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Mourning For What Hasn’t Been Lost: How Stories
Death and the Fall of Humanity
I've spent a portion of my life trying to understand why stories are so
important to us. And one of the most intriguing kinds of stories I've
puzzled over are the works of post-apocalyptic fiction that can be found in
various media, including movies and television.
At first glance,
these creations have a bleak and pessimistic quality, depicting a future when
the world we are familiar with has been replaced by a new age of barbarism or by advanced
societies that are an affront to the human spirit. In fact, many are
permeated by images of death and destruction, intended to evoke a sense of
loss in audiences.
But based on their popularity, it is obvious that
audiences find these stories appealing, bleakness and all. They enjoy the
adventures -- and the feats of heroism -- that are depicted. And they are
intrigued by the unusual settings, which reveal how the debris of our own
time could become the twisted landscape of the future. Apparently, many
people are also interested in the way these stories depict nuclear
destruction and out-of-control technology because it gives them a chance to
reflect on a set of dangers that are a prominent feature of the present-day
world we live in.
I think that all of these factors help explain why
post-apocalyptic stories in movies and television often attract large audiences.
There is, however, another reason for their popularity, and it casts a light
on some of our deepest and most profound perceptions of life. It can be
found in the fact that these stories lift audiences out of their immersion
in the present and focus their attention on the traumatic mysteries of time
and death, which loom over all of our lives. As part of this, these stories convey
the unsettling truth about the world, which is that everything (or at least
everything we know of) passes away and is replaced by something else. They
also ask audiences to reflect on the true scale of time, which is larger
than anything we can comprehend, reducing even the current age to a tiny
point in history.
Works of post-apocalyptic fiction do these things,
not by offering audiences a philosophical discussion about death, but by
depicting a time when our own world has become part of the past. As alluded
to above, if something from our time is depicted as having survived, it is
ruins and other fragments that were once part of a coherent civilization.
Audiences typically respond to these depictions with a complex set of
psychological reactions, including a sense of loss and awe, as they
experience something disturbing and impossible to understand that is an
essential characteristic of the world.
This essay is about how post-apocalyptic stories
and related forms of storytelling evoke these kinds of experiences, helping us see more deeply into the nature of the world and the
tragic dimension of life. Of
course, this is also a subject that is particularly relevant today, when we have a greater appreciation
for the sweep of history and are
concerned about whether our own age is heading for a fall as a result of its
A good way to begin exploring this subject
is to look at how a post-apocalyptic movie depicts time and death. An
example is the 1995 movie, Waterworld, a big-budget
Hollywood production that was a lot more interesting than some of the
negative reviews it received would indicate.
Like the Mad Max movies it is partly based on, Waterworld is about
a barbaric future after the end of civilization. It depicts a time when the
Earth has been inundated by water and what was once dry land is now covered by
ocean. Where once humanity spread out across the globe, now, in the invented
world of the movie, a remnant of humanity lives precariously on an endless
sea, traveling nomadically in boats or clinging to life in a walled-in
floating village, while the post-apocalyptic equivalent of pirates survive
on a derelict ship and terrorize whoever is in reach. Most of the people in
this future don’t even know what the Earth was like before the deluge.
Much of the
movie is centered on a mariner, played by Kevin Costner, who has mutations vital
to survival in this ocean environment, with webbed feet and gills for
breathing in the water. It is those gills that have made it possible for him
to know the secret of the world, since he has seen the sea floor -- and the
evidence of the age of history that preceded his own.
important scene midway through the movie, he instructs a female character to
get into a diving bell -- a form of underwater vehicle -- and takes her into
the ocean to show her the truth that humanity has forgotten. As the two of
them go deep into the water, she sees a city of ruined high-rises on the
ocean floor (which are the ruins of our own time) and realizes for the first
time what humanity once achieved and how it was destroyed. As her facial
expressions convey a sense of shock and amazement, we, the audience, can
experience these things with her and feel awe at the way something so
familiar and so grand in scale has been taken back by nature. At the same
time, we feel a sense of awe at the thought that our age’s accomplishments
could be brought down by time, literally down to the bottom of the ocean.
Waterworld is a good
example of a post-apocalyptic story that tells us the truth about time and
death. But there are a legion of similar examples. All do a variation on the
same thing: they find a way to confront a character with evidence of the end
of a world, whether it is by witnessing ruins at the bottom of the ocean or
through some other means. The characters then have a set of reactions we see
repeatedly in these stories, as they experience a sense of irony, loss, and
awe at the idea of the death of something large, such as a civilization or
an era in history. At the same time, they experience a sense of awe at the expanse of time and at the way time
replaces one thing with another. We experience these things with them and
deeply perceive the tragedy of life.
This is the essence of many
works of post-apocalyptic fiction. They reveal the truth about transience
and finality, confronting us with the basic conditions of our existence,
which we tend not to think about from our usual perspective, immersed in our
daily lives. And they give us a sense of our true scale in the expanse of
As noted, post-apocalyptic stories accomplish this with various
storytelling devices, so characters can be maneuvered into encountering
evidence of the long passage of time. For example, characters may
somehow make contact with another period in history as a result of a time
machine or the ability to peer into another age, or as a result of some
kind of suspended animation, so they wake up in the future when their own
time is a distant memory and everyone they knew is gone. In other stories,
audiences may simply be presented with the death of a world or the contrast
between two ages, without also seeing it vicariously through the eyes of
But the storytelling device that seems to have a particular
resonance is the one referred to above, in which audiences are presented
with something that has survived from an earlier age, such as ruins,
cemeteries, skeletons, ancient technologies, past
battlefields and old books. Through these emotionally-charged symbols, the
dead tell their story, often to living characters but, if not, then still to
us, the audience.
Today, of course, the symbol that turns up repeatedly in post-apocalyptic
stories is the one we see in Waterworld: the image of urban centers
full of high-rises that have
fallen into ruin. In an earlier age, the
imagination of disaster in Europe and America conjured up images of nature
encroaching on classical ruins, and lone standing columns with clinging
vines. Those images expressed an awareness that Western civilization was
built on the fragments of the Roman Empire (and on Greek empires before it).
But, today, high-tech civilization is the new Rome that fears for its own
demise. And the imagination of disaster now conjures up images of high-rises
crumbling and falling down, or encroached on by water or wild nature (or in
one post-apocalyptic satire, the movie, Idiocracy, surrounded by
mountains of garbage).
Not surprisingly, these images of ruined
high-rises are saturated with irony because they embody the contrast
between our age’s desire to inflate itself to grandiose size and the nothing
it will one day become. This idea is vividly brought home to audiences in
the movie, A. I. Artificial Intelligence, which shows the ruins of a
future Manhattan, which has been flooded by the greenhouse effect, with
abandoned skyscrapers that are like tombstones in the graveyard of
civilization. In one scene, we see the hand and torch of the Statue of
Liberty sticking out of the water, as if it is trying to keep the dream
alive despite a rise in the level of the ocean.
But not all of the creations that
tell this kind of story about time and death are works of post-apocalyptic
fiction. In fact, they can be works of fact, fiction or speculation in any
medium, and they can be about the past, present or future. Some
written histories, for example, tell stories that have a lot in common with
post-apocalyptic fiction, recounting the fall of the Roman empire or
describing how ancient Egypt is lost in the sands of time.
We also see these themes in fictional stories that are
about the past or about times and places that don’t have any discernable
connection to our own. A good example is the Carl Sandburg poem, “Four
Preludes on Playthings of the Wind,” which is an observation about the fate
of nations -- and a warning about one possible fate for America.
In the poem, “strong men” are depicted as building a great nation and then
bragging that, “We are the greatest city, / the greatest nation: / nothing
like us ever was.” As the poem describes it, these men revel in their reflected glory,
putting those words on panels, and paying singers and chanters to repeat
them. But in the course of time, the nation disappears and its central city
falls into ruin, while everything it achieved is apparently forgotten. The
effort by its builders to boast about their own greatness then takes on an
ironic meaning because, as far as the world knows, nothing like them ever
Whatever their form, works like this embody the qualities of what
will be referred to in this essay as the fateful
sublime. While this term may not roll off the tongue easily in conversation,
it can help organize our thinking about this subject. The first word in the
phrase -- “fateful” -- is used both literally and poetically. It means
something that is determined by destiny, inexorable, fatal or of momentous
significance for subsequent events. The second word -- “sublime” -- refers
to whatever can induce a state of awe. Reduced to their essence, stories and symbols
that convey the qualities of fateful sublime-- or at least the ones we have examined so far -- show
us how societies and other large-scale elements of the world pass away in
the long passage of time.
Except, of course, they don’t only show
us. As noted earlier, when these stories are successful, they also evoke a
specific set of reactions in readers and audiences. Among these, they evoke
a sense of loss by showing us evidence of something that has
disappeared in a way that conveys an elegiac or mournful mood, filled with
pathos. This is certainly obvious in Waterworld and A. I.
Artificial Intelligence, which ask us to contemplate the ruins of our
These stories also call up a perception of irony since
time and death are master ironists who always have the last laugh, ensuring
that everything about us will be wiped away and things will never turn out
the way we hope. And they evoke awe or amazement at the scale of time,
and at the mystery and finality of time and death. The sense of irony and
awe are both enhanced by the monumental size of whatever has passed away,
and by the contrast with what it has become. Extensive ruins are particularly
well suited for this effect because they show us the results of deterioration
and collapse on something very large as if it is frozen in a moment in
But the awe that we experience is also tinged with a sense of
the uncanny at the way things exist and then cease to exist, a fact that we
can never fully come to terms with. Put in more concrete terms, many symbols
of the fateful sublime are uncanny because they take things that are a
familiar part of life, such as high-rises, and turn them into a “tableau” of
All of these reactions are essential elements of the fateful
sublime. Another common element is the explanations many stories offer for why something has disappeared.
Here, we discover that some of these stories are morality tales which
suggest those who have disappeared are responsible for their own demise
because of negative characteristics such as greed or folly. If what is
depicted is the destruction of our
own world by something like nuclear war or
environmental destruction, then the pointing of the finger of blame can
become a form of social activism through storytelling. Stories can also
point the finger of blame
in a way that harkens back to the Old Testament, with
the suggestion that the fall of a society is punishment, or at least just
desserts, for wrongs that have been committed. Or (and most of these aren't
mutually exclusive), the disappeared can be depicted simply as victims of an
attack or a natural catastrophe or advanced age, or no explanation may be given at all.
But, whatever reasons are
given, in many of these stories there is a chilling sense that rise and
fall, appearance and disappearance, are built in to the order of things.
In the Sandburg poem “Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind,” there is
even a sense that the arrogance and grandiosity of those who rise to power
is part of the natural cycle of the world. The poem suggests that nation-builders
will fall in love with their own imagined glory and then time will turn
them into dust, raising up new nation-builders who are also filled with
grandiosity, to repeat the cycle.
The five-painting series, “The
Course of Empire,” by the nineteenth century artist, Thomas Cole, implies
the same thing as we witness the birth and death of a great classical city
and, by extension, the empire it controls. In the first two paintings,
we see the birth of the city. Then, in the third, we see a leader’s
triumphal procession through what has become the lavish city at
its height, filled with opulence and grand classical buildings. It is
replaced, in the fourth painting by the inevitable invasion of barbarians,
as people in the city are murdered en masse, and in the fifth, by
desolation and ruins, with a bird’s nest sitting atop a free-standing
What “The Course of Empire” shows, of course, is a set of
clichés about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, brilliantly employed to
suggest that this is a cosmic drama in which everyone is playing an assigned role. As in other works, the sense that the city deserved what it
got (in this case because of its decadence), and the sense of inevitability
coexist, embodying our complex perceptions without fully reconciling them.
At the same time, the series is also about the future since it was a
warning about the potential fate of America.
In another masterpiece
-- the original movie, Planet of the Apes -- we see how these
elements can be brought together for maximum dramatic effect. To make a long
story short, the main character, played by Charlton Heston, believes he is
on a distant planet in the future where the dominant species are talking
apes, while human beings are wild, lacking speech and most of the arts of
But in the famous last scene, Heston’s character
experiences the ultimate shock when he discovers the half buried ruin of the
Statue of Liberty on a beach and realizes the space ship he was in didn’t
land on a distant planet after all; it really took him back to Earth in the future, after
human civilization destroyed itself with nuclear war. As we look on, we then
see his rage at the barbaric madness of the ultimate crime.
finally really did it. You maniacs. You blew it up,” he screams as he kneels
on the beach, cursing humanity, with the waves crashing in around him.
The camera then withdraws from the scene, so we see the full
statue and understand what he is reacting too.
This scene has been
referred to so many times in the media (including in satires), it has long
since become a movie cliché. And no wonder, since it is filled with power.
After all, this towering and dignified monument embodies the hopes and
ideals of America. But here we see it brought down by time and turned into a
symbol of how our age’s claims to greatness came to nothing in the end. Our
response is typically one of mild shock and a sense of loss, irony and awe at what
time has wrought, which is enhanced by our identification with the main
character who is depicted as being in a true state of shock. At the same time, we have a
sense of irony at the way the character
was tricked by circumstances.
But what gives this scene its power is that
all of this hits us at the same time in a multiple whammy of the fateful
sublime. Given the resonance of this scene, it isn't surprising that other
stories such as A. I. use the Statue of Liberty to achieve
When you add up all of these common
elements, it becomes obvious that what we are dealing with here is a coherent
genre of storytelling, which is about how something large, such as an
empire, an era in history, humanity, or life itself (or something larger
still, such as the universe), disappears in the long passage of time. And
the more we look at these stories, the more we see the common elements
that define them.
But having identified this kind of story and
listed some of its characteristics, we will now need to expand its
boundaries further because there are other kinds of works that can embody the
fateful sublime, as well. These works evoke many of the same reactions, but they change
some of the elements of the story, varying the scale of time or the size of
whatever has passed away.
They may show the fall of something large, but in a
brief span of time, as in the 1959 movie, On the Beach, which kills off
humanity with radiation, and presents us with the uncanny sight of empty
city streets that haven’t yet fallen into ruin. A work like this
our awe at the vast scale of time, but other elements of the fateful sublime
are still there. Or, instead of showing the fall of an entire people, en
masse, these works may depict a grave or someone looking back at past ages
of his own life, in which case we won’t feel a sense of awe at the vast size
of what has passed away. And the scale of time may be reduced, as well.
An example of this last possibility
is the 1981 British television
serial, Brideshead Revisited, based on the novel by Evelyn Waugh.
But it may take us to the limits of what can be referred to as the fateful
sublime. It begins in the time of World War Two as a middle-aged British
officer, played by Jeremy Irons, is deployed at the palatial estate of
Brideshead, which has been vacated by the aristocratic family that lived
there and is now being used as a military base. In one of those fateful
coincidences that make stories more interesting, it turns out that in his
youth Irons’ character was friends with a young man from the aristocratic
family that owned the house. Then, later in life, Irons’ character got a
divorce from his wife to marry a woman who was a member of the same family,
although the marriage never took place. So the entire series of eleven
episodes is a wistful look back at the time he spent in the house, and the
ways he became entangled with the aristocratic family that lived there.
In the eleventh episode, after this story has been told, we are up to
date and back at the house in its new incarnation as a military base. And,
along with Irons’ character, we experience the uncanniness of seeing the
house and grounds transformed, since it is now filled with soldiers, many of
whom will die on the other side of the English Channel. And many of the
house’s contents are now in disarray, covered over and stacked up as it
sustains damage inflicted by its new tenants. So this is another story about
someone visiting a ruin and a place of death, all the more so because it is
the place where his relationship and his hopes for the future died.
As Irons’ character sits in the house in its strange new incarnation, he
reflects on the things in life he has lost. And it becomes clear that it is
his own life that is a ruin. As he tells another soldier, while talking
about the house and the pleasures of building: “I’ve never built anything.
And I forfeited the right to watch my son grow up. I’m homeless, childless,
middle aged and loveless….”
If the story works for us, it will evoke
the same responses as other works of the fateful sublime: an elegiac feeling
of loss, regret and nostalgia for a past world; irony over how things turned
out; and a sense of awe and the uncanny as the character sees things that
were once part of his life rearranged into a symbol of what has been lost in
time. But, here, the long passage of time is within a single lifetime and
the death is of a time of life, as youth and love have transitioned into a
sterile middle age.
Despite their differences, all of these works
drink from the same deep well of the fateful sublime. We can boil it down by
saying they are about a sense of irony, awe and the uncanny in response to
the traumatic mystery of time and death, and about sadness and compassion
for loss in time. They convey all of this by showing us the death of a time
in one life, or the death of individuals or something larger, which can
take place over various spans of time.
Any complete definition will
also need to note that symbols and stories can embody elements of the
fateful sublime to a greater or lesser degree, so we often get it in diluted
form. But whatever form they take, if they embody the fateful sublime, we
will see in them the story of our own passing and the passing of people we
care about, as well as a story about the universal pageant of transience
that characterizes the world. This is even true of works like Idiocracy that
satirize the fateful sublime, complicating our responses with humor to give
us a rich aesthetic experience.
Of course, these works can only have
these effects on us because we know it is safe to attend to them. We know
that, most obviously, because they are mere fictions and representations.
But, in addition, we know ahead of time that these stories are designed to be
emotionally safe. They protect our feelings, avoiding the depiction of
anything that is too disturbing, even when they appear to be showing us
something unsettling. Even the horrific images in the movie, Terminator
2: Judgment Day, of skeleton-like robots and other machines fighting
the last survivors of humanity in a post-apocalyptic landscape full of
skulls, and of people burning in a nuclear explosion, are carefully crafted
to take audiences toward the edge but not emotionally traumatize them.
It is because we know these stories are safe that we have the luxury of
ironically observing their characters from a distance, even as we also
identify with some of the same characters and become psychologically immersed
in their lives. From our position of safety in a movie theater or our living
room, we can let the powers of emotion and imagination do their work on us
as we bond with characters who are facing the traumatic mystery of
time and death. We become like the Charlton Heston character in Planet
of the Apes, shocked at the sight of the Statue of Liberty, half-buried
on a beach, and outraged at the nuclear destruction of human civilization.
As we watch him from a distance, and identify with him, we deeply experience
his humanity and join him in railing against the folly of the people who
destroyed our world, even as we more fully see nuclear weapons as the form
of radical evil they are. We become like the female character in
Waterworld who is shocked at the sight of a ruined city of high-rises
on the ocean floor. And we experience her plight, trapped in a world of
water, in which it appears that the only land is at the bottom of the sea.
As we are carried away by these situations, we experience a benevolent love
for some of the characters that can include a more general sense of compassion for humanity, giving us a powerful and
personal awareness of the human condition.
It is from this
position of safety that we attend to these stories and mourn for what hasn’t
yet been lost -- and for what has: dead friends and family, past ages in our
own lives, and ultimately, ourselves. At the risk of sounding maudlin, these
works put us in a position not unlike the hero Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid, as
he observes a Carthaginian mural depicting the Trojan War and
says that the
creators weep “For how the world goes, and our life that passes \ Touches
their hearts” (translated by Robert Fitzgerald). Put another way, these works let us experience what the
Japanese refer to as mono no aware, an aesthetic appreciation of
bitter-sweetness or sad beauty over transience.
Similarly, from our
position of safety, we experience the irony at the heart of our existence,
in which every life ultimately has an unhappy ending. Irony is essential to
these stories because it is based on the depiction of contrasts -- and the
fateful sublime is all about disturbing contrasts between illusion and
reality, before and after, intactness and disintegration, arrogance and
collapse, presence and disappearance. The sense of loss and empathy
psychologically immerse us in the story, letting us meld with the
characters. But irony is hard as metal, with a sharp blade, and at its
best it can reveal the truth obscurely embodied in appearances, even if it
often does so by referring to things indirectly for effect.
some of the best stories of this type end with irony and loss, conveying the
feeling that our hopes for the future are as ephemeral as we are. At their
most extreme, these pessimistic stories leave us with a sense that life is
without meaning, consisting only of one thing after another, without a goal
But other stories give us happy endings to counteract
the irony, and act as an antidote to our awareness of loss and death. Of
course, the antidote is only partly effective, and most of its effect is
only evident while the feeling lasts.
A good example of how happy
endings like this can interact with the sense of irony and loss can be seen
at the end of Waterworld, when we discover the fate of the main
characters who are trapped on an endless ocean. In the course of the movie,
both the floating village and the derelict ship that were a home to humanity
are destroyed. Since it is possible they are the last of their kind,
humanity may now be doomed, with only a few people left on small boats on
the water. Then, at the end, the mariner played by Kevin Costner and a
handful of other survivors make it to the long sought after refuge of dry
land, which is a mountainous area that wasn’t engulfed by the deluge. Having
lived desperate lives on the “desert” of the ocean’s surface, the survivors
are now amazed and delighted by what they see on land, with fresh water
cascading down in a waterfall, plants and trees growing in abundance, and
wild horses galloping passed. As they witness the bounty of nature for the
first time, we see it vicariously along with them, with fresh eyes, and have
a sense that humanity is saved and everything will be alright after all. We
also then have a new image fixed in our minds -- of life -- as a
counterpoint to the images of death, malevolence and entrapment by water in
the rest of the movie.
As a result of the alchemy of this happy
ending, our feeling of concern over the future is transformed into hope. To one degree or another, many in the audience will
even experience what it is like to identify, not with family or nation or
even with their own era in history, but with humanity, by becoming
emotionally invested in its prospects in a distant time.
But, in the
end, the movie leaves us with only a tempered optimism. After all, so far
only a handful of people have made it to dry land. And one of the things
they see when they get there are the skeletons of a couple who were there
before. In addition, the central character -- the mariner played by Costner
-- heads back out to sea after they arrive because it is the only world he
is comfortable in. So, like many of the best works that embody the fateful
sublime, Waterworld intentionally mixes things together, letting
the good feelings of the happy ending, the sense of vulnerability and loss,
and the perception of the ironic limits of life coexist in a rich
It is through these techniques, that stories
of the fateful sublime tell us the truth about the world, and help us deny
it at the same time, letting us enjoy a symbolic victory over death. Of
course, with or without these symbolic victories, death still has the last
laugh because time stops its inexorable march for no one. But in the
invented world of storytelling, we can play at attaining the ultimate
victory by using the idea of death for our aesthetic enjoyment, and
by experiencing a simulation of life and death from a position of temporary
immunity. We similarly experience a symbolic victory over death as we are
carried away by happy endings, which evoke all those good feelings and tell
us there will be more life -- and love -- in the future, as a way to
partially reconcile us to the truth about the world.
But in doing
these things, stories don’t merely show us what we already know about the
world. They use the power of art to transform the things we know and create
things we don’t know, so the stories themselves become a source of awe. And
they expand our powers of perception and imagination, frequently to show us
the limitations of the world.
A poem, titled “The Negro Speaks of
Rivers,” by Langston Hughes, is a good example of how these stories expand
our powers of perception to reveal a world full of limitation. In the poem,
the speaker claims that he isn’t contained by time but is as old as
history. He says that he has “known rivers ancient as the world and older
than the \ flow of human blood in human veins.” But as he tells us that he
has lived in various ages in the past, there is also more than a hint of
tragedy and limitation in the lives he describes:
bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the
Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the
pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe
went down to New Orleans….
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers”
is our last example of the fateful sublime. Through its expansive speaker,
we see the sweep of history as it is experienced, one person
and one people at a time. Like this poem, all of these works lift us out of
our everyday perspective so we can contemplate the human condition, caught
in the passage of time, which is a mystery that defines us but that we are
unable to solve.
Image: Italiano: Rovine della tonnara di Vendicari, nell'Oasi naturale,
nei pressi di Siracuasa. By Mikuzz [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)],
via Wikimedia Commons
Copyright © 1996-2013 Ken Sanes