Rewind about a decade back, and people are panicking. Many buy generators and stock up on canned goods, consumed by the vague but pervasive fear that computers’ potential failure to register some new zeros will wreak havoc on modern civilization. Of course we weathered the change of millennia with nary a scratch, and perhaps even with a measure of disappointment when midnight brought only the usual fireworks. Computers continued to function. Order remained. But our fascination with apocalypse never waned, and these days the subject is more compelling than ever. We see it dramatized in books and movies, or hinted at in fear-mongering newscasts. Oprah rendered it seriously mainstream by selecting The Road for her book club in 2007. Pixar brought it to kids with Wall-E.
What seems strange, however, is that most such works gloss over the climax, the catastrophic spectacle itself. Instead they focus on the repercussions that follow: on quiet dissolution and emptiness and the way survival constantly, necessarily denies us resolution. They forego the end for the postlude. These narratives also present us with a romantic frontier, a world rendered newly wild, dangerous, and unmapped. It is a chance to reclaim the world, albeit at a high cost.
Stories like Blindness and Children of Men prey on our fear of sudden, inexplicable epidemics and the mayhem they’d unleash on society. Even if we survived, the known world could not. Other post-apocalyptic narratives, from The Matrix to Battlestar Galactica, engage the old sci-fi dialectic between technolust and technofear: if we develop technology beyond our means to understand or control, the machines will ultimately overwhelm us. But something compels us nonetheless.
These recent post-apocalyptic narratives clearly touch a sensitive cultural nerve, for it seems that every age sees the world newly rife with dark portents. In relating to real life calamities, these stories help transform the terrifying into something graspable, something survivable. Their talismanic purpose is essential because these little apocalypses aren’t just possible, they’re horrible and regular and very real. Still, a darker undercurrent disturbs this tidy explanation: it’s troubling to think that one person’s devastation is somehow fictionalized into another’s entertainment. Granted, our fictional equivalents tend to be more universal and extreme, but parallels with reality require no stretch of the imagination. Perhaps that’s why we tend to elide catastrophe, obsessing instead over what happens afterwards. Worlds end, yet we’re still here. And so these narratives betray a sense of urgency, not just alarm but also anticipation. There’s an undeniable seductiveness to cataclysm.
While such stories certainly appeal to contemporary fears and current events, they endure because they also resonate with narratives of our mythic past. The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh relates a great storm that “turned to blackness all that had been light. / The wide land was shattered like a pot!” After the storm subsides, survivor Utnapishtim recalls how “stillness had set in, / and all of mankind had returned to clay. / The landscape was as level as a flat roof.” Despite the scene’s desolation, it’s strangely appealing. Such total obliteration lends itself readily to metaphor, evoking images of filthy ground scrubbed fresh, or tangled forests burned away to allow new growth. All is still, and then: rebirth.
The Old Testament echoes that story in Genesis, and indeed apocalypse frames the Bible: its first book recounts the great flood that drowns corruption and lets Noah and his pious progeny populate all of postdiluvian history; it concludes with the devastating heavenly smackdown of Revelation. Not surprisingly, this portentous Rapture inspired Left Behind, a series of astoundingly popular Christian novels that follow those who remain after God has spirited the righteous up to heaven. Like Utnapishtim and Noah, the bewildered survivors must learn to navigate the world anew. Each of these explicitly religious apocalypses is notable for having gods or God effect the disaster, granting it a sense of divine destiny and giving mass death transcendental meaning. Such an outlook seems indulgent if not cruel, making it all too easy to dismiss the horror of catastrophe and to uncritically explain away its perverse attractiveness.
Moving past these mythic and religious archetypes to recorded history, we find numerous apocalyptic examples equally embedded in the Western cultural consciousness. Imagery from Pompeii, accounts of the Black Death, memories of the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Nagasaki. And fresh wounds, as well, like last month’s earthquake in Haiti. The New York Times coverage described how “fires burned near the shoreline” by Port-au-Prince, “but otherwise the city fell into darkness…‘There is a blanket of dust rising from the valley.’ ” Back when New Orleans flooded, the Times called it “punishing,” a bizarre word choice connoting agency and culpability. In both articles, the authors’ language seems purposeful in its mythic force and scope; in some way we want to cast each disaster as apocalypse, each end as the end.
The true severity of these natural disasters contrasts jarringly with people’s hysterical tendency to see comparatively minor events as potential doomsdays. Recall the eager wave of hysteria leading up to the Large Hadron Collider’s launch in September 2008, when people panicked that the particle accelerator might create a world-ending black hole. Yet for all its melodrama, that reaction suggests the same uncertainties as real life catastrophes: who survives the unsurvivable, and what happens next? Often a story’s protagonist is figuratively if not literally alone: the one person whose humanity is left whole. A sighted woman in a ward of the blind. A pregnant woman in an infertile world. These characters throw into sharp relief the shattered humanity surrounding them, asking us how we might go on after world’s end. The narratives suggest that few emerge from catastrophe intact, but those who do find themselves inhabiting a borderless new world.
Science fiction has always imagined outer space as the last frontier, but that is ultimately not our world, and the endless black evokes a visceral sense of unbelonging. Down on the dusty ground, popular fiction has at times located the romantic frontier in the Western, but post-apocalyptic tales instead focus on a temporal frontier, one in which a housewife or a computer geek can become unlikely heroes. These struggling heroes are scared, and they don’t know where they’re going. But each narrative nevertheless offers the perverse notion that catastrophe is not only beautiful, but perhaps necessary. We long for a new beginning, for a second chance at shaping the world, and apocalypse offers that catharsis. How simple, how quick that destruction would be.
This is a cruel perspective to apply to real world disasters like Hiroshima or Katrina. We know the revolting facts of charred or bloated bodies, rotting homes, looted stores, and poisoned lands. Over 25,000 people were shunted into the Louisiana Superdome; for them these events were not freeing but damning. From a narrative perspective, though, there are moments of stark, if horrific, beauty. New Orleans’ grimy streets hidden by shining floodwaters. In Pompeii, bodies like statues strewn in a petrified city. Revelation’s lost mountains and fleeing isles. What’s striking is the pattern of transformation. Maybe, in the end, this death wish is really a desire to bring some sudden change into an otherwise intractable world.
Yes, we want to change the world, but it has become increasingly apparent that nothing can, not really—not even Barack Obama, or nuclear energy, or microlending, or buying organic. We don’t really wish for the apocalypse, but we certainly love to imagine something so ecstatically total. The question we can’t escape, now as always, is Why? Why do catastrophes happen, and why do we seem to desire them? Perhaps the honest answer is this: The world is dreary and complicated, and we have grown tired of it. Give us something to endure.