20 January 2015

Ending the World with Hope and Comfort

A friend pointed me toward Sigrid Nunez's New York Times review of Emily St. John Mandel's popular and award-winning novel Station Eleven. He said it expressed some of the reservations that caused me to stop reading the book, and it does — at the end of her piece, Nunez says exactly what I was thinking as I put the book down with, I'll confess, a certain amount of disgust:
If “Station Eleven” reveals little insight into the effects of extreme terror and misery on humanity, it offers comfort and hope to those who believe, or want to believe, that doomsday can be survived, that in spite of everything people will remain good at heart, and that when they start building a new world they will want what was best about the old.
I don't mean this post to be about Station Eleven, because I didn't finish reading it and for all I know, if I'd finished reading it I might disagree with Nunez. I bring it up because even if, somehow, Nunez is wrong about Station Eleven, her points are important ones in this age of popular apocalypse stories.

Let me put my cards on the table. I have come to think stories that give readers hope for tolerable life after an apocalypse are not just inaccurate, but despicable.

We are living in an apocalypse. Unless massive changes are made in the next few decades, it's highly likely that the Earth's biosphere will alter drastically enough to kill off most forms of life. At the least, life in the next 100-200 years is likely to be less pleasant than life now (if you think life now is pleasant). Writing apocalypse stories that mitigate these facts lulls us into complacency. Such stories are their own form of global warming denialism. (Of course, if you are a global warming denialist, go right ahead — write and enjoy such stories!)

Tales of surviving an apocalypse give us comfort fiction, a fiction predicated on identifying with the survivors and giving the survivors something worth surviving for.

It is highly unlikely that you, I, or anybody else would be a survivor of an actual apocalypse, and it is even more unlikely that, were we to survive, the post-apocalyptic world would be worth staying alive to see. To imagine yourself as a survivor is to evade the truth and to indulge in a ridiculous fantasy. To imagine yourself as a successful survivor — someone who doesn't suffer terribly before finally, painfully dying — is even worse.

To tell stories of apocalypse that seek to be at least somewhat realistic and yet are not as painful as stories of actual, historical catastrophes is sheer escapist fantasy. Apocalypse stories that do not want to be escapist fantasies must be as harrowing and painful as the most awful stories of the Nazi Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge's atrocities in Cambodia, the Rwandan genocide.

I'd think this would be obvious, but many people ignore the fact: to tell a story of an apocalypse is to tell a story in the midst of mass death.

To tell a story of apocalypse that is not limited to a small area — to tell a story of the end of the whole world — is to tell a story about mass death on a scale far beyond the worst historical atrocities.

To tell a story of apocalypse in which people's lives are not even as difficult or painful as the lives of millions and millions of people currently alive on Earth moves beyond escapist fantasy and into the realm of idiotic irresponsibility. (This, perhaps, is why some of the better apocalypse/dystopia stories are written by people who are not middle-class white Americans.)

In Eyes Wide Open, Frederic Raphael reported Stanley Kubrick's assessment of Schindler's List: "Think that was about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List was about six hundred people who don’t."

Obviously, the appeal of such stories is that they let us indulge in the fantasy of success. We love rags-to-riches stories for the same reason. We love stories about our soldiers wiping out lots of evil enemies because we escape imagining ourselves to be the enemy in the sniper's sights.

Who is this "we"? That's a good question for any story that aims for an audience to identify with protagonists, but it's especially good to ask of apocalypse stories. Do you read Left Behind imagining yourself to be one of the good, one of the saved? Do you read Station Eleven imagining that yes, you too could find a way to make a life for yourself in this world?

Or do you imagine yourself among the diseased, the tortured, the suffering, the unsaved, the dead?

"But," you say, "such stories offer us visions of human goodness even in the face of adversity! They alleviate pessimism. They help us to hope."

And that is why they are detestable.

The popular Anne Frank statement that Nunez alludes to in her Station Eleven review — "I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart" — was not written in Bergen-Belsen. The story of Anne Frank is not complete until you tell the story of her and her family's suffering and slow death in a concentration camp. A survivor who claimed to have talked with Anne said she was weak, emaciated; that she suspected her parents to be dead; that she did not want to live any longer.

(If you want a happy ending, stop your story before the end.)

To write a story in which apocalypse is not especially awful — or is, even worse, somehow desireable — does nothing to help prevent the apocalypse we face, the apocalypse we live in.

Mass death should not be a self-help allegory.

I may feel so strongly about this because I grew up amidst (and still live around) militia culture, and militia cultists love to fantasize about the end of the world. They don't just dream; they try to live it. They stockpile food, ammo, weapons. They build shelters. They imagine all the ways they'll be heroes when the end comes. For some, it's literally a dream of The Rapture; for the less Christian fundamentalist among them, it's a kind of Rapture allegory, providing the same pleasures, the same confirmation of your own correctness. Apocalypse becomes not a horror but the opportunity to create the best of all possible worlds. Genocidaires always think their violent dreams are necessary, justified, virtuous.

The Walking Dead is popular with a lot of these folks. Step into a gun shop and you're plenty likely to hear at least one person talking about "the zombie apocalypse". It's a code phrase and an allegory: a code for the end of the boring world, an allegory for the time when the well-prepared (white, patriarchal) militia will ascend to its rightful place of honor, when the weak liberals and anti-gunners will die the sad deaths they so deserve, when it will be open season on all the zombies (read: immigrants, black people, etc.). Dreamers dream themselves among the survivors. They dream themselves into heroism. Instead of boring everyday life, they get to show their courage and strength and preparation.

Don't feel your life lets you express your inner heroism? Imagine yourself a survivor of apocalypse. Now you have a hero story.

Imagine yourself finally getting to use those tens of thousands of 5.56 rounds you stockpiled back when ammo was cheap. (You were one of the smart ones. Where are all the people who made fun of you now? They're dead, you're alive. You're the real man. Good for you. You win!)

Don't imagine yourself dying slowly, painfully. Don't imagine yourself wanting to die. Don't imagine disease, starvation, brutality.

We want stories to make us feel good about humanity, or at least about ourselves. We don't want realistic apocalypse stories.

That's what's behind so much of this dreck, isn't it? That somehow we know we're facing doom, and we don't want to feel bad about our own participation in that doom. We want doom to be on our own terms.

For the militia type, apocalypse stories are a way to imagine yourself into heroism. For the relatively wealthy and privileged, apocalypse stories are an opportunity to imagine our way out of the oppressions we benefit from.

(When I've assigned students to read Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, there's always been someone who says, "This doesn't feel like science fiction. This feels real." True. And it's a real that hurts. Because it should.)

If you want to tell an apocalypse story, tell a story about well-intentioned people suffering and dying. Tell a story about people like yourself not only being helpless in the face of catastrophe, but being witless progenitors of it.

(One of my favorite apocalypse stories is Wallace Shawn's The Fever. It's a story of the apocalypse of a well-intentioned man.)

Don't tell a story about how people like yourself are such great survivors. In truth, they probably aren't, and indulging in a fantasy of your own people's survival is breathtakingly arrogant in a story set amidst mass death.

(If the effects of your imagined apocalypse are less painful than the effects of Hurricane Katrina, you are writing despicable kitsch.)

I'm not saying tales of apocalypse are inevitably drivel, or even that they have to be a parade of endless horror, brutality, and suffering (though they should probably be mostly that). I'm saying we don't need apocalypse kitsch any more than we need Holocaust kitsch.

Watch the movies Grave of the Fireflies and Time of the Wolf. One is a historical film about the firebombing of Tokyo, the other is about a near-future apocalypse, its cause unknown, its effect coruscatingly clear. It's these films' affect that is most interesting to me, the ways they show disaster and the response to disaster, the ways they make you feel, and what those feelings are. These are not nihilistic stories, they don't deny human compassion and even goodness, but they also don't soft-pedal the suffering that happens with the end of a world.

Or think of it this way: If you had a time machine and could go back to Anatolia before 1915, Germany in the mid-'30s, Cambodia in the early '70s, Rwanda in the early '90s — if you could go back to those times and write stories, what sort of stories would you write? Stories of people surviving impending apocalypse?

If you want to tell stories to help prevent the extinction of the biosphere, don't tell stories that make that extinction seem bearable.

If you want to imagine the end of the world, realize what you are imagining.