It’s strange, isn’t it, that various government agencies have plunged into the regular production of the sorts of futuristic scenarios that were once left to awed journalists, sci-fi writers, utopians, and cranks; and yet we, as a nation, find ourselves in a kind of quagmire of what once would have been un-American futurelessness. It used to be said that we were a nation that never looked back, but never that we were a nation that dared not look forward….I believe [this sense of futurelessness] first began to descend ever so invisibly upon Americans in the wake of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and…almost six decades later, has left many of us, including the young, unable to imagine a future beyond our own lives. This, in turn, plays into a sense of helplessness in the face of something as large and seemingly intractable as global warming.
—Tom Engelhardt, “Mired in Denial, Lost in the Present,” published February 7, 2005 by TomDispatch.com
If the imagined continuity of human, language-centered consciousness extending far beyond our individual deaths is both a common literary trope and a widespread motive for creating literature, what effect does the concrete possibility of the death of the world have upon writers?
And why aren’t more of us openly admitting the grave psychological—I daresay spiritual—difficulty of trying to produce anything of enduring value while looking to a “future of no future”?
Is there not a secret collusion between the market-driven warp speed of contemporary mass culture (the sense that everything must be produced now and consumed right now) and the “futureless” state Tom Engelhardt refers to? Whether or not we articulate the knowledge, many of us already understand that the world of unbridled consumption cannot continue; that it is, in the last analysis, a world of self-consumption.
How—and what—is it still possible to write in the midst of such foreboding? (To push the foreboding away is to become blocked or superficial; to acknowledge it is to face the inadequacy, not just of familiar content, but of received formal patterns.)
We are currently being treated to a spate of new novels described as addressing “September 11th .” (Ian McEwen’s Saturday and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close are the most widely reviewed.) According to prevailing wisdom within U.S. literary circles, the meaning of this phenomenon is that 9/11 disrupted the state of artistic normalcy in which fiction writers properly focused on private life, on psychology and aesthetics. Before September 11th, portrayals of individual subjectivity as embedded in the tumult and striving of collective experience (especially works that questioned America’s dominant role abroad or harped too noisily on injustice at home) were taboo. Unless they could find precarious shelter in some identity-based market niche, they were liable to be exiled altogether from the fold of proper art, a scarlet “P” for POLITICAL branded on their foreheads. In the new, abnormal post-9/11 state (so the mainstream narrative continues), we reluctantly recognize that even the citizens of the imperium are affected by history. Now that terrorists have stormed our workaday world and smashed “innocent lives,” it becomes appropriate—even, alas, needful–for producers of literature to include a social dimension.
I’m reminded of that outrageous and surreal moment at the outset of the third presidential debate in October 2004, when moderator Bob Schieffer addressed to John Kerry a question that he said “hangs over all of our politics today,” to wit: “will our children and grandchildren ever live in a world as safe and secure as the world in which we grew up?”
Bob Schieffer, you are no spring chicken, I thought. Have you forgotten shelter drills? Don’t you remember the clock hand on the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists edging ever closer to the “12”? Does the phrase “thinking the unthinkable” mean anything to you?
In other words, why does the lengthening continuum of our self-arranged precariousness keep getting nostalgically repackaged and presented to the young—and even to those of us who actually lived through an earlier form of terror—as “safety and security?”
Like the so-called War on Terror, the Cold War was a story. And not just any story, but one of polar opposites, of a struggle between Good and Evil that might be expected to culminate in Armageddon: the final conflict signaling the end of the world. For a tangled set of reasons, not the least of which, I believe, is the ingrained nature of narrative patterns themselves, the contemporary popular imagination of disaster—the story of how the world might come undone as told in movies and paperback best-sellers—has much in common with the nightmare scenarios of the 1950’s and 1960’s. And these older world-end stories, in turn, so often followed the formal contours of the Christian scenario, even when presented from an ostensibly secular point of view. If that connection was both ironic and obvious at the time, how much weirder is it now, when both physical and political threats to all we hold dear are growing exponentially more complex and unpredictable? With the end of the Cold War, it seems that not only right-wingers were left scrambling to re-invent the story of good guys and bad guys; in fact, all of us who were raised on tales of Mutually Assured Destruction found ourselves scrambling for narrative forms that would express a newly amorphous sense of peril, one far less easily reduced to Armageddon’s stark contrasts.
Another way to put this might be: when the Berlin Wall came down, some of us conveniently forgot about—or more successfully repressed–our futureless state. “September 11th” may really be a code name for that deeper, more troubling awareness, the code permitting us to contain within a terrible but still manageable image fears of a truly bottomless abyss.
In an attempt to understand some of the ways that people in the U.S. are trying to assimilate, via popular culture, the specific forms of futurelessness that characterize the present, I’ve been dipping into the Left Behind series of right-wing Christian thrillers. Put together by the team of Dr. Tim LaHaye (a minister and “prophecy scholar”) and Jerry Jenkins (a biographer of Hank Aaron and Billy Graham and author of copy for Reader’s Digest and in-flight magazines), the 12-volume series is a well-known publishing triumph, with sales figures in the scores of millions. (It originated, by the way, in the 1990’s, with its popularity well established long before 9/11/01.) What so intrigues me about the series is my conviction (unsupported, I admit, by any contact with its fans) that this voracious appetite for books about the end of the world must say something about the Zeitgeist. At a time when “September 11th” novels seem to be the outer limit of our tolerance for literary fiction that imagines the radically precarious nature of our situation on the planet, I am pleased to suppose that at least a fraction of Left Behind readers must be attracted to the books because they do purport to offer an image of exactly that extremity.
But what sort of image? On the basis of my dipping—I’ve yet to flog myself through an entire volume—I’m most astonished by how utterly commonplace LaHaye and Jenkins make the End Times sound. Given the authors’ backgrounds and the conventions of genre fiction, I obviously shouldn’t be surprised at the series’ lack of psychological complexity, pedestrian language, bare bones imagery, and inattention to setting. (In Volume 5, Apollyon, a climactic scene in Jerusalem takes place entirely in “Teddy Kolleck Stadium”; local color is provided by “pita bread and sauce.”) Granted, this is plot-driven fiction, but with God running the show, even the plot has problems; there’s not that much for the characters to do beyond walking through their roles. The series certainly makes no bones about its right-wing political agenda. The Antichrist promotes world government; Jews convert to Christianity en masse. In what the authors seem to regard as devastating satire, the pontiff of the official anti-religion, Enigma Babylon One World Faith, appears in garish vestments suggesting he has earned “some sort of a double doctorate from Black Light Discotheque University”; he invokes “the blessings of the universal father and mother and animal deities” (Apollyon, p. 54).
Despite their ostensibly spiritual theme, the Left Behind books evince an utterly literal, materialist bent. They furnish oodles of god-talk, but zero mystery. Purporting to plunge the reader into scenes that will reveal the ultimate truth behind appearances, they in fact display a near-total lack of imagination. Rather than showing their characters moved to profound self-questioning by the harrowing events of the End Times, they show them sizing up the likely winners and losers; correctly deciding (if they are good guys, like pilot-hero Rayford Steele) to play on God’s team; then rolling up their sleeves and with good old American know-how proceeding to fly the planes, crack the computer codes, and do anything else required to please their uber-Boss and make the Tribulation run on time. There are lots of special effects (like water bottles that contain blood when unbelievers try to drink from them, but turn back to pure, refreshing water for the holy to quaff; hideous scorpions that torment the unrighteous), but since it all happens to stick figures, emotional impact is minimal. Any suspense turns on the questions of (a) how Rayford and his buddies will get the Trib Force out of the latest pickle and (b) what lurid mayhem God will come up with next. I do have to say that in Apollyon I’ve encountered one interesting bit of psychological shading in the character of Hattie, who despite her torments refuses to repent because she feels unworthy of God’s grace. While her motives disappoint me—give me Satan’s defiance any day–her oppositional consciousness does offer something to admire. (“She believes in God, knows that he loves her, and knows what he has done for her. But she has decided that she knows better than he….” [Apollyon, p. 374].)
In recent weeks, the End Times have been much in the news with the broadcast of Revelations, an NBC mini-series. It delighted me to find on the Left Behind Web site (I’m not going to sully this page with a link—Google and find it yourself) an April 13th post from none other than Jerry Jenkins, kvelling about the mini-series’ great “production values” while lamenting that its potential to foment further discussion of “End Times events” is undermined by its many theological weaknesses (for instance, its supposition that Roman Catholics might play a central part in the terminal drama). I also learned from Jenkins’s piece that “Rapture” can be a transitive verb: “Scripture indicates Jesus will return not to earth but in the clouds to Rapture true believers, snatching them away before seven years of Tribulation.”
Could it be that the Left Behind series actually accomplishes another version of the task fulfilled by the mainstream American narrative about September 11th?—in other words, it offers a way to play with our uncanny intimations of futurelessness, while excusing us from either correctly naming those inklings or taking the hint that it might be time quite vigorously to question our notions of the normal, the real, and of cause and effect? For “September 11th,” in the iconic version, reminds Americans that even though “we” are both mighty and innocent, what starts out looking like an ordinary day can open on an abyss; bad as that is, however, we’re still Number One. Some towers may have crashed, but our story stands tall. The sole superpower remains the anointed of history.
Meanwhile, Apollyon and its brothers in the Left Behind series tell us that while we may soon wake up to find ourselves living through seven really unpleasant years, at least we can count on Euro-American he-men with technical know-how to help us fit in with God’s authoritarian scheme—just as we can count on the machinery of plot-driven genre fiction to shelter us from having to imagine anything new or strange.
The death of the world included.
4/24/05: It rained hard last night. The forecast, so familiar, was for “rain, heavy at times.” I hate to hear the rain lashing the house. What happened to gentle, penetrating showers? Is it just my imagination that they’re going the way of coral reefs and suckerfish?
4/25/05: I teach David Wojnarowicz’s essay “In the Shadow of the American Dream: Soon All This Will Be Picturesque Ruins” from Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration. My undergraduate writing class loves it. One student, considerably older than the rest, zeroes in on passages about visiting a museum devoted to the development and use of atomic weaponry. She says it reminded her of being in high school in the eighties, when “the big thing was we could die any day—we were all going to die in a nuclear war.” The twenty-year-olds stare at her blankly. Her statement appears to have no experiential resonance for them—yet they, like the rest of us, are living out its logic.
4/26/05: On the New York Times obituary page: “Philip Morrison, Builder of First Atom Bomb, Dies.” Buried in the article, I find: “His duties included dangerous experiments called ‘tickling the dragon’s tail,’ in which scientists slipped pieces of a bomb closer and closer together to study what happened as it approached the moment when the assembly went ‘critical.’”