What I like best on television news these days is the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. In fact, it is about the most satisfactory public event of my lifetime, although I would be hard put to tell you why. I just love to watch that volcano, preferably as viewed from above; the billowings of black smoke and boomings of heavenward-sent rock, love it so much that when the core begins to redden, it will be all I can do to keep from rushing to buy a color TV.
This daily, comforting blast is so different from all the other events on the news; that montage of barred gates, flaming buildings, self-important men getting on and off airplanes, and serious-faced explainers telling us earnestly through the Big Eye what it all means; explainers who seem to imply that we are all somehow vaguely responsible for the hallucinatory series of catastrophes that are thrown up to us, and likely to be killed or driven broke or crazy by the consequences. But because it is difficult to trust the goodness of the men climbing on and off airplanes, or the wisdom of the explainers, it becomes restful to concentrate on that volcano; so trustworthy in its simple violence, so unpetty in its boomings, and so self-sufficient in whatever evil it portends. Its malignity restores a certain sense of innocence. After all, it's comforting to be assured that one had nothing to do with it.
Clearly, none of us is responsible, which is possibly why the professional explainers have left it alone -- on the theory that it is no fun to explain anything unless you can blame somebody. Of course Jane Pauley, on NBC's Today show, did venture to remark in an offhanded way that Mt. St. Helens was emblematic of our national condition. But she was promptly accused of "PPT" (profound philosophical thought) by her co-host, Garrick Utley, who is well known for his sophistication. And of course there have been the usual couple of dozen rancid wild-eyed preachers out in the sticks, who warn that this first active American volcano since 1917 is one of the Signs of the End.
Such fanciful explanations are, of course, ridiculous, since anyone with common sense can tell you the real reason: namely, that Vulcan is upset. He's the Roman god of fire, as you'll recall (known to the Greeks as Hephastos), and it's from him that volcanoes take their name. Not only that, but he's in charge of them; for it's in those red smithies that Vulcan, aided by the Big Three of one-eyed Cyclopes, forges thunderbolts for Jove to hurl.
Now, some say Vulcan is the presiding god of modern times, who was given charge of things at about the time of the industrial revolution; and others even go so far as to say that he's the god of America -- an understandable surmise, for there's much in his story that rings faint harmonious chimes, and makes him seem one of us. He too was an immigrant -- albeit an unwilling one -- for his parents, it's said, were so displeased at him from birth that they flung him headlong from heaven -- a descent Milton records: From morn To noon he fel, from noon to dewy eve, A summer's day; and with the setting sun Dropped from the zenith, like a falling star.
He too awoke in a New World, alone and forced to get by as best he could. As a result of his fall, he'd become lame as well as ugly; and being thus repugnant to himself, found a career as a fabricator; knew surcease from pain only in making things for other people; thus putting into his creations the grace and harmony he could not find in himself. He fashioned the 12 golden thrones of the gods, and their wonderous weapons, chariots and jewels. And he even made machines that had the principle of movement in themselves; walking tripods that could bring in ambrosia and nectar for the beautiful gods, and walk out again. When he was at work, the din of his hammers could be heard for miles, and sparks flew out of the mountaintops. He was kindly, too; never too busy to lend out one of his helpers as guides for the crippled or blind.
But Vulcan's clever mind, unfortunately, was defective in the same way his body was; powerful and skilled from the waist up, but with injured underpinnings that could not support him for long. And so he made one tragic mistake, that was as much the product of hope as of stupidity; and imagined that because he was industrious, and generous, and kind, he would be beloved as well. And so it came to him as the hard, hard news when he found his wife in bed with Mars. Which is when his vengeful streak emerged -- or we ought to say, reemerged. Because Vulcan had a way of getting even with people by taking them captive. For instance, he had gotten even with his mother by making her a golden chair which, as soon as she sat down in it, grabbed hold of her with golden bands and would not turn loose. And his revenge on the wife and lover was to imprison them in the act, as it were, in a net made of line bronze links, and then to fling open the ivory doors of his palace so that all could enter and see their disgrace. For Vulcan, whether he was the Devil or not (as some have suggested), was diabolical to this extent: he was self-righteous down to his immortal bones. And there were rumors, whether in heaven or elsewhere, that one day a similar fate would overtake him, and that he too would be humiliated by captivity. And so he went his surly way, never again depending on fleshly love; but built for himself robot-girls of gold, with mechanical brains that could think and silver tongues to whisper imperishable endearments. And has had the quietude of simple embitterment up till now.
What is currently making him roar, one only surmise. Perhaps it's merely some simple, straightforward matter like annoyance over the destruction of the housing industry, which he's god of. Or it may be that men don't seem to be making anything beautiful anymore -- for he's god of beautiful things, too. Or maybe it is the final, bellowing rage of his murderous despair, which will kill, and destroy, and devastate, without reason and without surcease, in his deepest response to the fairness of things, and the pain of existence; this, while prim seismologists seek to explain the process, and antlike politicians meet to talk of sending bucket brigades up the slopes. In which case a view from the distance, from the far distance, would be best of all. Better some detachment, cool and remote as a color television camera in the stratosphere. After all, it has nothing to do with us.