Thursday, December 1, 2011

Catharsis and the Post-Apocalyptic

A couple of posts ago, I dwelt on H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine and the fascination it exerted over my young mind. I had at that point already read and re-read the Chronicles of Narnia, and my favorite book in the series was The Magician’s Nephew. What drew me was its presentation of the dreary, dead world of Charn. (I was less interested in the Narnian creation story, and Lewis’ depiction of Aslan-Christ, Eden, and Heaven chilled my heart even when I was in elementary school.) Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Men affected me in much the same way. I could multiply such examples, but these are the first works of the sort that I encountered.

I’ve thought a lot about the post-apocalyptic genre. My own writing seems ever to veer that way, whether I will or no, and our culture as a whole certainly has a fascination with the idea. Sometimes I’ve wondered if this merely represents a species of schadenfreude, a vicious enjoyment of the destruction of all man’s works and institutions, of all that is great and beautiful in the human sphere. But perhaps there is more to it than that.

When I was in high school, I happened to find a copy of The Road Warrior (a.k.a., Mad Max 2) in our town library. It is a bleak and depressing (and darkly humorous) film with hardly any dialogue. But it enthralled me at the time, and is still one of my favorite movies. The characters drive the vehicles and use the tools of our vulgar, ugly era, but these things assume new natures, new functions in a surreal, post-apocalyptic wasteland. The suppressed demons of our modern world are released from bondage (!) to confront the last vestiges of civilization, and the forces of order are utterly impotent before them. The ugliness of my surroundings and the slow slide of our society into barbarism had long troubled me—hence my flight into The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion—but seeing the goads of my torment in a post-apocalyptic light affected me in a way that I can hardly describe. It helped me to step back from my ambient reality, to assess what tormented me about it, and even to come to appreciate it for what it is in itself, to view it as something new and strange and (dare I say?) beautiful. What I experienced was like the Chestertonian fantasy described by Tolkien in his essay on fairy stories. It was an aid in Recovery.

Post-apocalyptic literature and film present our ugly surroundings and increasingly barbarous world through an inverted telescope/kaleidescope, helping us to recover, through a cathartic process, a sense of the sacred. The red sun of Charn helps us to regain the white sun of earth, and the crumbling metropolis destroyed by the Deplorable Word casts an aura of mystery over our filthy, sprawling cities. In our age of bio-engineered superviruses and nuclear arsenals, of youth riots and genocide and abortion mills, the average person lives with a certain amount of built-up tension that desperately needs release. The dramatic presentation of the demise of our civilization—be it through violent destruction or gradual extinction—releases these pent-up emotions, purging the soul.

Certainly I was conscious of these ends in writing my own novel, Antellus. Much of the story takes place in the margins and waste-places of a civilization grown senile in heat-death. A number of passages were inspired by my experience as a land-surveyor’s assistant one hot summer in a sprawling Texas city. The experience was, for me—who am, I admit, hypersensitive—harrowing. A surveyor, especially in a big city in this part of the world, spends most of his time contemplating the seamy underbelly of things. I had to begin to see beauty in ugliness if I was to cope with it. And that is what my story attempts to do: to probe the apparent absence of beauty and the sacred in the world of man and of nature, that, in the end, the reader might recover a sense of them, in part if not in whole. Whether this end is attained is another matter, of course.

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