And a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone, and cast it into the sea, saying, Thus with violence shall that great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all…for thy merchants were the great men of the earth…And in her was found the blood of prophets, and of saints, and of all that were slain upon the earth. ~ Revelation 18:21 (KJV)
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a novel that never ceases to rattle me, even at the mere mention of the title. Forgive me, as I must use a word wrought with overuse, but there’s no other word I can think of right now, seeing as it’s my writing warm up time and I’ve only had my second sip of coffee, but the novel is haunting, haunting in the sense that a presence hangs over the narrative. There is the most obvious presence, which is the wife of “the man” (these characters have no name, only “the man” or “the boy”). She visits him in dreams and flashbacks and in the questions from “the boy,” who is the man’s son. She is ghostly, a figure loved but whose abandonment of the family makes the misery of their existence seem even more futile than it ordinarily would. The man and the boy go from one desperate situation to another, facing everything from starvation to armed bands of cannibalists. In the hands of a great writer like Cormac McCarthy, we go deeper and deeper into the conflict between despair and love that constantly keeps the characters (and reader) in a state of limbo and uncertainty, torn between instincts to survive and protect loved ones and the reality of a world that has become burned and lifeless.
This is the other presence haunting the story. It is the presence of the question of just how the man and the boy would up in this broken world. The author never tells us. This is a post-apocalyptic tale told with no backstory and no explanation. As far as the man and the boy are concerned, it isn’t necessary, but as far as I’m concerned, it is important. I’m drawn to post-apocalyptic tale as are many others in our culture. The most obvious pull: we in the West are living in a culture that is unsustainable (ecologically, morally, economically etc.) and most people in our culture are either unaware or unconcerned enough to usher in the kind of substantial change needed to alter our course.
The enduring apocalypse is the biblical narrative in the book of Revelation. Actually, I can’t recall offhand just what the precise title is. Is it “The Book of Revelation” or just “Revelation”? I can’t recall — too early in the morning and all. What I do recall from my days of studying Greek is that the word translated as “revelation” is actually better translated as “apocalypse.” It’s the end of the world as we know it.
Most contemporary people read the biblical book of Revelation through the lense of The Left Behind series or at the very least, they read the book of Revelation as a description of things yet to come — the time when God steps in to end it all, much like the school playground monitor, who with a shake of her head must step in to settle a fracas or altercation that’s gotten a little out of hand. Only in God’s apocalypse, he nukes most everyone by the sundry methods of war and plagues and fire and famine.
I appreciate the literary imagination. That’s why I write. For me, though, whole Left Behind phenomenon doesn’t really appeal any longer. Like many young evangelicals, I was terrified as a kid by the spectacle of a God who makes blood baths with human kind — the winepress of the wrath of God and all that. And I was further horrified by the images of a God who damned people to eternal torment in the fires of hell, to suffer endlessly — their worm will never die and all that. Even so, I’ve got no particular beef with writing speculative fiction based on the biblical book of Revelation or of whipping up a crowd in a church service with such fantastic biblical tales. The point of this post — if I have one at all — is not to say anything of ill will against fellow writers and story tellers.
One of the intriguing discoveries I made years back in my seminary days was to read about scholars who believe that the book of Revelation was written not as a prophesy of a future catastrophe yet to come — say in a few thousand years when America legalizes gay marriage and people can smoke dope — but rather as a veiled polemic against the Roman Empire. Rome being “Babylon” aka “the whore of Babylon.”
Rome, much like America and other Western nations today, was founded on violence, domination, and exploitation. Much like America and other Western nations today, it owed its continued existence and economic growth to exploitation, which primarily benefited the elite few, and much like America and other Western nations today, it denied or downplayed this reality, setting up myths theological speculations as to how it was a favored nation, blessed by the gods, divinely chosen, etc.
You can see how the biblical book of apocalypse might become suddenly quite intriguing to a chap like myself. If this scholarly opinion is correct, then the real meaning of the biblical apocalyptic writing has been, and you’ll pardon my pun, left behind. If it was written as a polemic against Rome, then it was literature written to deconstruct the mythology of Empire, to combat the ideas, myths, and theology that legitimate exploitation and proceed to celebrate the “success” of the Empire. What is more, this would not have been written by those within the circles of privilege but by those who may very well have been facing persecution from that very Empire. In other words, a small band of outcasts and subversives who believed in the impossible.
It takes, I think, a good deal of imagination and creativity to engage the impossible, but I think that this is one of the great creative impulses. There are many pulls, external and internal, that takes us from the task, and frankly, at the end of the day, I think that this idea of engaging the impossible, especially through art and creativity — it takes a lot of something like faith, faith conceived of in terms of something mysterious and unreal. I’m not quite sure what else one might use if one were to be a part of a small band of outcasts and subversives intent on challenging the power of Empire, torn between despair and love.