Popular culture and media have ingrained the idea of an “apocalypse” in the minds of those who consume media. So many of our favorite television shows, movies, and books are defined as “post-apocalyptic” or “dystopian” that we as a media-consuming society often only have one idea of what an apocalypse is. This media defines an apocalypse as some event, a plague, asteroid, or alien attack, the results in the death of most of the planet and leaves the remaining population fighting for survival while struggling to retain their humanity. Television shows like AMC’s The Walking Dead and movies like Mad Max: Fury Road depict desolate worlds, mostly empty of people yet still full of threats, where the remaining survivors fight amongst themselves to survive. This common formula, while not exactly a fresh idea, has been proved time and time again to be an interesting vehicle to showcase human emotion and stories, as evidenced by the massive success that these media enjoy. However, these portrayals have done us a disservice by cementing only one idea of an apocalypse in our minds. The texts that we have read so far this semester have all presented their own ideas and definitions of what an apocalypse could be, and in doing so have revolutionized what types of media can be considered “apocalyptic.” In the past few weeks, I have been doing my best to distill the themes and ideas in each reading into each text’s definition of an apocalypse. The essay and two novels we have read have not been easy texts to understand and defining the term apocalypse in terms of each text has been difficult, but in doing so I lead myself to another line of questioning. If each text has a different, yet correct, definition of apocalypse, can these definitions be applied to the other texts we have read in class?
Andrew Santana Kaplan’s essay “Notes Toward (Inhabiting) the Black Messianic in Afro-Pessimism’s Apocalyptic Thought” was an incredibly dense read. It was not meant for an audience of undergraduate students, much less a biochemistry major like myself. Although it left me with many initial questions upon my first reading, the question that stuck with me the longest was “how is Afro-Pessimism apocalyptic?” In the onset of Kaplan’s argument, they use the term “World.” Throughout the essay, they capitalize World in a way that is likely immediately understood by those in their field, but not by me. Via the context and content of the essay, I came to realize that Kaplan uses the term World to define a society with assumed values and attitudes towards certain races and peoples. They write that the common ground of the Afro-Pessimistic and contemporary Christian Paulinism “lies in their shared conviction that true justice demands the end of the World,” providing some of the first evidence into how this essay might be considered apocalyptic (Kaplan 3). Kaplan posits that, according to Afro-Pessimistic thought, true escape from an anti-Black World requires the end of that World. Although Kaplan is discussing social revolution in which a new assumed set of values and attitudes is adopted, their wording comes off as distinctly apocalyptic. In this essay, Kaplan suggests a definition of apocalypse in which the society, and all of its outdated and ingrained values, ends, not the entire world. Moving from Kaplan’s essay to Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed and Percival Everett’s American Desert, I was interested to see what kind of through lines could be drawn between each text’s ideas of what an apocalypse could be and how these definitions interacted with each other.
The two novels we have read were easier to understand but provided equally thought provoking depictions of apocalypses. Butler’s Wild Seed provided an immediate opportunity for me to apply Kaplan’s definition of apocalypse, seeing as the characters Anyanwu and Doro underwent several of Kaplan’s apocalypses throughout the novel. I found that Wild Seed and Kaplan had similar depictions of apocalypses, yet on very different scales. While Kaplan thought of upheavals on a societal scale, Doro and Anyanwu’s personal Worlds were overthrown throughout the novel. Doro’s destruction of the settlement that Anyanwu had created for herself and her people and Doro’s subsequent realization that he might lose his only truly life-long companion were significant upheavals in their lives that radically changed their values and attitudes in the same way that Kaplan’s apocalypse would radically change society and its views on race. Doro had never once considered making concessions to Anyanwu before his realization that she might end her own life. His “merging” with her at the end of Wild Seed seemed to force upon him a realization that he could not live alone for the rest of his infinite life (Butler 295). Similarly to the interaction between Kaplan’s essay and Wild Seed, I found through lines between Wild Seed and American Desert. Ted’s dream of the philosophers Hegel and Heidegger revealed another iteration of the small-scale, personal apocalypse found in Wild Seed. The philosophers’ conclusion that “There is no more Ted. There is only Ted-prime” is a sign that, unconsciously, Ted knows that his previous World has ended (Everett 51). This world is not a society or a civilization like Kaplan suggests, but another personal World like Doro’s and Anyanwu’s. Ted’s life as a professor is over, his dwindling marriage to his wife is beginning to be turn around, and he gains a newfound confidence and wit that he never had before his death. These are all indications that Ted is indeed a new person, Ted-prime. Although Ted himself questions whether or not he is the same person or just an imitation of his former identity (Everett 51), he has undergone an apocalypse in Wild Seed’s other sense as well. A thought I had not considered until reading American Desert was that Doro’s intense, world-changing realization could also be considered a kind of apocalypse. Upon his revival, or reincarnation, Ted is most impressed by his increased capacity for love for his family more than anything else (Everett 87). This newfound capacity was not a completely new part of Ted, more so a realization that his personal apocalypse forced him to realize. This realization was the through line I was looking for between the readings, allowing me to apply each iteration of apocalypse to other texts and the texts we will read over the course of the semester.
These texts provided a lot for me to think about in the past weeks, and the questions I have been reckoning with have provided me with more than enough motivation to consume these novels faster than any fiction in recent years. After reading through these texts and answering the questions they had originally prompted, I am excited to read the rest of the novels on the reading list. I anticipate being able to define apocalypse in even more ways and being able to apply these new definitions to other texts in turn. The three definitions already provided, Kaplan’s societal revolution, Butler’s personal realizations, and Everett’s death and reincarnation, have interwoven so beautifully that I am looking forward to applying these ideas to future novels, as well as being able to apply new ideas to these novels in order to deepen and change my understanding of these instances of apocalypse.