An end-of-the-world compromise
A lot of commenters have been asking to read my thesis in its entirety – an epic undertaking at the best of times. When I wrote it, I never expected more than my advisers and my parents to read it, so the prospect is pretty awesome. However. It’s over 100 pages long, and a good portion of those pages were written in the last week before my thesis was due on no sleep, and at least some of it has to read like the ravings of a madwoman. I haven’t gone back and read it yet for that reason. I’m going to work on editing it into something acceptable, but until then, I have my thesis presentation, which is sort of a 20-minute version of the 120 pages of the original thesis. The video of me reading my thesis presentation is here (I have a better version lying around somewhere, but I can’t find it right now), and the full text is after the jump – but be warned, it’s nearly 15 pages long.
The wild-haired man carrying a sign reading “The End is Nigh” or something similarly dire is a common sight in popular culture and can be spotted wandering through anything from romantic comedies to political cartoons. Though often the target of mockery, this sense of impending doom has a long history. It was already thousands of years old by the time the New Testament was written. In one oft-quoted example in Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples that “this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.” But the time passed, as predicted Ends do, and Christ did not return, which dampened the spirits of his believers not a bit. According to Frank Kermode, this is one of the most important and unique aspects of apocalypticism. Because time disproves predicted ends, “the historical allegory is always having to be revised. And this is important. Apocalypse can be disconfirmed without being discredited.” In other words, there will be bumper stickers on cars reading, “Warning: in case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned,” until quite literally the end of time.
In the interest of time, I will spare you all a detailed history of apocalypse fiction. I do want to mention a few key points in the development of the genre, though. It helps with contextualization, and I also think it’s really cool because they track very closely with real-world events.
1. The first piece of modern post-apocalyptic fiction was called The Last Man and was published by Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, in 1826. To say it was not well-received would be an understatement. It was called things like “the offspring of a diseased imagination” and “an abortion.” One reviewer who no doubt found himself very clever said that it had to be called the Last Man because a Last Woman would die if she had no one to talk to. Almost every critic said a book that imagined the End was totally ridiculous.
2. There is about a 30-year period running up to the beginning of World War One where people believed that, through some minor “birth pangs” like a socialist revolution, we could reach Utopia; consequently, there was a lot of war-anticipation going on. Incidentally, one book around the turn of the twentieth century predicts the atomic bomb.
3. Sci-fi writers were piissssed at technology after World War One, where technology had proved itself to be not our saviors but tools for even more effective self-destruction. Robot rebellions make their first appearance.
4. After the first atomic bomb was dropped, it immediately took over as the End of choice. Nuclear holocaust remained prominent, though not always dominant, for most of the rest of the twentieth century. It dropped to zero when the U.S.S.R. was dissolved and never recovered.
5. Americans love the apocalypse. The majority of apocalypse fiction written after World War Two is by American authors.
6. When in doubt, it’s the human race’s fault.
Every apocalypse can be traced back to one of three points of origin: human, natural, and divine, and each imply very different worldviews. A divine apocalypse means that we have only indirect control over our own destiny, but there is the assurance that there is a destiny; that there is some greater being who is overlooking what we are doing and steering events toward a pre-planned end. If the End is of human origin, it means that we are totally in control of our own destiny, something that is either very good or very bad depending on your opinion of the human race. Either way, it means that we have a chance to change, and that by improving ourselves we can stave off the End indefinitely. A natural apocalypse is something like an asteroid hitting earth. Nothing we can do will stop it, no one is in control. One day, everything will just end, everything will be brutally interrupted, and nothing means anything. Life sucks.
The first question that must be asked when discussing the end of the world is why it must end in the first place. There is certainly no universal law that requires existence to one day pack it up, and given that we are still here we can be reasonably sure that it has never happened before; yet belief in an End—and some level of anxiety about it—is universal, regardless of whether you are a born-again Christian looking forward to Jesus’s return sometime next week or an optimistic atheist sure that Earth will hold on until the Sun explodes. If you’re sitting there thinking that my thesis topic is incredibly boring and the idea of the end of the world doesn’t prompt even the vaguest of pleasurable shivers or even some sort of knee-jerk reaction to name this entire thing ridiculous, congratulations. You are one of the few in all of human history who has managed to defeat apocalyptic anxiety.
I spent a lot of time in my thesis examining why the apocalypse has been our constant companion, and it’s an interesting question with interesting answers. It’s also a bit of a rabbit hole, though, and we would never come out if I go down it just now, so in a nutshell, a world without an End is like C-SPAN – you get an endless and sometimes overwhelming stream of information and it is hard to tell what’s important. An endpoint allows us to organize it into the nightly news broadcast – finding what’s most important, connecting it to past events and predicting probable future ones. Humans use patterns to make sense of the world, and we need the End to construct patterns that make sense of the present.
If this highly inadequate explanation doesn’t satisfy you, I would suggest reading Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending, which is a totally awesome book and one I drew on heavily. The most important conclusion to take from the argument is that letting go of the apocalypse is something we just can’t do, because then we would have to accept losing ourselves into the chaos of being. Rather than submit to that terror, we create for ourselves the feeling that there are patterns, that all the endless spinoffs, twists, and turns of the bad soap opera that is humanity pull back into some neat, pregnant little endpoint from which, looking back, everything makes sense.
The Apocalypse is like the monster under the bed. On the one hand, you really, really don’t want to see it, because then you’ve got some major problems, but at the same time you just want to get it over with, drag it out from under the bed and see what it looks like in daylight. The catharsis in stories about the end of the world lies in the way they allow us to look at the monster and release some of that anxiety and dread without having to also deal with its teeth and claws. It’s like a dry run.
If the first question that must be asked is why the world must end, then the second question is why it doesn’t. Making it to the End doesn’t mean the story’s finished. Much of the time, it’s only just gotten started. The genre is called post-apocalyptic fiction for a reason. The apocalypse happens, and yet the world almost always still chugs along—perhaps not unchanged, but still there all the same. That’s the thing with apocalypses; they rarely manage a full and proper End. According to Mircea Eliade, humanity “has never believed in a definitive end of the Universe…[the End is followed] by a new creation, a new humanity, unsoiled by sin.”
There are a few stories that claim to be truly apocalyptic; that is, they describe an End, a real End, after which there is nothing. I argue in my thesis that a truly apocalyptic story is narratively impossible, but that is a particular twist that for the sake of time I have discarded and, again, you will have to take my word for it. Or ask about later. Whatever. The most notable thing about failed apocalypse narratives, though, is how few writers even try. Stories that try to write the actual end of the world deliberately leave the reader off-balance and disquieted, unsure of what exactly has just happened. It defeats the entire purpose of an End: making sense of our lives from where we are, stranded in the middle.
Usually, the moment of destruction is not particularly important in itself; it serves only to set the stage for when the real action begins, after the End. The reason we create a specter of the End in the first place is to find patterns and achieve closure for the narrative we have created to order time, the point at which the reader is satisfied by the failure of continuation. However, that closure can only be achieved when someone, a humble band of Elect, is projected into the space beyond, where they can see the pattern complete and report back to us from the other side of the veil. When there is no “other side” from which to observe and report, we are left adrift and more uncertain than ever.
Even in a culture (like ours) that everyone says is death-denying, there is a continuing strong attraction to narratives that are obsessed with death.” Experiencing death within the controlled environment of narrative strips death of some of its terrifying power to defy order. Within a fiction, the writer has control over death; it submits to him, and through the narrative the writer transforms the chaos of death into the safe order of narrative art. Once made intelligible, the end feels probable, indeed inevitable.
In consuming stories of the End, we hope to find a narrative with which we can find more satisfactory patterns in our own reality. Especially once deeply embedded in the collective consciousness, narrative’s promise of meaningful death can become powerful stuff: how many millions have been prompted by an internalized nationalist narrative to fight and die in some unseen land, all for the concept of “country”? They hope to find a path into immortality, where their presence in memory extends beyond the boundaries of their physical lives and continues to make ripples in the sequence of events.
Finding closure in a death requires time to go on, so others will find meaning in our life and death that will have some effect on the world’s progress. If the world ends and there is no one around to notice that we are gone, then the feeling that motivates us in the middle—that we are striving toward something—is proven false, and the sum of all of human progress and strife total out to zero. We like the idea of an End when it is in the continually-retreating future, operating as a point of closure toward which we drive, but when we manage to catch up with it in imagination, we find that the moment of destruction holds no satisfaction. It may complete the narrative of our history, but the narrative does not mean anything if no one is around afterward to benefit from our having existed and perished.
We are left with a fundamental, irresolvable conflict: the desire for closure and final understanding versus progress and creation. According to Sigmund Freud, it is the fundamental human conflict. In 1920, Freud published Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which he proposed his theory of the death drive, later also referred to as Thanatos. According to Freud, Thanatos is a force present in all living things that tends toward self-destruction, the opposing and balancing force of Eros, the pleasure and sex drive and “preserver of life.” Thanatos advocates a return to a state of calm, as the one found in death: closure. Eros drives all creative forces; the urge to have sex and procreate, obviously, but also “the Eros of poets and philosophers,” so Eros is what drives progress. Eros and Thanatos are always in conflict and one can never maintain the upper hand. We live with the intention to die, but (continuing) life is also the aim of life.
All human motivation and conflict, Freud says, can be traced back to the war between Eros and Thanatos. Both instincts look to restore an earlier state of affairs, the elusive state of wholeness; they just go about it in diametrically opposing ways. Thanatos looks for completeness in the calm stasis of death; Eros, in an upward trajectory toward perfection (or in religious terms, the re-attainment of holy bliss). Each one, Robert Kastenbaum says, is “jousting with the other in an attempt to achieve its own aims. We are never wholly oriented toward survival and development, and only in the most extreme conditions, if ever, does the death instinct reign without challenge.” It is a struggle that can operate just fine below the level of conscious thought but nevertheless influences everything we do.
When we stand on a cliff edge and experience that moment of vertigo, we are presented with the decision: live or die? Though most everyone will choose to live, the ever-so-slight desire to step off the edge that produces vertigo is Thanatos reminding us that it is there. Desire and the instincts are closely linked: they both want to return to the original complete state, but the instincts’ conflict prevents it. If we choose to obey the promptings of one—stepping back from the cliff edge, say—we refuse the other. We cannot step back and jump off. The exclusion makes us aware of lack, and lack awakens a desire to fill that lack, so we oscillate back and forth and back and forth between the two, into infinity.
Even being well-aware of the necessity of the continuing conflict, though, our desire for peace and closure makes it difficult to imagine a world that would not eventually get tired of the constant fighting. According to Eliade in The Myth of the Eternal Return, one of the oldest and most universal beliefs across the world is that creation must be periodically regenerated, because “any form whatever, by the mere fact that it exists as such and endures, necessarily loses vigor and becomes worn; to recover vigor, it must be reabsorbed into the formless if only for an instant; it must be restored into the formless to the primordial unity from which it issued.” The descent into chaos, which appears to be a victory for the death drive, allows for an equal and opposite reaction—a burst of pure Creation.
Though religious apocalypses may not be a permanent descent into chaos, they are usually fully destroyed before they rise back up again; most post-apocalyptic fiction does not accomplish even that. The Ends in these fictions rarely manage to destroy time, the Earth, or even the human race; as Ray Bradbury illustrates so well in his 1951 short story, “The Highway,” it would be possible to live right through what most of us would consider an apocalypse without realizing it. In “The Highway,” a Mexican farmer named Hernando watches with a sort of vague worry as a parade of cars streams past on the highway that goes by his isolated house, the vehicles all full of people. Only one stops, an old Ford with passengers who beg for water for their radiator, shout about how it has happened—“the atom war, the end of the world”—and speed off again. Hernando stands on the highway for a moment, watching them go, but then goads the burro back into action and returns to his fields. “What do they mean, ‘the world?” he says.
Really, the only things that can usually be said to have come to an end in post-apocalyptic fiction are ways of ordering reality, moral codes, or belief systems. The post-apocalyptic narrative often lingers in cities and places where humans were busiest in their positions as meaning-makers. The moment when the end of the world becomes the Apocalypse is when the signifiers, symbols, and order constructed by a human society have been destroyed, or too radically altered to maintain their former meaning.
If “apocalypse” in post-apocalyptic fiction means the destruction of civilization, and civilization is made up symbols, signifiers, and imposed patterns that make our reality, and humans—the meaning-makers—are at least temporarily out of commission in one way or another, then destroying civilization concludes reality as surely as if the universe had popped out of existence. The surviving Elect are left with a world that is still theirs but stripped of meaning, and the reader is left to wander with them. We are left feeling ostracized from our own reality. We can no longer rely on the old patterns and narratives, which makes us feel constantly off-balance, cut loose from the anchors that previously protected us from being overwhelmed by the meaninglessness of existence. The only way to alleviate some of the discomfort imposed by defamiliarization is to find new ways of looking, new patterns to create meaning in the new world.
In most apocalypse stories, when the cataclysm sweeps everything away, evil—which we have always suspected to be lurking below the surface—is exposed, forced out into the light where we can see it for what it really is. This is an indication, obviously, of a desire for simplicity, for easy decisions, but it also reveals the deeper belief that there is simplicity to be had in the first place, that there is such a thing as right and wrong and something evil is creeping around somewhere that we, too mired in technology and other trappings of our modern world, cannot see clearly.
Post-apocalyptic fiction allows us to directly confront a lot of things that are fundamental to our awareness. The paradigms of apocalypse, which despite our modern skepticism continue to lie under our ways of making sense of the world. Outside of the post-apocalyptic genre, they are usually subdued and hidden away in literature, operating behind the curtain in a way that is undoubtedly more true to real life.
The Apocalypse admittedly can be a bit of a melodramatic subject. Until very recently, apocalypses have belonged to the pulp fiction bin. It is true that a lot of what has been published is merely mediocre. Some of it is shockingly bad; but that is partly the point. The stories’ ridiculousness itself serves a purpose; if we can mock the literature and discount its value, then it becomes easier to laugh at the idea of the apocalypse as a whole and make the entire concept of Ending seem comfortingly unbelievable.
Fiction of the end of the world plunges headfirst into the melodrama of their subject, flinging itself joyfully into its own naïveté. It sacrifices subtlety for the privilege of being able to throw back the curtain and investigate what is going on. Because they make no claims to being “good literature,” the post-apocalyptic can ease some anxieties in a way that more mainstream, realistic literature cannot. At least for a moment they allow us to think, maybe it is just that simple.
Preceding victory with annihilation disguises how dizzily optimistic some of these narratives are. Stories about the End are so beautifully paradoxical; they are some of the most powerful affirmation stories we have. They are not always optimistic, but for the most part they are confirmations of the rightness of the patterns we have imposed upon our reality. No matter what happens, even if the End came by human hands, in most stories we are fixable. We have faith that though we may screw up, and very badly, we will learn from our mistakes and the world will be better for it. It is the only way that we can entirely take ownership of the world. The only way we can see the world is the way we have been raised to, the way our parents saw it, so we need to raze the old world and build a new one in its place in order to have a world that is really and entirely our own. The story of the End, after all, is not nearly as compelling as the story of the Beginning that comes after it.