Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’ and Post-Apocalyptic Literature

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.

The Post-Apocalyptic Famine

A couple of days ago, I viewed Tim Fehlbaum’s directorial debut Hell, which “tells the story of a group of survivors in post-apocalyptic Germany in the year 2016, when solar flares have destroyed the earth’s atmosphere and temperatures have risen by 10°C.” As my posts here on The Walking Dead and The Road would indicate, I often find my mind wandering to cheerful thoughts of post-apocalyptic times. One of my dominant obsessions in this domain–as it appears to be of the productions just named–is food, or rather, the lack of it.

Here is an excerpt from a post I wrote in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy:

Somehow, through this all, the most unsettling image yet was [of] a row of empty food shelves at a coffee shop; on asking the barista why their normal snack offerings were not available, I was told it was because the usual deliveries were not being made by trucks.  At that moment, again, I became aware I lived on an island, one serviced by road and train connections to the ‘rest of the world,’ that bridges and tunnels were still lifelines for it, that most connections between its points occur in relatively mundane, non-glamorous, and as Sandy showed, eminently disruptable ways. It was at that moment too, that the fragility and contingency of our existence here became just a little clearer; I was reminded again of the logistical connections, of the coordinated work of hundreds and thousands of men and women that keeps everything  ’normal’ on a day to basis: those trucks that make deliveries day and night, the gas that keeps them running (and that heats our buildings). All those supermarket shelves–normally bursting to the seams with packaged goods and produce efficiently delivered from afar–would rapidly empty, if the gas-tunnel-truck disruption continued. (For remember: we live on an island, we don’t grow our food around here.) This city is only able to play home to ten million people because a vast interdependent network of supply chains lets it do so.

The vast majority of us do not grow or produce our own food; we buy it from stores, which are supplied by a vast transportation network, in turn supplied by a vast manufacturing network (dependent on other networks of supply and manufacture and so on). When the apocalypse strikes, the first thing to go will be these two networks: those who man them will be incapacitated, production lines will break down, deliveries will cease. In response, panicky runs on the remaining food supply will begin, as will hoarding. Violent clashes for food will be inevitable; these will continue as it will become increasingly evident that no more supplies are forthcoming. And because fuel will be in short supply too, looking for food will become extremely difficult. Cities will rapidly become dying–and killing–zones.

The resultant desperate situation is, I think, only dimly grasped; the cannibalism that is a recurrent feature of modern takes on the post-apocalypse is a grim acknowledgment of it. (The Walking Dead comics feature it; the television show has not done so yet.) The shortage of food and the ensuing mass starvation will almost certainly be the grimmest–and least ennobling–aspect of the disaster that our modern culture seems to spend so much time speculating about.

The Coven’s Vision of Hell and ‘Repetition Compulsion’

American Horror Story‘s third season, The Coven, ended last night. The show as a whole did not quite meet my expectations–a critique echoed here and here; but still, for various reasons, I quite enjoyed the season’s finale.

Among them was it’s take on hell: each of us has our own private one. Misty, the “swamp-dwelling, resurrecting sweetheart obsessed with Stevie Nicks” ends up in a school biology lab, forced endlessly to kill and dissect a live frog at the insistent bidding of a loud, cruel, bullying teacher; Fiona meanwhile is “doomed to an eternity of being smacked around by the Axeman in the afterlife.”

This vision of hell is not new for American Horror Story; indeed, one of the most chilling twists on our understanding of a ghost’s life was provided by its first season, when we realized that being a ghost meant staying alive forever, stuck not only in a  particular place–the Murder House–but in a particular stage of psychological development, and confronted again and again by conflict with others also locked into dead-ended trajectories of mental being. A ghost is trapped for eternity in the afterlife; unable to die, unable to move on, unable to ‘get over’ anything. It turns out traipsing through haunted houses and spooking visitors is no fun at all.

So hell is other people all right–as some French dude once suggested–but it’s also you yourself, unable to snap out of a groove, a rut, a slippery well whose walls you slide back down again and again.

This kind of hell is one we actively aid in constructing; our own lives, our patterns of behavior, our responses and pathological modes of behavior slowly develop a place–in the mind–that we dread visiting; and when we do find ourselves in its environs, we are unable to escape.

All of this is–as should be obvious by now–as Freud suggested in ‘Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through‘  a neurotic’s suffering, in which:

[A] person repeats a traumatic event or its circumstances over and over again. This includes reenacting the event or putting oneself in situations where the event is likely to happen again. This “re-living” can also take the form of dreams in which memories and feelings of what happened are repeated, and even hallucination….’repetition compulsion’…describes the pattern whereby people endlessly repeat patterns of behaviour which were difficult or distressing in earlier life.” (Jan Clark and Jim Crawley, Transference and Projection: Mirrors to the self. (Buckingham 2002) p. 38 -as cited in Wikipedia article.)

The most frightening aspect of the neurotic’s behavior–for those who observe it, and those who experience it themselves–is that it is painful and unpleasant and yet compulsive; the patient seems to experience a powerlessness to exert her will over herself, to bring to an end, by her own agency, her self-inflicted pain.

The hellish afterlife is just that slice of this life which we have found to be the most unbearably painful. It is all the more so for being of our own making.

Note: Milton too, in Paradise Lost, had noted our interactive construction of our own private circle of pain.