W. Warren Wagar. Terminal
Visions: The Literature of Last Things. Bloomington: Indiana UP,
1982, xiii+241pp. $24.50.
Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, & Joseph D.
Olander, eds. The End of the World.
Carbondale & Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1983. xv+204pp. $19.95.
Nothing should scare us more--at least theoretically speaking--than the death of the
world; yet other, more immediate possibilities actually disturb us more radically: the
death of one's self, soul, family, friends, ideas, ideals, nation. The business of
apocalyptic fantasies is to make the remote and unimaginable end accessible, dramatic,
present, and terrifying. Seldom is this task accomplished. The recent television drama, The
Day After, has passed into the ephemeral history of media-hype, a non-event whose
fiction could not even engage the passion of the distinguished actor Jason Robards. And
the probabilities of an all-out nuclear holocaust must appear to us all as far more real
than the invasion of hostile aliens from outer space, the voracity of giant insects, the
unstoppability of plague-ridden microbes, or the venomous stings of killer bees. In such
cases, we place our faith in the powers of reason, of Black Flag insecticides, or of
antibiotics, or in the ingenuity of counterinsurgent entomology--or else we just dismiss
the fictions as silly. Nevertheless, an extensive literature of "terminal
visions" has arisen in response to the ultimate "what if" which is hardly
marginal to the concerns of SF.
We may thank Professor Wagar for trudging through more than 300 fictions about what
Armageddon will look like. Few of the most ardent readers of SF will be familiar with all
his texts; as they read through Terminal Visions, they will encounter old
favorites, regret or wonder at the resurrection of some justly neglected works, applaud
the analysis of a handful of forgotten visions, and remember a few apocalypses Wagar has
omitted. His monograph nevertheless breaks new ground in several ways. Wagar approaches
"speculative" fiction from an interesting perspective: as an intellectual
historian, he concerns himself less in the forms and conventions of a subgenre of SF than
in the cultural implications of the apocalyptic imagination. Even so, he tends to believe
in the literal descriptions of annihilation and only occasionally analyzes the possibility
that writing about The End might be a way to write about something far different.
Wagar presents his reader with five sections of progressively more interesting
exposition; and though each has its limitations and faults, he writes clearly and
logically in describing the fictional manifestations of terminal visions. Part One
explores the "distinguished heritage" of "disaster in the highest order of
magnitude: the idea of the end of the world, not as a restatement or exegesis of Biblical
eschatology, but as a creative act of the secular imagination" (p. 5). Here he
defines his subject matter as the apocalyptic fantasies which have their first full
embodiment in the secular eschatology of Mary Shelley's triple-decker, The Last Man (1826)
and which continue to flourish today. Though Wagar pays some attention to Poe, he hardly
grasps the centrality of the apocalyptic imagination in all Romantic literature, English,
Continental, and American, a failure which will bother most literary scholars in other
ways throughout the monograph and which actually works to keep "speculative
fiction" in the "literary ghetto" Wagar wants to liberate it from (P. 9).
The second section, "Archetypes,' outlines varieties of traditional eschatology,
particularly its "decisive reconception of public time," as "Hebrew
history" created "a sacred literature in which myth shades imperceptibly into
national chronicle" (p. 46). The analysis here, though compressed, offers us useful
generalizations, especially about the Christian promise of a "public vindication of
the oppressed" at the Last Judgment as well as of "personal resurrection"
(p. 50). But in mapping a passage from the age of faith "to our own post-Christian
culture," Wagar says only that it "occurred between the middle of the
seventeenth century and the middle of the nineteenth. There is not space to do it justice
here" (p. 60). He does not even take a shot at trying, so why does he write a
literary history of doomsday from the beginning to Mary Shelley and leave out the crucial
200 years? The transition from religious prophet to secular visionary could be the most
interesting problem an intellectual historian could speculate upon: from Protestant
Reformation to Enlightenment to Romanticism, the origins of early modernism.
In Part Three, "The Etiology of Doomsaying, " Wagar categorizes his fictions
by specifying the fears which inform them. This "stratrigraphy of fear" consists
of personal fears, the "ends and beginnings of the self," of the "dread of
nature" and its real and imagined dangers, and of the "lethal effects" of
science, technology, and industry (pp. 66-67). In this first layer, though he obviously
admires their works, Wagar inadequately explains how such writers as J.G. Ballard and
Doris Lessing have used speculations about endtime to comment upon the self-destructive
narcissism and dessicated rationality of the 20th century and to express an intense desire
for some new psychological metamorphosis of humanity. The other two layers offer fewer
problems, since the first is filled with the inexorable laws of entropy, the probability
of cosmic "accidents," the cyclicity of pestilence, and the possibility of alien
invasion; the second full of insane scientists, greedy capitalists selling out the
environment of future generations, and mad generals pressing the buttons to initiate
totally destructive holocausts. Here his analysis works well enough, combining useful
summary, brief commentary, and judicious connections. Even so, as soon as Wagar admits the
possibility that in such space operas the alien forces of the macro-organic world or the
extra-terrestrial invasion may be "metaphors for more familiar human adventures"
(p. 104), he forges onward to the next chapter.
Once more, Wagar starts over, this time identifying three world-views implicit in these
speculative fantasies. Now we arrive at the crucial thesis of the monograph:
Terminal visions are not just stories about the end of the world, or the end of the
self. They are also stories about the nature and meaning of reality as interpreted by
world views. They are propaganda for a certain understanding of life, in which the
imaginary end serves to sharpen the focus and heighten the importance of certain
structures of value. They are games of chance, so to speak, in which the players risk all
their chips on a single hand. But games just the same. (pp. 132-33).
This statement as clearly summarizes the kernel of Wagar's monograph as any other I
could quote, and--two-thirds of the way through the book--the reader is happy to have it.
Yet the clarity is elusive; world-views, the meaning of reality, structures of value, and
games of chance seem too much for one paragraph. "Propaganda" is a most
unfortunate choice of words, one which Wagar uses often in these chapters (11-14), since
few of us--literary or intellectual historians--would describe the fantasies of individual
novelists as propagandistic; didactic, polemical, simplistic, maybe, but propaganda is the
product of power and institutions, not of authors, not of games of chance. Nevertheless,
in placing a variety of "visions" in his three categories of romanticism,
positivism, and irrationalism, Wagar usefully reveals some of the hidden assumptions
"encoded" in these "endtimes." In these pages, he manages to convey
best the philosophical questions inherent in the imagining of a literal public endtime,
both as an interpretation of public values, often its cause, and as a response, usually
the manifestation or creation of alternate values.
This uncovering of the deeper structures of intention is most impressive. If one finds
in Terminal Visions much to challenge, much to question, one must applaud Wagar's
approach to speculative fiction's expression of world-views, its secular eschatology, its
"mythogeny," its quest for cultural metamorphosis, its admonitory concerns. Yet,
reviewers, I suppose, always want more. Since so much 19th and 20th-century literature
struggles with exactly these same interests, the segregation of speculative fiction seems
all the more artificial, and the occasional allusion to such "mainstream"
writers as Wordsworth, James, Kafka, Camus, and Sartre only whets my appetite for an
intellectual and literary history which would integrate all the serious appearances of the
apocalyptic imagination, including even its significant presence in our century's art,
music, and drama. But, alas, too seldom are these boundaries of genre crossed by analysts
of SF; we usually get too much and too little.
The framework of Wagar's book prompts a final reservation about Terminal Visions. In
"A Personal Preface," he describes the crisis which led to this undertaking as
his own participation in a "dying culture"--"the national-bourgeois culture
of the post-Christian West. " He feels the "senescence" of humanism as
"credicide, " the loss not only of all traditional beliefs but the decline of
faith in faith itself (pp. xi-xini). Terminal Visions, then, was a personal
enterprise, a search for "prophetic insight" into what will replace a
"faltering civilization" (pp. 204-05). This search provides "the bigger
point": "The bulk of eschatological fictions. . .can be read as indicators of a
growing consciousness within modern Western culture that its end is in view and that a
new, higher, or radically different civilization and public order will replace it during
the next century." Perhaps; hope springs eternal for academics as well as for the
survivors of endtimes, but seldom has it been expressed so strangely and desperately in a
scholarly monograph. One wonders why Wagar did not take on the much larger chore of
Longer versions of two of Wagar's chapters appear in The End of the World.
Though it first might appear that a not unusual accident has befallen the publishing
schedules of two university presses--Terminal Visions antedating the collection
from Southern Illinois by a year--Wagar's essays should be welcomed. His essential points
remain unchanged here--that doomsdays are fresh beginnings and that traditional systems of
belief lie in ruins--but the space the editors have allowed him offers the possibility of
a more developed analysis than he gives in his own book; perhaps the manuscript for the
book suffered some injudicious compression. Though I came to these essays after reading Terminal
Visions, I found them better than most of its chapters.
A short introduction to The End by Eric Rabkin asks "Why Destroy the
World?" and answers that apocalyptic fantasies "display the consequences of our
social values" as well as "the meanings of our wishes" (p. xv). The six
essays engage speculative fiction in terms of this sense of conflict and renewal.
Psychiatrist Robert Plank writes mediatively and analytically about fantasies of surviving
the apocalypse; these satisfy a psychological need to respond to the "climate of
anxiety" of the threatening present and provide "cautionary tales to be used
with great caution" (p. 52). Robert Galbreath examines various types of the
"End/means relationship in eschatological transcendence," both as a desire for a
new supernaturalism and as "a lack of confidence in any future. " The
fundamental ambiguity in such speculative fiction lies in its awareness "that
transcendence can only be a further question, not a final answer" (p. 72). Here, too,
humankind desires the fulfilment of a psychological need for something beyond self and
nature, a need occasioned by the violent anxieties of the 20th century, and asks the
question to "awaken understanding," even if that understanding is doomed to
Brian Stableford's "Man-Made Catastrophes" explores fictionalized warnings
against "gambling with the happiness of future generations in the pursuit of
immediate gratification for our selves." Again, Stableford agrees with Wagar and
Galbreath that "the real heart of the problem" for speculative fiction "is
a lack of faith in ourselves" (p. 113), but he finds optimism in the prominence in
contemporary SF of a refusal to pin the blame on scapegoats and of warning us "about
what we are doing to ourselves." Rather than defusing anxieties, the best
eschatological fictions confront them, attempting "the construction of a new
mythology of moral responsibility ...the metamorphosis of our concepts of sin" (p.
101). The enemy is us, and the "cardinal sin" is stupidity, the miscalculation
of the "consequences of one's actions" in a "wholly pragmatic world"
(p. 136). Yet, as Stableford concludes, the foreseeing of real nightmares involves moral
choices more than technical expertise, and moral choices made through "collective
creative effort," an activity at which "we haven't had much practice" (p.
138). Fictional amplifications of anxiety, therefore, may in their extrapolations help us
to avoid mortgaging our future.
The best analysis in this collection is Gary Wolfe's "The Remaking of Zero:
Beginning at the End. " Wolfe discusses the " sources of mythic power" in
apocalyptic stories, specifically in "post-Holocaust narratives." His structural
analysis persuasively explores the literary power generated by what he identifies as
"a fairly characteristic narrative formula": (1) the experience or discovery of
the cataclysm; (2) the journey through the wasteland created by the cataclysm; (3)
settlement and establishment of a new community; (4) the re-emergence of the wilderness as
antagonist; and (5) a final, decisive battle or struggle to determine which values shall
prevail in the new world" (p. 8). Wolfe refers to many novels to illustrate
variations of the formula and concludes with an extensive discussion of Stewart's Earth
Abides as a representative version of its power. "Such novels," he argues,
are in the broadest sense, epics of the power of humanity to remain dominant in the
universe. Read this way, the cataclysm is literally a new creation or genesis, the period
of exploration a dispersion or exodus, the establishing of a community, the invention of a
social contract, the emergence of the wilderness a testing of the social contract, and the
final battle of the Elect [the competing ideologies of good and evil] a confirmation of
permanence. (p. 19)
Nature, once technology and culture are reduced to rubble, may return as an adversary;
true heroism may emerge; and readers may be assured of survival and renewal. One might add
to Wolfe's formula the irony that though the beliefs and values of tradition may be
totally displaced in contemporary secular eschatology, the narrative structures of
classical and biblical literature live on; so that Wolfe's formula may explain the epics
of Moses or Aeneas as effectively as those of Ish and Em, names which are themselves
connections with the resonance of mainstream tradition. Again, one regrets the segregation
of speculative fiction.
There remains much to ponder in these two books and in the paradox of the beginning in
the end, in the ambiguity of despair and hope, in the irony of destruction and
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