I must admit that it is somewhat unsettling to be starting a course on post-apocalyptic fiction at this particular moment. Uncertain of how to order my selected texts, I finally decided—for the sake of everyone’s sanity as the term progresses—to start with the bleakest and most cynical novels, and finish with the most hopeful. Which means I’ll have the pleasure of finishing the term with Emily St. John Mandel’s beautiful Station Eleven. But it means starting with Cormac McCarthy’s well-nigh nihilistic vision in The Road. Now, I do love The Road, but it means I’m reading about an environmentally devastated world that has reverted to Hobbesian brutality and scarcity. This while the direst predictions of climate scientists are burning up huge swaths of the American and Canadian west while drowning Houston, Florida, and Bangladesh; while an unhinged despot with nuclear weapons taunts and goads a dangerously incompetent and thin-skinned president; and while we’re seeing the kind of social cohesion and trust necessary to address such large-scale, transnational problems dissolving into nationalist and nativist tribalism.
There are times when the obvious contemporary relevance of a given text I’m teaching is a gift. Then there are times when I wish it wouldn’t feel quite so on the nose. Perhaps comparing the bleakness of The Road to our present moment seems a little extreme—after all, we’ve hardly witnessed the collapse of social order. This much is true. And yet as I have watched the images of devastation, specifically those of Hurricane Harvey, it’s not the destruction that evokes McCarthy for me so much as the feel-good news stories about ordinary citizens stepping up and risking life and limb to help strangers.
To be certain, these are inspiring stories, and the individuals pictured in the image of the long line of trucks towing boats into Houston should be celebrated. I should hope that we all might find it in ourselves to behave in such a manner if presented with such circumstances. But as someone pointed out on a podcast I was listening to (don’t remember who or which podcast, unfortunately), this celebration of individual heroism highlights a flaw in the American character: people are eager to be heroes in a crisis, but collectively unwilling to do the tedious stuff or make the minor sacrifices that might ameliorate or even prevent a crisis. Run into a disaster area to volunteer? Sign me up! Raise property taxes slightly for the sake of infrastructure and regulate development in potential flood zones? Don’t tread on me!
I hasten to add that this is a bit of an over-generalization, and Americans are hardly unique in their penchant for individual action and collective apathy; but the mythos of rugged individualism that inflects the national psyche is one much better suited to reaction than foresight. Part of the problem is that individual heroism and sacrifice makes for much better news copy, and resonates more powerfully with audiences. Perhaps the most iconic moment in coverage of Harvey is the guy who, when asked by CNN (as he prepped his boat) “What are you going to do?” replied “Go try to save some lives.” That sound bite went viral almost instantly—both because it was admirable, but also because it had the kind of laconic “git ‘er done” sentiment one expects to hear from Bruce Willis or Tommy Lee Jones in a Hollywood blockbuster. It put me in mind of the way in which “Let’s roll” became a catch phrase after 9/11—spoken by a passenger on United 93 just before they rushed the cockpit and crashed the plane, sacrificing themselves but preventing greater carnage, it came to symbolize American resilience in the face of crisis, and the willingness of civilians to step up. As well it should.
Heroism, however, especially the kind that entails great sacrifice, is a compelling narrative that tends to paper over the uncomfortable fact that many crises are avoidable; heroism is the proverbial pound of cure that would be unnecessary had an ounce of prevention been applied—better urban planning, for example, or a president who took seriously his national security memos. Heroism is also contingent on a certain amount of altruism, which itself entails a certain amount of privilege. Not “privilege” in the way the term tends to proliferate now—though class and racial privilege can certainly play a part—but the privilege of being confident that one’s own corner of the world is not directly threatened.
Strip that confidence away, and altruism and sacrifice will become entirely contingent on whom they benefit. In its extreme vision, The Road makes this point plain: while all post-apocalyptic narratives depict some form of social collapse or another, few match the level of scarcity of McCarthy’s novel. Indeed, in many there is material pleasure to be taken in the apocalypse, as the sudden depopulation of the world leaves behind the excess of consumer society: such is the centerpiece of both versions of Dawn of the Dead, as the survivors plunder the goods in the malls in which they shelter; one thinks of the grocery scene in 28 Days Later, and The Walking Dead certainly has no shortage of cars, gasoline, guns and ammo, and food. In all of these examples, of course, there is the clash between different pockets of survivors and the perennial moral and ethical questions about survival versus humanity; but none truly present the problem of scarcity as McCarthy does, and the dehumanizing process that entails.
All of which is by way of saying that the kind of heroism on display in localized catastrophes is unlikely to manifest itself when catastrophes are not so localized. It is sadly not surprising that the far more devastating floods in Bangladesh received a tiny fraction of the coverage devoted to Houston and Florida, but that goes to my point: what’s missing in the coverage of the heroism here is that it’s responding to a global crisis affecting the people there. And what happens when the crisis becomes even more prevalent? Harvey, Irma, and now José … and whatever comes after that. Individuals are not going to step up when they are themselves under threat, and in the absence of a collective will, the state itself will fail to cover all its bases—something we see in the hypocrisy of Ted Cruz clamoring for relief for Texas a mere five years after he voted against an aid package for Hurricane Sandy victims.
All I can hope is that things get more hopeful in lock-step with the progression of my course readings. Though even the end of the course will see us traveling around a post-apocalyptic landscape … performing Shakespeare, yes, but still …