The Curse of Chronofliction

In Mexico, people who are “tocado” — “touched” — reveal that geological time can emerge through fissures in the land to alter the way we relate to our homes, cities, and even ourselves.

Lachlan Summers, “Deep Time Sickness

Reading Summers’ article, for some reason, evoked memories of the “Monsters of the Id” from the 1956 science fiction movie Forbidden Planet (see below).

In the film, the murderous creatures, visible only when they crashed into the feeble energy barriers put up by the Earthling crew of the starship C-570 (really? that’s the best name they could come up with?), were silent killers, eventually forcing the surviving spacemen to flee the planet before the prototypical evil scientist Dr. Morbius blows it all up.

In much the same way, the “monsters of deep time” have assaulted the citizens of Mexico City who lived through the 7.1 earthquake that shook the city for 40 seconds on September 19, 2018. Summers recounts how one resident, a woman he names “Elena,” “has been affected by a peculiar range of health issues” since the temblor:

She has lost more than 30 pounds, she is plagued by dizzy spells and she suffers long bouts of insomnia. Though years have now passed, she told me that for her, the earthquake never really ended.

Elena has what is known in Mexico and the Americas as “susto” or “fright sickness.” As Summers describes it, “Acute experiences of shock, like being trapped in a shaking building, can induce chronic negative health outcomes. Getting scared, in other words makes you sick.” Susto is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as “one of the world’s nine ‘cultural concepts of distress.’” Summers, who is a PhD candidate in anthropology, interviewed many people in Mexico City who were made similarly sick by the earthquake.

He next explains how he views the experience of the tocados as an “encounter with deep time.” He cribs from others’ definitions of this term. One calls it “the vastness of planetary history that ‘stretches away from the present moment.’” Nature writer John McPhee characterizes it this way:

Consider the Earth’s history as the old measure of the English yard, the distance from the king’s nose to the tip of his outstretched hand. One stroke of a nail file on his middle finger erases human history.

Thinking of deep time, Summers wonders “about those imponderable abysses that suddenly open in everyday spaces.” He notes how Mexico City, whose elevation is 7,349 feet, spent most of its history underwater until tectonic activity began to push it upward about 30 million years ago. Today, the city, one of the world’s most populous, sits on the unstable soft bottom of a drained lake, “hollow soil” comprising “clay, debris, Mexican ruins, and volcanic rock.”

The city, in short, is a “geophysical entity” rather than “something superimposed upon a geological foundation.” Viewing it that way reveals “some continuity between the endless creep of tectonic plates and the muted unraveling of buildings and lives.”

The people who are tocado notice this. They notice “cracks in a wall, shifts in the Earth’s surface, the angles at which buildings lean” and it disorients them, sometimes leaving them “suddenly dizzy or faint or having vertigo even when they’re at ground level,” caught “in a moment in which experiential time, historical time, and deep time are colliding.”

For the tocados in Mexico City, Summers concludes, their fear is not “induced by a traumatic experience and worry over future earthquake events.” Instead, their fear comes from knowing the processes that caused the earthquake are ongoing, that there will be “slumps,” “leans,” “fissures,” and “buildings collapsing years later.”

In Mexico City, Elena can see the cracks “appearing in the walls of her apartment, deep, alarming fissures that wrapped silently around the room.” Deep time is working on us, too, wherever we may live. We have the same geological, environmental, social, physiological, and psychological cracks spreading through the walls of our lives, although for most these, like the monsters of the id, are invisible. At least now, if you experience a sudden attack of dizziness or vertigo, of insomnia or panic, or of needing to sleep with your shoes on, you’ll know where it came from.

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Kim Pederson

Kim Pederson

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Kim (or Viking Lord) is a freelance writer/editor, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and RatBlurt blogger.