Tuesday, 20 April 2010

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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