Flooded coastal forest, New Zealand, 2010

It’s the title of a spectacular exhibition currently at Tate Britain, the central theme of Lars von Trier’s forthcoming film Melancholia, and an idea that has gripped human imagination from earliest times. Now Apocalypse – and its cultural interpretation - is also the subject tackled in a new book by a Cambridge University academic in an adventurous trawl through literature and film.

We dread the idea of civilisation ending, yet we are continually drawn to it. Fairy tales and classic children’s stories brim with a looming threat – whether embodied in wolf, wicked witch, or darkening sky.

Why are we so fascinated – and why have we always been so fascinated – by the notion of the end of the world?  Cambridge academic Maria Manuel Lisboa, whose latest book explores the dark side of the human imagination, thinks that our preoccupation with annihilation stems from something deep in the human condition, something to do with survival – with the fear of destruction being one of the means by which we safeguard our continued existence.  Her own first encounter with apocalypse came when she was a child reading Monique Peyrouton de Ladebat’s The Village that Slept. She remembers feeling miserable through much of the narrative but relieved to discover in the final chapter, as do the protagonists, that the world has neither ended nor disappeared.

In The End of the World: Apocalypse and its Aftermath in Western Culture (Open Book Publishers, October 2011) Lisboa applies her mind to the vast swath of literature and film that deals with the destruction of the world.  She sets about her vast trawl through books and movies with evident glee: this is a book that is both academic and accessible, serious and playful. Moving seamlessly through time and place, and across genres, she identifies common strands that run through the Bible, the Harry Potter books, science fiction from HG Wells to Margaret Atwood and blockbuster movies such as Armageddon and The Terminator that tell disturbing tales that take humanity right to the edge of existence.

The possibility that the world could end, and that its end might come about as a result of human behaviour, is a theme that has recurred since the earliest myths – and is evident in all forms of cultural production, from cave paintings to the latest computer games. We dread the idea of civilisation ending, yet we are continually drawn to it. Fairy tales and classic children’s stories brim with a looming threat – whether embodied in wolf, wicked witch, or darkening sky. The theme of apocalypse is also prevalent in adolescent literature, playing on a primal fascination with the world falling apart; this merges with the natural angst of puberty.  “Stories of apocalypse ultimately narrate us,” writes Lisboa.

In investigating one of the great human narratives, Lisboa makes forays into history and philosophy of science, psychology and politics. The stories we tell about apocalypse allow us to dramatise the extremities of our hopes and fears – and give us the space to come to terms with our strength and our fragility in a fictional setting, preparing us for dealing with a worst-case scenario. While in the past humanity was powerless in the face of big events (flood, famine, plague) today we are so powerful that we have brought about the possibility of wreaking our own havoc, bringing ourselves close to the edge of an abyss. Paradoxically, our technological advancement has rendered us powerless as we are caught in a cycle of self-destruction in regards to witnessing our collective end: as Lisboa puts it, “culture has no need for time machines”.

Each period of history frames apocalypse in a different way: from the Fall and the Flood in the Bible and a variety of plagues in times unspecified to the threat of nuclear war from the middle of the 20th century and the current focus on terrorism in post-9/11 media and politics. Although the overarching narrative of apocalypse is similar, each period has produced its own brand of world-end literature and iconography. Sometimes these images can be eerily predictive; the 20th-century image of King Kong trapped on top of two buildings, gunned down by surrounding planes in a blockbuster film in the late 1970s, now seems to foreshadow the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001. Reality has made the fiction darker.

In our imagination annihilation is rarely complete: in most narratives a spark of hope and the possibility of recovery persist. Ends become new beginnings – a fresh start, the slate wiped clean. In the story of the Flood, for example, the rainbow and olive branch herald the possibility of new life. It is as if nothingness is too hard to comprehend: instead, narratives hinge on near-miss with the survival of a happy few. Examples include Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in which the young hero loses his father but joins another family who appear to have devised a way to survive in a world that has been almost destroyed.  In some world-end story-lines, apocalypse is the precursor of Utopia, an ideal state that is realised only through mass destruction of the many. A change in civilisation as we know it does not necessarily have to be bad; alternatively the world could end in a heaven-like paradise, warmed by a benevolent sun.

In so many narratives, however, possible scenarios of recovery unfold into further darkness: those deciding the design of new worlds following apocalypse show an alarming inclination to exterminate everyone who does not agree with the new formula and the new regime shows an unnerving tendency to repeat the errors that led to cataclysm in the first place.  Lisboa asks: “I can’t offer a rainbow but, given the efficiency with which we scare ourselves at the prospect, maybe those left after end of the world will be inventive enough to think of something really different?”  Just as doom and gloom is part of the human psyche, so is optimism.  The flip side of apocalypse is life itself.

The End of the World: Apocalypse and its Aftermath in Western Culture by Maria Manuel Lisboa is published by Open Book Publishers on 11 October 2011.  Open Book Publishers is an Open Access enterprise dedicated to the sharing of educational resources worldwide. Maria Manuel Lisboa is Professor of Portuguese Literature and Culture at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of St John’s College.


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