focus too heavily on the eventual spectacular.
As a fair example, Cobain is long held up as an example of the dangers of drugs and he successfully killed heroin-chic stone-dead. It’s extremely fair to point out the risks with that particular drug and that there are very fair public-health reasons to maintain its illegality regardless of statistics about the damage wrought by cigarettes and alcohol — yes, many risks should be up to informed individuals to choose for themselves but that’s no reason for governments to devolve all responsibility for their people to the mantra of ‘choice’ which has become a great way of doing nothing. But what is overlooked is that Cobain did not die as an accidental drug overdose, nor is it provable that the impact of drugs on his mental state is primarily responsible for his decision to commit suicide.
There’s also no definitive statement showing how much of his decline as an active song-writer was due to drugs, how much was due to the breakdown of his relationship with his band mates, how much was because of the work required for parenthood and so forth. Suggesting that is was a factor is not the same as declaring it the volcano that eliminated Kurt Cobain and we should be more cautious of such absolutist answers.