There comes a moment, as the reader moves through Part Two of Ian McEwan‘s Atonement, of sensing something familiar and recognizable, a deja-vu of sorts, in the sparse yet rich, brutal, unsparing descriptions of physical and moral catastrophe on the long, hot, bloodstained road of retreat to Dunkirk. They are all here: the dead–animal and human alike, the wounded–ditto, the breakdown of social order, the confusion, the stupidity of attempting to impose order on the essentially chaotic, the slippage of familiar hierarchy, the formation of new alliances and the disintegration of the old, the cruelty of the mob, the heroism of the individual, the relentless reminders of the eternal importance of the most basic things of all–food and water, the suppurating wounds that will not heal, the dirt and squalor, the fragility of life, the greed and desperation and violence of the desperate, the sordid and sublime actions of those trying only to survive, the fear hanging over all human actions and pronouncements, the grim determination to persist matched by the hopeless flopping down, the giving-up in despair. This is post-apocalyptic literature.
Descriptions and evocations of the aftermath of the apocalypse-whatever its reason, whether pandemics, or vampires, global heating or cooling, asteroid, comet and meteorite strikes, or killer zombies, or human interference with the order of nature gone terribly wrong–are a modern staple of literature and film and television. They exercise a peculiar and particular fascination on our imagination and sensibility; we are obsessed by the opportunity the various apocalypses provide for all manners of investigation and speculation. Here may be found laboratories for moral experimentation, that will reveal how human ethics will reconfigured by challenges to its comfortable verities; here exist all manners of paradigm shifting notions of politics–anarchism and libertarianism obtain traction, perhaps?–and economics and law–think new modes of property and ownership and inheritance and criminal justice.
McEwan’s revisitation of an old disaster reminds us post-apocalyptic speculation is as old as the hills. (Darren Aronofsky‘s Noah is a Biblical tale of the supposedly oldest apocalypse of all.) And the most familiar member of that genre is the war novel or film. The battlefield is the oldest venue of apocalypse; the scorched, smoking, stinking, corpse-littered lands through which invading armies moved have always been classic settings for post-apocalyptic reckonings of the changes induced in man and world by catastrophic, deranged violence. The Grande Armée‘s retreat from Moscow was an apocalypse for its soldiers, as they fell, stumbled, froze, were picked off by wolves and Cossacks, or were sometimes beaten to death or had their throats slit by vengeful villagers. They too found occasions for heroism and cowardice; they too, fought for scraps of food and drops of water and betrayed friends and rescued strangers. They too, found on those frozen wastes of the endless, pitiless, Russian landscape, moments for the most elemental decisions of all, and found themselves turned into either saints or sinners.
To be fascinated by the apocalypse is the oldest form of staring into the abyss.