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The End of the World

Maria Manuel Lisboa

Afterword: Libera Me, Domine, De Vita Æterna

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Water, water every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
(Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

1So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (Adams, 1984) is the title of the fourth volume of Douglas Adams’s series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Adams, 1979). It is also the message left by the dolphins when they depart Earth just before it is demolished to make way for a hyper-spatial by-pass. Whether treated in comedic ortragic terms, in fiction or poetry, film or art, (and the refusal to treat it seriously might be what in the future would make the possibility more likely to become a reality), the end of the world as a theme, if a pun may be permitted, is here to stay. The promise of eternity has always been elusive, but also, in equal measure, both desirable and abhorrent. We fear death, but also eternal (or even unusually long) life, even when the latter is pleasant or at least overall satisfactory, as in John Wyndham’s The Trouble with Lichen (Wyndham, [1960] 1982), Julian Barnes’s History of the World in 10½ Chapters (Barnes, 1990) or Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day (Ramis, 1993). In these and many other examples, the fear of eternal repetition (on-going life, even on-going perfection) is at least as potent as the fear of an ending (death, whether individual or global). And this ultimately may be what, in our culture’s narratives, lies at the heart of the atavistic ontological hope but also dread that, after the world ends, everything will begin again much as it was before. It may all end in tears (floods of tears), but it soon dries up again. Much as it was before. Or not?

Figure 23. John Martin, The Great Day of His Wrath

Lo! Death has reared himself a throne
In a strange city lying alone
Far down within the dim West,
Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest.
No rays from the holy heaven come down
On the long night-time of that town;
But light from out the lurid sea
Streams up the turrets silently —
While from a proud tower in the town
Death looks gigantically down.
No swellings tell that winds may be
Upon some far-off happier sea —
No heavings hint that winds have been
On seas less hideously serene.
But lo, a stir is in the air!
The wave — there is a movement there!
Down, down that town shall settle hence,
Hell, rising from a thousand thrones,
Shall do it reverence. (Poe, 2003: 22-23)

Figure 24. Michaelangelo Buonarroti, The Flood (right panel view)

2At the end of Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage (Findley, 1987), a re-telling of the story of the Flood in Genesis, God/Yaweh is dead. And not just dead but defiled, his body devoured by flies. In his place remains Yaweh’s best friend, Noah (Dr. Noyes), a cruel patriarch guilty of infanticide, eugenicide, humanitarian abuse, animal cruelty and incest, who rules tyrannically over his wife, their three sons and their sons’ wives, one of whom, Hannah, he has impregnated, and upon whom he has begotten a throwback, an ape-child who is immediately put to death. Not a good beginning to a New Beginning. In ‛The Second Coming’ Yeats warns of just that:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while
the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: […]
[N]ow I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? (Yeats, 1990: 210-11)

3In Genesis, a querulous God predicts that, in view of humanity’s fundamental flaws, after the Flood the new world will almost certainly be just as bad as the one that was wiped out before, ‘for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth’ (Genesis 8:21). If humanity as a whole suffers from a factory defect, it is perhaps unsurprising that in Findley, even if not in the original text, the manufacturer should go out of business:

It was the questions raised and the dreaded answers implied by Yaweh’s growing horror of mankind […]. (Findley, 1987: 101)

It seemed […] that – despite successes – failure was inevitable. […] The answers were always the same: every birth foretells a death: in every new beginning lie the seeds of ruin. Eve and apples – Cain and murder […]. Humankind and rain.
And of this present new beginning – whose symbol was the ark […] he had already seen the seeds of ruin sprouting: in his wife; in Ham and Lucy. These three were already at work in the bowels of the ark – spreading opposition to [God’s] edict – drawing the lines between the will of Yaweh and the mere will of men. (Findley, 1987: 239)

4In Findley, as the rains stop, the narrative concludes with a new race that is already schismatic: on one side Noah and his eldest and youngest sons (Shem ‛the Ox,’ with all the characteristics and limitations that the nickname suggests; and Japeth, corrupted by violence and himself now a killer). On the other side Mrs. Noyes, Japeth’s child-bride Emma, Ham, the middle son, whose scientific curiosity about the world alienates him from his father, and Ham’s enigmatic wife Lucy, who is in fact Lucifer, the Fallen Angel of Morning in woman’s form: a ‛rogue angel […] smiling, soft spoken and beautiful’ (Findley, 1987: 59) and as troublingly appealing as Milton’s Satan.

5In Not Wanted on the Voyage Lucifer’s sole crime, as recognized by Michael Archangelis, God’s chief angel, had been to ask ‛Why?’ (Findley, 108) and, finding doubt to be unacceptable to God, to depart from a less than ideal Heaven:

Michael had never lost, but once, in battle. His war with Lucifer – though proclaimed a victory in Heaven – was no such thing in Michael’s eyes. In Michael’s eyes, his brother had not been vanquished; he had escaped […] had joined the human race […] for a reason, […] in order to survive the holocaust in heaven. In order to prevent the holocaust on Earth.’ (Findley, 1987: 101-10)

6Somewhere between the two family factions, but testimony by her very existence to Noah’s crimes, is Hannah, whose child, the first one born in the Ark and begotten by Noah upon his own son’s wife, is an ape, and therefore a throwback to an evolutionary descent unrecognized by a future Mosaic law which its incestuous father/grandfather seeks to anticipate (in doing so arguably usurping God’s law-making monopoly, and therefore self-destructively weakening the very authority upon which he anchors his own).

Only Ham, it seemed, was not surprised by the change in his father’s titles.
‛Most Reverend Doctor, it seemed to him, was only proper for one who was on his way to becoming a God.’ (Findley, 1987: 210)

7The ape-child drowned in a symbolic purge (which however is also a pre-Christian baptism that returns it to a primeval soup/womb thus signposted as humanity’s real point of origin), is in fact the second such freak born to Noah. It therefore stands as the tell-tale evidence of the latter’s biological (simian) descent, which is necessarily traceable to himself, since the two children were born to different mothers. Both children are murdered at birth, bereft motherhood thus bonding Hannah to Mrs. Noyes, the mothers of Noah’s ape-children. In the early stages of the Flood Mrs. Noyes had rescued another ape-child (Lotte, Emma’s sibling) and brought her to the Ark, only to see her throat cut by Japeth at Noah’s orders, because she was not on Yaweh’s list of those to be saved.

8In The Seventh Seal Ingmar Bergman’s outraged Block doubts the existence of both God and Satan in a world where a child finds no protection, and is sacrificed as a burnt offering against the plague (Bergman, 1957). In Findley’s novel, too, Hannah and Mrs. Noyes reject the rule of both Yaweh and Noah: ‘There is no God worthy of this child. And so I will give her back to the world where she belongs.’ (Findley, 1987: 170)

9Defective children (there are now none left in the Ark), fairies, unicorns and dragons (all creatures whose entitlement to life requires an act of the imagination and the acceptance of an origin outside that authored by Yaweh), are all refused safe passage and become extinct under the arbitrary wrath of God: ‛And the bell tolled, but the ark, as ever, was adamant. Its shape had taken on a voice. And the voice said: no.’ (Findley, 1987: 193)

10Back in his days in Heaven, Lucifer, now Lucy, like Julian Barnes’s forlorn recipient of eternal bliss, had dreamed of the possibility of something different:

‛A long time ago,’ she said, ‛in a place I have almost forgotten – I heard a rumour of another world. […] I could not abide the place I was in […]. It never rained – though we never lacked for water. Always fair weather! Dull. […] I wanted, too, someone with whom I could argue. Someone – just once – with whom I could disagree. And I had heard this rumour: about another world. (Findley, 1987: 282)

11Now, as the rains stop and the flood waters begin to subside, Mrs. Noyes goes one step further than Lucy/Lucifer. Looking down to where there used to be ‛the world that had been destroyed by Dr. Noyes (with some help from his illustrious Friend)’ (Findley, 1987: 352), she lays down what is in effect a profane, manifesto of nihilistic non-repetition, noncontinuity, ongoing cataclysm promising an absolute ending:

And now, Noah wanted another world […]. Well – damn him, no, she thought. […]
Mrs. Noyes scanned the sky.
Not one cloud.
She prayed. But not to the absent God. Never, never again to the absent God, but to the absent clouds, she prayed. And to the empty sky.
She prayed for rain. (Findley, 1987: 352)

12God is dead and for Mrs. Noyes, finally privy to forbidden gnosis, and dreaming of no worlds at all, it is none too soon.

‛Even if it takes a thousand years – we want to come with you,’ said Mrs. Noyes to Lucy. ‛Wherever you may be going.’
‛Now,’ said Lucy – and she smiled; ‛you have begun to understand the meaning of your sign….’
Infinity. (Findley, 1987: 284)

13Under the auspices of Lucifer, Mrs. Noyes, mother of a new beginning/ending, squares the circle and chooses an infinity which precludes all that is not nothing.

Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 23. John Martin, The Great Day of His Wrath
Fichier image/jpeg, 488k
Légende Figure 24. Michaelangelo Buonarroti, The Flood (right panel view)
Fichier image/jpeg, 658k


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