Francine Prose On The Consolations Of Post-Apocalyptic Literature

In reviewing Margaret Atwood‘s Stone Mattress: Nine Tales Francine Prose makes a pair of perceptive remarks in her conclusion.


[T]book offers none of the peculiar comforts and reassurances of such post-apocalyptic novels as Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. It denies us the glorious fantasy of flaming out en masse instead of, so much less dramatically, in a bed surrounded by a few grieving relatives; it withholds the consolation of leaving a ruined world–and being spared the certainty that life will go on without us, as if we had never existed. [link added]

And then,

These stories lack the hopeful possibilities lurking within the dystopian novel’s cautionary subtext: since the horrors of the fictive future are usually the result of some existing practice or system, there’s always the chance that, perhaps inspired by the novelist’s warnings, we may yet mend our ways and avert the grisly future the writer has imagined for us.

Prose’s second remark is more commonly made by those writing about post-apocalyptic literature: in essence, these works are not just morality plays, castigating us, informing us of our earth-destroying venality; rather, they offer a blueprint of sorts on how the future may yet be averted. (Marge Piercy‘s Woman On The Edge of Time offers a converse treatment: a traveler from an all-too easily imagined dystopian present travels forward in time to “a utopian world in which a number of goals of the political and social agenda of the late sixties and early seventies radical movements have been fulfilled. Environmental pollution, homophobia, racism, phallogocentrism, class-subordination, consumerism, imperialism, and totalitarianism no longer exist.”)

Her first remark cuts a little deeper. We find post-apocalyptic literature provides the most ‘peculiar comfort’ of all: if we are to die, let us at least die in a world which is dying with us, taking with it everything we held near and dear. We fear death not just because of the uncertainty of the void that awaits, but also because we know that we leave a life and a world behind–our traces soon to be overwritten by the lives of others. How comforting to think that all will be effaced at the same instant. (I wonder if, when lovers or family or friends face death together, the fact of their togetherness provides some comfort in their last dying moments.)

There is yet another dimension to the comforts of post-apocalyptic works: they are escapist, offering fantasy worlds in which an ordinary life suddenly becomes extraordinary, granted an opportunity to redeem itself with unconventional acts of courage, imagination, and fortitude. Fathers step up to the plate; mothers become fiercer; children mature quickly; cowards become heroes. Some of the eagerness with which we lap up news about impending disasters is underwritten by the ‘hope’ that we will now be delivered from our mundane lives into a proving ground of sorts, where hitherto unknown and unimagined personal qualities will become manifest. This is not a new observation: the impatience which greets delays in the declaration of war–and the resultant exultation when it does finally ensue–has been similarly analyzed.

The Masterpiece Too Horrible To Recommend: Francine Prose on Haneke’s Amour

Francine Prose–(what an excellent last name!)–titles her review of Michael Haneke‘s Amour ‘A Masterpiece You Might Not Want to See’, (New York Review of Books Blog, 7 January 2013) and begins with the following:

Michael Haneke’s Amour is the ultimate horror film. With its portrayal of the shocks, the cruelties and indignities to which old age and disease subject a happily married Parisian couple, it’s far scarier and more disturbing than Hitchcock’s Psycho, Kubrick’s The Shining, or Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, and like those films, it stays with you long after you might have chosen to forget it.

That pair of opening sentences tells us, perhaps, all we need to know. I have not seen the movie yet but it is clear it is about ageing, the slow downward decline toward death that is the lot of those whose appointments with the Grim Reaper do not occur suddenly, and lastly, perhaps it is about the crowning insult to injury that is often the terrible fate of some: watching your loved ones die in front of you, even as your own body slowly gives way.

Prose suggests Haneke’s vision of this aspect of the human condition is unsparing enough to raise the question of whether he is a ‘sadist’ or a ‘moralist’ or both. Clearly, this is not the kind of movie that one can watch dispassionately. And as Prose suggests, having seen the horrors that Haneke makes available to us, should we warn others away from it? And contrary to the notion that classics demand periodic reconsumption, why would you ever want to watch this horrorshow again?

Why would I voluntarily put myself through the awfulness of watching the scenes in which the couple struggles to navigate the suddenly staggering demands of the wheelchair, the knife and fork, the toilet?

So, several questions then: If a work of art brings us into uncomfortably close contact with an all too well-known aspect of the human condition, are we compelled to pay attention? In all probability, we’ll experience it ourselves in all its frightening immediacy. Can an artist’s eyes be a little too unflinching? Sometimes we should look away, not compel others to look, and if like Prose, it has seared our eyes, perhaps we should warn others to stay away.

These questions are familiar and have not lost any of their intractability over the years. For the present moment, I want to merely point to an addition to some of the expected responses to Prose’s piece. (Such as, for instance, that ‘art should confront all there is head-on’ or ‘let others make up their own mind whether the art they experience is too painful for them.’) That additional response comes those that have already experienced the loss of a loved one, and lived through its extended nightmare, and now disdain this cinematic rendering of their lived experiences. Or from those, like doctors, for whom such scenes of decay and death are all too commonplace. For these folks, the cinematic version of an all-too familiar experience is at best a painful exercise in forbearance and at worst a wilful act of self-directed torture. The trauma sufferer often plays reluctant host to a recurrent, unwelcome guest: the memories and visions that have already left visible and invisible scars. Ripping off the bandages to let the wounds run again might be unwise.

Note: I intend to see the movie.