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The End of the World

Maria Manuel Lisboa


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1This book began as one thing but has ended as something quite different, which arguably is what research in general ought to be (exploration, discovery), but is, nonetheless, perplexing for the secretly teleological author. Often, if not always, at least in the Humanities, when we begin we already think we know what we will find. In this case the original intent was exactly what its title still purports it to be now: an analysis of the theme of apocalypse in works of literature, film and the visual arts. In the doing, however, the thing done, as some might have predicted with a topic of this magnitude, ran away from its author, not unlike the rogue manufactured beasts (machines, computers, nanoparticles, manufactured biological organisms) discussed in chapter 4. It simply proved too big to fit within the framework that was envisaged. In any changing environment, needless to say, a creature with its eye on survival at its peril fails to mutate. Such a requirement has operated here. What set out to be an in-depth analysis of a set of ideas has metamorphosed into a panoramic illustration of them. This entailed, potentially, both problems and merits. The problem was the risk of an end product which turned out to be little more than an inventory of examples. The merit would be the achievement of a blueprint of ideas outlined persuasively and in sufficient depth to open up lines of enquiry by future scholars. It is to be hoped that the latter has been achieved.

In the Beginning Was the End: Get Them Young

Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.
St. Ignatius de Loyola

2The world had ended, so why had the battle not ceased? (Rowling, 2007: 513). The narrator's perplexed lament in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the last volume of the Harry Potter series, in many ways encapsulates the quandary at the heart of the argument that follows. After the end of the world, how can anything remain, continue, let alone begin again? The fact that it almost always does, in narratives of apocalypse from foundation narratives such as Genesis in the Old Testament to science fiction in contemporary film and fiction, inscribes the Harry Potter phenomenon within what is possibly the oldest narrative motif in our culture. The theme of apocalypse in Rowling (the possibility that Voldemort will succeed in becoming master of death and of the world) links it to central motifs in children's and adolescents' literature but also to the earliest apocalyptic narrative of Western culture: the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden. Whether in the Bible or in The Famous Five, it is always the same story, the same recurrent tropes and themes: orphaned heroes (Adam and Eve after God abandons them); school stories (the acquisition of knowledge, forbidden or not); the struggle between good and evil (disobedience to parents and teachers); narratives of quest (to grow up or contrarily to return to childhood and paradise). Whatever the differences, there is a common thread: someone falls.

3According to theorists such as Vladimir Propp (Propp, 1968), Julien Greimas (Greimas, 1983), Bruno Bettelheim (Bettelheim, 1991) and Jack Zipes (Zipes, 1994), whatever the age group of the target audience, with minor modifications all narratives, from children's fairy tales to X-rated horror movies (in some ways they are not unalike) are structured according to a limited number of plots.

4It is perhaps for this reason that themes and archetypes more naturally to be expected in adult fiction and art are in fact pre-empted by reading experiences in childhood and adolescence. The struggle between good and evil, and the fearful possibilities opened up by the eventuality of the latter's triumph, form the basis of the earliest narratives, from Greek myths, epics and tragedies to traditional fairy tales. In literature for children and adolescents the development of plot action from beginning to end can cover a wide range of problems also present in literature for adults, ranging from the process of maturity which defines the bildungsroman, to the radical change which occurs in narratives of apocalypse. And similarly, some of the most harrowing images in the canon of the visual arts would not be out of place either as publicity posters for chainsaw massacre-type horror movies or, alternatively, as book covers for children's fairy tales (although admittedly, by the likes of the Brothers Grimm).

Figure 1. Hyeronymus Bosch, The Last Judgement

5Within any narrative canon, whether the upheaval depicted verbally or visually is small and confined to the sphere of domesticity (the archetypal Jane Austenian plot of the nineteenth-century domestic novel of manners), or more considerable, in plots of somewhat wider socio-moral import (Dickens, Tolstoy), or massively transformative (fictions of the end of the world), a common thread can be found that changes stasis to revolution and steady-state worlds into scenarios of significant difference.

Figure 2. William Blake, Death on a Pale Horse

6Before moving on to a detailed contemplation of depictions of end-time in adult literature, film and the visual arts, therefore, it is interesting to consider briefly the ways in which the seeds of future cultural expectation are laid down in early narrative experiences in childhood and adolescence. In the chapters that follow it will be suggested that, in contemplating the possibility of an ending which refers not merely to our own individual deaths but to the end of the world that contains us, it is possible to identify stages not unlike those of the mourning process following a bereavement: overwhelming incomprehension, guilt and anger, attribution of blame, remembrance and preservation, and finally rebuilding. Beginning, however, with texts covering an age range from toddler to teenager, early literature covers a wide spectrum of disruption: from a minor disturbance in domestic routine, albeit with mild but significant long-term consequences within the emotional life of a traditional nuclear family (The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Kerr, 2006); to an unrecognizable new reality in post-nuclear worlds (Henry's Quest, Oakley, 1986; Z for Zacchariah, O'Brien, 1998; Brother in the Land, Swindells, 1999; and The Village that Slept, Peyrouton de Ladebat, 1963).

Signifying Apocalypse

7In current parlance ‛apocalypse′ means upheaval and destruction but, as will be discussed in detail, originally it implied also discovery and epiphany (the revelation of something new and often better). Either way, however, the return of a Messiah, in any but its most restrained versions, tends to happen only after a considerable portion of humanity has died. Furthermore, whether in the Book of Revelation or in American evangelism's millenarian visions of the Rapture, salvation following global apocalypse is usually attained only by a happy few. Within most theo-cosmogonies, therefore, planetary cataclysm only ever has a positive net value from the point of view of the small minority who are saved. And salvation, moreover, always comes at a price, that price often involving terror and destruction.

8In scenarios of apocalypse, at the heart of terror there lies always the explosive combination of the possible and the unknown: the possibility of transgression and the crossing of a line from what is familiar into unimagined, unimaginable territory. As Derrida (Derrida, 1974) very well knew, lines, and what they demarcate, map the territory of the status quo, and separate as well as safeguard it from all that it is not, all that differs from it. The abnormal, be it in the form of crime, transgression, incest, cannibalism, vampirism, body-snatching, possession, phantasmagoria, cataclysmic world-end or any other brand of horror/terror, usually involves, at its gestation, the dissolution of what was supposed to be an indelible line: namely, that which supposedly separated the known from the unknown, the taboo from the desired, the self from the other, the animate from the inanimate, the living from the dead, but now shows them to be akin. And it is because of what is not fantastic but instead disquietingly familiar (and therefore plausible) beneath the thin veneer of childishness or silliness, whether in children's literature, horror narratives or science fiction, that we ought to be at least as disturbed as entertained by the outcome of the outlandish events involved in all these genres.

9The translation of radical upheaval into the realm of childhood and/ or of domestic concerns is not new. Few texts are as violent as a Perrault or Brothers Grimm fairy tale. In the gruesome universes of Stephen King or Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter, the majority of adult spectators witness violence and as a result exhibit shock and fear, rather than the unseemly composure presupposed in the average primary school-age reader of fairy tales arguably just as brutal. It is possible that the very abundance of children's and adolescent literature dealing with the concept of moral and physical apocalypse testifies to the perceived need to address in narratives for the young the reality and nature of our atavistic fears. And in that sense, adult narratives of horror and disaster become comprehensible as throwbacks to something experienced at an early stage (in individual childhood, in cultural history or in our biological/species memory) with an added dimension of primitivism and viscerality.

The Shape of Apocalypse

10Scenarios of apocalypse (in the past sixty years often but not always taking the form of nuclear war), are recurrent themes in texts addressing themselves to different age groups, from young children (in the works mentioned above) and young adults (Lord of the Flies, Golding, [1954] 2002, The Shadow on the Hearth, Merrill, 1950) to adult literature and film (to be addressed in the chapters that follow). Following the parameters of traditional fairy tales, and in a mode reminiscent of Freud's assessment of early childhood as defined by pre-moral, anarchic, untamed savagery, it is not necessarily in adult narratives but in literature for the young that the most uncompromising forms of moral revisionism and unalloyed fear are to be found.

11Henry's Quest (Oakley, 1986), a comic strip of life post-peak oil for six to nine year olds translates a very contemporary preoccupation into a combination of adventure story, romance of quest and fairy tale. Henry, a young shepherd, lives in a bucolic country setting reminiscent of the chivalric times of King Arthur. An unexpected anachronism discloses the fact that the country lacks one essential element: gasoline, necessary to run the shiny cars and limousines that currently decorate King Arthur II's throne room as historical heirlooms. The king charges Henry with the quest to find gasoline, a mission, which involves a variety of knightly adventures. He arrives safely on the other side of the forest, and finds what appears to be a large city, or what remains of it after a holocaust, now ruled by a corrupt government and a fearful emperor-dictator. In a predictable happy ending, Henry outwits the enemy, escapes with the sought-after gasoline, and returns home. In what is presumably intended as an ecological morality tale for our times, pre-empting a subsequent genre of post-peak oil apocalyptic film and fiction (for example Alex Scarrow's novel of 2008, Last Light), in Henry's Quest, themes central to the Western imagination, both old and modern, can be discerned and invite further comment. Most apparent is the phenomenon discussed in chapter 3, whereby, following apocalypse, in the process of rebuilding that follows, the seeds are sown for a future repetition of the present disaster. It is to be supposed, for example, that once in possession of oil, the bucolic kingdom of Henry's birth will evolve rapidly into the kind of industrialized, technological culture in which global cataclysm becomes possible once again.

Apocalypse and Back to Basics

12Post-apocalyptic survival literature has provided some of the most enduring teenage classics, including narratives whose persistence in print and worldwide availability in translation attest to the importance of the theme. In The Village that Slept, Monique Peyrouton de Ladebat's classic Robinsonade of 1980, a boy and a girl who remember only that their names are Franz and Lydia, are the survivors of an unspecified accident. Each recovers consciousness to find they are lost on a mountain, with no memory of how they came to be there. They stumble upon one another and subsequently discover a baby strapped in his carrying sack. Having tried and failed to find a path down the mountain, they realize they will have to take care of themselves and the baby until such a time as they might be rescued. On the outskirts of a deserted village Lydia finds a small house and Franz discovers an Alpine hut stocked with provisions and a few books. The children settle in and by the time winter comes they have made themselves secure against the weather and the loneliness. The novel ends happily: the children (as it turns out the sole survivors of a plane crash) succeed in hoisting up an SOS flag which is eventually spotted by a search plane. They are duly rescued and returned to civilization and to their respective families. The choice of prepubertal characters (Lydia is ten, Franz is twelve and the baby is only just weaned) allows only speculation regarding a long-term scenario of sex leading to the continuation of the species. Nonetheless, all the ingredients are there, including that of genetic/racial diversity: a Caucasian girl and boy and a baby of Asian origin.

Better Alone? The Imperative of Continuity

13Like de Ladebat's memorable last-man-(last child)-on-Earth narrative, Robert C. O'Brien's Z for Zacchariah (O'Brien, 1998), also targeted at young adolescents, features as its central protagonist a young girl. Ann Burden, whose very surname gestures to the weighty task allotted to her by fate (nothing less than guaranteeing the preservation of human life on Earth) has lived alone in a valley in the eastern United States for over a year following a nuclear war which appears to have rendered all land outside the valley contaminated and uninhabitable. The valley itself, described in remembered local folklore as having its own weather system, may have escaped contamination thanks to possessing its own microclimate deep in a valley between two steep mountains. Ann believes that she is the only human being left in the world but one day she sees a stranger climbing over a ridge into the valley, dressed in a plastic radiation protection suit and carrying a cart covered with the same material. Tellingly, obeying the same instinctive suspicion of strangers harboured by other fictional survivors of apocalypse (clearest in Cormac McCarthy's The Road of 2007, to be discussed) Ann watches him nervously from a hide-out in a cave. Using a Geiger counter, the man determines that the valley is uncontaminated and in his joy bathes in a stream (one of two running through the valley) which however, unbeknownst to him, and unlike the second stream, carries contaminated water from beyond the mountains. He becomes sick, and Ann comes out of hiding to help him. He introduces himself as John Loomis (throughout the book Ann calls him Mr. Loomis, in a clear indication, which proves justified, that right until the end he does not lose his status of stranger-danger). Mr. Loomis is a scientist who survived the nuclear attack in his underground lab and subsequently ventured out in a protective suit with the intention of finding other survivors. Albeit aware from his delirious disclosures that Loomis had murdered another man in order to keep the suit for himself, Ann continues to care for him. When he recovers they make plans for survival by cultivating the valley, but sexual tension grows and in due course he attempts to rape her. Ann escapes and for several months the two play a game of cat-and-mouse around the valley. In what is arguably the only indication of survivor ruthlessness in an otherwise exemplary demonstration of good samaritanism, Ann kills the family's dog, Faro, which had also survived and is now being used by Loomis to track her down. Ann tries another rapprochement with Loomis but he shoots her in the ankle. Realizing that she has no option but to leave the valley, Ann steals the protection suit and the cart. She talks to Loomis one last time and in a belated moment of remorse he points her in a direction beyond the valley where he had seen birds circling, suggesting the possibility that there is some life left in the world beyond the valley. The book's title is explained when Ann recalls that in one of her books, a Bible-themed children's alphabet book, Adam, whose name begins with the first letter of the alphabet, was the first man, and presumes that Zachariah, the last person named in the book, must therefore be the last man left somewhere on Earth. The evidence of the circling cloud of birds in the distance (they are not vultures) suggests that somewhere over the valley there may be at least one other human being left alive: ideally, another man with whom her now pubescent self (whose name also begins with an ’A′) might eventually begin to reconstitute the species and the world.

Safety in Numbers: Communities of Pioneers

14Children's Laureate Robert Swindells's Brother in the Land (Swindells, 1999) follows an analogous plot, and is also reminiscent of adult novels of post-apocalypse such as The Road (McCarthy, 2007) and Paul Auster's In the Country of Last Things (Auster, 2005), to be discussed. Danny Lodge, a teenager, is one of the survivors of nuclear war. Written in the first-person like Z for Zacchariah, Danny chronicles events in the year-and-a-half that follows a large nuclear conflagration which destroyed the world he knew. On the day war breaks out, his mother dies but his father and brother, Ben, survive. As the weeks pass and survivors begin fighting over food, Kim, a friend of Danny's, sums up the situation: ‘Cavemen versus gentlemen is no contest' (Swindells, 1999, 41). She is proved right.

15In chapter 5 the rise of dictatorships following apocalypse will be discussed, including the implementation of programmatic genocide as a means of speeding up the selection of the fittest in newly-formed worlds. In Swindells's novel, as social structures begin to disintegrate, a state of emergency is declared. The local Commissioner sets in motion the culling of the elderly, the burned, the sick and the injured, and imprisons the remaining survivors in a camp where they are used as slave labour. In the ensuing chaos Danny and Ben are left orphans and seek sanctuary at the home of Sam Branwell, a smallholder who, along with several other survivors, has formed a resistance group called Masada (Movement to Arm Skipley Against Dictatorial Authority), aiming to overthrow the Commissioner and prevent him from creating a feudal society. In due course the Commissioner is overthrown and Branwell is established as the new leader. Although a new community is built on the lines of a liberal co-operative, shortage of food supplies forces people into scavenging. Some turn to cannibalism. In the second winter after the war, Danny, Kim and Ben leave the camp and set off to Holy Island, in Northumbria, where Danny hopes to find refuge. Ben dies of radiation sickness on the way and Danny begins writing an account (A Book of Bad News?) which he plans to leave for future generations to read as a warning against future wars. In due course Danny and Kim arrive in Holy Island and join a community of survivors and Kim gives birth to their baby: a child whose place of birth carries all the hallmarks of a salvific new beginning.

Old News in New Clothes

16‘Give me a child before the age of seven and I will give you the man.' St. Ignatius de Loyola's (Loyola, [1522-24] 1964) well-known saying, albeit originally uttered with a different intent, condenses much of what is at stake in narratives of apocalypse targeting a young audience. In children's and teenage literature in the West, the trauma of apocalypse as radical change reappears with some insistence. Many of these narratives carry a strong streak of Christian allusiveness: the effect of early trauma and loss (Edenic or otherwise) representing the starting point for recovery (post-lapsarian rebirth) in the future. Whether merely with the intention of reflecting atavistic fears of apocalypse or with the pedagogical aim of alerting future generations to the dangerous path trodden by humanity in an age of weapons of mass destruction (nuclear or otherwise), in contemporary literature for young readers the nature of the trajectory from a familiar reality to unexpected nothingness and thence to a fresh start offers both a stark warning and the balsamic hope that, in the end, even the end may not really be The End. This conjecture also forms the basis of the observations to be developed in this book with regard to adult fiction, film and the visual arts. The project proposed here seeks to investigate various aspects of apocalyptic emplotment in literature and film, with some reference to examples from the visual arts.

17Chapter 1, Apocalypse Now and Again outlines the parameters of the discussion to be developed.

18Chapter 2, The World Gone M.A.D., introduces the basic outlines of destruction underpinning the argument to be developed throughout the rest of the book. It will address what might be termed ‘apocalypse neurosis': the fear of disruption on a macrocosmic scale. It identifies a representative range of texts, films and visual images that have depicted end of the world scenarios and outlines their limitations as well as their possible political and ideological implications in various contexts. This chapter also discusses possible period-specific motivations for these recurring preoccupations, and suggests parallels between previous epochs and what, in the twenty-first century climate of environmental and security concerns, are fast becoming very pressing and very generalized fears, reflected in the media and in changing priorities in political debate, legislature and policy-making. The ethical/punitive dimension of apocalypse triggered by human behaviour is shared by otherwise disparate texts from Biblical passages such as the Flood, the Cities of the Plain, Ecclesiastes, Isaiah and Revelations, to European Neo-Classicism and Romanticism (Marvell, Herculano, Tennyson) and modernism (T.S. Eliot, Fernando Pessoa), recent and contemporary literature (George Orwell, Isaac Asimov, Aldous Huxley, José Sara ago), popular fiction (Michael Crichton, Kate Aitkinson), children's and teenage literature (Robert O'Brien, Robert Swindells) and film (Fail-Safe, The Day After Tomorrow, Threads, Planet of the Apes, The Children of Men). Many of these will be analysed in detail in this chapter.

19Chapter 3, And Then There Was Nothing: Is the End Ever Really the End? addresses a broad spectrum of fiction and nonfiction on the subject of planetary destruction and argues that ultimately only very rarely is total annihilation envisaged. Almost without exception, from biblical renditions to modern science fiction, what invariably structures narratives of apocalypse is the logic of the near-miss: near-universal annihilation with just enough life left intact (at least one human being of each sex, sufficient land, water and resources) to guarantee a reasonable likelihood of a new beginning. This chapter will consider the immediate plight of those left behind in the aftermath of planetary near-destruction, and elaborate on the notion that all scenarios of apocalypse are also morality tales leading to the medium-term effects of an opportune lesson well-learnt and a new ethic of non-repetition of past mistakes (including moral recklessness, social dissipation, ungodliness and the hubris of knowledge/power run-amok). A significant number of the texts and films considered, however, possibly for pedagogical reasons (the consciousness that old habits die hard and that even near-cataclysmic lessons may not always be thoroughly understood), warn against re-born statuses quo that in essential ways replicate the dogmas and problems that brought about their destruction in the first instance (John Wyndham, Ira Levin). The most sophisticated examples of this (Aldous Huxley, Margaret Atwood, Paul Auster), end at best inconclusively, with a variety of scenarios of fragile, post-historical survival with no guarantees.

20Chapter 4, Falling Out with Hal and Esther, considers the question of a common denominator discernible in a large number of scripts of apocalypse in literature and film, in particular within the genre of science fiction. It focuses on the concept of apocalypse as retribution for flawed human agency: namely, its creation of artefacts capable of usurping the dominion of their creators, leading to nonhuman rule over the world (2001: A Space Odyssey, Oryx and Crake, ‘Compassion Circuit,' I, Robot, Blade Runner, Armageddon).

21Chapter 5, Dying of Happiness: Utopia at the End of This World, discusses literature of utopia: the ways in which science fiction, in conjunction with philosophical and political thought leads to the counter-intuitive possibility that the end of the world might be brought about not by global destruction but as a consequence of the establishment of utopia, in a variety of different formulations. Wider implications of the idea of utopia, the measures taken to establish it and the effects of its permanence in the long-term will be discussed in relation to authors from Plato and Thomas More to H.G. Wells, E.M. Forster, Aldous Huxley and Julian Barnes.

Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 1. Hyeronymus Bosch, The Last Judgement
Fichier image/jpeg, 594k
Légende Figure 2. William Blake, Death on a Pale Horse
Fichier image/jpeg, 534k


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