For 200 years, pop culture has been transfixed by the notion of an obliterated New York City.
This week, Hurricane Sandy struck New York to become one of the city's most devastating natural disasters on record. Officials from both energy monolith Con Edison and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have called it "the worst" in their respective 189- and 108-year histories. I feel incredibly lucky to have survived with virtually no damage and no power loss, but thousands of people across the river in Manhattan, including many friends, haven't been so fortunate. How jarring it is to see this magnificent city, always so proudly imbued with its own myth, brought uncomfortably close to the scenes and landscapes we're so used to seeing in apocalyptic fictions.
Indeed, the destruction of New York City has a prolific history in fiction, revisiting which feels strangely cathartic in the face of this all-too-real disaster.
In 2001, Amherst architecture and history professor Max Page began working on an exhibition proposal in partnership with the New York Historical Society, exploring all the gory, fantastical, fanciful ways in which New York City had been destroyed in fiction over the years. He wrapped up the proposal on September 10, 2001. What happened the following day, an event so terrifyingly real many eyewitness accounts described it as "surreal," was to remain forever etched into modern history in chilling detail—but it left Page all the more convinced that his study of apocalyptic fictions was an important piece of the city's narrative. In The City's End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York's Destruction (public library), Page collects two centuries' worth of chronologically arranged fictional devastation—floods, fires, monsters, aliens, nuclear explosions—lavishly illustrated with images from vintage posters and pamphlets, graphic novels, book and album cover art, video game packaging, and more.
America's writers and imagemakers have pictured New York's annihilation in a stunning range of ways. Earthquake, fire, flood. Meteor, comet, Martian. Glacier, ghosts, atom bomb. Class war, terrorism, invasion. Laser beams for space ships, torpedoes from Zeppelins, missiles from battleships. Apes, wolves, dinosaurs. Environmental degradation, nuclear fallout, 'green death.' American culture has been obsessed with fantasizing about the destruction of New York. It is fascinating to explore the most common methods American culture makers have intended for the city's end—floods and fires, bombs and ice. Why has the watery death had such staying power, along with the image of the city left physically intact but stripped of its people by a mysterious disaster? The recurrence of similar modes of death across time stands out.
[...]Visions of New York's destruction resonated with some of the most longstanding themes in American history: the ambivalence toward cities, the troubled reaction to immigrants and racial diversity, the fear of technology's impact, and the apocalyptic strain in American religious life. Furthermore, these visions of the city's end have paralleled the city's economic, political, racial, and physical transformations. Projections of the city's end reflected and refracted the dominant social issues. Each era in New York's modern history has produced its own apocalyptic imagery that explores, exploits, and seeks to resolve contemporary cultural tensions and fears.
Page argues there are two main reasons New York City holds such high destruction appeal—one conceptual, because it has become a symbol-city that stands for urbanity itself, and the other conceptual, because New York, with its glorious skyscrapers and perfect grid, simply looks better than any other city while being destroyed.
The trope of New York's destruction, Page observes, is the proto-narrative of American ideology:
New York's death is a story line that plays through every type of fiction American culture has produced. As varied as the media are, the narratives play in two consistent if harmonically different keys. One is the dark, minor key of alarm and warning, lessons and political arguments, fear and premonition of real disaster. The other is the key of celebration and entertainment, homage and love for the city. These two registers mark the two ends of the American ideological composition: a persistent embrace of progress and modernism, utopia and ascent, but also a suspicion of failure, and the harsh truth of the jeremiad. American identity has been built on 'a culture of calamity.' That culture has been built on imagining our greatest city's end.
Page goes on to argue that there's an evolutionary basis for the appeal of fear imaging: it produces a rush of adrenaline, coming down from which triggers a feeling somewhere between relief and joy—the same mechanism that drives us to seek out haunted houses, horror movies, and bungee-jumping. And yet, he says, it's bigger than that—and who better than Susan Sontag to articulate it through?
But there is something more, beyond the desire of advanced society to recapture what was once a regular experience of heightened fear and response. Susan Sontag wrote in her 1966 essay "The Imagination of Disaster" that "we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror." Sontag was writing in the 1960s, under the fear of worldwide nuclear holocaust and William Whyte's nightmare of the deadened "organization man." The fears today are somewhat different. Rightly or wrongly, we don't fear nuclear world war the way we once did. But we have our fears of dramatic catastrophe—terrorism, West Nile virus, avian flu, global warming and the angry natural phenomena it is producing. And through we don't worry about the banality of everyday life, we do fear the insecurity of work, and the powerful, invisible forces of globalization. The workings of the global economy—moving capital and jobs dramatically around the globe according to decisions made on the Internet and in corporate headquarters—feel as inevitable and unstoppable as bad weather.
In 1949, E. B. White wrote a now-legendary passage uncomfortably prescient of 9/11:
A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.
But, ultimately, what makes the scenes in The City's End appealing is precisely their fictionality, their unreality, their permission to fantasize as catharsis rather than grapple with the devastating results of real disaster—and the implicit affirmation of a contrast reminding us that, in real life, this phoenix of a city always manages to shake off the dust, stamp out the fires, swallow the waters, and rise with its inextinguishable brilliance once more.
Page images courtesy of Yale University Press; Instagram photos by Maria Popova.
This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.
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