Writing by Callum Sutherland. Illustration by Cat Easeman.
‘These words are ineffectual and metaphorical. Most words are so—No help!’
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1)
‘It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.’
The concept of art as a means of representing what happens around us is an ancient one. It becomes an altogether trickier business, however, when we start thinking about it as a means of representing disaster and suffering. This is especially true given the ironic turn of much contemporary writing. How can we use mere words to evoke human suffering? Should we? I propose that, in examining the word apocalypse — a word signifying an event of the ultimate gravity — and its relationship to literature and literary theory, we can find some answers to these questions, answers to help us understand the world we are inheriting.
When one hears the word apocalypse today, one thinks of an event, ‘a disaster resulting in drastic, irreversible damage to human society or the environment,’ according to the OED (3). We can call this an apocalyptic event—the first kind of apocalypse. But this is not the original meaning of the word. Apocalypse stems from a Greek verb meaning ‘to uncover, disclose’ (4), the lifting of a veil — nothing to do with disaster, in fact. But the idea of disclosure gets us closer, and brings us to our second kind of apocalypse. Biblical writers adopted the noun apocalypse, uncovering, to refer to the several prophecies scattered through both testaments of the end-times, the most famous of these being the Book of Revelations. So in the Biblical sense — from which our current use developed — apocalypse meant not the actual apocalyptic event, but writing which referred to, disclosed, such events. We can call this second kind of apocalypse the apocalyptic text.
The Apocalyptic Text
One defining characteristic of Biblical apocalypses — especially the Revelation of John — is the use of metaphorical language. The end-times are not described directly; rather, they are evoked through the use of intricate symbolism, producing a gap between the apocalyptic event and its representation. They are, in the end, a fictionalisation of the end-times they describe, and this is why the category of apocalyptic text extends out from the Bible. I would suggest that we can consider any literary text — a text which uses metaphorical language — which talks about apocalyptic events, an apocalyptic text, including literature which looks back on horrific events and attempts to account for them or to describe the experience of them (5).
Yet, despite the apocalyptic text stretching back as far as the Bible, the use of metaphor and fictionality to refer to apocalyptic events has often been challenged, especially in the twentieth century: how can one use metaphor — in essence, comparison — to speak directly of the incomparable, unspeakable horror of an apocalyptic-event like the Holocaust? This attitude is often illustrated by a quote from German-Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno: ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’ (6). However, this quote is not as simple as it seems; it might actually point us towards a way in which one can write apocalyptic-texts — how one can speak of the unspeakable.
Despite being so often read as suggesting that one should not write poetry after the Holocaust, Adorno’s quote is more about the bind that he believed post-Holocaust literature is in: ‘poetry [...] as a form of active engagement with sociopolitical realities, has to respond to the ungraspable (i.e., the Holocaust); it cannot simply avoid doing so’. But it can never directly refer to something as massive in scale and in horror as the Holocaust — it’s simply too big; no amount of words would ever suffice to directly represent so much suffering, to depict an event so apocalyptic (7). So, if literature is bound to keep trying, what is to be done?
The Rings of Saturn
In the late eighties to the early nineties, two answers were proposed, the first by a great reader of Adorno, the German academic W.G. Sebald (8). Sebald was also the author of four novels, published between 1990 and 2001, the most representative of which is his third, The Rings of Saturn (9). It is a novel of ‘digressions, a series of tales that both describe and mirror its narrator’s meandering walks around the East Coast of England’ (10). The death of the English elm trees, the herring-fishing industry, genocides in Bosnia and the Belgian Congo: each of these tales describes a different event, a different example of destruction and of human suffering — and yet none of the events directly referred to are the true subjects of the novel. Each one is a metaphor, a comparison, an indirect reference to an event, an apocalyptic-event, which is never mentioned in the text: the Holocaust.
Each tale is like a ring, which interlocks with the next; all linked together, they form one big circle. But what this produces in the end is an empty space at the centre, an absence, the presence of which is felt in each and every ring surrounding it: this absence is the Holocaust. It is hard to describe the novel’s effect. In this accumulation of tales of destruction, the Holocaust is always looming, always on the verge of being referenced; with every tale that passes without mentioning it, its unspeakable scale, becomes more and more palpable. In its very refusal to directly reference the Holocaust, in the very distance between the apocalyptic text and the apocalyptic event, The Rings of Saturn evokes more powerfully than any novel I have ever read the incomprehensible scale of suffering it caused. Sebald embraces the impossibility that Adorno talks about: literature cannot directly represent the unspeakable horror of the apocalyptic event, but through the metaphor and fictionalisation inherent to the apocalyptic text, it can make it felt indirectly.
The Third Kind of Apocalypse
‘But certain things, as I am increasingly aware,’ notes Sebald’s narrator in his second novel, The Emigrants, ‘have a way of returning unexpectedly, often after a lengthy absence’ (11). This is what happens all through The Rings of Saturn: the Holocaust returns, again and again; Sebald repeats it in each of the tales of destruction. It’s this very repetition of an original event which is never mentioned that allows Sebald to evoke so effectively the suffering caused by that event.
This structure of repetition and return mirrors an idea that some literary theorists, in the same decade that Sebald was writing, turned to in order to come up with the second of our answers to Adorno’s question: Freud’s theory of trauma. The most important of these theorists is Cathy Caruth, and she describes trauma as being defined by a return: you always walk away from the traumatic event (or you live on after the apocalyptic event), but it returns to haunt you — think of PTSD flashbacks, or of Coleridge’s ‘Ancyent Marinere’, doomed to repeat his story endlessly. But Caruth goes further: the original event can never be grasped in its entirety at the time; only through the repetition does the full enormity of it emerge (12) — one can only represent the immensity of the apocalyptic event to oneself through a distance from it. This is very similar to the strategy of Sebald, but Caruth reverses it: rather than suggesting we write with this in mind, she suggests we read with it, that we ‘uncover’ it, hearkening back to the Greek: apocalyptic reading.
Caruth suggests we should attend to the unconscious ways authors reveal the effect of trauma on them: repeated words, images, or figures, which repeatedly, indirectly, refer to the apocalyptic event. An excellent example of this is the work of William Wordsworth — the poet of daffodils and clouds, sure, but also a fervent supporter of the French Revolution, who certainly saw the first wave of the mass-executions known as the Terror, and may have seen an acquaintance guillotined in the second13. He supported a cause that turned to mass-murder, which he witnessed: the figure of blindness which repeats throughout Wordsworth’s work (The Borderers, ‘Tintern Abbey’, the Blind Man of The Excursion and the Blind Beggar of The Prelude to name but a few examples (14) seems to reveal the guilt and shock, the trauma, that he never really addresses. The fact that what he witnessed can only appear indirectly — just like the oppressive absence of the Holocaust in Sebald — attests to its scale, evoking something incomprehensible: the truly apocalyptic event.
What Sebald and Caruth give us are tools: new ways to think about apocalyptic events through the reading and the writing of literature. And what could be more essential to us, given that we have just lived through what must be considered, on all accounts, an apocalyptic event? How are we to make sense of the damage it has wreaked — damage that may not show itself for some time — without tools like these, without new ways to represent the event, without ways to understand how it has affected those like us and those different from us through reading? Trauma is the defining experience of our generation, and so it must be our abiding concern.
1. Shelley, Percy Bysshe. ‘Fragments’. The Keepsake for 1812. Edited by Mary Shelley, 1812.
2. R.E.M. “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Document. Capitol Records Inc., 1987.
3. "apocalypse, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2022, www.oed.com/view/Entry/9229. Accessed 12 April 2022. Definition b.
4. Etymology, idem.
5. While one could suggest that the Biblical apocalypse is necessarily prophetic, and so the category excludes texts which deal with the past, it is worth noting that there is a huge element of historicity in Biblical apocalypses. An excellent introduction to this idea can be found in this Yale lecture online, around the 30-minute mark: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yd5sXfFboxA&list=PL279CFA55C51E75E0&index=6&ab_channel=YaleCourses
6. Adorno, Theodor W. “Cultural Criticism and Society.” Prisms. MIT Press, 1983, pg. 34.
7. Nosthoff, Anna-Verena. “Barbarism: Notes on the Thought of Theodor W. Adorno.” Critical Legal Thinking. 15 Oct. 2014, https://criticallegalthinking.com/2014/10/15/barbarism-notes-thought-theodor-w-adorno/
This article, which is also the source of the quote in that paragraph, is an excellent explanation of Adorno’s thought regarding barbarism, which explains my reading of his famous line.
8. Wood, James. “W. G. Sebald, Humorist.” The New Yorker. 29 May 2017. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/06/05/w-g-sebald-humorist
9. Sebald, W.G. The Rings of Saturn. Vintage, 2019.
10. Mendelsohn, Daniel. “The Rings of Sebald.” The Paris Review. 1 Oct. 2020, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2020/10/01/the-rings-of-sebald/
11. Sebald, W.G. The Emigrants. The Harvill Press, 1996, pg. 23.
12. You can find a far more detailed explanation of this in the ‘Introduction’ to Cathy Caruth’s Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).
13. The second trip is debated, but Nicholas Roe in Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years (2nd Ed., Oxford University Press, 2018) makes a compelling case, and Stephen Gill concurs (William Wordsworth: A Life, 2nd Ed., Oxford University Press, 2020).
14. Tilley, Heather. “The Materiality of Blindness in Wordsworth’s Imagination.” Blindness and Writing: From Wordsworth to Gissing. Cambridge University Press, 2017, pg. 41.