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March 1, 2010

These are the ways the world ends

Filed under: Literature,Utopia,War — rmangum @ 9:58 pm
Tags: , ,

The latest episode of Battleship Pretension is on Post-apocalyptic film. The related ideas of apocalypse, eschatology, utopia and dystopia, have a special interest for me, and they have come up in the past week without my seeking them. First, I have been reading William Langland’s medieval visionary poem Piers Plowman, which is apocalyptic, but more in the classical sense. Second, my Dad calls to tell me of  his concern about my state of emergency preparedness because of a near-death-experience book he has recently become aware of which contains prophecies of, among other things, a terrorist attack on Salt Lake City and an invasion of the Rocky Mountains (a la Red Dawn) by Russia and China. Now this BP episode. Okay, so I’ll buy some bottled water and some extra round for my .38.

Now, the boys are a little fuzzy on the definition of “apocalypse“, its specific theology within Christianity, as well as its parameters as a film genre (it’s a book genre, too, counting J.G. Ballard, Stephen King, and recently Cormac McCarthy as notable practitioners, and this might or might not complicate the issue). However, they wisely stick to specifically post-apocalyptic film rather than apocalyptic films, the latter being mostly disaster films such as those made by Roland Emmerich (rightly disdained by Battleship Pretension). Case in point, I’d classify Night of the Living Dead as apocalyptic, and Dawn of the Dead as post-apocalyptic. They mostly avoid the novice mistake of lumping these in with dystopian films, which are a different bag altogether. Post-apocalyptic fiction concerns what happens after society falls apart. Dystopian fiction concerns societies which “work”, more or less, but are oppressive and/or perverse. The confusion comes because both typically concern societies in the future, and a dystopia may well come about because of an apocalyptic event (such as a world war). I could go on and on. I would like to quibble, however, about the inclusion of Planet of the Apes which, despite its twist ending which reveals the world to be post-apocalyptic from Chuck Heston’s perspective, seems to me more dystopian than anything. The portrayal of ape society is meant to comment on human society, as much as the non-human worlds visited by Gulliver do in Gulliver’s Travels.

Apocalypse strikes me as a uniquely Western theme, perhaps because of the legacy of Christianity, the most successful of the many apocalyptic sects of the ancient near east. St. John of Patmos is the first great apocalyptic poet, but it seems to me that the apocalyptic imagination only gets stronger the further we get into modernity. It is particularly strong, for reasons I can only speculate about, in Britain and America. The whole Dawn of the Dead/I am Legend/28 Days Later/The Road strain of horror and sci-fi in particular comes from British Romanticism. Check out Lord Byron’s poem “Darkness” if you don’t believe me. In America and Australia the genre is concerned with a particular vision of the wasteland, and is tied to the genre of the Western.

My other complaint is that they simply didn’t mention enough movies. Those interested in more books and movies of this type should visit Empty World. They do include dytopian ficiton, but you can argue the point that a dystopia counts an eschatological, or end-of-history narrative, but you’d have to do so on a case-by-case basis. For instance, Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” is dystopian though not apocalyptic (the world changes through acts of congress, not divine judgment), or eschatological, (since the title character shows the cracks in the system which might lead to its downfall), while his novel Cat’s Cradle ends apocalyptically, but is not a dystopia.

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