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.

First,

[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 Cannibalism Taboo And Becoming A Ghost

The use of cannibalism in Lon Fuller‘s “The Case of the Speluncean Explorers“–which I assigned as a reading this semester to kick off my philosophy of law class’ take on the nature of law and legal interpretation–is, of course, a deliberate choice to render the circumstances of that fictional case especially dramatic, to place the actions of those who killed and ate the unfortunate Whetstone beyond the pale. The presence of cannibalism makes plausible the claim by Justice Foster that the explorers, by their actions, had passed into ‘a state of nature’- presumably a zone where human moral and legal evaluation and regulation breaks down. Cannibalism is used too, in tales of post-apocalyptic horror, to indicate that the terminal stage of a breakdown in humanity and the social order has been reached. (Think of the aptly named ‘Terminus‘ in The Walking Dead; of the ‘meat locker‘ in The Road.) Cannibalism is where the road to perdition takes you; it is taboo.

In unpacking the meanings of ‘taboo’ in Totem and Taboo Freud marked out one cluster associated with ‘taboo’ as ‘uncanny, dangerous, forbidden, and unclean.’ He found ‘the real sources of taboo’ in places of the mind ‘where the most primitive and the most enduring human impulses have their origin, namely, the fear of the effect of demonic powers….concealed in the tabooed object.’ (These later become ‘autonomous’ and become ‘the compulsion of custom and tradition and finally the law.’)

In the case of cannibalism, the fear of the demonic powers is especially strong: the guilty cannibal perceives himself as consuming not mere flesh but a person. The presence of the person imbues the flesh that is eaten. Moreover, the flesh eaten by the cannibal is too familiar. There is no distance from it, the kind that makes the killing and eating of other animals possible. The visage reminds us of ours; we all too easily imagine ourselves as the animal killed for the feast; we can conjure up its visions of pain and suffering; we can place ourselves in its stead with little difficulty. The spirits that animated the body of the cannibal’s meal are not strangers to us then; we live with them every day. The ‘dangerous power which is transmitted by contact with the object so charged’ that Freud spoke of is, in the case of a human eaten by another human, just the life-force or the living spirit which is supposed to live on in non-material form in ghosts.  As Freud noted, ‘any one who has violated such a prohibition assumes the nature of the forbidden object as if he had absorbed the whole dangerous charge.’  To eat another human being is to make yourself into a living ghost; to risk contamination by an invading spirit by placing it within us. A cannibal eating another human is not just eating flesh but turning itself into a ghost. Perhaps this is why the cannibal seems inexplicable; we cannot imagine inviting demonic possession in the way he does.

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.

Mad Max: Furiosa Road

It’s entirely appropriate that Mad Max: Fury Road end with Max bidding a quiet farewell to Imperator Furiosa and slinking away into the crowd that has gathered for what appears to be her coronation. For as you sit through the extended closing credits, listening to a pounding reprise of the movie’s epic score at full volume, you realize you didn’t really need Max in the new Mad Max movie. Sure, Max Rockatansky–AKA the Road Warrior–gets into a few fights,  drives a bit, and even comes to the aid of a few womenfolk, but when the smoke clears, it is pretty clear some rewriting could very easily have resulted in a movie all about the Imperator and her ambitious plan to liberate the captive breeder wives of Immortan Joe, the apocalyptic warlord of the post-apocalyptic wasteland that is now the earth. The new incarnation of the Road Warrior is strangely subdued and diffident; he is happy to play sidekick; he is traumatized, as numerous rapid-cut flashbacks let us know, but his trauma has resulted in a personality markedly different and not straightforwardly evolved from that of the Road Warrior. We could have done without him. And concentrated on Furiosa and her band of Furies.

Mad Max: Fury Road is an action movie from start to finish, with one chase scene following another, and all paying homage to the epic chase that ended The Road Warrior. Indeed, the entire movie may be thought of as one long chase scene; an interval workout of sorts–intense activity followed by a brief rest, rinse and repeat—-that shows off the technical wizardry of its makers. The music and visuals are extravagant, gloriously, recklessly so, with some flourishes–the drums and guitar truck, complete with flamethrowing axeman, the sandstorm that effortlessly picks up vehicles and consigns them to flames–that seem designed to bring smiles to the faces of the viewers with their sheer effrontery. There is a story, no fear, but it could have been stripped down–as I note above–with no serious loss.

Mens Rights Activists are idiots. This is no feminist classic. (Even if it were, they are still idiots.) Women still need help; Furiosa cannot do it on her own; Max is there to help out. The women who help her are Gaia types perhaps; perhaps some Sapphic cult in the desert sands that is into fertility rites. There is still an archaic reliance on images of sexy, underdressed women. But. Furiosa is a serious ass-kicker, as are some of Immortan’s wives. Just for that–though remember Ripley was here before–Fury Road deserves kudos; women are all too often wallflowers in action movies.

There is the usual post-apocalyptic setting: alternative societal forms ruled by vicious tyrants; water and gasoline are scarce and as precious as gold (though many scenes in the movie are rather cavalier in their wastage of the former); life is reduced to its most elemental variant. Form alliances carefully; look for water and fuel; and ride hard.

The Road Warrior is still the best movie of the Mad Max franchise, but with this installment, it has received a visual reboot. I look forward to the sequels.

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.

The Road And The Apocalyptic World of the Homeless

Last week, the students in my Philosophical Issues in Literature class and I, as part of our ongoing discussion about Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road, watched John Hillcoat‘s cinematic adaptation of it. On Monday, we watched roughly half the movie in class, and then on Wednesday, we concentrated on three scenes: the encounter with Ely the ‘blind’ old man; the encounter with the thief; and the closing scenes, as the Boy meets his ‘new family.’

After we had finished viewing the encounter with Ely, I asked my students what they made of the differences between the novel and the movie’s treatment of that event. This spun into an interesting discussion about the imagery employed by McCarthy and Hillcoat, especially as many of my students felt that the movie could not quite conjure up the novel’s aura of apocalyptic destitution that swirls around Ely and his gnomic pronouncements on the state of the world.

Building on this, I asked my students what they made of the movie’s visual descriptions of the Man, the Boy, and Ely: their filthy dress, their dirty, unkempt, unwashed appearance, their patched up shoes, the cart containing their possessions that they push along. (The book also makes note of Ely’s terrible smell.) What did this most remind them of? A few hands went up: these characters looked like New York City’s homeless, an often familiar sight.

As this identification was made, my students realized, I think, what I was getting at.

The central characters in The Road are homeless folk. They might seem unfamiliar to us at first, because the world described in the novel and the movie–devastated by an unspecified catastrophe–looks comfortably distant from our normal, everyday existence. But 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 (as news bulletins often remind us). Unlike the Man, the Boy, and Ely, they don’t have to fear cannibalism (not yet anyway) but perhaps 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, next to, and on top of, some of the world’s most expensive real estate.

So while we might sustain the illusion that the events described in The Road are fiction, the homeless remind us the apocalypse–conceived as fantasy in novel and movie–is already all around us.

Snowpiercer: The Train As Capitalist Society And The Universe

Post-apocalyptic art–whether literature or movies–is provided, sometimes all too easily, ample opportunity for flirting with the grand, for making sweeping statements about human nature and the meaning and purpose of life. After all, it’s the (often violent) end of the world. Time to speculate about the new, phoenix-like world that may rise from the ashes of the old, or to mourn the loss of not-easily replaced intangible moral goods of a world gone missing.  So it is unsurprising that SnowpiercerBong Joon-ho‘s English-language debut, swings for the fences.  It is initially grounded in a facile morality play about global warming, man’s persistently failed and hubristic attempts to play God, and the evils of science. There is more to it though. The ark-like train which is the movie’s stage and centerpiece, which circles the world carrying the survivors of a world frozen over, functions as an extended allegory for capitalist society, its economic inequality, its class structures and exploitation of the weak, its decadence and immorality,  the inevitable revolt of the oppressed, and their rise to the top (or the front).

But Snowpiercer is more intellectually ambitious than that. It also to aims to be an allegory that flirts with God, the Universe, Free Will, Evil, Freedom and Existential Choice. It offers us commentary on ideology and false consciousness and propaganda; it shows us how man may be tempted by evil and can choose moral redemption instead. The structure of the train and the progressively enlightening journey of the rear passengers through its various compartments suggest too that Dante’s Inferno and the Pilgrim’s Progress could be invoked here with some ease. (Ironically, for an allegory, Snowpiercer is sometimes a little too literal and heavy-handed. Yes, man, with all his cunning and scheming, can play the part of a devious God, and God may just be our notion of human powers and goodness and judgment extrapolated to an unimaginable extreme, but these theses can be advanced with a little more subtlety than Snowpiercer allows.)

Snowpiercer‘s grand ambitions are sometimes realized and sometimes not.  Mostly they are not realized because Snowpiercer spends a little too much time trying to be an action movie. Its showings off of technical virtuosity, its nods to the video game and martial arts genres with their extended bloodiness, their glorying in gore, their stylized slow-motion combat, are distractions and deceits. (This action initially provides a possibly invigorating jolt to the movie’s plot, but all too soon it becomes tedious, deadening, and in the movie’s closing stages it is a distraction.) There is much in the movie that is visually interesting and provocative, much that should have been allowed to come to rest in the viewer for to facilitate reflection and introspection.  But this does not happen, largely because the movie believes that some rather archaic cinematic tropes–physical conflict rages elsewhere while two protagonists engage in philosophical debate!–must be relied on to in order to build and generate tension.

All too often, I find myself describing science-fiction movies as missed opportunities. This is one such.