Magazine | December 31, 2014, Issue

To Carry the Fire

Post-apocalyptic fiction teaches us to remember and preserve the past

What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

The end is where we start from.

      – “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot

In early December, downtown Los Angeles erupted in flames. Observers reaching for a sufficient word seemed unanimously to converge on “apocalyptic.”

The End is always nigh, but it seems to be more nigh than usual of late. So say the novelists, who have recently inundated the mainstream literary market with fiction of the post-apocalyptic type. In July, Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert turned Edan Lepucki’s debut novel, California, about a young married couple’s exodus from an apocalypse-stricken Los Angeles, into a New York Times bestseller. Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things appeared in October, chronicling the journey of an intergalactic missionary as his wife struggles on an Earth being ravaged by natural disaster. In April 2015, Benjamin Percy will publish The Dead Lands, described as “a post-apocalyptic reimagining of the Lewis and Clark saga.” And one would be remiss not to note the subject’s boom in other media: AMC’s The Walking Dead, for example.

“Nothing is easier,” wrote Walker Percy in his essay “Notes for a Novel about the End of the World,” “than to set up as a two-bit hippie Cassandra crying havoc in bad verse.” And among the offerings some are two-bit and hippie. But two post-apocalyptic novels, one on either side of the Atlantic, garnered particular and deserved acclaim in 2014: shortlisted for the National Book Award, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven; and for the United Kingdom’s Man Booker Prize, Howard Jacobson’s J. Conservatives inclined to travel these two tales’ wastelands might find something they did not expect: themselves.

Station Eleven follows the Traveling Symphony, a combined Shakespeare troupe and orchestra, as it makes its way from town to shantytown along the coast of Lake Michigan, hunting and scavenging and performing, as it has done for most of the two decades since the world’s population succumbed to a mutant strain of flu. Moving backward and forward in time — from long before civilization’s dying days in the 2010s to “twenty years after the end of air travel” — Station Eleven focuses on Traveling Symphony actress Kirsten Raymonde, who happened as a young girl to be onstage in Toronto the night that the “Georgia Flu” reached Canada and Arthur Leander, a Hollywood leading man taking his turn as King Lear at the Elgin Theatre, collapsed and died halfway through Act IV. It all connects, of course.

Mandel’s post-apocalyptic world is meticulously considered: The Symphony’s caravans, for instance, were once pickup trucks. But after the gasoline spoiled (approximately Year Three), the superfluous technology was removed and the cabs stripped, and now the metal frames are pulled by horses whose tail hairs are plucked for violin bows. How does one live among the detritus of a lost world?

Indeed, the book is self-consciously attentive to loss. “An incomplete list” fills an early chapter: “No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities.” The “miraculous” luxury of modern life, gone. “I thought of the book,” Mandel said in her National Book Award interview, “as a love letter written in the form of a requiem.”

But Mandel’s love is not for modern conveniences as much as for what, in her poetic vision, transcends them. Hence a traveling Shakespeare troupe. “They’d performed more modern plays sometimes in the first few years,” she writes, “but what was startling, what no one would have anticipated, was that audiences seemed to prefer Shakespeare to their other theatrical offerings.” Explains one character: “People want what was best about the world.” The small group of survivors that treks back and forth along the Great Lakes has assumed the task of bringing it to them. Thus: “All three caravans of the Traveling Symphony are labeled as such, the traveling symphony lettered in white on both sides, but the lead caravan carries an additional line of text: Because survival is insufficient.”

That line — not from Shakespeare, but from a different cultural touchstone: Star Trek: Voyager — is the motive force of the whole novel, indicating how, in the aftermath of civilizational collapse, human beings’ spiritual appetite remains. At its worst, it finds sating in bloodthirsty cults, such as the one from which the Traveling Symphony is forced to flee; at its best, it finds nourishment in some of the same art that sustained Englishmen in the Bard’s own plague-ravaged day.

For the Traveling Symphony’s audience — the inhabitants of commandeered gas stations and burned-out Walmarts — and even more for the actors and musicians themselves, story and song offer a thread of continuity with a past that has been wiped away. And for Kirsten, whose memory of the previous age is spotty, and for those children born since, who have no memory of it at all, these artworks, desperately salvaged, are evidence that people have suffered before, and survived, and more.

Indeed, when memory fails, the art will remain, to console and encourage and illumine: “The more we know about the former world,” says the proprietor of a small, post-apocalypse newspaper, “the better we’ll understand what happened when it fell.” His city has begun a library.

#page#Where Station Eleven is lush and sweeping, Howard Jacobson’s J is intimate and bleak. Kevern Cohen lives in a small village by a sea that touches no other shore, peddling small works of woodcraft and wondering why his father, when he spoke any word beginning with the letter j, drew two fingers across his lips. When Kevern meets Ailinn Solomons, moved to the town from an archipelago in the north, they fall in love, taking sanctuary in one another against a society that has achieved an uneasy stability some years after the apocalyptic event referred to only as “what happened, if it happened.”

The reader is never informed what happened, if it happened, but the allusions are unmistakable: “The smashing mania, the shattering of every window in the land. . . . This time the mob wears uniforms, and answers to a higher authority even than God. . . . The train is not a surprise. They were always going to be put aboard this train.” As a result of this new Kristallnacht, the authorities instituted operation ishmael, which “granted a universal amnesty, dispensing once and for all with invidious distinctions between the doers and the done-to.” Hence the surnames: Cohen, Solomons, Rabinowitz, Morgenstern, etc. “Now that we are one family, and cannot remember when we were anything else, there can be no question of a repetition of whatever happened, if it did, because there is no one left to do to again whatever was or wasn’t done.” So writes the professor, a “civilized” man, who spies on Kevern for the authorities.

“They were acting out of the best motives,” another character, Esme Nussbaum, acknowledges, contemplating operation ishmael. “They wanted a harmonious society.” But the strategy is clearly failing:

Anger and unhappiness seeped out from under every doorway of every house in every town and every village in the country. Housewives threw open their windows each morning to let out the fumes of unmotivated domestic fury that had built up overnight. Men spat bile into their beer glasses, abused strangers, beat their own children, committed acts of medieval violence on their wives, or on women who weren’t their wives, that no amount of sexual frustration or jealousy could explain.

The explanation is, of course, the very refusal to remember (“Proust is no longer read,” notes the professor approvingly in his diary). The country must “confront what happened,” says Esme, “not to apportion blame — it was too late for that, anyway — but to know what it was and why time hadn’t healed it.” But they refuse to confess “the vileness of what had been done. Not what had happened but what had been done.” Occasioning this confession is the task to which Kevern and Ailinn find themselves called; but first they must decide whether humanity is, in fact, worth redeeming.

Mandel inclines toward optimism and romanticism; Jacobson tilts toward doom: “I have always felt like an Old Testament Jeremiah or Cassandra,” he told the Guardian in September. “I want to run down the streets warning people.”

In the essay on apocalyptic fiction mentioned above, Walker Percy (who, one might note, wrote at least one such tale, Love in the Ruins, subtitle: “The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World”) concludes: “Perhaps it is only through the conjuring up of catastrophe, the destruction of all Exxon signs, and the sprouting of vines in the church pews, that the novelist can make vicarious use of catastrophe in order that he and his reader may come to themselves.”

“Come to themselves” — for life is not, pace Prospero, just rounded with sleep, but often a somnolent affair in the day-to-day living, and we see through a drowse. But an “apocalypse” is (in its original, Greek sense) an uncovering — hence the “Apocalypse,” or (in Latin) “Revelation,” of Saint John. An apocalypse is not simply a fiery bang; it is a peeling back of the filmy layers through which life, real life, is distorted. So what do Station Eleven and J uncover?

By way of comparison, consider not our prophets “in reverse” (as Percy calls apocalyptic authors), but a prophet of the more common type: Marx, who, in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, penned two sentences that have done much to undergird the modern leftist experiment in its myriad incarnations from Vladimir Lenin to Elizabeth Warren: “The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” Or, to paraphrase, change the circumstances, change the man — and, ideally, perfect the circumstances, perfect the man. A man of vivid imagination, Marx fully anticipated the rise of a “New Man” following the epoch-making revolution that would secure common ownership of the means of production. And against all evidence, that notion of perfectibility has survived. Some eschaton is always just out of reach: the “colorblind” society, for example.

#page#What one recognizes in successful post-apocalyptic fiction, by contrast, is the author’s imaginative conclusion that, for all the havoc civilization’s collapse would entail, human nature would survive. That defining complex of characteristics — “political” (Aristotle), possessed of “god-like reason” (Hamlet), capable of blushing (Mark Twain) — that separates man from the beasts would remain.

That continuity suggests another. For those for whom the future is everything, the past is at best a malleable instrument and at worst a dangerous impediment. They would secure progress like the authorities in J: “by leaving things out — contrariety and contradiction, argument, variety.” They would manipulate the past in the hope of finally breaking from it. Conservatism recognizes that for what it is — a pipe dream — and emphasizes that real progress grows out of the past. The slow, sediment-like accumulation of experience gives thickness to daily life, and stability to forward motion, and it is no good cherry-picked. Everything that has gone before must be left in. Everything must count.

It is taking everything into account that stirs the gratitude that, as Yuval Levin wrote in his 2013 Bradley Prize remarks, is the wellspring of conservatism. Where liberalism tends to start from outrage, conservatism tends to start from the recognition that, in the midst of so much gone wrong, so much cruelty and chaos, there is so much good — far more than reason could expect or can explain. (“What was lost in the collapse,” writes Mandel: “almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.”) Conservatism proceeds out of the constant awareness of an inexplicable, amazing grace.

And it is that same awareness that demands prudence. The whole edifice, built up painstakingly over the ages, is liable to be thrown down suddenly by bad men or bad luck, neither of which is ever in short supply. States, cultures, civilizations are already astonishingly unlikely; the odds were, are, never in our favor. So we proceed with caution.

For their ability to evoke these truths in their art, Mandel’s and Jacobson’s novels are successes — haunting, stirring, beautiful; potent reminders that successful art is concerned with the human, and liberalism is often aspiring, at great risk, to the post-human.

And yet there is one final feature of the conservative mind that remains to be revealed, and for which one must turn to the likely progenitor of today’s glut of post-apocalyptic fiction: Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 masterpiece, The Road.

The story is simple: In the wake of a nuclear holocaust, and facing the prospect of winter, a dying man and his young son walk south. America is a wasteland: cannibalism, sex slavery, madness, “nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.” The world is “barren, silent, godless.”

And yet: Travelers on the road are “pilgrims”; father and son are “mendicant friars”; the “unimaginable future” glows “like a tabernacle.” God broods over everything.

This is the apocalyptic novel as envisioned by Percy, “‘religious’ in its root sense as signifying a radical bond, as the writer sees it, which connects man with reality — or the failure of such a bond — and so confers meaning to his life — or the absence of meaning.” The apocalyptic novel, in its highest form, is God-haunted.

And so is conservatism. “When studied with any degree of thoroughness,” Irving Babbitt wrote in Democracy and Leadership, “the economic problem will be found to run into the political problem, the political problem into the philosophical problem, and the philosophical problem itself to be almost indissolubly bound up at last with the religious problem.”

Liberalism at its most extreme is dangerous because it refuses to engage that fundamental problem. Marx, his popularizers, and his latter-day apostles, for their system to work, require that reality be “constructed,” that, in effect, there be no reality except that which one chooses — or which one can impose.

Conservatism, meanwhile, allows that the world might, in McCarthy’s phrase, “hum of mystery,” might pulse with singing beneath so many inveterate scars. We wrestle like Jacob on the off-chance that we might, like him, discover that “the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not.”

Given this possibility, we cannot pursue self-indulgent fantasies; our call is to something more than ourselves. Or, as McCarthy writes, in an exchange between father and son:

You have to carry the fire.

I dont know how to.

Yes you do.

Is the fire real? The fire?

Yes it is.

Where is it? I dont know where it is.

Yes you do. It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.

“For us,” wrote T. S. Eliot in “East Coker,” the second of his Four Quartets, “there is only the trying.” Beholden to something greater than the thin “constructs” of an individual head, conservatism is a necessarily humble enterprise. It pursues not the grand dream of creating a new heaven and a new earth, but the modest task of “carrying the fire” in the world that is present here, now.

By envisioning a world characterized by absence, the author of apocalypse seeks to rediscover that present reality to us — if we have eyes to see.

In This Issue



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