Wild-Goose Chase: The Dialectics of Apocalypse

The Dialectics of Apocalypse

The notion of apocalypse is a persistent myth and narrative present in every culture. Since its inception in biblical texts, it has now evolved to become a master narrative with specific imagery and plot functions. The apocalypse can be regarded as the symbol of a cleansing, a renewed order or devastating cataclysm. It can also be a vehicle for social criticism. In her book Apocalyptic Transformation. Apocalypse and the Postmodern Imagination, Elizabeth Rosen makes interesting distinctions of apocalyptic writing. First she establishes differences between the traditional apocalyptic and neo-apocalyptic literature. The former is shaped by the paradigm established in the Old Testament with a God figure pronouncing punitive or destructive judgment and the continuation of existence in a renewed order and space: a New Jerusalem. The latter is a full apocalyptic movement, a final cataclysm, a narrative of the end of times devoid of any sense of hope or continuation. Rosen analysis concentrates on how postmodern media (literature, film and graphic novels) adapt the apocalyptic theme. In this paper, I will concentrate on adaptations of the apocalyptic narrative in postmodern and contemporary novels. Are there differences in terms of form or representation? What can we learn from the kind of apocalyptic stories that surface in every era?

Perhaps we can start with a definition of the apocalyptic genre. Elizabeth Rosen refers the one proposed by the Society of Biblical Genres Project: “a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another supernatural world”. Let’s consider this definition for a moment. The elements mentioned are coherent with a traditional apocalyptic story but one thing to notice is that it doesn’t make any reference to an end-of-times or judgment scenario. Rosen also comments that the definition is also restrictive, as a revelation is required for narratives to be considered apocalyptic. The looseness and restrictions of this definition reveals the plasticity of the apocalyptic motif and the fact that it can be flexibly interpreted in secular versions. Apart from the traditional and the neo-apocalyptic, Rosen mentions something that we can we call the “apocalyptic narrative of cognition”, where the destruction of the “real” world is replaced by the destruction of a figurative one. “This last reconception is specially popular among contemporary filmmakers. Films such Vanilla Sky (2001) and Donnie Darko (2001) revolve around the tension between the perceived world of the narrator and the ‘real’ world of the film, and the destruction of one and the creation of the other”.

The Dialectics of Apocalypse

The apocalyptic cadence is present in a different way in novels with an encyclopaedic structure. The term encyclopaedic is used to refer to those literary works whose structure contains narrative or symbolic cycles derived from other poetic or prose forms. In the words of Northrop Frye: “In encyclopaedic forms, such as the epic and its congeners, we see how the conventional themes, around which lyrics cluster, reappear as episodes of a longer story. Thus the panegyric reappears in the klea andron or heroic contests, the poem of community action in the convention of the games, the elegy of heroic death, and so on.” A structure like the one in the Iliad in this sense is evidently encyclopedic as it contains poetic forms like the elegy, in the death of Hector, the panegyric, in the games in honor of Patroclus, as well as miscellaneous material like the catalogue of ships in Book 2 or the ekphrastic description of the shield of Achilles. The encyclopedic tradition, of course, goes well beyond the epic. Edward Mendelson, for instance, refers to works like Miguel De Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Goethe’s Faust, Moby Dick, Ulysses and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow as a continuation of this tradition. Now how does this relate to apocalyptic writing? As mentioned above, the encyclopedic form deals with the completion of narrative cycles. Northrop Frye in his seminal analysis of the encyclopaedic argues the influence of the Bible in different forms of the epic:

The bible as a whole (…) presents a gigantic cycle from creation to apocalypse, within which is the heroic quest of the Messiah from incarnation to apotheosis. (…) In addition there is the ironic or “all too human” cycle, the mere cycle of human life without redemptive assistance, which goes recurrently through the “same dull round,” in Blake’s phrase, from birth to death. Here the final cadence is one of bondage, exile, continuing war, or destruction by fire (Sodom, Babylon) or water (the flood). These two forms of cyclical movement supply us with two epic frameworks: the epic of return and the epic of wrath. The fact that the Messianic cycle of pre-existence, life in death and resurrection gives us a third type of analogical epic. A fourth type is the contrast epic, where one pole is the ironic human situation and the other the origin and continuation of divine society.

I wanted to dwell on this quotation to show how the Bible informs conventional epic stories —as well as literary plots in general—and to what degree the notion of literary plot, the very sense of an ending, is often permeated by an idea of the apocalyptic.  The Odyssey ends with the slaughtering of Penelope’s suitors, the Aeneid with the foundation of a New Troy. The cycle of human life or human civilization can also be said to provide the idea behind many novelistic plots. While the postmodern encyclopedic novels I have in mind here may incorporate some of these cycles, they basically take a different approach to the apocalyptic. Frank Kermode has argued that modernist authors like Yeats, Pound and Eliot responded to the conditions of decadence in World War I by incorporating apocalyptic imagery and motifs into their poetry. In the same we could say that post World War II novelists like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo respond to historical crisis by adapting classical genres like the epic and introducing apocalyptic imagery into their discourse.

Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow is maybe the novel that more ostensibly makes use of epic conventions. It arguably features cyclical patterns as well countless references to Greek and Germanic mythology. The setting certainly helps to exploit apocalyptic imagery. Set in Europe towards the end of WWII, the novel is filled with scenes of combat, bombings, war-stricken landscapes as well as traumatic dreams and hallucinations of the characters that merge almost imperceptibly with the diegetic world. We could even characterize the plot of the novel as a traditional apocalyptic narrative. The war itself is posed as a sort of cataclysm and the political and geographical reordering of European borders at the end of the war as the instauration of a new order.

The Dialectics of ApocalypseUnderworld deals with the anxieties of mass destruction caused by the Cuban missile Crisis and the threat of atomic annihilation during the Cold War. Like Gravity’s Rainbow the plot presents complicated cyclical patterns but instead of mythologizing historical reality through references to classical literature, the novel is a celebration of the ordinary. Another difference is that artistic and popular representation always mediate apocalyptic experience. Liliana M. Naydan comments: “In DeLillo’s novels the news media and eventually the internet enable the masses to relive apocalypse in endless cycles of devastation –cycles that while echoing the cyclical nature of Catholic ritual, resist the teleological and potentially rejuvenating nature of apocalypse as Catholics understand it.” Constant representation of end-of-times scenarios, like the reproductions of Brueghel’s The triumph of Death or the Klara Sax’s art installation with unused missiles in the novel, provoke a repetition of the apocalyptic experience and a sense of endless end.

Now by characterizing these postmodern works as apocalyptic narratives we notice that they share several characteristics.  They are both novels that respond to periods of historical crisis by employing apocalyptic imagery within a narrative framework of epic storytelling. Significantly both novels also mimic epic conventions discursively with heterodiegetic narrators that often lapse to second person address, attaining a tone that seems to fulfill the role of the oracle or revelation that Elizabeth Rosen refers as one the paradigmatic elements of apocalyptic narratives. Postmodern apocalyptic imagination is also concerned with the moral consequences of massive death. Sustained reflections on the implication of creating of weapons of mass destruction with characters like Matt Shay in Underworld or the rocket engineer Franz Pökler in Gravity’s Rainbow show the investment of these novels in conveying a social critique on modern warfare.

The Dialectics of Apocalypse

As a counterpoint to this I’d like to briefly consider some contemporary novels that address the apocalyptic subject. Ben Lerner’s 10:04 could be described as a novel that develops the apocalyptic theme both on a personal and a global scale. Most of the novel might fit what I earlier called the “apocalyptic narrative of cognition” as the narrator’s experience seems to be deconstructed in the discourse of the novel with no clear distinctions between diegetic reality and diegetic representation. This figurative destruction of the world of the character perception is also a theme in Tao Lin’s Taipei with the progressive decadence and jarring of reality that comes with drug abuse. Coming back to 10:04, the novel interestingly ends on a cataclysmic note of natural disaster with no discernible redemption except for the hopeful promise of biological reproduction. Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper has a similar plot with the protagonist narrating a period of personal turmoil and the glimpse of an ecosystem in crisis that is resolved with a creative endeavour and biological reproduction.

With these novels in mind we can arrive at some preliminary observations. There is a shift in orientation in contemporary apocalyptic narratives. The plots are no longer concerned with communities but with the individual. The epic historical scope and the use of conventions for classical genres of literature also seem to be absent. Novels like the ones mentioned above or even a novel like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, that addresses the apocalyptic more explicitly, while staged on a global scale have abandoned the moral reflections on mass death that characterized postwar fiction to focus on the individual and incorporate new menaces (pandemic infection, ecological crisis, anarchic societies…) that haunt contemporary reality.


By Yannick Bautista


Written by Yannick Bautista

Crítico y académico. Explorador de los abismos de la novela posmoderna norteamericana y el análisis cultural cinematográfico. Cursó estudios de maestría en McGill University.

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