Are We Post-Apocalyptic Yet?

| 13 Aug 2014 | 12:17

    There's a line of scholarly thought that says the 20th century was peculiarly preoccupied with apocalyptic thinking. Part of the stimulus is artificial?the millennium?but it's also been a logical response to concrete, "traumatic" events. The notion, as James Berger, an assistant professor of English at Hofstra, posits it in his book After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse (University of Minnesota Press, 278 pages, $18.95), is that no century has come closer to seeing the Apocalypse realized: Between two world wars, the second of which included the Holocaust (which Berger calls, a bit hyperbolically, "the paradigmatic instance of an apocalypse in history") and ended with the Bomb, we have every reason to be haunted by thoughts of The End.

    But have we indeed been more prone to apocalyptic thinking than other cultures and ages? I'm not so sure. For every Terminator or Armageddon there's an Assyrian fragment maundering on about the end of the world. There are rich veins of apocalyptic thought in Native American cultures North, Central and South. The Norse and Anglo-Saxon poets seemed to think about almost nothing else. (Go back and read "The Seafarer" or "The Wanderer": "Then comes darkness, the night shadow casts gloom, sends from the north fierce hailstorms to the terror of men. Everything is full of hardship in the kingdom of earth; the decree of fate changes the world under the heavens. Here possessions are transient, here friends are transient, here man is transient, here woman is transient; all this firm-set earth becomes empty.") Jews and Christians, obviously, have huge apocalyptic traditions that make a straight, if not unbroken, line from the Old Testament through John of Patmos to The Late Great Planet Earth. The Apocalypse was big in America in the early-to-mid-1800s, in England in the mid-to-late-1600s and on the Continent during the Thirty Years War earlier in that century; and both of the latter places and times surely came as close to creating an apocalyptic paradigm as this century has. The Greeks of Homer and Hesiod's time were well aware that they were living in what Berger might call a post-Apocalypse, "after the end" of the Age of Heroesthe Bronze Age to us.

    I bring up Homer because after I started reading Berger's book this week I picked up another one and got distracted. It's Aias, a new translation of Sophocles' play, by Boston U. classics professor Herbert Golder and poet Richard Pevear (Oxford University Press, 100 pages, $9.95). It's precisely about the end of the Age of Heroes.

    I confess that after I got absorbed in Aias I lost my momentum with Berger's book and started skimming. For one thing, I'm well into the stage where I start to get antsy when an academic begins citing Jameson, Lacan and Lyotard. Berger's chapter-length appreciations of Beloved, Vineland and Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World didn't dazzle me, either. One of his central themesthat America, traumatized by the cataclysmic events of this century, lapsed into a state of Apocalypse denial under Reaganwould have been a lot more provocative to read, say, 10 years ago; Reagan-bashing strikes me as rather a dated exercise in a 1999 publication. I was no Reagan fan either, but that was the 80s, get over it. It's also more political polemic than cultural analysis, making the entire book feel a little suspect to me as a scholarly project. Elsewhere, Berger seems to be refuting his own 20th-century bias when he quotes some phenomenal death-metal lines from Whitman's "This Compost": Something startles me where I thought I was safest... O Earth! O how can the ground of you not sicken?... Are they not continually putting distempered corpses in you? Is not every continent worked over and over with sour dead?   An idea of Berger I do find interesting is the focus on the post-Apocalypse. (His title comes from a great line in Citizen Kane: "Young man, I was with Mr. Kane before the beginning. And now, here I amafter the end.") "Very few apocalyptic representations end with the End," he notes. "There is always some remainder, some post-apocalyptic debris, or the transformation into paradise." If "apocalyptic desire" is in part "a total critique of the world, a critique that annuls any chance of reform," it "is a longing also for the aftermath." Who hasn't wondered what it would be like to be the last person on Earth? Berger thinks this informs a curious fascination in late-20th-century American pop culture with survivors: survivors of the Holocaust or hurricanes, the Titanic or abusive households, we love to hear their stories. (I don't know if he mentions this, but from settler days through the completion of westward expansion, survivor talesspecifically, I Was Captured By Injuns And Treated Like A White Squaw storieswere tremendously popular Back East.)

    Dividing the 20th century into the standard modern/postmodern model, Berger sees the modern period as apocalyptic and the postmodern as post-apocalyptic. That's an intriguing notion. I take him to mean that the dark side of modernismprogressive, propulsive, inquisitive, forward-looking, rational, occupied with Big Ideasis that the future it's rushing toward is its own cataclysmic end. Postmodernismconservative, static, nostalgic, acquisitive, intuitive, preoccupied with mulling over a pastiche of existing ideascomes along after The End and settles down amid the debris.

    An idea I've cited before because it feels right to me (art critic Thomas McEvilly was the first one I saw articulate it, but I believe it goes backsighto Habermas and Lyotard) is that modernism and postmodernism don't just define the 20th century, but describe cyclical mood-swings cultures go through over and over. You could call the Renaissance modern, the Baroque postmodern, etc. I figure this would make the Bronze Age modern, Homer a postmodern.

    Now it turns out that the Homeric hero we've all thought was called Ajaxas in the cleanser, as in Ajax Moving Co., etc.was really named Aias. "Ajax" is a bluntly wrong Anglicization of the Latinization of his name. Aias comes from the word "to cry in pain," and in Sophocles' play of the same name it's devastatingly consistent with his fate, as he himself cries out: "Aiai! My name is a lament!/Who would have thought it would fit/so well with my misfortunes!" To have stuck with the familiar Ajax would have ruined those lines.

    I never read Aias before. It's not one of the Sophocles plays they taught to undergraduate spuds like me. I don't think it's his greatest play, either, but as a study it's fascinating. There's this tectonic shift between the first and second halves that makes them as different as, well, modernism and postmodernism.

    You, like everyone in Sophocles' audience, know the story that leads up to the play. Homer tells the first part in The Iliad. The Greeks have besieged Troy. Among them is Aias, a giant of a man, slow to speech, considered a bit of a bumpkin by the citified Athenians because he's from rustic Salamis, yet a fearless bulwark against the Trojans (even when forced to retreat, Homer says, he's as "hard to move as a mule in a cornfield, who stays feeding/though beaten with sticks") and second only to Achilles in strength of arms (among the Greeks; for Troy, there's Herakles). When Paris kills Achilles, the great honor of having the fallen hero's arms and armor really should go to Aias, but the Greeks' leaders, the brothers Agamemnon and Menelaos, decide to let there be a mini-Olympics competition for them. Of course, the wily Odysseus outgames the plodding Aias, and wins the trophies.

    Homer doesn't tell us how Aias' story ends. In other literature there were various versions of what happens next. Sophocles went with the most extreme: Aias, enraged, hurt and ashamed at having been hoodwinked out of his due, goes on a murderous rampage, intent on killing Odysseus, Agamemnon and Menelaos. But Athena, who looks after Odysseus, drives Aias mad, and he only manages to slaughter a bunch of sheep.

    This is where the play begins, in the middle of a dark night, with Aias raving and covered in sheep's gore, his consort Tekmessa scared to death and Odysseus scratching his head, feeling squirmy about his role in all this, doing a "Man, Athena, I know the guy's my enemy and all, but this is kind of embarrassing" song and dance. When Aias comes to his senses, he's mortified, too, and decides there's only one way out: He literally falls on his sword.

    Herbert Golder points out in his introduction that Aias' suicide was a tricky business not only for Sophocles but for Aias' cultists and worshippers (he had them, like all the great heroes). To the Greeks, suicide was never an honorable or heroic act; it was "a desperate act, restricted in tragedy solely to women." For such a great hero to come to so unmanly an endand for a guy like Odysseus to triumph over him by force of cunning rather than couragewas symbolic of the end of the entire Age of Heroes. It was, then, if I can slide Berger in here, an apocalyptic act, and Sophocles' portrayal of what happens next, which comes in the second half of the play, is "post-apocalyptic."

    It's also a startling shift in tone. The first half, through Aias' death, is all classroom Greek Drama, highly stylized and formal, with masked heroes and gods orating and the Chorus chorusing. There is one great speech, when Aias is deciding to off himself, but it's pretty stilted and archaic-feeling.

    Once Aias is deadand with him the whole high-style Heroic AgeSophocles clears the decks and gets down to some very human drama. The whole play does an abrupt downshift from giant scale to mortals. Teukros, the great archer and Aias' half-brother (their father is Telamon, king of Salamis, but different mothers) rushes on, finds the corpse and begins to plan a proper burialfiguring that Aias' enemies will try to deny him this last honor, cast his bones to the dogs or the fishes and condemn his soul to torment.

    He's right. Menelaos enters with a bunch of soldiers behind him and barks, "You, keep your hands off that corpse,/I order you! Do not try to lift it." To which Teukros marvelously replies, "Those are big wordswhat stands behind them?" And the argument begins:   Menelaos The archer has a high opinion of himself. Teukros I am not ashamed of my skill. Menelaos He'd boast more if he carried a shield. Teukros I'll match your bronze barehanded. Menelaos Can your heart be as fierce as your tongue? Teukros As proud as my cause is just.   The insults tumble out, very vivid, very realistic. Great translation. As everyone in Sophocles' audience would know, Teukros has tremendous balls to stand up this way to Menelaos, prince of Sparta, coleader of the Greeks, whose Helen started all this in the first place. Menelaos knows it too. He's all bullshit bluster: "Those words may cause someone pain." Teukros shrugs, "No worse for me than for you." Then Menelaos shouts, "I tell you Aias will not/be buried!" And Teukros fires back, "I tell you he will!" Which leads to a fabulous exchange, with Menelaos going all sissy-clever:   I saw a man once whose bold talk had pressed a ship's crew to set sail in winter. A storm broke, the waves piled higher and higher, and he grew quieter and quieter, huddled in the stern under his cloak...   Teukros, pressing his advantage, sneers back with the amazingly blunt:  I, too, saw a man once, full of his own stupidity, who insulted his neighbors in their grief. Someone who looked like me, and was like me in temper, warned him: "Man, do not outrage the dead. If you do, it will be your own ruin." So the fool was told to his face...   Menelaos slinks off, the Chorus wrings hands and worries, and then Menelaos' big brother Agamemnon enters, with more soldiers. But he's a lily-liver too, and all he can do is insult Teukros with the ancient Greek equivalent of a yo-mama snap: "Do you think/you can talk so boldly against us/and go unpunished? A slave's son?/No doubt if your mother was noble/you'd boast even higher... Is it not monstrous to hear/such things from a slave?"

    Agamemnon does get in one great line about Aias being all brawn and no brain, a way of explaining his support of the wily Odysseus over the giant: "It's a wise mind, not a broad back,/that prevails. An ox, for all/its great girth, is driven down the road/with a little whip."

    But then he's back to the insults, finishing with the arrogantly stupid flourish: ...Know your place, Teukros. And since you lack the qualities of a free man, bring someone else to plead your case for you. I can learn nothing from your way of talking. Such barbarous speech is foreign to my ears.   Teukros, of course, tells him to go fuck himself. And just when things are about to turn violent, Jets vs. Sharks, Odysseus comes on and smooth-talks them all out of it. Yes, I hated Aias but he was a great man and deserves a decent burial, he declares. Okay, Agamemnon says, but we're boycotting it. Fine, Odysseus says, I'm staying. All right, Teukros says, but I'm sure that even in death Aias still hates your guts, so I can't allow you to touch him. Whatever, Odysseus shrugs.

    The end.

    Diplomacy, that most un-Heroic of disciplines, wins. It's an oddly deflating and intentionally unsatiating ending. I'm picturing the crowd leaving the amphitheater like soccer fansOdysseus cultists in this bunch, Aias-worshippers in this otherand working it out among themselves on the street after the show.