If selfhood is situational, and an apocalypse reveals that civilized society is a luxury, where does that leave the rest of us—the groups of us?
Typically, “groups” play large roles in the apocalyptic arts. Sometimes, they’re merely backdrops—flawed societies out of which arise lone heroes or heroines, determined to live better, apart and alone. Other times, groups represent the loss of self—the switchover from one identity to a new one: an apocalyptic one. These groups are loss, and they conjure old-timey images of families, block parties, and meetings around the water cooler. These groups highlight what our lone heroes/heroines have lost to the apocalypse, by themselves or in their new groups.
In other circumstances, groups make up the new narrative focus. Our apocalypticos, having survived whatever collapse or cataclysm or revolution, have banded together to increase their odds of continued survival. Usually, these groups either try to re-create society as they knew it, or they try to create something new—a Better World.
But, in the interest of plot, that’s not usually enough. Who cares if a bunch of bums get together to farm beans and make armor out of hammered trash cans? That’s boring. “Story” comes from the easy fact that these groups are doomed to screw everything up again. “Paradise,” even when cast as a New World Order, often also contains the seeds of its own destruction. Think about the Biblical heaven, for example. Perfect as it is described to have been, there’s the issue of that damn fruit. And who is responsible for the ruining of paradise? People.
So, our apocalypse narratives usually give us stories of human drama—love, conflict, redemption. Not so different from most other kinds of stories, right? Well, yes and no. See, apocalyptic stories are resetting the social clock, making models of creation and the rise of humanity in ways other narratives can’t.
Imagine this: a long time ago, in the early days, a human find itself faced with some simple, un-civilized problems. Namely, it needs to eat, it needs to sleep, and it needs to not be eaten by something else. So, our intrepid human realizes that it is at its most vulnerable when it’s doing anything other than watching for enemies. Being intrepid, it teams up with another human—now they can couple their efforts.
Things go well until this catches on. Now, two humans is the status quo. If our couple wants to stay alive, it’s going to need an edge.
So, they find a third, a fourth, and so on and so forth. Now, our little “group” is doing very well. They control most of the cave real estate, they control the watering holes, and they’ve taught themselves to cultivate crops in the fields that they can protect. Of course, someone has to oversee all this, so our first human becomes and administrator. He or she now holds power because he or she has control of the resources. (Animal Farm, much?) Under his or her leadership, the group decides who’s one of them and who’s an enemy. It decides who gets to share the water or till the land. As it gets bigger, it makes rules to manage all of this, and these laws take a little bit of freedom away from everybody to make sure that everyone enjoys now-civilized life equally.
Eventually, though, as it gets larger and larger, decisions from the administrator (or from a neighboring administrator who would like to annex this proto-nation) start pissing people off. Not, everything is equal, despite the administrator’s best efforts, so some disgruntled sorts decide that they can do a better job. There’s a revolution, or someone detonates a big bomb, or the crops fail. Chaos. Someone new takes over, and it all starts over again.
And there’s the rub. There was only one “beginning” of humanity. If we want to see how we got “here,” how human artistic interest reveals our racial lineage, then we need to model the beginning, so we can study it. The only way to create a beginning is to first fake an end.
It’s conflict as human heritage—as a very human enterprise, despite how much it “slows our advancement” or keeps us from a Spandex-wearing, no-money-having, hippie future. We are, every day, in the process of apocalypse. We don’t just blow things up (in art) to watch the pretty colors—we also do it to remember how we got here. To remember what it took to establish families and block parties. What it took to create ice cream, or to fall in love. Baseball, church, or a quiet evening with a book about The End of the World as We Know It.
Darin Bradley has taught courses on writing and literature at the University of North Texas, Furman University, and East Tennessee State University. His short fiction, poetry, and critical nonfiction have appeared in a variety of journals, and he served as founding fiction editor of the experimental e-zine, Farrago’s Wainscot. Noise is his first novel. Learn more at www.salvagecountry.net.