Apocalypse and Fiction

Once upon a time I fell in love with Apocalyptic fiction. I thought it was just a phase. But I have recently relapsed. I pick up, I start reading, and 2 hours go by. My Biology textbooks and Calculus videos are left forlorn on my desk. 

Out of guilt, I began meditating on the genre of apocalyptic fiction—and why so incredibly gripping it is to me. My conclusion: Such fiction—in fact, all great works of art—is religious. Religious in the sense of pertaining to the most basic of human situations. Apocalyptic fiction explores primarily one of such facets: the human struggle with its constant powerlessness in the face of facts, or, to put it in other words, the constitutive Chaos of the Real.  

The basic plot of apocalyptic fiction is this: Something horrible happens, normally in the form of some zombie invasion. Order breaks down. People kill each other. Eat each other. Some are left with a bare minimum of humanity, with love and care. Those die, in turn. The protagonist simply struggles amidst such chaos, sometimes forced to kill, whilst also, in other times, love. There are then times where no hope seems to be left. Where one of overwhelmed by the sheer impossibility of making a difference. When this happens, many die—even important characters that one would never have thought dying would die, sometimes even the protagonist. And so it goes. Until some order is regained—or, until no order is possible. There, the story ends. 

This can be made easily into a wonderful allegory of the most horrific events of the slaughter bench of history, with absurdity of the contrast between my feeling that “I am absolute”—the center of the world, with complete agency—and reality, indifferent to my sense of centrality and importance, going, as it does, objectively. In this sense, apocalyptic fiction is the great heir of Kafka, whose protagonist dies “like a dog”, devoid of dignity. 

This, however, does not exhaust the grip of apocalyptic fiction. My claim is that such apocalyptic narrative recurs in everyday life, a few times, even, a day—whenever something horrible, not of my own doing, unexpectedly falls upon me. We go through apocalypse when our wifi suddenly refuses to function, when every traffic light we encounter stay stubbornly Red, and to take an example more relevant to me, when I submit my college applications and get rejected, despite my best efforts. Within this lies the addictiveness of apocalyptic fiction, that the stories are Real, in a non-trivial sense. They manifest patterns in the world, just as good books of Philosophy or Sociology or Physics do, at the most concrete level of analysis, of the choices and situations that I, as a person who are sometimes part of a larger whole and sometimes not, have to (as part of that larger whole or not) make and face. In a similar vein, Bernard Williams responded to people who question philosophers using novels as examples by saying, “If I was to make up examples, it would only be bad fiction” (this quote is not exact, comes from the introduction to Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy). 

Now, to be more specific, the Realness of apocalyptic fiction rises out of human finality (rising out of physical, chemical, and biological limits of time, space, energy, which we cannot escape if we wish to be human, for to not be bound by any one of them is to not be of the same kind of being as we are). Such finality has two related results. We are limited to our sphere of influence and is not the whole world; we have infinite potential but can only actualize a few of them. In short, we are not omniscient, omnipresent, or omnipotent. Thus, we are always losing control, in “apocalypse” (literally, “turning points”—which can, in fact, be good. But because we are biological creatures of low entropy, quite unlikely). Apocalyptic fiction is gripping because to be is to act and live under apocalypse. Fiction is the school of life. 

Now, having justified my obsession with apocalyptic fiction which has been affecting my “serious” studies, I can go back to the real work of reading. 

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