The English historian Horace Walpole once declared, “The next Augustan age will dawn on the other side of the Atlantic.” In response, Joseph Roach includes in Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance the following quote: “The conception of history as a vast performance of diaspora and surrogation haunts intercultural musings such as Walpole’s, which transform invented pasts into gloriously catastrophic futures.” Colson Whitehead’s Zone One and the genre it is a part of are proof that these kind of transformations are still very much alive.
If history is conceived of as a performance of diaspora and surrogation, then disaster should be considered one of it’s marquee acts. Doomsdays are written in history at every turn; they are among our greatest historical fascinations. Look no further than the high school history curriculum and the attention it pays to events like the destruction of Pompeii, The Fall of Rome, the Bubonic Plague, and the the Spanish Conquest of Mesoamerican societies. At each of these misfortunes, those most directly affected were certain they were witnessing the end of the world–or at the end of the world as they knew it. At each disaster, people have been conscripted into playing the role of the “last survivor.” Their actions in the respective “final days” are witnessed and judged by students of history who will ask themselves, “What would I have done?”
Of course these aforementioned historical apocalypses were false alarms. Though convincingly terminal at their nascent stage, these disasters did not end the world. Thus, continuing to observe them through the apocalyptic lens (which can be seen in recent literature on the subjects, such as this New Yorker article about the Bubonic Plague entitled “The End of The World”) is supporting an invented past. We are aware that this history is invented (because we know the world did not end after all), but we still seem to have a lot of fun engaging with the idea of a finale.
History alone can not satiate our collective desire to observe a disaster. The list of historical events that can check off enough boxes to be painted as an apocalypse is rather limited. Naturally then, people have invented their own. Set in modernity, or perhaps the near future, fictional disaster stories present a reasonably realistic end of days scenario to allow the reader to suspend their disbelief, judge the actions of characters, and again ask themselves, “What would I have done?” Zone One brings the end of society to the reader with a delicate blend of plausibility and grandiosity.
Truly the future Whitehead paints in Zone One is “gloriously catastrophic.” An unbeatable plague eventually bests the wit and tenacity of mankind despite a noble fight from martyrs like the everyman Mark Spitz. If the world must end, this is a near ideal scenario. Roach mentions that the transformation of invented pasts into gloriously catastrophic futures “looks ahead to those who will prove worthy to become an audience for the spectacle of our ruin.” In the case of Whitehead’s novel, this audience is no conscious person–as his story demands the total demise of humankind–save of course the reader. No one besides ourselves has proven worthy. To demand that the modern society has no heir apparent is perhaps narcissistic, but we will have nothing less. Society demands the gloriously catastrophic future that history has failed to fully provide, even if we have to invent it ourselves–for the time being.