August 17, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich
Taking charge of the apocalypse: On serendipity, walruses and last men
A week ago somebody sent me this YouTube video of a walrus that makes noises on command. I sent it on to a few people, including my sister. She sent me back a picture of a sea lion taken while on holiday in Alaska, which I have used as the featured image for this blog. I showed this to the person who had sent me the walrus video. He said it reminded him of that famous romantic picture by some German painter. I said that was probably Caspar David Friedrich (Wanderer above the Sea Fog). We then tried to find the image on a famous search engine. The first image that came up was, by accident, the cover for a book written by Mary Shelley, called The Last Man, published in 1826. I clicked on it and, voilà, the book is now on my kitchen table waiting to be read. It’s supposed to be one of the first true apocalyptic science fiction stories and one in a long line of pandemic fiction stories, but it’s also supposed to be a rather ponderous read! So instead of reading it, I am writing about it.
Populations and plagues
Now, curiously, Shelley’s The Last Man is an early example of dystopian fiction dealing with a dying earth or dying humanity, of which an even earlier example is Le dernier homme by (hold your breath!) Jean-Baptiste Francois Xavier Cousin de Grainville (1805). And, of course, de Grainville’s Dernier Homme and Shelley’s Last Man are both inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost on the one hand and latest developments in science, technology and medicine on the other (de Grainville has an airship; Shelley has inoculation). Both ‘last men’ are prime examples of apocalyptic novels, but while Le Dernier Homme deals with an earth out of balance, where the earth’s population is outstripping resources, The Last Man is about an earth depopulated by the plague. Described as “a memory at the end of history” The Last Man begins, “…let me fancy myself as I was in 2094” and continues to describe an horrific plague that destroys mankind as a species. 2094 is not so far away now….
Alarmism and apocalypse
Humanity has had a long and enduring fascination with the apocalypse, doomsday scenarios, Armageddon, disaster (and also the sublime), from the Book of Revelation and Noah’s flood to Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost to Le Dernier Homme and The Last Man and beyond. At present apocalyptic visions, such as those explored by de Grainville and by Shelley, that is, of a dying earth and a dying human race, abound in the news, in cybersphere, in popular novels and movies. We are flooded both with impending climate apocalypse visions and with various disease related visions of doom, from the antibiotic apocalypse to the pandemic apocalypse. In the context of real droughts, floods, pandemics, increasing antibiotic resistance and an ever-expanding population, such fictions can have real effects on human thinking and behaviour.
Climate change discourse analysts in particular have asked whether disaster, apocalypse or catastrophe discourses are counterproductive in various ways, as this type of alarmism seems to paralyse people rather than motivate them to act, while others argue that alarmism is justified in a situation that is, it seems, alarming. Some scholars in the field of science and technology studies have argued that apocalyptic discourses stifle discussions of alternatives and close down thinking rather than opening it up.
Taking charge of the apocalypse
This may be true, but only if we let it be true. Could we perhaps make better use of the apocalypse, by not focusing on the end as something inevitable and immutable but as something mutable? Instead of letting ourselves be paralysed, may it be time to let our imagination go a bit wild (and de Grainville’s and Shelley’s imaginations certainly did!) and think apocalyptically for a bit in order to sharpen our wit and creativity? And, in a way, just enjoy the whole thing as well — from Apocalypse Now to Apocalypse Cow (Michael Logan’s comic take on the zombie apocalypse – and joint winner of the first Terry Pratchett ‘Anywhere But Here, Anywhen But Now’ prize)? One may even throw in an apocalypse walrus…
As those who read Terry Pratchett know, there are Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Death, War, Famine and Pestilence, with a fifth one called Kaos), as well as four lesser apocalyptical Horsemen (Panic, Bewilderment, Ignorance, and Shouting; see: Monstrous Regiment). And finally, according to Pratchett, there are the Four Horsemen of Panic itself: Misinformation, Rumour, Gossip, and Denial. So why not start a debate about the apocalypse with a discussion of these fictional characters?
More seriously, discussing (imaginary) ‘what if’ scenarios about the end of the world, beyond Shelley’s end of the world date of 2094, may stimulate thinking about science and politics, health politics, climate politics, climate and health politics, population and climate and health politics, and much more. In the early 19th century such explorations of what if scenarios were prompted by radical changes in European politics, such as the French revolution, but also by advances in science and medicine, such as inoculation against certain diseases and plagues (which is discussed by Shelley). Today, we are faced again with radical changes in European and world politics, we have vaccination, but pandemics can still occur and may be exacerbated by changes in climate. We are also flooded with fictional representations of the apocalypse that go well beyond the last men stories discussed above, but don’t really make us think. It is time to take charge of the apocalypse before it takes charge of us and paralyses our imagination and our actions. As a reviewer of David Brin’s (post-apocalyptic) novel Existence puts it: “be creative, diverse, compromising, curious“.