The Post-Apocalyptic World Of The War Refugee

A year or so ago, in writing about classroom discussions centering on Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road, I had noted that the homeless–whom the Man and the Boy most resemble–live in a post-apocalyptic world of their own:

The central characters in The Road are homeless folk….the homeless among us live in such a post-apocalyptic world now: an apocalypse has already occurred in their lives. They are without homes, dirty, hungry, on the edge of starvation, reduced to foraging for scraps, smothered in their own waste, stinking to high heaven, perennially in danger of being set on, assaulted, set on fire, or murdered…they can sense there is little hope in their lives, little to drive them onwards except the brute desire to stay alive.

If we want to engage in an exercise of the imagination and think about how the Man and the Boy might feel we might want to think of those homeless folk we see in New York City’s subway stations and streets. If we wish to conjecture about how the man and the boy experience the cold in their world, which will eventually freeze their starving, impoverished selves to death, we need only think about how every winter, in subzero temperatures, the homeless desperately try to survive, using cardboard boxes, sleeping on top of subway gratings, seeking warm corners and nooks, hopefully safe from marauders at night….the homeless remind us the apocalypse–conceived as fantasy in novel and movie–is already all around us.

There is another way to think about the Man and the Boy in The Road: they are refugees. They have lost their home; their family is devastated; they are fleeing violence; they are seeking shelter and food and warmth; they are, as their name implies, seeking refuge. The world they knew is no more; they seek another world, one in which they might, perhaps, begin life anew.

It is easy to imagine–as we voraciously consume products of the post-apocalyptic genre in literature and film–that the post-apocalypse is a fantasy, a possible world about which we can safely speculate from a distance. But we forget all too soon that apocalypse stalks this world of ours; it is present in the lives of many. For zones of  war are zones of apocalypse. ‘Normal’ life is no more; daily existence is subsistence. Homelessness and sudden, violent death is the norm for civilians. Abandon all hope indeed, ye who enter here, and ye who dare escape.

It is worth reminding ourselves of this as we think about this war-stricken world’s refugee crisis. And in particular, of course, about the refugees fleeing the four-year old Syrian war. Over four million are now displaced, and many more will be, for the conflict shows no sign of abating. Most, if not all, have lost loved ones; all have lost their homes. They too, have passed through landscapes not too dissimilar to the ones depicted in The Road. Their life is reduced to the most elemental of all missions: food, shelter, clothing.

Perhaps this world might stop fantasizing about survival strategies in an imaginary post-apocalyptic worlds, and think about how it might address the problems of this all too real one.

The Dog Stars: The Apocalypse As Outdoorsman Fantasy

Peter Heller‘s The Dog Stars is one of those post-apocalyptic novels in which authorial fantasies are overwhelmingly transparent.

The world is coming to an end; flu has stalked the land; millions have died. Violence is the currency of most human interaction; food is scarce; government is invisible. And so on. You’ve seen most of this before. But there is a twist.

The novel’s central protagonist, Hig, is a bush pilot of sorts. He lives on a now abandoned airfield with another man, Bagley, who is a stone-cold killer, the kind of man who has a lifetime subscription to Soldier of Fortune, and wonders why he is never invited to contribute articles for it. Our hero, the aviator, has some fuel for his aircraft, a Cessna, lovingly nicknamed ‘The Beast,’  and a faithful dog, who accompanies him everywhere. He has guns. (Indeed, Bagley and Hig have a small arsenal, which also includes grenades and mortars.) They have plenty of ammunition, often dispensed at those who dare breach the boundaries of their solitary outpost. Every once in a while, Hig goes flying. He finds food, he carries out reconnaissance, he patrols the perimeters, he drops off food and supplies to another band of survivors (an act of kindness Bagley finds gratuitous).  He looks for signs of life. He hears radio signals, and he follows them. He finds surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant. He returns. Along the way, he loses one companion, and finds another one.

So: men have guns in the Wild West, they go hunting, fishing, tracking with faithful dogs, they kill anyone who moves. They fly, the splendid sprawling wilderness of the American West beneath them. Fuel and food and bullets are scarce, but not really. Nine years on, real scarcity still hasn’t kicked in. When the desire for human companionship gets really strong, our hero finds a beautiful woman. They bond; they have both experienced loss in the past. She soon gives herself up to him, coming to his bed at night. She asks for, and receives, ‘oral pleasure.’

This fantasy of an American West unspoiled by tourists, full of wild game, journeyed over by a light aircraft, with a never-ending supply of aviation fuel and ammunition, and just enough women, is written quite beautifully. Heller has many lyrical descriptions of man and nature, man in nature, and just plain nature. Reading The Dog Stars made me want to return to Colorado–or New Mexico, Montana, or Idaho, for that matter–to go hiking again through its valleys and over its alpine passes, to look down on its glittering cobalt lakes, to gaze up at its snow-capped peaks. I wouldn’t carry canned food. I’d hunt and fish and cook my meals by myself. Perhaps I’d get laid too. At night, in a tent, the sounds of my virtuosic love-making muffled by the gurgling brook nearby.

And if a broken-toothed, malodorous, tobacco-chewing, potentially-rapist redneck ever got in my way, whether on a highway or a trail or campsite, I’d blow his fucking brains out with one of my many guns. After warning him to back the fuck up, of course.

Jose Saramago’s Blindness, And Its Many Visions

Jose Saramago‘s Blindness is a very funny and a very sad book. It is a very sad book because it is about a cataclysmic event–an outbreak of blindness in an unspecified place and time–and the breakdown of social and moral order that follows; it is very funny because this apocalypse of sorts provides an opportunity for the novel’s author–an omnipresent narrator–to deliver an ironic, caustic, hilariously satirical black commentary on the people–unnamed ones, all of them–and the culture affected by this mysterious outbreak.

This co-existence of the tragic and the comic is what makes Blindness into a wildly entertaining and thought-provoking read.

Of course, any novel about catastrophic, apocalyptic blindness, written by a member of a species whose overpowering sensory modality is sight, which so casually dabbles in homilies like ‘seeing is believing’, whose metaphors for ignorance speak of darkness and for knowledge as illumination, and one of whose central philosophical allegories is that of the Prisoners in the Cave, was bound to be philosophically provocative. We, the readers, wonder about the symbolic and allegoric value of the novel’s characters being ‘blinded by the light’, the significance of their blindness leading to a world of overpowering milky white as opposed to coal-black, the relationship between moral, physical and spiritual blindness, about what may be ‘seen’ by those now blind, and what those who are not blind can no longer ‘see’, about what else, in a world no longer visible, becomes palpable and sensed and otherwise experienced. We wonder too, as readers, about our own blindness: what we might be blind to in the book and in our daily lives. (My first class meeting on Blindness  was almost entirely taken up with a discussion of these issues and how the vehicle of blindness played into the author’s larger political, ethical, and artistic vision; oops, can’t stop dealing in these metaphors.)

In Blindness, there is ample description of the breakdown of social order that results from the epidemic of blindness, ample opportunity to shake one’s head at the venality of man that becomes visible in desperate times–there is violence, filth, murder, sexual degradation. What makes these treatments of the aftermath of disaster distinctive is that Saramago’s treatment is both kind and harsh: we sense an observer of the human condition whose heart breaks for the misery he can see around him, who feels the most exalted of human emotions, love, for those who suffer, and who yet, in moments of exasperation, cannot resist a cackle or two at the stupidity, crassness, and greed of the human race. But if the author is a cynic, one bursting to the seams with irony and witticism, then he didn’t start out that way. This world and its peoples made him so. The disaster that has befallen them is not a punishment; it is not a judgment; it is merely an inexplicable event, like the ones this world specializes in, one that has produced this opportunity to carefully study, in some painful and revealing detail, the imperfect reactions of a kind of creature who is always, at the best of times, fumbling in the dark.

Mankind as Deluded Sisyphus

As the apocalypse closes in again on humanity in Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle For Leibowitz, Joshua, who has been ‘chosen’ to ‘escape’ into space, leaving this world behind, wonders about the cyclical nature of human history:

The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for them, perhaps, it was easier for them to see that something was  missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn. Well, they were going to destroy it again, were they?–this garden Earth, civilized and knowing, to be torn apart again that Man might hope again in wretched darkness. [pp. 285]

These reflections on mankind’s supposed propensity for self-destruction indict it of a particular–and peculiar–failing: a lack of self-knowledge, a misguided or deluded Sisypheanism (which I noted a while ago in the context of personal quests for ‘self-improvement.’) To wit, the achievement of a previously desired state is not enough; a regression–to the bottom–is undertaken; the climb to the ‘top’ begins again; the pleasure of ascending through the ‘lower stages’ is re-experienced; and this novelty, this rapid transience, is all the reward sought or desired. The desired state, the supposed end point, is merely used as marker–it is never to be attained, only the pleasure of the movement toward it is sought.

The nature of the recurrence–the rise, the fall, the rise, the fall again–in mankind’s history, as depicted in Miller’s science-fiction classic, suggests that mankind prefers the anticipatory pleasures of hoping for unavailable light in the ‘wretched darkness’ to learning how to reconcile itself to the illumination of the brightly lit day. The ‘richness and power and beauty’ of this ‘garden of pleasure’ – the world constructed with knowledge and technique and painfully acquired wisdom acts as a disincentive for inquiry, as a retardant on the ‘yearning’, the movement to ‘perfection.’ Thus the destruction, so that the seeking, and its pleasures, may be re-experienced.

Here then, the inevitability of the recurrence finds its grounding in the nature of man, not in the workings of the cosmos. Man is not subject to the cycles of the Eternal Recurrence because such are the cosmologies he confronts, but rather it is because he is the kind of creature who will make of his world a cyclical one, in which he can find his most coveted pleasures in the form he desires. The darkness returns again and again because man brings it back, finding in its enveloping folds a space for his desires not afforded him elsewhere.

Knowing The Time And Manner Of Our Death

The characters in Nevil Shute‘s On The Beach know that barring natural disasters, and other unforeseen circumstances, they will die in a few months time–in September 1963–of radiation sickness, brought on by the thirty-seven day thermonuclear war that has already wiped out life in the northern hemisphere. They know its painful and uncomfortable symptoms–diarrhea and vomiting–will resemble those of cholera; they have the option to commit suicide by using a pill–supplied by the government and made available at local chemists. All humans know they will die; these ones know when and how. (As John Osborne notes, “”You’ve always known that you were going to die sometime. Well, now you know when.”)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, last week, during a classroom discussion centered on Shute’s novel, the following question slowly hoved into view: Would you want to know the time and manner of your death? We live our lives with the knowledge of our certain death; would we want to further refine it in this fashion? Why or why not?  (We could also induce another twist by asking whether, if possessed of this knowledge with regards to someone else, we should tell them about it, without withholding any details. A variant of this situation occurs quite often, I think, in some medical contexts involving terminally ill patients and their doctors. Other twists include the knowledge of the details of, not our deaths, but those of loved ones.)

The answers to this cluster of questions are likely to be quite revealing. Knowledge of the time and manner of death may permit a settling of affairs, a more directed planning of one’s activities, a more systematic prioritization of one’s objectives; it may induce an urgency into our lives that some may find currently lacking. It may have a calming effect on some, But it may also induce paralyzing anxiety for some; the fear of the manner of death–perhaps gruesome dismemberment for some, or brutal murder for others–may have such an effect.

Why is the raising and answering of this question a philosophical exercise? Perhaps because these answers reveal valuations crucial to the chosen path of conduct in our lives–and what could be more fundamental a philosophical question than ‘What is the good life?’ Perhaps because in answering a question about whether some item of knowledge is desirable or not, we may possibly articulate limits on what should be known by us–a puzzle that, in the past, often confronted those who worked on thermonuclear weapons, or as in these days, those who work on cloning technologies. Answering this question could be an introspective and retrospective exercise, forcing not just a look inwards at our beliefs and desires, but also a look backwards at the lives we have lived thus far, an act likely to be imbued with an ethical and moral assessment. Such an examination of our beliefs and our plans for our lives, and the manner in which we would choose to live them, seems a fairly fundamental philosophical activity, perhaps even of the kind that Socrates was always urging on us.

 

Nevil Shute’s _On The Beach_ And Normative Epistemology

The first reading in my Philosophical Issues in Literature class this semester–which focuses on the post-apocalyptic novel–is Nevil Shute‘s On The Beach. I expected, more often than not, moral, ethical, and political issues to be picked up on in classroom discussions; I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the very first class meeting–on Monday–honed in on an epistemic issue, more specifically, one of normative epistemology: What should we believe? Are beliefs that comfort us–but that are otherwise without adequate evidentiary foundation–good ones? Can they ever be? Under what circumstances?

Dwight Towers, the American Navy submarine captain, is one of those unfortunates who have, thanks to nuclear war, lost their all–their homes, their families–in the northern hemisphere. In Towers’ case, this means his home in Connecticut, and his wife and child. Indeed, this loss provokes his host in Australia, Peter Holmes, to take the precaution of arranging extra companionship–as distraction–for him when Holmes invites Towers to his home for dinner. But Towers does not seem to regard his family as lost. As he attends a church service, Shute grants us access to his thoughts about home:

He would be going back to them in September, home from his travels. He would see them all again in less than nine months time. They must not feel, when he rejoined them, that he was out of touch, or that he had forgotten things that were important in their lives. Junior must have grown quite a bit; kids did at that age.

Later, Shute does the same with Moira Davidson, his new-found female friend in Melbourne, who has seen the photographs of his family in his cabin:

She had known for some time that his wife and family were very real to him, more real by far than the half-life in a far corner of the world that had been forced upon him since the war.  The devastation of the northern hemisphere was not real to him, as it was not real to her. He had seen nothing of the destruction of the war, as she had not; in thinking of his wife and his home it was impossible for him to visualise them in any other circumstances than those in which he had left them. He had little imagination, and that formed a solid core for his contentment in Australia.

Towers makes this explicit:

“I suppose you think I’m nuts,” he said heavily. “But that’s the way I see it, and I can’t seem to think about it any other way.”

These reflections bring us, as should be evident, to the CliffordJames debate. I have taught that debate before–in introductory philosophy classes and in philosophy of religion. The discussions–and judgments–it provokes are often quite illuminating; Monday’s was no exception. The novelistic embedding available here, of course, also enabled a segue into the broader ethics of ‘coping strategies’ and escapism like, for instance, Moira Davidson’s palliative heavy drinking.

I  expect this issue to recur during this semester’s discussions; I look forward to seeing how my students respond to the varied treatments of it that my reading list will afford them.

Back To Teaching – I

On Wednesday, I return to teaching after a one-year hiatus (on sabbatical). Here are the–admittedly skimpy and sketchy–course descriptions of the three classes I will be teaching this coming fall semester. I am looking forward to them. I’m sure my enthusiasm will soon be tempered by encountering my university’s mind-numbing bureaucracy (and the dubious pleasures of grading) but for now, it’s good to be able to anticipate my forthcoming encounters with students and classroom discussions.

Philosophy of Religion

The philosophy of religion queries the foundations of religion and religious thought. Its central questions are among the most enduring in philosophy; they may be engaged by both theists and atheists, and involve the major branches of philosophical inquiry such as epistemology, logic, metaphysics, and ethics.

Among the most important of the questions raised in the philosophy of religion are: What is the nature of religious belief?  What is the relationship between faith and reason? Does God exist? If so, what is (its/his/her) nature? Does morality require religious belief? What is evil? What problems does it create for arguments for the existence of God? What is the nature of religious experience? Is there a difference between religious belief and religious feeling? What are religious language’s distinguishing characteristics? What is the relationship between religion and science?

We will examine these in the context of several philosophical and religious traditions, finding sources in philosophical and literary texts.

Social Philosophy

In this class we examine social theory and social thought—beginning with the Enlightenment and continuing on to twentieth-century postmodernism. The issues we tackle include equality, social justice, gender relations, political structures, family life, ethnic relations, and political economy. We will read philosophers, political scientists, psychologists, economists, novelists; all contribute to grappling with the complex questions facing societies and those who interact within them.

Philosophical Issues in Literature: The Post-Apocalyptic Novel

Literature offers us a lens through which to view the human condition; it enables a literary grappling with metaphysical, epistemological, logical, ethical, aesthetic, and political issues of philosophical interest and significance. In this class, we will read several works of post-apocalyptic fiction to facilitate an exploration and discussion of some of these issues.  What is the ethical and political and aesthetic vision these works embody? By imagining a radically altered state of existence, they allow us to speculate about the changes in the world and the humans who live within it; they permit a safe exploration of alternative modes of living, ethical and political systems. Of especial relevance to us is the following question: Why are the concept of the apocalypse and human responses to it of such enduring interest to novelists and philosophers?

The following is the reading list:

As the semester progresses, I hope to blog here about the material I teach, drawing upon reflections triggered by my preparations for the class meetings, as well as the actual discussions in the classroom.

Tomorrow: a report on my first day back in class.