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Mourning For What Hasn’t Been Lost: How Stories
 Depict Time, Death and the Fall of Humanity

by Ken Sanes

I've spent a portion of my life trying to understand why stories are so important to us. And one of the most intriguing kinds of stories I've puzzled over are the works of post-apocalyptic fiction that can be found in various media, including movies and television.

At first glance, these creations have a bleak and pessimistic quality, depicting a future when the world we are familiar with has been replaced by a new age of barbarism or by advanced societies that are an affront to the human spirit. In fact, many are permeated by images of death and destruction, intended to evoke a sense of loss in audiences.

But based on their popularity, it is obvious that audiences find these stories appealing, bleakness and all. They enjoy the adventures -- and the feats of heroism -- that are depicted. And they are intrigued by the unusual settings, which reveal how the debris of our own time could become the twisted landscape of the future. Apparently, many people are also interested in the way these stories depict nuclear destruction and out-of-control technology because it gives them a chance to reflect on a set of dangers that are a prominent feature of the present-day world we live in.

I think that all of these factors help explain why post-apocalyptic stories in movies and television often attract large audiences. There is, however, another reason for their popularity, and it casts a light on some of our deepest and most profound perceptions of life. It can be found in the fact that these stories lift audiences out of their immersion in the present and focus their attention on the traumatic mysteries of time and death, which loom over all of our lives. As part of this, these stories convey the unsettling truth about the world, which is that everything (or at least everything we know of) passes away and is replaced by something else. They also ask audiences to reflect on the true scale of time, which is larger than anything we can comprehend, reducing even the current age to a tiny point in history.

Works of post-apocalyptic fiction do these things, not by offering audiences a philosophical discussion about death, but by depicting a time when our own world has become part of the past. As alluded to above, if something from our time is depicted as having survived, it is ruins and other fragments that were once part of a coherent civilization. Audiences typically respond to these depictions with a complex set of psychological reactions, including a sense of loss and awe, as they experience something disturbing and impossible to understand that is an essential characteristic of the world.

This essay is about how post-apocalyptic stories and related forms of storytelling evoke these kinds of experiences, helping us see more deeply into the nature of the world and the tragic dimension of life. Of course, this is also a subject that is particularly relevant today, when we have a greater appreciation for the sweep of history and are concerned about whether our own age is heading for a fall as a result of its own failings.

A good way to begin exploring this subject is to look at how a post-apocalyptic movie depicts time and death. An example is the 1995 movie, Waterworld, a big-budget Hollywood production that was a lot more interesting than some of the negative reviews it received would indicate. Like the Mad Max movies it is partly based on, Waterworld is about a barbaric future after the end of civilization. It depicts a time when the Earth has been inundated by water and what was once dry land is now covered by ocean. Where once humanity spread out across the globe, now, in the invented world of the movie, a remnant of humanity lives precariously on an endless sea, traveling nomadically in boats or clinging to life in a walled-in floating village, while the post-apocalyptic equivalent of pirates survive on a derelict ship and terrorize whoever is in reach. Most of the people in this future don’t even know what the Earth was like before the deluge.

Much of the movie is centered on a mariner, played by Kevin Costner, who has mutations vital to survival in this ocean environment, with webbed feet and gills for breathing in the water. It is those gills that have made it possible for him to know the secret of the world, since he has seen the sea floor -- and the evidence of the age of history that preceded his own.

In an important scene midway through the movie, he instructs a female character to get into a diving bell -- a form of underwater vehicle -- and takes her into the ocean to show her the truth that humanity has forgotten. As the two of them go deep into the water, she sees a city of ruined high-rises on the ocean floor (which are the ruins of our own time) and realizes for the first time what humanity once achieved and how it was destroyed. As her facial expressions convey a sense of shock and amazement, we, the audience, can experience these things with her and feel awe at the way something so familiar and so grand in scale has been taken back by nature. At the same time, we feel a sense of awe at the thought that our age’s accomplishments could be brought down by time, literally down to the bottom of the ocean.

Waterworld is a good example of a post-apocalyptic story that tells us the truth about time and death. But there are a legion of similar examples. All do a variation on the same thing: they find a way to confront a character with evidence of the end of a world, whether it is by witnessing ruins at the bottom of the ocean or through some other means. The characters then have a set of reactions we see repeatedly in these stories, as they experience a sense of irony, loss, and awe at the idea of the death of something large, such as a civilization or an era in history. At the same time, they experience a sense of awe at the expanse of time and at the way time replaces one thing with another. We experience these things with them and deeply perceive the tragedy of life.

This is the essence of many works of post-apocalyptic fiction. They reveal the truth about transience and finality, confronting us with the basic conditions of our existence, which we tend not to think about from our usual perspective, immersed in our daily lives. And they give us a sense of our true scale in the expanse of time.

As noted, post-apocalyptic stories accomplish this with various storytelling devices, so characters can be maneuvered into encountering evidence of the long passage of time. For example, characters may somehow make contact with another period in history as a result of a time machine or the ability to peer into another age, or as a result of some kind of suspended animation, so they wake up in the future when their own time is a distant memory and everyone they knew is gone. In other stories, audiences may simply be presented with the death of a world or the contrast between two ages, without also seeing it vicariously through the eyes of characters.

But the storytelling device that seems to have a particular resonance is the one referred to above, in which audiences are presented with something that has survived from an earlier age, such as ruins, cemeteries, skeletons, ancient technologies, past battlefields and old books. Through these emotionally-charged symbols, the dead tell their story, often to living characters but, if not, then still to us, the audience.

Today, of course, the symbol that turns up repeatedly in post-apocalyptic stories is the one we see in Waterworld: the image of urban centers full of high-rises that have fallen into ruin. In an earlier age, the imagination of disaster in Europe and America conjured up images of nature encroaching on classical ruins, and lone standing columns with clinging vines. Those images expressed an awareness that Western civilization was built on the fragments of the Roman Empire (and on Greek empires before it). But, today, high-tech civilization is the new Rome that fears for its own demise. And the imagination of disaster now conjures up images of high-rises crumbling and falling down, or encroached on by water or wild nature (or in one post-apocalyptic satire, the movie, Idiocracy, surrounded by mountains of garbage).

Not surprisingly, these images of ruined high-rises are saturated with irony because they embody the contrast between our age’s desire to inflate itself to grandiose size and the nothing it will one day become. This idea is vividly brought home to audiences in the movie, A. I. Artificial Intelligence, which shows the ruins of a future Manhattan, which has been flooded by the greenhouse effect, with abandoned skyscrapers that are like tombstones in the graveyard of civilization. In one scene, we see the hand and torch of the Statue of Liberty sticking out of the water, as if it is trying to keep the dream alive despite a rise in the level of the ocean.

But not all of the creations that tell this kind of story about time and death are works of post-apocalyptic fiction. In fact, they can be works of fact, fiction or speculation in any medium, and they can be about the past, present or future. Some written histories, for example, tell stories that have a lot in common with post-apocalyptic fiction, recounting the fall of the Roman empire or describing how ancient Egypt is lost in the sands of time.

We also see these themes in fictional stories that are about the past or about times and places that don’t have any discernable connection to our own. A good example is the Carl Sandburg poem, “Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind,” which is an observation about the fate of nations -- and a warning about one possible fate for America. In the poem, “strong men” are depicted as building a great nation and then bragging that, “We are the greatest city, / the greatest nation: / nothing like us ever was.” As the poem describes it, these men revel in their reflected glory, putting those words on panels, and paying singers and chanters to repeat them. But in the course of time, the nation disappears and its central city falls into ruin, while everything it achieved is apparently forgotten. The effort by its builders to boast about their own greatness then takes on an ironic meaning because, as far as the world knows, nothing like them ever was.

Whatever their form, works like this embody the qualities of what will be referred to in this essay as the fateful sublime. While this term may not roll off the tongue easily in conversation, it can help organize our thinking about this subject. The first word in the phrase -- “fateful” -- is used both literally and poetically. It means something that is determined by destiny, inexorable, fatal or of momentous significance for subsequent events. The second word -- “sublime” -- refers to whatever can induce a state of awe. Reduced to their essence, stories and symbols that convey the qualities of fateful sublime-- or at least the ones we have examined so far -- show us how societies and other large-scale elements of the world pass away in the long passage of time.

Except, of course, they don’t only show us. As noted earlier, when these stories are successful, they also evoke a specific set of reactions in readers and audiences. Among these, they evoke a sense of loss by showing us evidence of something that has disappeared in a way that conveys an elegiac or mournful mood, filled with pathos. This is certainly obvious in Waterworld and A. I. Artificial Intelligence, which ask us to contemplate the ruins of our world.

These stories also call up a perception of irony since time and death are master ironists who always have the last laugh, ensuring that everything about us will be wiped away and things will never turn out the way we hope. And they evoke awe or amazement at the scale of time, and at the mystery and finality of time and death. The sense of irony and awe are both enhanced by the monumental size of whatever has passed away, and by the contrast with what it has become. Extensive ruins are particularly well suited for this effect because they show us the results of deterioration and collapse on something very large as if it is frozen in a moment in time.

But the awe that we experience is also tinged with a sense of the uncanny at the way things exist and then cease to exist, a fact that we can never fully come to terms with. Put in more concrete terms, many symbols of the fateful sublime are uncanny because they take things that are a familiar part of life, such as high-rises, and turn them into a “tableau” of death.

All of these reactions are essential elements of the fateful sublime. Another common element is the explanations many stories offer for why something has disappeared. Here, we discover that some of these stories are morality tales which suggest those who have disappeared are responsible for their own demise because of negative characteristics such as greed or folly. If what is depicted is the destruction of our own world by something like nuclear war or environmental destruction, then the pointing of the finger of blame can become a form of social activism through storytelling. Stories can also point the finger of blame in a way that harkens back to the Old Testament, with the suggestion that the fall of a society is punishment, or at least just desserts, for wrongs that have been committed. Or (and most of these aren't mutually exclusive), the disappeared can be depicted simply as victims of an attack or a natural catastrophe or advanced age, or no explanation may be given at all.

But, whatever reasons are given, in many of these stories there is a chilling sense that rise and fall, appearance and disappearance, are built in to the order of things. In the Sandburg poem “Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind,” there is even a sense that the arrogance and grandiosity of those who rise to power is part of the natural cycle of the world. The poem suggests that nation-builders will fall in love with their own imagined glory and then time will turn them into dust, raising up new nation-builders who are also filled with grandiosity, to repeat the cycle.

The five-painting series, “The Course of Empire,” by the nineteenth century artist, Thomas Cole, implies the same thing as we witness the birth and death of a great classical city and, by extension, the empire it controls. In the first two paintings, we see the birth of the city. Then, in the third, we see a leader’s triumphal procession through what has become the lavish city at its height, filled with opulence and grand classical buildings. It is replaced, in the fourth painting by the inevitable invasion of barbarians, as people in the city are murdered en masse, and in the fifth, by desolation and ruins, with a bird’s nest sitting atop a free-standing column.

What “The Course of Empire” shows, of course, is a set of clichés about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, brilliantly employed to suggest that this is a cosmic drama in which everyone is playing an assigned role. As in other works, the sense that the city deserved what it got (in this case because of its decadence), and the sense of inevitability coexist, embodying our complex perceptions without fully reconciling them. At the same time, the series is also about the future since it was a warning about the potential fate of America.

In another masterpiece -- the original movie, Planet of the Apes -- we see how these elements can be brought together for maximum dramatic effect. To make a long story short, the main character, played by Charlton Heston, believes he is on a distant planet in the future where the dominant species are talking apes, while human beings are wild, lacking speech and most of the arts of civilization.

But in the famous last scene, Heston’s character experiences the ultimate shock when he discovers the half buried ruin of the Statue of Liberty on a beach and realizes the space ship he was in didn’t land on a distant planet after all; it really took him back to Earth in the future, after human civilization destroyed itself with nuclear war. As we look on, we then see his rage at the barbaric madness of the ultimate crime.

“We finally really did it. You maniacs. You blew it up,” he screams as he kneels on the beach, cursing humanity, with the waves crashing in around him.

The camera then withdraws from the scene, so we see the full statue and understand what he is reacting too.

This scene has been referred to so many times in the media (including in satires), it has long since become a movie cliché. And no wonder, since it is filled with power. After all, this towering and dignified monument embodies the hopes and ideals of America. But here we see it brought down by time and turned into a symbol of how our age’s claims to greatness came to nothing in the end. Our response is typically one of mild shock and a sense of loss, irony and awe at what time has wrought, which is enhanced by our identification with the main character who is depicted as being in a true state of shock. At the same time, we have a sense of irony at the way the character was tricked by circumstances.

But what gives this scene its power is that all of this hits us at the same time in a multiple whammy of the fateful sublime. Given the resonance of this scene, it isn't surprising that other stories such as A. I. use the Statue of Liberty to achieve similar effects.

When you add up all of these common elements, it becomes obvious that what we are dealing with here is a coherent genre of storytelling, which is about how something large, such as an empire, an era in history, humanity, or life itself (or something larger still, such as the universe), disappears in the long passage of time. And the more we look at these stories, the more we see the common elements that define them.

But having identified this kind of story and listed some of its characteristics, we will now need to expand its boundaries further because there are other kinds of works that can embody the fateful sublime, as well. These works evoke many of the same reactions, but they change some of the elements of the story, varying the scale of time or the size of whatever has passed away.

They may show the fall of something large, but in a brief span of time, as in the 1959 movie, On the Beach, which kills off humanity with radiation, and presents us with the uncanny sight of empty city streets that haven’t yet fallen into ruin. A work like this won't evoke our awe at the vast scale of time, but other elements of the fateful sublime are still there. Or, instead of showing the fall of an entire people, en masse, these works may depict a grave or someone looking back at past ages of his own life, in which case we won’t feel a sense of awe at the vast size of what has passed away. And the scale of time may be reduced, as well.

An example of this last possibility is the 1981 British television serial, Brideshead Revisited, based on the novel by Evelyn Waugh. But it may take us to the limits of what can be referred to as the fateful sublime. It begins in the time of World War Two as a middle-aged British officer, played by Jeremy Irons, is deployed at the palatial estate of Brideshead, which has been vacated by the aristocratic family that lived there and is now being used as a military base. In one of those fateful coincidences that make stories more interesting, it turns out that in his youth Irons’ character was friends with a young man from the aristocratic family that owned the house. Then, later in life, Irons’ character got a divorce from his wife to marry a woman who was a member of the same family, although the marriage never took place. So the entire series of eleven episodes is a wistful look back at the time he spent in the house, and the ways he became entangled with the aristocratic family that lived there.

In the eleventh episode, after this story has been told, we are up to date and back at the house in its new incarnation as a military base. And, along with Irons’ character, we experience the uncanniness of seeing the house and grounds transformed, since it is now filled with soldiers, many of whom will die on the other side of the English Channel. And many of the house’s contents are now in disarray, covered over and stacked up as it sustains damage inflicted by its new tenants. So this is another story about someone visiting a ruin and a place of death, all the more so because it is the place where his relationship and his hopes for the future died.

As Irons’ character sits in the house in its strange new incarnation, he reflects on the things in life he has lost. And it becomes clear that it is his own life that is a ruin. As he tells another soldier, while talking about the house and the pleasures of building: “I’ve never built anything. And I forfeited the right to watch my son grow up. I’m homeless, childless, middle aged and loveless….”

If the story works for us, it will evoke the same responses as other works of the fateful sublime: an elegiac feeling of loss, regret and nostalgia for a past world; irony over how things turned out; and a sense of awe and the uncanny as the character sees things that were once part of his life rearranged into a symbol of what has been lost in time. But, here, the long passage of time is within a single lifetime and the death is of a time of life, as youth and love have transitioned into a sterile middle age.

Despite their differences, all of these works drink from the same deep well of the fateful sublime. We can boil it down by saying they are about a sense of irony, awe and the uncanny in response to the traumatic mystery of time and death, and about sadness and compassion for loss in time. They convey all of this by showing us the death of a time in one life, or the death of individuals or something larger, which can take place over various spans of time.

Any complete definition will also need to note that symbols and stories can embody elements of the fateful sublime to a greater or lesser degree, so we often get it in diluted form. But whatever form they take, if they embody the fateful sublime, we will see in them the story of our own passing and the passing of people we care about, as well as a story about the universal pageant of transience that characterizes the world. This is even true of works like Idiocracy that satirize the fateful sublime, complicating our responses with humor to give us a rich aesthetic experience.

Of course, these works can only have these effects on us because we know it is safe to attend to them. We know that, most obviously, because they are mere fictions and representations. But, in addition, we know ahead of time that these stories are designed to be emotionally safe. They protect our feelings, avoiding the depiction of anything that is too disturbing, even when they appear to be showing us something unsettling. Even the horrific images in the movie, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, of skeleton-like robots and other machines fighting the last survivors of humanity in a post-apocalyptic landscape full of skulls, and of people burning in a nuclear explosion, are carefully crafted to take audiences toward the edge but not emotionally traumatize them.

It is because we know these stories are safe that we have the luxury of ironically observing their characters from a distance, even as we also identify with some of the same characters and become psychologically immersed in their lives. From our position of safety in a movie theater or our living room, we can let the powers of emotion and imagination do their work on us as we bond with characters who are facing the traumatic mystery of time and death. We become like the Charlton Heston character in Planet of the Apes, shocked at the sight of the Statue of Liberty, half-buried on a beach, and outraged at the nuclear destruction of human civilization. As we watch him from a distance, and identify with him, we deeply experience his humanity and join him in railing against the folly of the people who destroyed our world, even as we more fully see nuclear weapons as the form of radical evil they are. We become like the female character in Waterworld who is shocked at the sight of a ruined city of high-rises on the ocean floor. And we experience her plight, trapped in a world of water, in which it appears that the only land is at the bottom of the sea. As we are carried away by these situations, we experience a benevolent love for some of the characters that can include a more general sense of compassion for humanity, giving us a powerful and personal awareness of the human condition.

It is from this position of safety that we attend to these stories and mourn for what hasn’t yet been lost -- and for what has: dead friends and family, past ages in our own lives, and ultimately, ourselves. At the risk of sounding maudlin, these works put us in a position not unlike the hero Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid, as he observes a Carthaginian mural depicting the Trojan War and says that the creators weep “For how the world goes, and our life that passes \ Touches their hearts” (translated by Robert Fitzgerald). Put another way, these works let us experience what the Japanese refer to as mono no aware, an aesthetic appreciation of bitter-sweetness or sad beauty over transience.

Similarly, from our position of safety, we experience the irony at the heart of our existence, in which every life ultimately has an unhappy ending. Irony is essential to these stories because it is based on the depiction of contrasts -- and the fateful sublime is all about disturbing contrasts between illusion and reality, before and after, intactness and disintegration, arrogance and collapse, presence and disappearance. The sense of loss and empathy psychologically immerse us in the story, letting us meld with the characters. But irony is hard as metal, with a sharp blade, and at its best it can reveal the truth obscurely embodied in appearances, even if it often does so by referring to things indirectly for effect.

In fact, some of the best stories of this type end with irony and loss, conveying the feeling that our hopes for the future are as ephemeral as we are. At their most extreme, these pessimistic stories leave us with a sense that life is without meaning, consisting only of one thing after another, without a goal or purpose.

But other stories give us happy endings to counteract the irony, and act as an antidote to our awareness of loss and death. Of course, the antidote is only partly effective, and most of its effect is only evident while the feeling lasts.

A good example of how happy endings like this can interact with the sense of irony and loss can be seen at the end of Waterworld, when we discover the fate of the main characters who are trapped on an endless ocean. In the course of the movie, both the floating village and the derelict ship that were a home to humanity are destroyed. Since it is possible they are the last of their kind, humanity may now be doomed, with only a few people left on small boats on the water. Then, at the end, the mariner played by Kevin Costner and a handful of other survivors make it to the long sought after refuge of dry land, which is a mountainous area that wasn’t engulfed by the deluge. Having lived desperate lives on the “desert” of the ocean’s surface, the survivors are now amazed and delighted by what they see on land, with fresh water cascading down in a waterfall, plants and trees growing in abundance, and wild horses galloping passed. As they witness the bounty of nature for the first time, we see it vicariously along with them, with fresh eyes, and have a sense that humanity is saved and everything will be alright after all. We also then have a new image fixed in our minds -- of life -- as a counterpoint to the images of death, malevolence and entrapment by water in the rest of the movie.

As a result of the alchemy of this happy ending, our feeling of concern over the future is transformed into hope. To one degree or another, many in the audience will even experience what it is like to identify, not with family or nation or even with their own era in history, but with humanity, by becoming emotionally invested in its prospects in a distant time.

But, in the end, the movie leaves us with only a tempered optimism. After all, so far only a handful of people have made it to dry land. And one of the things they see when they get there are the skeletons of a couple who were there before. In addition, the central character -- the mariner played by Costner -- heads back out to sea after they arrive because it is the only world he is comfortable in. So, like many of the best works that embody the fateful sublime, Waterworld intentionally mixes things together, letting the good feelings of the happy ending, the sense of vulnerability and loss, and the perception of the ironic limits of life coexist in a rich aesthetic experience.

It is through these techniques, that stories of the fateful sublime tell us the truth about the world, and help us deny it at the same time, letting us enjoy a symbolic victory over death. Of course, with or without these symbolic victories, death still has the last laugh because time stops its inexorable march for no one. But in the invented world of storytelling, we can play at attaining the ultimate victory by using the idea of death for our aesthetic enjoyment, and by experiencing a simulation of life and death from a position of temporary immunity. We similarly experience a symbolic victory over death as we are carried away by happy endings, which evoke all those good feelings and tell us there will be more life -- and love -- in the future, as a way to partially reconcile us to the truth about the world.

But in doing these things, stories don’t merely show us what we already know about the world. They use the power of art to transform the things we know and create things we don’t know, so the stories themselves become a source of awe. And they expand our powers of perception and imagination, frequently to show us the limitations of the world.

A poem, titled “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” by Langston Hughes, is a good example of how these stories expand our powers of perception to reveal a world full of limitation. In the poem, the speaker claims that he isn’t contained by time but is as old as history. He says that he has “known rivers ancient as the world and older than the \ flow of human blood in human veins.” But as he tells us that he has lived in various ages in the past, there is also more than a hint of tragedy and limitation in the lives he describes:

He says:

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans….

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is our last example of the fateful sublime. Through its expansive speaker, we see the sweep of history as it is experienced, one person and one people at a time. Like this poem, all of these works lift us out of our everyday perspective so we can contemplate the human condition, caught in the passage of time, which is a mystery that defines us but that we are unable to solve. 

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Image: Italiano: Rovine della tonnara di Vendicari, nell'Oasi naturale, nei pressi di Siracuasa. By Mikuzz [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

 Copyright © 1996-2013 Ken Sanes

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