Apocalyptic communities: the disaster and reealation of class and space

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The apocalyptic types—empire, decadence and renovation, progress and catastrophe—are fed by history and underlie our ways of making sense of the world from where we stand, in the middest.

Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.

Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

A Genealogy of the Postwar Apocalyptic Narrative: The Influences and Examples of John Wyndham and George Orwell

As Bill Masen, the protagonist of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951) attempts to come to terms with the disaster that has left most of society blind and thus easy prey for the triffids, mobile and poisonous plants, he describes his surroundings and the feelings that they evoke: “To the left, through miles of suburban streets, lay the open country; to the right, the West End of London, with the City beyond. I was feeling somewhat restored, but curiously detached now, and rudderless” (38). Masen’s ability to see grants him an already privileged perspective that permits him to survey his world and to decide how the spaces of the “open country” and “the City” will affect his psyche. His reaction to the spaces epitomizes a trend throughout postwar British apocalyptic narratives to view the country and nature as redemptive, especially in the face of overwhelming and incomprehensible disaster. The influence of spatiality on the causes of and responses to disasters reveals the political critique of apocalyptic narratives. In this case, Masen yokes his left with the country and his right with the City, responding to the first with feelings of restoration and the latter with feelings of detachment. The political connotations of left and right emphasize that the redemptive country is not a conservative space of nostalgia, but instead a progressive space; whereas, the City, the literal space of business within London, represents the repressive ideological realities of monopoly capital. The novel critiques the oppressive reality of capitalism with the very premise of the disaster—the insinuation that the greed for profits gained from the production of triffid oil has propagated this disaster, or on a more aphoristic level that greed will always lead to some sort of disaster.

While coming to terms with the inevitability of disaster, Masen shows a realist understanding of the spaces of redemption by mediating the country with the borders of the suburbs. The suburbs of London emerge for several reasons related to class status. For the lower classes, the suburbs represent a forced expulsion from the city as the gentrification of previously working-class areas makes housing unaffordable or unavailable. The council estates on the borders of the city, such as Keith’s home in London Fields, are offered to these displaced Londoners and become emblematic of the forced expulsion of the poor. For the middle class, the suburbs present an easier opportunity to become homeowners, as they cannot meet the standard of living required of life in the city. Conversely, for the upper classes the suburbs present the opportunity to enter into the city for work or leisure without the alienating realities of living in the city, but they are left with the most access to mobility and the most choice. For all classes, the suburbs present the rural and the urban or at least the borders of these spaces. The working class are still blocked from nature because of the lack of leisure time offered in their work schedules; the middle classes and the upper classes become mostly stagnated by their transient existence in between the two spaces, making an understanding of both urban and rural incomprehensible, or in other words, they can only understand the suburban existence which is a distilled or a false version of the urban and the rural. Masen acknowledges the spatial influence of the suburban, and then furthers the radical potential of the country by calling the space “open.” Masen suggests endless potential within the rural, a direct affront to the reality of the suburbs. Masen does not immediately discover absolute bliss and comfort once leaving the city, but despite the reality he finds, the rural spaces foster his ability to maintain hope for progress and salvation through the authentic relationship he cultivates within the rural space. Within his initial labeling of the country as ‘open’ he insinuates that the urban is closed, which in the aftermath of the disaster means a site of danger utterly lacking hope for its trapped inhabitants under constant and unforeseeable threat from the enemy.

As the feeling of constant threat characterizes the postwar milieu, Wyndham and his contemporary George Orwell epitomize a trend in postwar British literature of presenting apocalyptic situations as a means of imagining productive responses to the oppressive political realities that either cause or result from the disasters. These two authors were imagining a way to escape from their historical reality, the aftermath of World War II and the Blitz on London, which had left enduring scars on the national psyche particularly for the inhabitants of London still living amongst the rubble and the developing Cold War paranoia. The War and the Blitz made the insecurity of London and the British Empire obvious, thus leaving the English subject fearful of fascist and communist occupation. Wyndham and Orwell recognized the lingering fear over a threat to British sovereignty and thus imagined situations where their characters deal with and to varying degrees find protection from oppression, particularly in a collective understanding of the redemptive principles of the natural and the country, epitomized by the imaging of alternative communities that come into being within this protected space. The focus on the natural permits me to elaborate Patrick Parrinder’s argument that “the rural sanctuary, a fortified island or valley serving as a last redoubt of ‘Britishness’, is common to almost all the British disaster novels written in the post-war period of imperial withdrawal” (212). Parrinder focuses on the important theme of the rural sanctuary, but he inevitably concludes that the futures imagined within these sanctuaries are “deluded endgames” (233). I will carefully examine this repeated theme of the rural sanctuary, but I will argue that these spaces permit a utopian imaging of identity and a reassessment of the meaning of collectivity. Overall, the alternative communities imagined by Wyndham and Orwell within the spaces of the country reveal the postwar tradition of using the apocalyptic moment to reveal the limits of oppressive politics and the potential of a progressive reorganization of community. A close reading of the connections between the ideals of the country and the natural and the imagination of alternative communities in The Day of the Triffids and Orwell’s 1984 (1949) establishes a particular apocalyptic tradition to which authors of the late twentieth century respond. Thus, examining Wyndham’s and Orwell’s novels will help us to better understand J.G. Ballard’s discomfort with the stagnated politics of the late 1970s, Martin Amis’s critique of Thatcher’s neo-conservative hierarchies of the 1980s, and Danny Boyle’s interrogation of Tony Blair’s nostalgic New Britain of the late 1990s.

The political dimension of British apocalyptic literature emerges in its earliest and most influential manifestations, primarily through the works of Mary Shelley and H.G Wells. Shelley’s Frankenstein questions the costs and benefits of scientific experimentation. Shelley, like many of the apocalyptic writers who follow her, was primarily interested in the effects that technology would have on the individual and thus the family or the community, but because of the influence of Romanticism, she was particularly interested in how nature contributes to the creation of social relationships. Through her frame narrative, Shelley juxtaposes two types of discoverers, Robert Walton, who can celebrate the beauty of the artic and natural and express this beauty to his sister while simultaneously going about his discovery, and Victor Frankenstein, who becomes so obsessed with his discovery that he looses contact with the world and, because of his isolation, ensures his failure. Frankenstein’s monster inherits the fate of not being able to appreciate the beauty of the world and the love of others, and thus, the monster violently rebels against his creator because unlike Frankenstein the monster is a truly romantic man. The monster represents the danger of allowing technology and not the natural to shape our worldview. Shelley’s warning against technology as a way to elevate authentic experiences within the world becomes increasingly sentient in a twentieth-century world of Debordian spectacle and Baudrillardian simulation that insinuates that there is no content or meaning left as a result of commodity culture. Ballard, Amis, and Boyle refuse the solipsistic philosophic trends of postmodern simulation and instead assert the primacy of the collective desires for genuine experiences and relational love, much like Shelley.

Wells’s view of the apotheosis of scientific rationality and thus his reconfiguration of the natural as the scientific is not as clearly optimistic and redemptive as Shelley, but his scientific romances are the standard barer of the British disaster narrative, particularly through their impetus to see disaster as the opportunity to envision the world through new perspectives. Wells’s critical apocalypses influence Wyndham, Orwell, and continue to linger in the minds of all other apocalyptic writers. The specific historical event to which The War of the Worlds (1898) most directly responds is the possibility for European war after the unification of Germany. As evidence that Wells’s novels are not ahistorical or fantastic, his stylistic choice of realism and scientific authenticity become the standard for critical apocalypses. His alien invaders are not frightening because of their appearance or size, in fact they are physically limited by Earth’s atmosphere, but instead they are terrifying because of their intelligence and ability, including their attack on the whole of England, making both London and the countryside spaces of siege and danger and suggesting that England and thus the ideal of Englishness is in danger. Wells’s use of shifting narrative view points in Worlds not only emphasizes the everyman nature of his narrative but also places observers who have a variety of backgrounds and influences in different perspectives to emphasize the potential commonality that a totality like disaster could achieve. Through these varied narrative voices, Wells establishes the use of apocalypse as a way to look inward and examine the workings of the society as a collective, the people as individuals, and the relationships that define humanity when under attack and thus rapidly changing.

Attempting to understand the critical impact of apocalypse, in The Sense of an Ending Frank Kermode examines how narrative, which is driven by a need for an ending, allows us to imagine and understand apocalyptic desires from our place in the middle, or in the historically determined categories of our existence. In other words, Kermode provides a narrative theory of apocalypse that attempts to understand the communal experiences of narrative. For Kermode, the radicalism of apocalypse makes it flexible and adaptable to the crisis filled art and time of modernity. Kermode notes that in literary plotting, the End has lost much of its momentum and significance because of our desire to “think in terms of crisis rather than temporal ends” (30). He goes on to note that despite this desire, “we can perceive duration only when it is organized,” which for literature means plot (45). As narrative is apocalyptic in its need for an end and we can only understand temporality through narratives, on some level all narratives are narratives of apocalypse; this statement can be rephrased, all narratives are revelatory or all narratives break apart to reveal meaning, or it can be violently rephrased that all narrative is a state of crisis and destruction, particularly of the reigning order. Kermode’s theory of apocalypse responds to the meaning of the word, “revelation or disclosure,” which necessitates an examination of apocalypse outside of the historically religious definition of the Christian tradition. The ideal of revelation applies directly to narrative, which itself is the act of revealing through words, plot, and character. When looking at narratives that are self-reflexively apocalyptic, the act of disclosure becomes multi-layered. Of all the layers of revelation and disclosure in apocalyptic narratives, I am interested in the connection between the urban disaster or threat and the potential for rural renewal, particularly how the hostile or nurturing spaces can image new formations for community. These alternative apocalyptic communities are my way of following Kermode’s lessons on the End in modernism and postmodernism. Kermode realizes that there must be “rediscoveries, fruitful revaluation” and “a new use for the past” (121), understanding that it is not apocalypse that takes place but that apocalyptic narrative does; apocalypse is thus a kind of angel of history gestalt experience written in order to produce catharsis from its audience.

Further developing the relationship between the apocalyptic narrative and its audience, Susan Sontag argues for a need to understand the potential for the historicity of apocalypse in “The Imagination of Disaster.” Sontag reads “[t]he typical science fiction film” (116) to explain how and why we are continually drawn to the imagination of disaster. She starts by establishing commonality and difference between the different manifestations of disaster, saying “From a psychological point of view, the imagination of disaster does not greatly differ from one period in history to another. But from a political and moral point of view, it does” (130). According to Sontag, we are all yoked together by a similar emotional response and fear toward disaster. Because of this collective response, the threat of disaster can make heterogeneous communities arise because the differences of race, class, and gender are forgotten in favor of this pressing mutual reaction. We must remember that the apocalyptic narrative is occasional, an event in which we cannot speak of the political as such because we do not have the language to communicate the direct representation of the apocalyptic situation. If we understand the postwar period as Sontag summarizes, “Ours is indeed an age of extremity” (130), we must understand that the historical and political causes, conflicts, and uses of disaster matter greatly despite the verisimilitude of emotional responses. In this divide, Sontag explains the dangers of simply celebrating the science fiction film’s depiction of disaster as spectacle and entertainment. She explains, “the imagery of disaster in science fiction is above all the emblem of an inadequate response. I don’t make to bear down on the films for this. They themselves are only a sampling, stripped of sophistication, of the inadequacy of most people’s response to the unassimilable terrors that infect the consciousness” (130). Sontag establishes that the desire to imagine the disaster is to escape from the very real terrors and violence of the world. The disaster (violent battle, nuclear annihilation, or pandemic) is easier to deal with than the real terrors of global capitalism that cause not only these examples of disaster but the continual class conflict waged throughout the world. Each of the texts in the apocalyptic tradition under examination here attempts to use these imagined disasters as the catalyst to reveal how the dangerous forces of global capitalism rule society. Then, like Kermode explains, from the midst of the disaster, these texts attempt to make sense of or reveal the potential for our world, even when threatened by “unremitting banality and inconceivable terror” (Sontag 130). Wyndham’s and Orwell’s narratives reveal the process of accepting terror as the norm and thus finding ways to adapt and reconfigure the self and the community, particularly through the spaces of redemption, such as the home that Bill and Josella cultivate in Triffids and the clandestine natural love den that Julia and Winston visit in 1984.

The Day of the Triffids presents repeated critiques of the effects of industrial capitalism and the imperial nation state on the status of the individual as a self-contained and self-sufficient ontological being, ultimately presenting the cottage home and the collective island society as models of socialist productivity. Wyndham’s novel, like the contemporary adaptation 28 Days Later, challenges the zombie genre by linking the monstrous to anti-social, non-egalitarian behavior. While the triffids are the immediate enemy, the zombie-like humans who retain their consciousness but lack even the ability to provide for themselves or participate in the work required for the preservation of society present an equally dangerous situation. The sighted though do not necessarily flourish, as exemplified by the failed Christian community and the violent military communities, but can flourish by adapting a socialist agenda based on communal acceptance and respect, or by not becoming the monstrous, anti-social force fighting against collective salvation. Even the main characters must understand the necessity of collectivity. Masen develops from a selfishly individualistic scientist before the disaster to a thoughtful and able caretaker of the land and the people who depend on him. Masen explains his own transformation as the journalistic, first person narrator of Triffids, which is essentially his path towards a non-traditional family and their decision to move to the community on the Isle of Wight. As he ends with an epilogue that starts, “And there my personal story joins up with the rest. You will find it in Elspeth Cary’s excellent history of the colony” (228), he emphasizes that the path they have followed is the logical progression to a collective and redemptive organization for a successful community, and as Masen has discovered the workings of the natural world alongside the reader, he asks the reader to come to the same logical conclusion about the best path for the protection of humanity. He unselfishly ends his individual narrative once it has accomplished the collective agenda. As his metamorphosis begins shortly after the disaster, Masen critiques how segregated and useless individuals have become as a result of industrial capitalism. He says, “I knew practically nothing, for instance, of such ordinary things as how my food reached me, where the fresh water came from, how the clothes I wore were woven and made, how the drainage of cities kept them healthy. Our lives had become a complexity of specialists” (12). Masen, unlike the parasitic neo-feudal fascist Torrence, understands the reality that all humans have been left like the blind in terms of useful labor, and he does not wish to manipulate the non-sighted based on fear.

In Wyndham’s apocalypse, the privilege of vision is not based on sight but the need to have foresight of the outcomes of our reliance on technology and our cultivation of the unnatural. Masen explains, “I don’t think it had ever before occurred to me that man’s supremacy is not primarily due to his brain, as most of the books would have one think. It is due to the brain’s capacity to make use of the information conveyed to it by a narrow band of visible light rays” (93). Wyndham realizes the fragility of the visible and correlates this tenable protection to the ever-present danger for corruption or destruction that surrounds Postwar society. By arguing for the supremacy of human visibility based on its connection to ontological identity, Wyndham asks for a more complete and careful understanding of the way English society works, the way Englishness influences the subjects identity within the society, and the historical and political construction of England and Englishness.1

The spaces of the farm and the colony represent a revitalization of authentic collectivity and relationships instead of the isolation and specialization of individual identity characteristic of pre-disaster England. Wyndham’s critique cannot neatly be summarized as John Clute does that Wyndham gave an “eloquently middle-class English response to the theme of Disaster” (667). To do so would be to look at the superficially English icons, the pubs and the condemnation of those who hope that the Americans will come and save the survivors, as Wyndham’s main critique. Instead, Edmund Morris argues that Wyndham uses social commentary to look at the aftermath of disaster. Morris’s critique indicates that the novel requires an examination of the spaces that foster collective ideals. He says, “And when disaster happens, the worst is not what it does to such physical infrastructures as cities and transport systems, but to the precious intangibles that a democratic government is supposed to protect: the loyalty of lovers, the upbringing of children, the rule of law, the all-importance of free speech and privacy and good manners” (xiii). These democratic rights are overtly discussed in Triffids, thus making them obvious also in the adaptation, 28 Days Later. On the most obvious level, the variety of communities in Triffids, Christian, military, subsistent, or socialist, thrive or fail contingent upon the degree to which they protect democratic rights. The protection of these rights correlates to a vision of history based on Benjamin’s angel of history, which stands amidst the turmoil of the past to piece together an authentic yet non-monumental version of history that protects human rights. This vision of history also appears in London Fields through the collective protection of childhood innocence. In Triffids, Masen’s and Josella’s union eptimozies this role of history. Masen explains their first intimate connection: “And we danced, on the brink of an unknown future, to an echo from a vanished past” (105). The echo means that the past is still haunting them, but that their union, an embodiment of the protection of love and collective agency, can bring them into the future. This future eventually leads them to the socialist community on the Isle of Wight, the ultimate triumph of natural collectivity.

Orwell configures the natural as both a literal and imagined space of respite for the protagonist Winston Smith. As Winston begins to write in his journal and to choose other behavior that betrays the Party, he longingly recalls his family and a natural landscape that explains his feelings for his family, or more precisely as he explains, “a time when there were still privacy, love, and friendship, and when the members of a family stood by one another without needing to know the reason” (28). For Winston, authentic emotion is derived from the family, but under the Party these emotions would only lead to unbearable suffering, which for Winston is symbolized by the “large eyes of his mother and sister, looking up at him through the green water, hundreds of fathoms down and still sinking” (29). The acute stare of the only people who have truly loved Winston haunts his memory because of the suffering derived from their constant process of drowning, a feeling that Winston likewise equates with living under Party control. Because Winston has begun a process of rebellion, he now has a memory of a natural space where his family once experienced “privacy, love, and friendship.” He explains his dream: “Suddenly he was standing on short springy turf, on a summer evening when the slanting rays of the sun gilded the ground. The landscape that he was looking at recurred so often in his dreams that he was never fully certain whether or not he had seen it in the real world. In his waking thoughts he called in the Golden Country” (29). This reappearing image in Winston’s dreams is his oneiric house.2 When it manifests in his thoughts, moving from unconscious dream to conscious reflections, his name for it “Golden Country” reveals the value that Winston grants to the power of this memory. His initial description of the turf and the summer light does not have any specificity but represents absolute pleasure through its soothing connotations. As he continues relating this dream turned memory, he becomes more precise with his description:

It was an old, rabbit-bitten pasture, with a good track wandering across it and a molehole here and there. In the ragged hedge on the opposite side of the field the boughs of the elm trees were swaying very faintly in the breeze, their leaves stirring in dense masses like women’s hair. Somewhere near at hand, though out of sight, there was a clear, slow-moving stream where dace were swimming in the pools under the willow trees. (29)

Winston’s description develops because of the specific geographical features like the track, trees, and stream that make a mapping of the space possible. The development furthers the transfer of this oneiric home from his dreams to his thoughts. For Winston, this space represents the salvation of “privacy, love, and friendship” and thus his mother and sister. The simile describing the trees as “women’s hair” reveals Winston’s connection between the salvation of loving relationships and the feminine. The natural becomes related to the feminine for Winston, which means forbidden yet authentic relationships, as opposed to the violent reality of the Party. The calm, translucent water of the stream opposes the “green water” that drowns and separates Winston from his mother and sister. This water is life giving, as the fish and the peaceful sound of the flowing water indicate.

The redemptive power of the natural indicated by the water and the correlation between the natural and the feminine becomes synonymous with rebellion as Winston’s experiences continue. This initial natural memory concludes with a dark haired girl approaching him and tearing off her clothes (29). Winston does not respond with arousal, instead his desire is channeled toward rebellion. He explains his interpretation of her action: “With its grace and carelessness it seemed to annihilate a whole culture, a whole system of thought, as though Big Brother and the Party and the Thought Police could all be swept into nothingness by a single splendid movement of the arm” (29). The culture of violence and oppression characterized by the Party becomes replaced in Winston’s memory by authentic emotional and natural responses. When Winston and Julia first consummate their relationship, it must occur within the space of Winston’s oneiric home. Julia arranges the meeting, but Winston recognizes the similarity to his memory. He describes the exact footpath, molehill, trees and stream, using the same language (102-3). The pure emotional bliss that Winston recognizes in this natural space derives from the layers of authentic relationships, from his mother to sister and now to Julia, that the space provides him. For Winston, again like Benjamin’s angel, history is defined by the ability to withstand catastrophe, which in this case means to maintain loving relationships by understanding their past and then using this understanding to withstand the terror of the present and thus emphasize the necessity of authentic community for the future. But he explains that under the Party, “History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right” (128). The oneiric space contradicts the historical understanding allowed by the Party. Because his conception of history has expanded beyond the party definition, Winston starts proclaiming of himself and Julia or anyone living under Party rules, “We are the dead” (113, 145). Even though Winston and Julia cannot maintain the authentic relationship protected by their natural environment, they prove, much like Sam and Nicola in London Fields, a momentary community can reveal the oppressive politics of the mainstream and image alternative social formations that suggest ways to resist oppressive realities.

Ballard, Amis, and Boyle each imagine new social formations based on the natural or the country that resist the political realities of their time. In High-Rise, Ballard critiques the stagnated class structure of 1970s England by relating this stagnation to the space of the metropolitan skyscraper. The narrative structure mimics the spaces of the building by having three segregated male protagonists representing each of the classes battling for position within the isolated spaces. Most of the conflict arises over access to mobility within the spaces, revealing that a stagnated environment will lead to chaos. The novel offers an alternative to the chaotic struggles of the individual male protagonists through a collective feminine space within the garden. This natural space fosters a collective agenda of protection and nurture. Similarly, Amis critiques the hierarchical class structure required under Thatcher’s neo-conservative government by revealing the oppression of each individual, irrespective of class, when attempting to understand emotional connections and collective social formations. Amis creates the imagined natural space, London Fields, to emphasize the collective need to protect innocence and thus avoid catastrophe. Finally, Boyle’s film critiques the nostalgia of New Britain by following a non-traditional family as it moves from the urban and into different natural environments, which both attack and protect the collective agenda. Boyle’s film acknowledges its historical and literary influences to emphasize the need to understand history not as a nostalgic celebration of previous grandeur but instead as communal collection of multiple perspectives and traditions.

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