27 December 2008

The end of the world is near!

Well, maybe not. The end of 2008 is near, but that's not what I'm thinking about, either.

Earlier this school year, several students began a conversation about eschatology and/or the Apocalypse. We talked about the antichrist, various approaches to prophecy, and other end-times topics. While the conversation was brief, it did spark a thought in my mind I've been hoping to pursue. So here it is, with some background thoughts first.

Whenever I read an absolutely unforgettable book -- whenever a work of literature gives me that feeling Emily Dickinson described thus:
If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?

-- whenever I read a work like that, I say (whether it's Dante, Shakespeare, George MacDonald, Ayn Rand; or Wordsworth, Edna St. Vincent Millay; or the young adult fantasy novels of J. K. Rowling and Christopher Paolini; Ray Bradbury's short stories; rare moments in Freud or Jung; or, just this morning, "Mirror" by Sylvia Plath --

here's what I think. I think, "This author has touched on ultimate human realities." These books that move me profoundly are always "about" (such a weak word, about) love, life, death, birth, bodies, souls and so on, and these great realities are set into some stark relief so that they are sharper, colder, brighter, and more inescapable than they usually are in daily thought. "The Small Assassin" by Ray Bradbury, for example (in the short story collection The October Country), takes our deeply hidden sense of strangeness (or alienation) from birth and babies and uses it as a source of horrific terror. Pincher Martin by William Golding does something similar with the human body; alienating the character from his own material existence in a terrifying way. The great modern epics -- Lord of the Rings, Narnia taken as a whole, Star Wars, Harry Potter, the Matrix -- face death with stark, vivid power.

Great works of literature often deal with the cosmic moments in human history. Narnia and Paradise Lost with creation; Dante's Comedy with Heaven and Hell. So I got to thinking about the end of the world and how it figures in literature. And I couldn't come up with many examples of books set at the end of the world. I recall the nauseating, nihilistic Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. The Last Man by Mary Shelley recounts the life and death of the last human being (oo, couldn't have guessed that ending, could you!?), but not the end of the planet earth. CSL's The Great Divorce tells about the final choice of heaven or hell, but not the Apocalypse. There's Wagner's Ring Cycle, of course (a true Gesamptkunstwerk)--which really is the death of the gods and the beginning of a new existence for humankind, not the end of the world for humans. Similarly, there's the death of "god" in Philip Pullman's trilogy. There's (sort of) the Paradiso -- although Dante returns to earth at the end.

I found a list of "Christian Apocalyptic Novels" on amazon: besides Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, the only books were a zombie novel by A.P. Fuchs, two novels by John Hagee, and a political thrillers series by Joel C. Rosenberg. They're not exactly on the same footing as Dante, eh?

Here's another list of end-times literature at wikipedia.

What I'm really saying is that I'm surprised there isn't more End-of-the-World literature -- or at least that I haven't come across it. Most fantasies, science fiction adventures, and action films involve some sort of heroic averting of the end of the world; but not many authors, contemporary or classic, seem willing to tackle the end of human, earthly existence. Is it for lack of imaginative ability to depict heaven? What do you think?


Ched said...

I'm surprised there isn't more End-of-the-World literature

You make an interesting point about the paucity of literary "End Times" examples (aside from the popular level works, which abound!).

This post made me think about Cormac McCarthy's The Road, which I just read a few weeks ago.

In his post-nuclear-holocaust vision of America, there are definitely "end of the world" overtones. I'm still trying to decide what McCarthy's is doing with the overarching narrative in that one, and whether he is holding out "enduring hope" or depicting inevitable and utter loss.

Rosie Perera said...

Interesting question. I can't think of any examples either, other than the Left Behind series and such, which I wouldn't call real literature. Perhaps one reason why serious writers of faith (or none) haven't been keen to tackle the end-times genre is that so much bad stuff has been written in that genre that there's almost a guarantee that anyone else joining that league will be labeled as a nut-case by serious thinkers and read only by other nut-cases. It's also pretty hard to top St. John the Evangelist when it comes to apocalyptic literature about the end of the world as we know it.

There are probably some good films dealing with end-of-the-world scenarios, such as Children of Men.

I'd like to clarify that "apocalyptic" literature is not necessarily literature dealing with the end of the world, as most people mitakenly think. The world "apolocalypse" is from the Greek and means literally: uncovering, unveiling, revealing. It does not mean a cataclysmic end of the world. The genre of apocalyptic literature in the Bible includes Revelation as well as parts of Daniel and a few other bits. The shared characteristic is that they use mysterious symbolism and everything takes place at a grand cosmic scale and involves heavenly beings. But it is not necessarily so that they are prophecies of future events to take place at the end of the world.

I`m delving into a study of Revelation in order to prepare an introductory sermon on it in a few months. I`ve taken three classes on it and done a lot of reading, but I still feel that it requires a lot of preparation to venture into speaking about it. Many have gone this way before me and made fools of themselves or else made self-proclaimed experts of themselves with all kinds of followers. I want neither.

Wikipedia has an article on apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic literature (using the term incorrectly), and a separate list of such fiction (including films). They've also got a separate list of nuclear holocaust fiction. There's also a category of post-apocalyptic film. Looks like there are lots of books and films to explore.

Iambic Admonit said...

I also remembered Michael Wigglesworth's sensational 18th century poem, "Day of Doom." It was a wild bestseller. And of course there's the whole genre of doomsday sermons.

I'm not sure if serious writers would avoid a topic because poor authors had botched it. It seems that would be even greater motivation for a, say, Milton to tackle the topic.

gem said...

Through differnt conversations with non-believers, I have found that "the end of the world" idea is generally avoided. Especially when linked with the coming of Christ and such.
What seems to be more interesting in our secular popluation is the end of is similar but differnt.
There is a lot more literature concerning "something" taking over the human race.
Last summer I read "The Host" by Stephanie Meyer. I think you would find that book intersting.

Steve Hayes said...

What about C.S. Lewis's "The last battle"?

And "A canticle for Leibowitz"?

Iambic Admonit said...

Steve, I'm ashamed of myself for missing 'The Last Battle.' I should retire!

I don't know 'A canticle for Leibowitz.'

Thanks for reminding me!