Are We Post-Apocalyptic Yet?

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:17

    There'sa line of scholarly thought that says the 20th century was peculiarly preoccupiedwith apocalyptic thinking. Part of the stimulus is artificial-the millennium-butit's also been a logical response to concrete, "traumatic" events.The notion, as James Berger, an assistant professor of English at Hofstra, positsit in his book After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse (Universityof Minnesota Press, 278 pages, $18.95), is that no century has come closer toseeing the Apocalypse realized: Between two world wars, the second of whichincluded the Holocaust (which Berger calls, a bit hyperbolically, "theparadigmatic instance of an apocalypse in history") and ended with theBomb, we have every reason to be haunted by thoughts of The End.

    But havewe indeed been more prone to apocalyptic thinking than other cultures and ages?I'm not so sure. For every Terminator or Armageddon there's anAssyrian fragment maundering on about the end of the world. There are rich veinsof apocalyptic thought in Native American cultures North, Central and South.The Norse and Anglo-Saxon poets seemed to think about almost nothing else. (Goback and read "The Seafarer" or "The Wanderer": "Thencomes darkness, the night shadow casts gloom, sends from the north fierce hailstormsto the terror of men. Everything is full of hardship in the kingdom of earth;the decree of fate changes the world under the heavens. Here possessions aretransient, here friends are transient, here man is transient, here woman istransient; all this firm-set earth becomes empty.") Jews and Christians,obviously, have huge apocalyptic traditions that make a straight, if not unbroken,line from the Old Testament through John of Patmos to The Late Great PlanetEarth. The Apocalypse was big in America in the early-to-mid-1800s, in Englandin the mid-to-late-1600s and on the Continent during the Thirty Years War earlierin that century; and both of the latter places and times surely came as closeto creating an apocalyptic paradigm as this century has. The Greeks of Homerand Hesiod's time were well aware that they were living in what Berger mightcall a post-Apocalypse, "after the end" of the Age of Heroesthe BronzeAge to us.

    I bringup Homer because after I started reading Berger's book this week I picked upanother one and got distracted. It's Aias, a new translation of Sophocles'play, by Boston U. classics professor Herbert Golder and poet Richard Pevear(Oxford University Press, 100 pages, $9.95). It's precisely about the end ofthe Age of Heroes.

    I confessthat after I got absorbed in Aias I lost my momentum with Berger's bookand started skimming. For one thing, I'm well into the stage where I start toget antsy when an academic begins citing Jameson, Lacan and Lyotard. Berger'schapter-length appreciations of Beloved, Vineland and Wim Wenders'Until the End of the World didn't dazzle me, either. One of his centralthemesthat America, traumatized by the cataclysmic events of this century,lapsed into a state of Apocalypse denial under Reaganwould have been a lotmore provocative to read, say, 10 years ago; Reagan-bashing strikes me as rathera dated exercise in a 1999 publication. I was no Reagan fan either, but thatwas the 80s, get over it. It's also more political polemic than cultural analysis,making the entire book feel a little suspect to me as a scholarly project. Elsewhere,Berger seems to be refuting his own 20th-century bias when he quotes some phenomenaldeath-metal lines from Whitman's "This Compost": Something startles mewhere I thought I was safest... O Earth! O how can the ground ofyou not sicken?... Are they not continuallyputting distempered corpses in you? Is not every continentworked over and over with sour dead? An ideaof Berger I do find interesting is the focus on the post-Apocalypse. (His titlecomes from a great line in Citizen Kane: "Young man, I was withMr. Kane before the beginning. And now, here I amafter the end.") "Veryfew apocalyptic representations end with the End," he notes. "Thereis always some remainder, some post-apocalyptic debris, or the transformationinto paradise." If "apocalyptic desire" is in part "a totalcritique of the world, a critique that annuls any chance of reform," it"is a longing also for the aftermath." Who hasn't wondered what itwould be like to be the last person on Earth? Berger thinks this informs a curiousfascination in late-20th-century American pop culture with survivors: survivorsof the Holocaust or hurricanes, the Titanic or abusive households, welove to hear their stories. (I don't know if he mentions this, but from settlerdays through the completion of westward expansion, survivor talesspecifically,I Was Captured By Injuns And Treated Like A White Squaw storieswere tremendouslypopular Back East.)

    Dividingthe 20th century into the standard modern/postmodern model, Berger sees themodern period as apocalyptic and the postmodern as post-apocalyptic. That'san intriguing notion. I take him to mean that the dark side of modernismprogressive,propulsive, inquisitive, forward-looking, rational, occupied with Big Ideasisthat the future it's rushing toward is its own cataclysmic end. Postmodernismconservative,static, nostalgic, acquisitive, intuitive, preoccupied with mulling over a pasticheof existing ideascomes along after The End and settles down amid the debris.

    An ideaI've cited before because it feels right to me (art critic Thomas McEvilly wasthe first one I saw articulate it, but I believe it goes backsighto Habermasand Lyotard) is that modernism and postmodernism don't just define the 20thcentury, but describe cyclical mood-swings cultures go through over and over.You could call the Renaissance modern, the Baroque postmodern, etc. I figurethis would make the Bronze Age modern, Homer a postmodern.

    Now it turnsout that the Homeric hero we've all thought was called Ajaxas in the cleanser,as in Ajax Moving Co., etc.was really named Aias. "Ajax" is a bluntlywrong Anglicization of the Latinization of his name. Aias comes from the word"to cry in pain," and in Sophocles' play of the same name it's devastatinglyconsistent with his fate, as he himself cries out: "Aiai! My name is alament!/Who would have thought it would fit/so well with my misfortunes!"To have stuck with the familiar Ajax would have ruined those lines.

    I neverread Aias before. It's not one of the Sophocles plays they taught toundergraduate spuds like me. I don't think it's his greatest play, either, butas a study it's fascinating. There's this tectonic shift between the first andsecond halves that makes them as different as, well, modernism and postmodernism.

    You, likeeveryone in Sophocles' audience, know the story that leads up to the play. Homertells the first part in The Iliad. The Greeks have besieged Troy. Amongthem is Aias, a giant of a man, slow to speech, considered a bit of a bumpkinby the citified Athenians because he's from rustic Salamis, yet a fearless bulwarkagainst the Trojans (even when forced to retreat, Homer says, he's as "hardto move as a mule in a cornfield, who stays feeding/though beaten with sticks")and second only to Achilles in strength of arms (among the Greeks; for Troy,there's Herakles). When Paris kills Achilles, the great honor of having thefallen hero's arms and armor really should go to Aias, but the Greeks' leaders,the brothers Agamemnon and Menelaos, decide to let there be a mini-Olympicscompetition for them. Of course, the wily Odysseus outgames the plodding Aias,and wins the trophies.

    Homer doesn'ttell us how Aias' story ends. In other literature there were various versionsof what happens next. Sophocles went with the most extreme: Aias, enraged, hurtand ashamed at having been hoodwinked out of his due, goes on a murderous rampage,intent on killing Odysseus, Agamemnon and Menelaos. But Athena, who looks afterOdysseus, drives Aias mad, and he only manages to slaughter a bunch of sheep.

    This iswhere the play begins, in the middle of a dark night, with Aias raving and coveredin sheep's gore, his consort Tekmessa scared to death and Odysseus scratchinghis head, feeling squirmy about his role in all this, doing a "Man, Athena,I know the guy's my enemy and all, but this is kind of embarrassing" songand dance. When Aias comes to his senses, he's mortified, too, and decides there'sonly one way out: He literally falls on his sword.

    HerbertGolder points out in his introduction that Aias' suicide was a tricky businessnot only for Sophocles but for Aias' cultists and worshippers (he had them,like all the great heroes). To the Greeks, suicide was never an honorable orheroic act; it was "a desperate act, restricted in tragedy solely to women."For such a great hero to come to so unmanly an endand for a guy like Odysseusto triumph over him by force of cunning rather than couragewas symbolic ofthe end of the entire Age of Heroes. It was, then, if I can slide Berger inhere, an apocalyptic act, and Sophocles' portrayal of what happens next, whichcomes in the second half of the play, is "post-apocalyptic."

    It's alsoa startling shift in tone. The first half, through Aias' death, is all classroomGreek Drama, highly stylized and formal, with masked heroes and gods oratingand the Chorus chorusing. There is one great speech, when Aias is deciding tooff himself, but it's pretty stilted and archaic-feeling.

    Once Aiasis deadand with him the whole high-style Heroic AgeSophocles clears the decksand gets down to some very human drama. The whole play does an abrupt downshiftfrom giant scale to mortals. Teukros, the great archer and Aias' half-brother(their father is Telamon, king of Salamis, but different mothers) rushes on,finds the corpse and begins to plan a proper burialfiguring that Aias' enemieswill try to deny him this last honor, cast his bones to the dogs or the fishesand condemn his soul to torment.

    He's right.Menelaos enters with a bunch of soldiers behind him and barks, "You, keepyour hands off that corpse,/I order you! Do not try to lift it." To whichTeukros marvelously replies, "Those are big wordswhat stands behind them?"And the argument begins: Menelaos The archerhas a high opinion of himself. Teukros I am not ashamedof my skill. Menelaos He'd boastmore if he carried a shield. Teukros I'll matchyour bronze barehanded. Menelaos Can your heartbe as fierce as your tongue? Teukros As proud asmy cause is just. The insultstumble out, very vivid, very realistic. Great translation. As everyone in Sophocles'audience would know, Teukros has tremendous balls to stand up this way to Menelaos,prince of Sparta, coleader of the Greeks, whose Helen started all this in thefirst place. Menelaos knows it too. He's all bullshit bluster: "Those wordsmay cause someone pain." Teukros shrugs, "No worse for me than foryou." Then Menelaos shouts, "I tell you Aias will not/be buried!"And Teukros fires back, "I tell you he will!" Which leads to a fabulousexchange, with Menelaos going all sissy-clever: I saw a man once whosebold talkhad pressed a ship's crewto set sailin winter. A storm broke,the wavespiled higher and higher,and hegrew quieter and quieter,huddledin the stern under hiscloak... Teukros,pressing his advantage, sneers back with the amazingly blunt: I, too, saw a man once,fullof his own stupidity,who insultedhis neighbors in theirgrief. Someone who looked likeme,and was like me in temper,warned him: "Man, do not outragethe dead.If you do, it will beyour own ruin." So the fool was told tohis face... Menelaosslinks off, the Chorus wrings hands and worries, and then Menelaos' big brotherAgamemnon enters, with more soldiers. But he's a lily-liver too, and all hecan do is insult Teukros with the ancient Greek equivalent of a yo-mama snap:"Do you think/you can talk so boldly against us/and go unpunished? A slave'sson?/No doubt if your mother was noble/you'd boast even higher... Is it notmonstrous to hear/such things from a slave?"

    Agamemnondoes get in one great line about Aias being all brawn and no brain, a way ofexplaining his support of the wily Odysseus over the giant: "It's a wisemind, not a broad back,/that prevails. An ox, for all/its great girth, is drivendown the road/with a little whip."

    But thenhe's back to the insults, finishing with the arrogantly stupid flourish: ...Know your place, Teukros. And since you lack thequalitiesof a free man, bring someoneelseto plead your case foryou. I can learn nothing fromyour wayof talking. Such barbarousspeechis foreign to my ears. Teukros,of course, tells him to go fuck himself. And just when things are about to turnviolent, Jets vs. Sharks, Odysseus comes on and smooth-talks them all out ofit. Yes, I hated Aias but he was a great man and deserves a decent burial, hedeclares. Okay, Agamemnon says, but we're boycotting it. Fine, Odysseus says,I'm staying. All right, Teukros says, but I'm sure that even in death Aias stillhates your guts, so I can't allow you to touch him. Whatever, Odysseus shrugs.

    The end.

    Diplomacy, that most un-Heroic of disciplines, wins. It's an oddly deflatingand intentionally unsatiating ending. I'm picturing the crowd leaving the amphitheaterlike soccer fansOdysseus cultists in this bunch, Aias-worshippers in this otherandworking it out among themselves on the street after the show.