Post-Apocalyptic Fiction: Holocaust as Metaphor


The Quest of the Self and Society
For Wholeness and Adulthood

These are some of the categories of post-apocalyptic fiction. As noted earlier, they don't exhaust the potential categories and they aren't the only way to organize this material. But they serve to bring out some of the larger trends in these works. What is essential is that all are created by combining the kinds of elements described above. Like the survivors in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, these works collect the bits and pieces of culture and put them together in new ways. And like the story teller at the end of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, who tells Max's story to the new village so it will know its origins, these works provide a new mythology that can tell us where we come from and where we are going. They are a form of memory in the sense that they challenge us to remember who we are.

Once we have identified the elements that make them up, we can compose a master list of story components. We can then begin to see the ways post-apocalyptic fiction is similar to, and different from, other kinds of fiction and science fiction, which use some of the same elements to bring us to a state of recognition.

In conducting such an analysis, we will constantly be led back to the fact that these creations are rich and complex symbols or metaphors that create new associations between cultural elements and give existing associations new meanings. A part of this is accomplished in the way that was described earlier, through a kind of creative anthropology and history in which different cultural elements are blended together to show us a world turned upside down.

But we really have to view the entire story in these works as symbols and metaphors, so that the heroes, confronting evil systems and trying to save or restore a semblance of civilization, represent various aspects of our lives and societies. What these stories tell us, in part, is that contemporary society is like the fictional society of the future they are depicting, and both are like minds and families and situations from the past, as well as like the situations described in ancient myths. They use each of these realms of meaning to tell the same story about the quest to mature into an ethical and free adulthood, on the part of both individuals and the human race, and about the danger that we will fall back into regression, violence and false forms of freedom. Inevitably, the hero, who is us, confronts forms of power that try to lead him away from his true task. These works tell these stories with varying degrees of romance and irony, offering us happy endings and transformations, or heroes who experience only a little success in altering circumstances.

The links that tie all of these elements together are the realms of meaning that have to do with family dynamics and mind, since it is in our early upbringing that we first experience forms of power that encourage us both to fall back and go forward. The fears and desires the emerge from this encounter are transferred onto the people we deal with throughout life; and onto technology; and onto leaders and governments that instrumentally manipulate our fears and desires for their own ends. We thus come to post-apocalyptic fiction ready to experience the central human conflict of growth versus regression, embodied in fictional images of characters and societies that have to deal with rulers and power-holders who are like good and bad parents. The stories give us this experience by inviting us to identify with characters as they take a journey across a landscape, which is the landscape of our own mind, just as it is a landscape of the collective mind of our society and of humanity. (It can, often, also be described as the mind of the main characters, since they are on a journey into themselves). As we experience the story, which is simultaneously about our life course and the life course of the race, we are able to identify our struggle with those of the hero, so that we develop an appreciation for the fact that everyone who faces these conflicts is linked together and part of the same larger struggle. Through this experience, we get in touch with a set of motives and ideas that are central to our own minds, which consist of our desire to overcome the obstacles presented by developmental conflicts and neurosis, and by society and circumstances, so we can evolve into a whole and ethical adulthood, both as individuals and, collectively, as a people. The corrupters and wise advisors, the temptations and victims needing rescue, and the veil of illusions that need to be lifted, are all occasions for the growth of the characters, as they are in all fiction.  

The post-apocalyptic landscapes in which all this takes place are obviously our own fears of what will happen to the future, if we fail to develop as people. To the extent these works depict the present, these landscapes represent the things we have already done to damage our world. To the extent these landscapes symbolize something in our own lives, they represent the acts of castration, abandonment, assault and death that we fear our parents will visit on us, when we are children, for our imagined crimes. It is the fear of these forms of violence, which becomes lodged in the unconscious, that turns us all into partly ruined selves, aptly represented by the ruined worlds in post-apocalyptic fiction. But in post-apocalyptic fiction, these catastrophes are represented as having already taken place. In the primitive world of the unconscious, these catastrophic acts of retaliation may be perceived as an impending danger, or as having partially or entirely occurred. In any case, it is our fear of these fantasized catastrophes that turns us into people who are like the main characters of post-apocalyptic fiction, since we too are trying to achieve an ethical adulthood in the face of (partly) ruined surroundings.

What ties these various meanings together is our fear that our effort to gain power through technology is an expression of taboo desires to overthrow parents or is done while we are still too immature to exercise adult power. As in Frankenstein, so in post-apocalyptic fiction, humanity 's effort to grab power through technology, results in destruction.  

When it comes to the more literal level of the kind of future these works depict, most are intended to evoke in us a feeling of optimism: civilization dies, because of our sins, but humanity lives to try again and (without trying to sound overly cute) it tries to live again. But this optimism is always tempered by a recognition of the stakes involved, and of what has been lost. That is an attitude we can learn from, as we look at the horrors humanity has so far suffered and at the horrors that could lie ahead as morally flawed human nature is paired with advanced technology. If we can find a way to learn these lessons, when it comes to both our selves and society, we will have a better chance of keeping the predictions of catastrophe safely locked away in the realm of metaphor and imagination.

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