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?