Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Towards a Post-Apocalyptic Chronotope – An introduction

Mikhail Bakhtin, the famous Russian formalist, was the one who introduced the concept of the chronotope, or “time-space”, in an essay titled “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel – Notes towards a historical poetics” (1975):

"In the literary artistic chronotope, spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole. Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history. This intersection of axes and fusion of indicators characterizes the artistic chronotope."

(Bakhtin 1981: 84)

Bakhtin goes on to say that the chronotope in essence “defines genre and generic distinctions” (Ibid: 85); he takes as an example three quintessential types of ancient Greek romance novels. The basic structure of star-struck lovers, shipwrecks, adventures in far-away places, kidnappings, war, attacks by pirates etc. still saturate our big screens and trashy adventure novels today, in a tradition set down over a thousand years ago. To describe the chronotope of the Greek romances, Bakhtin introduces the concept of adventure-time. Adventure-time is the duration of all the adventures between the start and the (happy) end of the novel, which nonetheless does not take any biographical time. That is to say, there is no change in the personality or affections or anything else of the characters involved, the adventure (no matter how prolonged) has taken no actual time, such time as one might add in a biography.

"In this kind of time, nothing changes; the world remains as it was, the biographical life of the heroes does not change, their feelings do not change, people do not even age. This empty time leaves no traces anywhere, no indications of its passing. This, we repeat, is an extratemporal hiatus that appears between two moments of a real time sequence, in this case one that is biographical."

(Bakhtin 1981: 91)

This, however, is only the chronos. The topos is not unaffected by this strange dilution of time-space. Bakhtin notes that there are no identifiable traces of the era “no matter where one goes in the world of the Greek romance, with all its countries and cities, its buildings and works of art” (Ibid). The space in the Greek romances is purely abstract – and vast. “In order for the adventure to develop it needs space, and plenty of it” (Bakhtin 1981: 99). If there is an attack by pirates on the sea, resulting in a shipwreck and a kidnapping, there are various spatial considerations that need to be taken into account (the sea, the boats, where the kidnappers take their victims, where the shipwrecked end up), but in a real, geographical sense, none of these need exist – although the novel might mention countries or seas, they are entirely interchangeable. Thus follows, that the Greek romances take place in “an alien world” (Ibid: 101), to which the heroes have no ties or relationship and which is filled solely with random chance, that governs every event in their adventures. This is not, however, an alien world in the sense of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars adventures (which were strongly laced with exoticism, like much of the sci-fi of that era) – there is no opposition here between known and unknown, native and non-native. For that reason alone it has been hard, Bakhtin points out, for scholars to date the romances any more closely than five or so centuries!

So what does all of this signify for the post-apocalypse? The example above was of a larger whole, a super-chronotope if you wish. Bakthin also writes of 'smaller' chronotopes, and chronotopes attached to certain motifs. Within the super-chronotope there can occur smaller chronotopes, and chronotopic thought can also be used to consider for instance how individuals are portrayed. The character of the Greek romance chronotope is, for instance, someone who is forced (by chance, fate) to move spatially, yet also one who endures it all and emerges unscathed (as if no time had passed whatsoever) (Ibid: 105). I believe that trying to find a post-apocalyptic (super-)chronotope, and identifying the various chronotopic motifs within that chronotope, might be a considerably more fruitful path than merely trying to define a post-apocalyptic genre, since that to me seems as pointless as trying to define science-fiction as one heterogeneous 'genre'. Let us consider, in brief and quite abstractly, what the spatial and temporal features of the post-apocalypse are:

First, there are two 'times' in the post-apocalypse: now and then. 'Then' is the pre-apocalypse, 'now' is the post-apocalypse. The point of the apocalypse is sometimes instantaneous (the bombs fall, almost everyone dies) and sometimes drawn out (the plague slowly destroys society), but there is always a defining moment when things are no longer as they were before, and there is no return to that previous time, no matter how subtle this change may be (in Shelley, for instance, this moment is the siege of Constantinople). However, whereas the post-apocalyptic timeline might very well be biographical (to borrow Bakhtin's term), the pre-apocalyptic time tends to be an amorphous whole, a 'then' of indistinct memory and nostalgia: this 'then' usually corresponds to the reader's, and author's, 'now', or some other period of historical time.

Second, the apocalypse is unlimited spatially, it expands in all directions – the whole world is affected and changed by it. Generally, Armageddon tends to be global. However, in some cases it needn't be – consider for instance 28 Days Later, in which only the United Kingdom is affected. Nonetheless it fulfils the requirements of the post-apocalyptic chronotope, since it is the whole world of the characters and that of the viewers that has been affected. Had half the movie been dedicated to relief efforts outside the UK, the evacuation of refugees and so on, it would have been a disaster movie with zombies, not a post-apocalyptic vision of an empty England.

In any which case, the defining aspect of the post-apocalyptic chronotope is the rupture in the generally accepted timeline, which has left (spatially and temporally) both the reader and the author in the 'then', whereas the characters and the novel have been transported into the 'now'. The post-apocalyptic novel, in short, is a sort of travelogue of the post-apocalyptic novel's 'here and now'. In the post-apocalyptic novel, there are constant references and comparisons between the post- and the pre-apocalyptic world, but unlike the chronotope of the travelogue (which also makes such comparisons, between the native land of the author and the foreign lands of travel), the post-apocalyptic narrator cannot return, either temporally or spatially, to his or her 'native land'.

This very superficial definition, of course, is merely a beginning, and needs to be much narrowed down. Nonetheless, the basic premise of a spatial and temporal point of no return, of the division into pre- and post-, can form the basis of a more thorough post-apocalyptic chronotope. The addition, and identification, of typical post-apocalyptic motifs and their chronotopic constitution will certainly be of further help.

Bakhtin, M.M. 1981. The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The Ecological Post-Apocalypse - The World Without Us

A little while ago I read Alan Weisman's wonderful non-fiction book The World Without Us, and thought it'd be interesting to consider it in comparison to its genre. Make no mistake - despite it being a work of popular science rather than prose fiction, it's still essentially post-apocalyptic fiction, even if it skirts around the subject a little. What it gives us is a compelling and well fleshed-out vision of an alternative future that is, nonetheless, based on an entirely fictional and highly unlikely premise. Weisman, in his book, asks the simple question: "What if we all disappeared tomorrow?". Thus, rather than creating a complicated fictional world around typical tropes such as nuclear annihilation, a long-dragged out eco-catastrophe or an asteroid colliding with earth, he can simply observe the world without us. In post-apocalyptic fiction in general, I think this has been a surprisingly uncommon question to ask. Instead of a storyline following a ragged band of human survivors, his storyline follows the ragged remnants of the biodiversity we've left behind, and its struggle to reassert its right to the planet. Like most post-apocalyptic fiction, it's not really about the survivors either, but about the reasons for the apocalypse itself - the challenges the world has to overcome with us gone are all things happening right now. What's fun about Weisman is that the real ecological apocalypse is what will happen UNLESS the premise of his book is fulfilled, which is a nice twist.

It has to be admitted that the book is written like a screenplay for TV; filled with flowering prose it is not. The way he introduces the various characters and events reads like directions to the cameraman (or like Tom Clancy), and much of the text itself could be converted directly to a documentary voiceover. This is perhaps not unsurprising considering Weisman's background as a journalist, and in the context of this book it functions marvellously: the purpose of screenplay prose is, after all, to put images as clearly and succinctly into our heads as possible, and I think The World Without Us manages that just perfectly.

As a resource for anyone wishing to write post-apocalyptic fiction, this book is invaluable. Ever wonder what would happen to skyscrapers, left alone for long enough? At what point all of our largest constructions, from bridges to dams, would begin to crumble? How soon the forests would repopulate the abandoned fields, how the animals would retake their old territories, what would happen to our useless domesticated pets (some of which, happily, aren't quite as useless. Yay, cats!), and how plants imported by humans might affect the end result. Did you, when you wrote your post-apocalyptic world, ever think of what would happen to New York once the pumps stopped working? Or what would happen to the over 400 nuclear power plants when their coolant water finally dried away and the fuel rods were exposed to the air?

Although he theorizes much (with solid, scientific backing, mind), he also visits many locations which are in essence miniature versions of his vision, such as Chernobyl, the Korean DMZ and an absolutely fascinating place in Cyprus called Varosha, which was a beach resort that was abandoned when the country was split in twain in the 1970s, and since then jealously guarded by the Turkish military.

His thoughts on how quickly everything we leave behind would disappear is, to say the least, sobering, as is the descriptions of civilizations that have already disappeared, such as the Mayans. Throughout, his message is clear: ecologically, the human post-apocalypse would indubitably be Eden, and the only things we would leave behind would be our bronze statues and a couple of things we carved into solid bedrock (oh, and a lot of nuclear waste and plastic).

The post-apocalypse is usually a dreary thing, and that is for a reason I believe. We tend to anthropomorphise the world, and if things are going bad for us (people) then things ought to be going bad for everything else as well. I believe this is sometimes referred to as 'pathetic fallacy'. This book essentially proves the opposite. The visions of post-nuclear deserts or ash-ridden skies or eternal winter or whatever scenario the post-apocalyptic imagination can conjure up are all, in the long run, brief seconds in the ever-crunching wheel of life which will, soon enough, retake the earth, with or without us. I don't know about you, but I at least feel a little of the existential blight of the coming end-of-the-world lessen when I think of just how much better off the world will be without us.

On a purely philosophical level, however, I still think it's pretty neat to be able to think, feel, observe and share stuff that happens in this world, so I'm not saying we humans are -completely- defunct in the universal order of things. Just that we really should stop breeding and consuming. Now excuse me while I go back to chewing on chocolate grown on another continent while surfing the Internet on a computer containing bucketloads of petroleum in my nicely centrally heated apartment.

(Picture of Varosia/Varosha taken from here, with licence :

The Apocalyptic Sublime - Reading Shelley's The Last Man

I have variously bumped into the concept of the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic sublime in the stories I have experienced (e.g. viewed or heard) or read. I have to admit I was not entirely clear on what exactly 'the sublime' meant until I had a chance to read about it properly, but once I did I started seeing it in everything. The first mention of the sublime comes from Longinus, but a more recent and pertinent definition comes from Burke:

"Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling." (Burke 1880: 74)

He goes on to describe various images that are sublime, such as towering heights, craggy cliffs, the vast ocean, endless chasms. You get the idea. Kant has a slightly different definition, one which adds the concept of subjectivity to the sublime (i.e. it's not the properties inherent in the external objects that makes something sublime, but the subjective experience of the viewer). In either case, the sublime is "a pleasure that only arises indirectly, being brought about by the feeling of a momentary check to the vital forces followed at once by a discharge all the more powerful." (Kant 1790: 91).

The sublime has a very special, and powerful, place in apocalyptic literature (and film, and video games etc etc). I have recently read a book by Mary Shelley, The Last Man (1826), which details how humanity comes to an end due to a relentless plague epidemic. Beware, spoilers below, although the title of the book itself should be a clue.

In short, this was an awesome read. It's a little fragmented, and in principle consists of three books: the first book details the happy life of the main protagonist, Lionel Verney, and his circle of friends and his family. The second book details a war in Greece, in which one of the main characters, Raymond (a byronic hero) is killed, and whispers of The Plague begin. And finally, in the third part, we enter into the real meat of the story: the detailed description of the fall of man.

This part is quite remarkable, I think, for its ultimately realistic portrayal of the foibles and mad hopes of humankind. The English resolve to head south, away from the cruel winters of their northern climate, and gather what survivors they can. But as they make their way through France, there is in-fighting, and factions form, including a fanatic, power-hungry would-be prophet who attempts to create his own cult in which he may one day be venerated as a deity. On the way they find other survivors; an estranged nobleman riding like a Black Spectre on the road, a little girl found alone in a grand palace, all dressed up with finery playing by herself. Or how about the Swiss girl who plays the organ for her blind parent who is not aware that the end of the world has already occured. Shelley does not mince words:

"Weed-grown fields, desolate towns, the wild approach of riderless horses had now become habitual to my eyes; nay, sights far worse, of the unburied, and human forms which were strewed on the road side, and on the steps of once frequented habitations" (The Last Man: 319)

The most amazing part of the book is the contrast. Shelley unabashedly abuses the typical romantic tropes (well, she can't really be blamed for that, can she?) such as torrential rains and thunderstorms breaking out just as it is the most appropriate, or the fact that Lionel constantly takes refuge in long, melancholy walks through the woods whenever he feels a little under the weather, and that everyone appreciates the beauty of nature and there is nary a single mention of anything that would suggest the industrial revolution.

The first part of the story revolves around royalty; kings and queens and princesses and Lord Protectors. But as the plague sets in, the contrast becomes absolutely palatable. When everyone around him dies little by little, when nature retakes what was once the domain of humans, when all things from art to literature to architecture and history becomes worth less than a single human being. When vain things such as title, rank and heraldry become as nothing, and all men are equal. He sits alone in Rome, the 'capital of the world', and imagines the peoples who have lived there, when he realizes:

"The generations I had conjured up to my fancy, contrasted more strongly with the end of all - the single point in which, as a pyramid, the mighty fabric of society had ended, while I, on the giddy height, saw vacant space around me" (TLM: 369)

In the end, Lionel (with his trusty dog - take that, Mad Max/A Boy And His Dog) ends up a "lone wanderer" (and that's for you, Fallout!), forever to search the earth for another survivor, another soul to alleviate his loneliness. Pathos, but GOOD pathos!

This, I contend, is the right of every post-apocalyptic novel: the pathos of extreme loneliness, the SUBLIME description of the end. Yes, this novel most probably emerged as a result of Shelley's loneliness upon the death of her three children AND her husband, and the estrangement caused by her husband's nasty father and so on, and yes it was probably inspired by contemporary accounts of the plague in various parts of the world, including the Americas (although it was something else there, yellow fever maybe?) - but that just makes it all the more powerful.

I would like, in a much more academic essay, to fruitfully compare this novel to McCarthy's The Road - in particular the idea of 'no redemption' which suffuses McCarthy's novel and which, I think, is echoed in Shelley, as well as the powerful imagery of 'the road' and the discoveries made during travels (this is of course a typical trait of post-apocalyptic novels and films, see for instance John Christopher's The Death of Grass, or why not trailers for the new Denzel Washington-starring movie "The Book of Eli"). Ah, ah, such wonderfulness.

Ahem. Absolutely wonderful book anyway!

Here's where I took the picture on top, titled The Last Man, by John Martin:


And also, the whole book in electronic format (can also be found on Project Guthenberg):


Ta-ta for now!


Burke, Edmund. 1880. Burke's Works Vol.1. London: George Bell & Sons.

Kant, Immanuel. 1952 [1790]. The Critique of Judgement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shelley, Mary. 2004 [1826]. The Last Man. Ware: Wordsworth Editions Limited.


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