Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Destroying the world before it was cool

(Illustration by James Wragg, http://thrustingpens.com)

THERE will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows calling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild-plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

There will come soft rains, Sara Teasdale, 1920

When Teasdale wrote this extraordinarily prescient poem in 1920, the memory of the First World War was still an open wound. People had seen for the first time what the unstoppable progress of technology was leading to - the ability to undo whole landscapes, for civilisations to grind each other to dust. Interestingly though, while most artistic responses to the war reflected on horror, loss and anguish, Teasdale drew a form of positivity from the experience. Inverting the masculine narratives of pride and bombast that had led to the war, she imagined a world that was glad that we had destroyed ourselves, that was breathing a sigh of relief at our absence.

In a slightly incongruous link (its my blog and I'll mash what I want into a post thank you very much), M.P Shiel imagined the post-human future from a very different perspective in his 1901 novel "The purple cloud". Presaging much of what popular audiences would find appealing about nuclear war fiction, Shiel revelled in detailing the aftermath of the apocalypse in brutal detail, deliriously smashing down the edifice of civilisation. His fantastically peculiar novel, infused with a palpable sense of menace, sees the protagonist awaken an ancient, evil force on an expedition to the North pole. Unbeknownst to him, the force he encountered spreads a poisonous cloud across the globe. The cloud moves at walking pace, slow enough to allow people to flee and create a wave of refugees that spread terror before themselves. As he sails back to the inhabited world, he comes across drifting boats full of corpses, and seaside villages inhabited only by the dead. He cannot accept that he is the only man left alive, and begins a desperate search for other survivors.

In the same way that nuclear war awakens irrational fears, the very stuff of nightmares (an unstoppable force that is coming to kill you, the ultimate sanctuary of the home becoming a tomb) so Shiel too taps into primal fears of inescapable death. It's the same thing that makes a theme park ride enjoyable, fear by proxy. Just as you're strapped into the ride, able to experience the adrenaline of fear in the knowledge that you're actually safe, so the reader can experience the thrilling fear of the apocalypse through the lens of the novel.

The narrator deduces that Mineshafts must be the most likely place to find survivors. However, in a reflection of the later common fears about fallout shelters, he soon discovers that "the notion of hiding himself in a mine must have occurred to every man alive", creating horrendous crushes of suffocated crowds. In the same way, fallout shelters became a metaphor for the pointlessness of attempting to plan for a nuclear war - anyone who had built one would surely find themselves quickly under siege from their less prepared neighbours, desperately trying to force entry to their only hope of survival.

The narrator comes across the aftermath of one such attempt at forced entry in a tunnel where the occupiers fought back, finding "three hermetical holes in a plaster wall... [from which projected] the muzzles of three rifles, which must have glutted themselves with slaughter". Faced with such scenes, he gradually loses grip on reality, to the point where he embarks on an epic orgy of destruction, devoting himself to burning the world's great cities to the ground. Here again tropes of nuclear fiction are foreshadowed - nuclear war destroys the present, poisons the future with fallout and erases the past. If London were to be struck by multiple hydrogen bombs, it would not be just the physical city itself that was destroyed, but all the evidence of its history, the monuments, art works, museums and cathedrals. Thousands of years would be undone in seconds.

This is what makes nuclear war a unique form of anti-narrative - only in its most basic sense is it a war between states. It is, amongst many other things, a war against the narratives we tell ourselves of our own importance. Given enough time, rain will erode anything, and there'll be plenty of time...