Apocalyptic Thoughts

Apocalyptic Thoughts

When people ask me what my debut novel, The Garden of Darkness, is about, I find myself stumbling over the word “post-apocalyptic” the way some also stumble over the term “Young Adult Fiction.” I don’t have space here to address those who give one the Knowing Look when one mentions Young Adult fiction, but I do want to take time to look at our post-apocalyptic zest.

Since Mary Shelley wrote The Last Man in 1826, we have been on a post-apocalyptic roller coaster ride. One can also think of the genre as riding a wave: it crests (the cold war kept the post-apocalyptic fires burning bright); it recedes; now it crests again, often with an environmental component. In the post-apocalyptic world, our daily anxieties are writ large.

But our post-apocalyptic neuroses have nothing on Renaissance angst about the end of the world, although we sometimes act as if we invented it. Ironically, however, those living in the Renaissance, the whole idea of the post-apocalyptic would have seemed most peculiar. They, after all, were seriously concerned with the thing itself, with the Apocalypse, after which (post) there would be—NOTHING.

Elizabethans living in the age of Shakespeare heard sermons and read books that told them again and again that the End was nigh. The real end. Not an end survived by a rag-tag band who work to put the world back together as best they end, but the End itself. The one where, supposedly, the dead are resurrected and, with the living come forth to be judged by God and sent to heaven or hell.

But while the Elizabethans may have worried about the coming end, they were sometimes considerable more cheerful about it than we were. Writers and ministers set dates for the end of the world. When those dates didn’t bring the End, they happily set new dates.

Sound familiar?

There are, after all, plenty of people living now, in the United States, who are ready for the Apocalypse and optimistic enough to believe that they can survive for long enough to live in a post-apocalyptic world. These enlightened moderns stockpile water and food and batteries and flashlights and generators and gasoline, not to mention guns and (showing real optimism) Geiger counters.

The Elizabethan took steps to greet the event of the Apocalypse too, but there was no room at all in their vision for survivors. They were, however, practical. Sometimes they tied shrouds loosely so that the dead wouldn’t have trouble getting out of their graves at the last trump—so that they wouldn’t be hampered by their grave clothes. There was a reason to bury people face up, as well—so that they could see the faces of the angels of the Last Judgment first thing.

But those come from the grave, experts were careful to say, were not worm eaten corpses. They came forth healthy, rosy-cheeked, without blemish or mole or birthmark. Even the enamel of their teeth was restored. And all these risen lovely corpses were 33 years old, the age Christ was when he died. After coming from the grave in all perfection, they skipped off with the living to be judged.

So one’s job in the Renaissance was to repent of sin, be very good, and ensure oneself a place in heaven. This was the Renaissance equivalent of stockpiling water and food for the long haul.

There were a few potential problems with this vision of the rising perfect dead. One was, after all, supposed to present oneself before one’s Creator with an intact body. What would happen if, in life, a wild beast had bitten off your hand? If a fish had eaten your head? How would you make yourself presentable?

There are a series of 11th and 12th century Byzantine mosaics in a church on the island of Torcello (a church first established in 638), an island in the Venetian Lagoon that deals with just this sort of dilemma. In one place on this marvelous golden fresco, we see the dead cheerfully rising from their graves. But near them, on the left, are a group of land beast vomiting up body parts—a hand, a torso. On the right, a head comes out of a fish.

Problem solved.

You will be reconstituted at the Last Judgment—your parts will come together.

But those in the Renaissance had as much imagination as we do, and Apocalyptic optimism left some decidedly nervous. What if, as George Herbert, the 17th Century poet, wondered, you had become so thoroughly dust that the wind mixed your dust with general dust until one could not be told from the other?

The answer for Herbert, as for many others, lay in having faith. Some dilemmas can be solved materially (a wild beast can vomit up your big toe, which can then join your body)—but reconstituting all that dust? Well, the argument went, if God could be omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, surely it wouldn’t be asking too much to believe he could separate body dust from dust-bunny dust.

This still didn’t stop people from worrying. That’s the problem of envisioning an Apocalypse as real and material as one that might follow from a nuclear Armegeddon.

Certainly Shakespeare worried.

And worrying, Shakespeare created the first Zombie.

Throughout Macbeth, there are Apocalyptic references to characters rising from their graves. Early on, to wake up Banquo, Macduff says “As from your grave[s] rise up and walk like sprites.” Later on, after Banquo has been murdered, Banquo does exactly that—he comes back as a “sprite” or ghost—or, to be technical about it, a Zombie.

It’s important to remember that Banquo, in this play, has not simply been murdered a little bit. He’s supposed to be really, thoroughly dead. Banquo’s throat is slit and his head has been gashed twenty times, each gash (we are told) enough to kill him. But Banquo still shows up at Macbeth’s dinner party, not looking like a tidied up body ready for the Last Judgment, but as a blood-boltered corpse with brain matter in his hair. Macbeth, naturally, is upset. But it isn’t simply the fact of the Banquo’s gory presence that upsets him. Macbeth speaks to the dead Banquo:

Let the earth hide thee!
Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold;
Thou has no speculation in those eyes
Which thou dost glare with!

That Banquo has no “speculation” in his eyes means that they are devoid of intelligence. This is a nasty rotting cold body that the earth will not cover, but that should be in the earth. When there’s an epidemic, the first person to spread the disease is called Patient Zero. Banquo is Zombie Zero.

So much for perfect bodies emerging from the grave. Shakespeare peers into the Apocalyptic moment and sees horror. But he sees one thing more: the human need to keep on living.

Macbeth confronts this Thing that was Banquo; he lives through the moment, and he goes on to commit other murders—only finally to die in battle, struggling for his life.

They are all struggling for their lives, survivors that find themselves in post-apocalyptic worlds. They may feel hunger or thirst or fatigue or fear or revulsion, but they all have that one thing in common—that desire to live.