GOING BACK WITH ALICE TO CHILDHOOD (WITHIN LIMITS)

Next week I am returning to Wonderland once again, this time to introduce the students in my Victorian Literature class to Carroll’s classic. To be honest, I’m not completely sure that I like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) in the same way I like, for instance, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911). I’m truly sorry I will never get the chance to teach Burnett’s classic, as it is not Victorian and we don’t teach children’s Literature. In contrast, though I am happy indeed that I can teach Carroll, I am concerned by the many difficulties this involves.

I own a Penguin Classics edition which also includes Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871). Both this text and Alice are accompanied by John Tenniel’s perfect illustrations, which is quite a nice touch considering this is an adult edition. I realize that the most popular image of the girl Alice, with her famous head-band (now known as an Alice band) and her pretty striped tights comes from Looking-Glass, which is a bit confusing. Actually, every time I read the two texts I end up confused about what goes in which, possibly a sign that they work better as a single unit rather than as book and its sequel.

This Penguin edition, I was trying to say, is a proper academic version and, as such, it is accompanied by a multitude of notes. These notes reveal that much of the nonsense of Carroll’s twin texts has to do with his relentless mockery of other texts, mainly poems, both for adults and children. It seems, then, that much of the humour appreciated by original audiences has to do with topical references lost to contemporary readers. I can imagine the glee of many child readers when offered very rude, impolite re-writings of poems and songs they may not have enjoyed at all. Yet, I constantly have the feeling that I am missing much that not even the original texts parodied by Carroll and included in my edition can make up for.

Alice was a text improvised orally by Carroll, as he had improvised many others, in a famous golden afternoon spent in the river with the three Liddell sisters. The author wrote it down accompanied by his own illustrations to offer it as a Christmas present to his beloved Alice Liddell, calling it then Alice’s Adventures Underground. Little by little, he rewrote it as the text universally known today, choosing Tenniel to offer a more professional rendering of his amateurish illustrations. The process, as you can see, starts with an adult improvising a tale for the amusement of three little girls whom he knew very well; the mechanisms on which the humour of the events in the plot depend must, then, connect closely with the narrative strategies that, as he knew, would trigger the girls’ pleasure. If you have a child in your family, or remember your own childhood, you will agree with me that there is nothing more delicious than making them giggle, particularly by appealing to shared, secret jokes. And that is what Alice appears to be in my view: a text intended for restricted consumption by three specific girls full of private jokes that possibly only they could decode.

I am not saying that Alice is unreadable but whenever I read it, I do feel very much as Alice does when the Mad Hatter tells her that his watch tells the year: “I don’t quite understand you. What you said had no sort of meaning in it and yet it was certainly English.” The whole text by Carroll is obviously in English but demands from the reader an ability to not-understand but still enjoy oneself that possibly only children have (or readers or James Joyce…). One thing that puzzles me tremendously is how contemporary cartoons for kids appeal to that kind of pleasure–watching an episode of Gumball, which I love for its very many allusions and clever scripts, I realized that my six-year-old niece could not possibly understand it all, as she granted. Yet, she had chosen it, claiming it was her favourite (it’s ‘The Fridge’). I’m sure, then, that Carroll’s genius consisted of getting absolutely right what would tickle a Victorian child–though, and here’s the root of my problem, there is no secondary level in Alice meant to appeal to an adult as there is in Gumball.

This means, if you follow me, that the ideal teacher and academic critic of both Alice and Through the Looking-glass should be a child. Unfortunately, I am not one, nor are my students, hence my concern. Take any passage from either book and you will see, as you pile different meanings overt and covert on it, that the whole edifice of literary interpretation comes crashing down as… nonsense. It is often said that Carroll plays with logic (he was a logician by training and profession) and that his nonsense is based on perverting its rules. I quite disagree. I think that Alice works because it generates a logic of its own and it has become a universal classic because beyond the actual comprehension of what is going on in the book readers are ensnared by it. I am amazed to see how many bits of Alice resonate in many other texts of all kinds and yet how different the are allusions to, say, the allusions made to Shakespeare’s plays. Why is “off with his head” so funny to quote?

There is something else I am possibly missing, like any other reader. Often, a book blossoms into a favourite among its target readers because it smashes its predecessors. I am not familiar with children’s fiction in the Victorian age but I’m sure that both traditional fairy tales and contemporary stories addressed to children depended too much on teaching morality to their little readers. Alice must have felt like a breath of pure air as, if it has anything to teach at all, this is pleasure–particularly to little girls who, unlike boys, were never offered adventure. Curioser and curioser…

Another way to try to make (adult) sense of Alice and Looking-glass is by recalling that both are dreams and, as such, they are full of incongruous details and happenings. The last part of each book, when the sleeper finally awakes, has Alice realize that noises and other background factors (like a kitten) have been transformed in her dream into strange event triggers and characters. This, I think (sorry Freud!) is how dreams work: their often bizarre plots are nonsense, yet somehow connect with the events of the previous day. Alice was written before Freud became a popular household name and thus Carroll could have no notion that the subconscious of her girl protagonist was shaping her dream. I am here supposing that he told himself ‘this is what a vivacious little girl like Alice Liddell would dream’.

I’ll end by saying that even so, Carroll’s insight into the child’s mind is limited by his condition as an adult–and necessarily so, as Jacqueline Rose and many other specialists in children’s Literature have pointed out. Thinking of the very odd questions my little nice asks me (the last one was ‘do you go to prison if you cross when the red light is on?’) I believe that we would have a very strange view of the world if we could get into a child’s mind only for an instant. Perhaps for them every day is a bizarre adventure in wonderland, hence the popularity of Carroll’s book.

Um, I would give anything right now to be able to re-read the book as a child of 7, Alice’s age… Too late…


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BOXED IN: ACADEMIC LIFE, TERRITORIALISM AND STRAYING OFF THE PATH (WITH THE BOLSHOI BALLET)

I have just accepted tutoring an MA dissertation on how the new digital media conditions the task of the dancer and choreographer. What is an (English) Literature teacher doing supervising this? Let me retrace the steps.

Since I have always been interested in the process of film adaptation, having published many articles about it, and since I have taught English Theatre a few times, I was invited by my colleagues in the Catalan Department to teach part of the course ‘Theatre Arts and Other Arts’ within their MA in Theatre Studies. I chose to teach a 12-hour seminar on ‘Shakespeare on the Screen’, based on a previous BA elective (see the materials at http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/content/teaching-0).

I met in class my new tutoree, Toni, who had been, by the way, already my student in my UOC ‘Introduction to English Literature’. Yes, I am offering some kind of insidious critique against online teaching by saying I have ‘met’ someone I already knew as a student. But I digress. Toni is a retired contemporary dancer with a long career, currently a teacher at the Institut del Teatre. He wrote for my course, following my suggestion, a great paper on Scottish dancer Michael Clark’s performance as a totally silent Caliban in Peter Greenaway’s atmospheric film adaptation of The Tempest, Prospero’s Books. I gave a lecture within my course on how technology has impacted the evolution of theatre (I wrote about this here, see my post for May 11, of this year). Toni put two and two together and decided that I might be interested in seeing how digital media impact dance today. I certainly am but, believe me, I did agonize about whether I was doing Toni a favour by accepting his supervision. He seems to be far more certain than I am. But, then, as a colleague told me, he brings the knowledge, I contribute the know-how (to write a dissertation).

Discussing all this with my UAB colleague Teresa López Pellisa, she explained to me her work on theatre and cyberculture, which I ignored (this happens all the time–we don’t know what the neighbour next door is doing but we’re familiar with the last advances in, say, Toronto). I met Teresa when she organized in 2008 the ‘I Congreso Internacional de Literatura Fantástica y Ciencia Ficción’, so far with no second edition. We share also, apart from a love of CF, a course in another master’s degree, so I know about her interest in the post-human and Latin-American CF, but I didn’t know, as I say, about her work on new stage technologies. At one point, she mentioned working on a play with no text whatsoever and vented her doubts about how that fits the department she works for, the Spanish Department (within the area of Literary Theory and Comparative Literature, to be precise). Can you do research on wordless ‘texts’ from a language and Literature department? Can I supervise an MA dissertation on dance?

Obviously, it is clear to Teresa and myself that there should be no watertight compartments dividing academic work. The academic field should look, precisely, like a vast field with academics tending gardens in many different pretty nooks into which other academics might stroll and be welcome. Instead, it often seems to be a suburb composed of fiercely guarded small plots, with walled-in houses into which no neighbour is invited. Even worse, many of the houses are old crumbling mansions and construction stopped many decades ago–new architectural styles are just anathema. Just imagine: in Spain there are no Cultural Studies, no Film Studies, no Theatre Studies, etc, etc, either as degrees or Departments. This is why we find ourselves going out of our way so often. It is either that or Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf for ever.

I believe all my colleagues would tell you that we have internalized the fierce inquisitorial image of a tribunal member checking on us all the time, telling us off for straying off the path. In my case it goes something like this: ‘isn’t it enough for you,’ this inquisitor tells me, ‘to waste your time doing research on popular trash, now you want to go into territory that belongs to other specialists? Why don’t you stick to Shakespeare?’ Well, if you recall this is all Shakespeare’s fault, in the first place, for giving Caliban a physicality so manifest that only a dancer as wonderful as Michael Clark can make sense of… Will this do? As for the ‘trash’, um, as I wrote, the delicious SF movie Forbidden Planet is also an adaptation of The Tempest, at least in plot and subject matter, if not in textuality.

This anxiety that you’re occupying someone else’s territory or living perilously outside the boundaries of your own territory is the true source of much waste of time. Nobody is asking me at this point whether I should be supervising the MA dissertation on dance and I’m sure that my colleagues will find it thrilling (oh, here goes Sara again…). Yet, my internal tribunal member, a distillation of the tribunals I have actually faced, is here to remind me that this will look odd in my CV. I wonder! It might even lend some respectability to a CV full of ‘trash’.

This waste of time I have mentioned, and of energy, results in, as you can see, a constant need to justify yourself, as I’m doing here. In civilized countries you announce who you want to be by means of your doctoral dissertation, then you proceed to teaching courses that fit your academic interests and start a consistent line of publications. Here, it doesn’t work like that. I did announce my intentions with my own dissertation on monstrosity but it all seems geared to make you struggle to find a niche–teaching is restricted by absurd legislation that gives the Government (the Government!!) custody over our syllabus, you cannot invent elective courses, research assessment is based on the conservative suburban layout I have described. I may be protesting too much, since, after all, here I am a tenured teacher with a 24-year-long career. Yet, the insecurity about being judged negatively never vanishes.

Let me clear the unwholesome air and go back to dance and digital technologies. A couple of weeks ago I found myself in a Barcelona cinema watching the live transmission of the Romantic ballet Giselle performed by Moscow’s Bolshoi company. This was the first time I attended an event of this kind, even though there have been already several seasons, including opera and, a novelty this year I think, the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was a weird experience, as, first, I could not help feeling it was a film and not a live performance; second, I felt a little like a voyeur in relation to the audience cheering in Moscow. There were even people eating popcorn in my local theatre and nobody clapped, confused by their role as spectators. Anyway: what I didn’t expect was the intense aesthetic emotion generated by the loving detail with which dancers’ faces and bodies were shown. This is something I would have missed in a theatre.

So, you see?, there is no way you can put, as we say in Spanish, gates in the (academic) field. A ballet one Sunday afternoon in my free time turns out to be the reason why, in the end, I accepted tutoring Toni’s MA dissertation for, after seeing the Russian dancers I got home promising myself to learn more about dance. Toni’s petition for me to supervise his work came only two days later…

Yes, I am so privileged… and, yes, some days academic life is beautiful.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

WALTER TEVIS’ SF MASTERPIECE MOCKINGBIRD: THE END OF LITERACY

I did not mention in my post of 2 October on post-apocalyptic fiction Walter Tevis’ excellent novel Mockingbird (1980) as I started reading it right after writing the piece. It refuses to be consigned to my memory without further ado, so here we go.

As it happened to me, the name Walter Tevis may be familiar if you’re around my age (49) in relation to two film adaptations of his novels: The Hustler (novel 1959, film with Paul Newman 1961) and its sequel The Colour of Money (novel 1984, film 1986–again with Newman and a young Tom Cruise). I was very much surprised to see that this Tevis is the same Tevis of not only this SF masterpiece but also of another SF peculiar novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963); its 1976 adaptation by Nicolas Roeg with the charismatic singer/actor David Bowie as its protagonist, in the role of an alien visitor, is one of those cult films which re-surfaces again and again.

Tevis (1928-1984) was a teacher of English literature and creative writing at Ohio University (Athens, 1965 to 1978). As he explained, the inspiration for Mockingbird came from the realisation that his students did not care for reading. Hence, he imagined a strange post-apocalyptic 25th century American civilization in which all human beings are illiterate. The situation is strange, I’m claiming, because individuals choose of their own accord to abandon reading progressively; ironically, as literacy decays technoscience evolves fast enough to produce efficient robots that take over from humans not only the most onerous tasks but also the running of civilization itself. The most advanced robotic model, Make Nine, has been designed to manage complex organizations and–you may start chuckling now…–Spofforth, the android protagonist, happens to be the Dean of New York University.

The other post-apocalyptic novels I mentioned, including the one I’m currently reading (Alas, Babylon! by Pat Frank) are quite upsetting as they show how defenceless we, the common people, are in the face of accidental or purposeful destruction, whether this is caused by a plague or by a nuclear holocaust. What is most terrifying about Mockingbird is that there is no catastrophe but a progressive erosion of the interest in the written word, and, accordingly, of civilization (as Tevis knew it). This erosion is supposed to have started by the mid 1970s, when, as I have noted, Tevis was an English teacher–which shows that Literature teachers have been worrying about falling literacy standards for a long time… In Tevis’ 25th century New York not even university teachers are literate (the scant education offered depends on audio-visual media). The plot simply concerns android Spofforth’s decision to help a male teacher, Bentley, to teach himself to read and, later, educate the spunky heroine, Mary Lou, with the aim of giving humanity a chance to regenerate itself.

Human beings can survive in a state of illiteracy; indeed, along history most people were illiterate, with literacy spreading recently mainly due to the needs of the Industrial Revolution (complex machinery cannot be operated without written instructions), with a push from Protestantism, for which Bible reading is essential. As I commented in my post of 2 October George Stewart’s post-apocalyptic novel Earth Abides deals with how the surviving generation fails to educate its children and how, nonetheless, the younger people do go on to establish a new life similar to that of primitive tribes. What is at stake is not, then, survival itself but a much feared drawback into a darker age and the ensuing loss of our collective memory. The inability to read and write means an inability to connect with the past, logically, whether this refers to History or to the achievements in science and technology. In Tevis’ novel technology thrives as human beings become mentally numb, yet it is a technology with an absurd self-serving purpose and totally unable to connect with human needs (with the exception of the melancholic Spofforth).

Obviously, the reason why Mockingbird has impressed me so much, apart from its overlooked literary quality, is the central concept–the idea that individuals can choose not to read, therefore, not to be educated. We all know there was never a golden age when everyone read and very keenly so; yet, the Enlightenment promised to bring forth a civilization in which not only would all human beings have access to education but all would demand it. The central idea was, remember, to guarantee the rights of men (and of women as, later, Mary Wollstonecraft demanded). Almost 300 years later we have proof positive that many persons just do not want to be educated, which is not only puzzling but also a tragedy. The Victorians insisted very much on the idea of self-improvement and proceeded, besides, to place education in the hands of the Government, which was then a very novel idea. I am personally of the persuasion that a day when I have learned nothing new is a day wasted, and even though I do learn much from audio-visual media, nothing can replace reading.

And I mean by this, not just reading short texts but, most essentially, books. This is what my colleagues and I see these days in our university classrooms: students do not buy books, they do not bring the required set texts to class, they do not borrow them from the library. The overall impression if you read the press is that the book market is slowly dying; I’m told that most novels sell 400 copies and that successful novels sell just above 2,000. This is nothing in a country of 47 million people. The person in charge of purchasing books for our excellent Humanities library tells me that borrowing has dramatically decreased–I know, for I can get anything I need with no fear that someone else will have the book. So, yes, literacy persists as the social networks depend very much on the written word but the ability to read for long is on the wane, reduced to short pieces, with books looking impossibly long. At least, that’s my impression.

Walter Tevis, remember, had a similar impression when the internet was still firmly in the hands of a military clique and nobody had dreamed of its being a most important resource for interpersonal global communication. The internet per se is not an enemy of literacy–what am I doing here but use it to publish texts? What seems to be the main enemy is the generalized perception that reading is an optional pursuit, when it is actually the basis of all (post-tribal) civilization. Just imagine what kind of medicine we will have in the future in the hands of doctors who do not want to read. For, in the end, what matters is not quite whether Charles Dickens’ immortality is guaranteed (just to name someone I love) but whether we can maintain the living standards to which we are used for long. Don’t tell me now that the existence of nuclear weapons contradicts my argument as they are also a product of advanced education. Think, rather, of how the knowledge that sustains the comforts of our daily lives can be transmitted without the support of books and of interested readers. It can not.

Yes, we Literature teachers always complaining about the same, what a bore we are… I’ll add, just in case, that having finally seen this week the BBC’s wonderful 2005 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, I am even more convinced of the pernicious impact that the current fad to call TV series the 21st century equivalent of the 19th century novel is having. For, no matter how good the BBC’s Bleak House was, its 510 minutes can by no means replace the much richer experience of reading the book. And not even the best-written TV series compares to the best-written novel.

This is just in case we go the way of Tevis’ professor Bentley and end up teaching audio-visual texts to illiterate students being ourselves also illiterate. Some nightmare…

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THE PARADOXES OF MIGRATION: SILENCES, ABSENCES AND UNHEEDED (LITERARY) WARNINGS

I have attended this week the international conference “New Typologies of (E/Im)Migration: Mobility and Transcultural Spaces” beautifully organized by my good friend José Manuel Estévez Sáa (http://www.josemanuelestevezsaa.com/). This was also the 17th Culture and Power International Conference, marking the twentieth anniversary of our seminar’s activities (http://www.cultureandpower.org/). I am not myself at all a specialist in the field but having attended all but one Culture and Power seminar, I felt compelled to submit a paper. And this, I did.

I described my research for this paper in the posts of 1 and 21 June. I visited then the Museu d’Història de Catalunya and the Museu d’Història de la Immigració in order to check why the public visibility of the migration to Catalonia of many Spaniards from other regions is so low. My starting hypothesis was that there is a clear political intention to make this internal migration subordinated to the foreign migration started in the early 1990s. This, however, is open to two readings: one positive, with the low profile of Spanish migration connoting total integration; one negative, with the nationalist/independentist agenda seeking actively the silencing of the former migrants and their descendants. MHIC somehow complicates matters as its displays are based on choices not conditioned by the Generalitat (as happens in MHC) and, yet, the narrative offered is quite limited and strangely optimistic, glossing over all the problems that Spanish migrants faced and how their experience connects with that of the later 1990s foreign migrants.

What is most surprising to me is the fact that the Spanish internal migrants themselves have not narrated this experience nor the following generations in their families. In English there is an abundant list of fiction and non-fiction on the migrant experience of practically any ethnic group, from Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), about a Jewish migrant to the USA, to the recent novels on the Polish migration to the UK (post 2004), which Noemí Pereira discussed in the conference. Yet, in Spanish we do not really have a sub-genre dealing with migration, much less with internal migration. From what I heard, Galician writers tend to focus on international migration (mainly to Argentina and Cuba), and from what I know here locally in Catalonia the early example of Paco Candel and the novels by Juan Marsé still remain quite exceptional cases.

A colleague forwarded me a while ago a list of documentaries on the topic I am discussing here:
La aldea maldita (1930 silent and 1942, sound), by Froilán Rey.
Surcos (1951) by Juan Antonio Nieves Conde.
La piel quemada (1967) by José María Forn.
Specifically towards Catalonia, the works by Llorenç Soler (see some here http://www.culturaenaccion.com/llorenc-soler-videos/):
52 domingos (1966)
Será tu tierra (1966)
Largo viaje hacia la ira (1969)
Enrique Martínez- Salanova Sánchez’s webpage (http://www.uhu.es/cine.educacion/cineyeducacion/emigracion.htm) shows how the subject of internal migration seems to vanish in 1970s cinema, perhaps because the Transición becomes a priority, to resurface in the 1990s with the new foreign migration. The main exception seems to be the TV movie co-produced by several regional public TV channels La Mari (2003).

I don’t have a similar information for the novel as I am not a specialist in Spanish Literature yet my assumption is that the same pattern is repeated. My very amateurish conclusion as to why this pattern exists (in the specific case of Catalonia) is that there was too little time between the end of the Spanish migrant influx around 1980 and the beginning of the foreign migration around 1990 for the internal migrants to process their own story. The Generalitat insisted, and rightly so, on imposing the general assumption that integration had been achieved and very successfully–rightly so because a fractured society has no future. Yet, I wonder why in the end the balance between integration and the migrants’ right to celebrate their culture is best represented by the big Feria de Abril in Barcelona (established in 1971) rather than by a stream of novels and films.

My working hypothesis is that by the time the second or third generation got college degrees and a sophisticated awareness of their own family’s experiences it was too late for the market to offer a niche, as this had been taken up by the foreign experience of migration (in Catalan the main example would be Najat El Hachmi’s Jo també sóc catalana of 2004). I wonder whether, and I said so at the conference, the current Spanish young persons, forced to migrate abroad due to the dramatic lack of jobs here, will be the ones to finally make sense of this past experience and of their own. Paradoxically, Anglophone post-colonialism has provided us with conceptual and academic tools we lacked in the past; sadly, these are still unknown among most Spanish writers and intellectuals and little appreciated in Spanish Departments, the ones that should be researching why there are no works narrating the Spanish internal migration.

Apart from this paradox–the absence of a rich literature of migration in Spain despite the copious national and international experiences of many Spaniards–I noticed another paradox. The novels and films depicting modern migration are at least 100 years old, if not more. And it is obvious that the story they narrate is quite similar: an individual feels the need to leave his or her home country pushed by the realization that there is no future for him/her there; the choice of destination is conditioned by the fantasy that the opportunities are many and the reception will be positive; harsh reality intrudes to shatter that fantasy and show the migrant that s/he can only occupy a low place in its new receiving society; the migrant is sorely disappointed, and the story ends either in failure or in a deferred hope that later generations will fare better. I made many people laugh among the conference delegates when I commented that ignoring the literature on migration seems to be an intrinsic part of the migrant experience: migrants could be better informed but they are not, and thus the same story is repeated. I am not sure why they laughed. You can attribute this pattern to the fact, I’ll add, that many migrants have no access to education. Yet a colleague answered that migrating is like having a child–you plunge into the experience and take risks, unheeding all the warnings against it (otherwise nobody would have children). Fair enough.

This begs, however, the thorny question of whether narrating the migrant’s experience in film or fiction makes sense at all. Another delegate (from India) complained that, in addition, the market selects which aspects to consume and which to ignore, so that even the best informed reader/viewer only gets a partial impression of what migration entails. The migrant, hence, by definition, faces his/her journey as a journey into the unknown even when much can be learned beforehand from the experience of past migrants. Perhaps migration is in part sustained by the migrant’s confidence that s/he will do well unlike the many who failed (remember Angela’s Ashes?). You have to migrate, you hope for the best because in the end the worst is what pushes you to migrate.

What totally mystifies me is the assumption by educated migrants from poor countries that they will be treated according to their qualifications… Also, here’s another paradox, how many migrant experiences are not called that: executives, artists, academics and in general liberal professionals from rich countries do not migrate, they ‘relocate’.

So much to consider…

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PREPARING FOR DISASTER: READING POST-APOCALYPTIC FICTION

Post-apocalyptic fiction deals, as it names indicates, with the aftermath of a catastrophe which affects a very large territory or even the whole world. Typically, an individual or a small group of survivors narrate their efforts to rebuild civilization, or to accept reluctantly that it is gone for ever. In some extreme cases, only one person survives (Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826)). Post-apocalyptic fiction flourished in the 1950s and 1980s as a consequence of fears connected with nuclear weapons, and is now undergoing its most productive period or ‘golden age’ (post 9/11 2001). Yet, Mary Shelley’s novel suggests that the secular fear of total annihilation is older than we think. I emphasize ‘secular’ because, of course, Bible readers are only too familiar with Saint John’s lurid description of the end in his Apocalypse. Funnily, ‘apocalypse’, a Greek word, does not mean ‘catastrophe’ but ‘revelation’.

Essentially, post-apocalyptic fiction imagines three types of total destruction: one originating in natural causes, the second caused by man’s intervention and the third by an intelligent, non-human enemy. Natural causes include comets and asteroids crashing against Earth, our own planet going berserk, an unexpected mutation causing a plague. Man-made disasters include, as I have noted, the feared nuclear holocaust, unstoppable environmental damage or irresponsible experiments (Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, 1990). The third case responds mainly to alien invasions (though in Octavia Butler’s late 1980s Lilith’s Brood trilogy the invasion appears to be a solution of sorts to the nuclear apocalypse).

Those of use who were young in the 1980s surely can still recall the intense fear of total nuclear wipe-out. 1984, in particular, the year when the first Terminator movie was released, is not for me an Orwellian year but rather the culmination of the madness that led Cold War leaders to amass enough nuclear power to destroy the world several thousand times over. Here in Barcelona, then a pre-Olympics nonentity, we wondered whether we were important enough to deserve the attentions of a Soviet missile. It is in human nature to control our worst fears by imagining terrifying catastrophes and this is what fiction did then copiously. We could choose between the 1980s terrifying productions (Robert McCammon’s very long novel Swan Song of 1987 became my absolute favourite as I loved the girl protagonist); or read the quaint fiction of the 1940s and 1950s, when a nuclear planetary Judgment Day was still fantasy and not a daily possibility.

With almost 16,000 nuclear bombs right now on Earth (93% in the hands of the USA and Russia, the others in those of France, China, United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea… some list) we cannot really say that the 2010s are substantially different from the 1980s, they are perhaps even worse. Yet I am sure that for most earthlings all the other potential catastrophes I have named are more likely to happen, particularly the (unlikely) zombifying plague as seen in The Walking Dead. In the best post-apocalyptic tale of the 21st century, so far, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) no specific cause is named as the originator of the dreadful life to which the father protagonist so fiercely clings (for the sake of his son).

I have the impression that the United States have been narrating their own decadence since 2001, when a very small group of terrorists launched an attack that, seen on TV, seemed bigger than any alien invasion (think Independence Day, 1996). American fiction, whether it is The Hunger Games trilogy or the action film San Andreas, is imagining with rabid insistence what it is like to go through unthinkable destruction (with abundant technological glee) and to adapt to a civilization which has little to do with the one before apocalypse. I am fascinated by this already long-lasting phenomenon but I am wondering when it is going to end, since a consequence of post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction is that it increases depression. This need not be so. The wonderful Mecanoscrit del segon origen (1974) by Manuel de Pedrolo, which taught me to love science fiction, is post-apocalyptic fiction of the alien obliteration variety. It is meant to give hope in human resilience even in the face of hyperbolic destruction, which also used to be the case in older post-apocalyptic tales. Hope is today small and waning, or plain incredible.

Let me name a few post-apocalyptic novels that we, the depressive paranoid types, indulge in (apart from the ones I have already mentioned and excluding alien invasion stories for the sake of brevity):

After London (Richard Jefferies, 1885)
The Scarlet Plague (Jack London, 1912)
Earth Abides (George R. Stewart, 1949)
I am Legend (Richard Matheson, 1954)
The Chrysalids (John Wyndham, 1955)
The Death of Grass/No Blade of Grass (John Christopher, 1956)
On the Beach (Nevil Shute, 1957)
Alas, Babylon (Pat Frank, 1959)
A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller, Jr., 1960)
The Drowned World (J.G. Ballard, 1962)
Lucifer’s Hammer (Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven, 1977)
The Stand (Stephen King, 1978)
Riddley Walker (Russell Hoban, 1980)
The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood, 1985)
The Children of Men (PD James, 1992)
The Road (Cormac McCarthy, 2006)
World War Z (Max Brooks, 2006)
The Passage (Justin Cronin, 2010)
Wool (Hugh Howey, 2011)
Seveneves (Neal Stephenson, 2014)

No, I have not read all of them, just about two thirds. And if I am writing this post today it is because of two strange feelings associated with, in particular, Seveneves and the novel I finished yesterday, Earth Abides (soon to be a TV mini-series). In Stephenson’s massive book a micro black hole disintegrates the Moon, whose pieces destroy Earth by setting the atmosphere on fire as they fall. Two years mediate between our satellite’s collapse and apocalypse and, this is very odd, I felt relief. Oh, well, two years to go, how many stupid things can be finally left undone…

Stephenson imagines that mankind’s ingenuity (women’s mostly) allows human beings to re-make themselves and eventually reconquer Earth in fabulous high-tech style. Yet, unexpectedly, I don’t believe a word of it. In contrast, the far more modest Earth Abides (which inspired King’s also massive The Stand and probably also Seveneves) deals with the possibility that no adequate leader is found to reboot civilization. Ish Williams cannot cope nor can his small community understand the need to educate its children at least to be literate. The young quickly forget 20th century life, yet having been born after the ruinous plague and having missed the comforts of this by-gone life, they quickly adapt to the new circumstances. Just like our own young people, a friend tells me, are adapting to our post-crisis, post-apocalyptic times. No doubt.

I am told that not only extreme-right survivalist groups in America but also common citizens here in the little corner of the world where I live are preparing for world-wide catastrophe. People stupidly chose to believe in the recent past that an underground shelter would protect you from nuclear catastrophe, as they now seem to believe that learning basic survival skills (lighting a fire with two sticks) can protect you from the terminal destruction of Earth by the very obvious climate change. In Earth Abides the protagonist is a scholar (a geographer) who soon realizes that his scavenging community is no good; also, that urban dwellers too specialised in one task (like selling perfume) cannot survive. I have no illusions about my own usefulness yet I still see no point in learning to survive in caves. What you learn from reading post-apocalyptic fiction is that survival is not always the best possible option.

Having said that, this post has not been motivated by my apocalyptic fears about what the current political circumstances right here right now may bring (perhaps my reading list has) but by the tiny hope that apocalypse can be prevented and post-apocalyptic fiction be read as just a nightmare. Hopefully.

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