Apocalypse Is Now a Chronic Condition
Art about the endings of things used to be the stuff of tragedy. But today’s creators are finding another way to make sense of ongoing crisis: through comedy.
Last week, The Washington Post published an article with a headline that blended, as so many headlines will these days, equal amounts of accuracy and alarmism. “‘Everything Is Not Going to Be Okay’: How to Live With Constant Reminders That the Earth Is in Trouble” is a blunt summary of a subtle work of journalism—a timely and lyrical exploration of climate change not just as a physical fact, but also as a psychical one. How does it feel, the writer Dan Zak asks, to live within looming tragedy? What does it mean to run errands and pay mortgages and pick up the kids from school, to hew to the established rhythms of things, as the world gives way to entropy? What is it like to exist in a place where extinction is a matter not of speculative fiction, but of daily journalism? Every age has its own conception of apocalypse. You can tell a lot about ours by the fact that this particular vision—endings that arrive not with a bang, but through a series of preventable whimpers—ran in the Style section.
The Post story, as it explored the banality of our not-okayness, cited the poet Alice Major’s Welcome to the Anthropocene (the book’s title is a reference to the current geologic age, the one in which human activity is the dominant influence on the Earth’s physical environment). Her work, art that reckons with science, is part of a long tradition. In 1965, as the world attempted to make its rough peace with the fact that it could all be destroyed in an instant, the British literary theorist Frank Kermode delivered a series of lectures at Bryn Mawr College. “The Long Perspectives,” as he called the talks, were meditations on how literature, from antiquity to the mid–20th century, had doubled as an attempt to organize time itself. In 1967, Kermode compiled the lectures into a book, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction.
The volume, slim but bursting with erudition, caused a sensation. Its primary argument, presented to a world shaped by war and confronted by the threat of human-made apocalypse, was that endings are themselves a form of sense making. Narrative, Kermode pointed out, with its tidy beginnings and middles and conclusions, has long been humans’ way of grafting order onto the chaos of the world; “the sense of an ending,” then, with its embrace of impending crisis, has been written into the way humans understand themselves.
“Although for us the End has perhaps lost its naive imminence,” Kermode noted, referencing the Bible’s Book of Revelation, “its shadow still lies on the crises of our fictions; we may speak of it as immanent.” Imminence, or that which is inevitable, and immanence, or that which is inherent: Eschatological thinking, Kermode suggested, is inscribed into art’s present understanding of the world. Which is also to say that all fiction is, in some sense, the literature of apocalypse.
Kermode was writing before the time when pop culture would be widely acknowledged, among academics, as a legitimate participant in art and literature. He focused his analysis, accordingly, on what today are considered highbrow fictions—in particular, the novels and poetry of the Western canon, as that body was seen to exist in the mid-1960s. Kermode found his evidence for the intimacy of the end-times in the works of Dante and Blake and T. S. Eliot (“The Waste Land,” a response to the senseless horrors of World War I, is almost literally apocalyptic) and Yeats, whose blank verses in “The Second Coming,” with their stark warnings of centers failing to hold and things falling apart, pretty much made Kermode’s points for him. The Sense of an Ending is in many ways a dated book. But it is in even more ways an urgent book. Kermode’s decades-old insights, imminence tangling with immanence, are thoroughly infused into the American pop culture of the present moment—particularly in TV and film, forms that are preoccupied in their own ways with the encroaching sense of an ending.
Apocalypse has, of course, long been a favorite theme of American pop culture. The tradition established in Kermode’s time by works such as The Planet of the Apes and Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove has been continued, recently, by works such as Annihilation, Bird Box, Children of Men, Colony, Deep Impact, Under the Dome, The Leftovers, Terra Nova, The Walking Dead, A Quiet Place, The Happening, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Road, World War Z, and so many others. The threats in those stories are often familiar to the point of cliché—diseases, environmental catastrophe, nuclear winter, alien invasions, too much water, not enough water, asteroids, zombies—and so are the typical protagonists: humans, many of whom are made heroes by sad circumstance, who do their best to survive in spite of it all.
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum: There is a humanitarian impulse to many of these tales of apocalypse, in part because they tend to take for granted that the ending itself is the villain to be battled and defeated. As the American president Thomas Whitmore, truly the Henry V of our times, tells the fighter pilots who are preparing to stave off an extraterrestrial invasion in Independence Day: “We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive!”
This is a seductively easy vision of heroism and villainy. In the context of a crisis in which humanity itself is the threat to survival, the “good guys, bad guys” approach to things can seem at once too complicated and too simple. (It is revealing that Bird Box, whose plot merged environmental catastrophe with the dangers of horror-movie-esque monsters, functioned more effectively as a meme than it did as a film.) And so there is another way of exploring what Kermode called the “End-feeling”: the Style section way. The way that cares less about archetypes and adventure, good guys and bad, and more about what the End-feeling actually feels like for those who are living it. This mode internalizes the anxieties of apocalypse not as tragedy, but as comedy.
The Good Place, the brilliant series that has just finished its third season on NBC, realizes Kermode’s insights in the most literal of ways: The show is set in the afterlife, meaning that, in it, death functions not as a villain to be fought, but simply as an environment to be navigated. A sitcom in the classic sense, The Good Place plays out on sets imbued with a decidedly Disney aesthetic. Its lead characters—who tend to be wacky and complicated in nearly equal measure—have the option of dining at restaurants with names such as Knish From a Rose, Cruller Intentions, and Ponzu Scheme. They make lots of jokes about shrimp, and even more about Florida. The wry genius of it all is that, because of the curated kitsch, it’s extremely easy to forget that the people chatting and feasting and making fun of Jacksonville during Thursday night’s old Must-See-TV slot are, in fact, dead. And so the afterlife, in The Good Place, takes on a cartoonish exuberance, with death posited as nothing more—and nothing less—than the friends we made along the way. The ultimate ending here is not a foe; it is merely a fact.
It’s an idea that is similarly humanized and humorized in The Last Man on Earth, the recent Fox sitcom, which insists that there are LOLs to be mined in the rocky ravages of a postapocalyptic America. And in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, which ekes a rom-comic plot out of the prospect of mass extinction. And in Forever, the Amazon series featuring Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen—a show that, like The Good Place, is for the most part set in the afterlife. Forever, too, mingles humor and horror: As its characters’ marriage binds them even after their deaths, the promise of “forever”—a notion that many among Kermode’s roster of poets might have considered deeply romantic—takes on a sense of menace.
There is, in these ironized minglings of comedy, tragedy, and time, a sense of quiet resignation. Imminence, made immanent. “Welcome! Everything is fine,” reads the text, painted in cheerful green on a blank white wall, in The Good Place, reassuring the newly deceased that the ceasing isn’t so bad. It’s a version of the thing that Forever’s June (Rudolph), confused by her death rather than saddened by it, asks of Oscar (Armisen) when she realizes that she is now what the show terms a “former”: “So we just keep … going?” June wonders, incredulously. “I mean, how long does this go on for? I mean, what’s the point of all this?”
Oscar’s reply is both searing and blunt: “Well, what was the point of the thing before this?”
This is, in its way, precisely what Kermode was getting at when he spoke and then wrote of apocalypse: Here is the sense of an ending, absorbed, through our entertainments, into the dull mundanities of everyday life. Death as a metaphor for marriage. Death as another chance. Death as a chronic condition.
The atomized End-feeling is not limited to sitcoms. You can catch hints of it as well in “Bandersnatch,” the Choose Your Own Adventure–style Black Mirror episode that stubbornly rejects the beginning/middle/end format of the traditional narrative, and that summons, in its way, social media’s endless streams and feeds and flows—a willful end to endings. There’s some End-feeling, too, in this moment’s heady barrage of reboots and remakes and revivals—approaches to art that take on the anxiety of imminent endings by insisting that endings are never, really, final. To be a consumer of pop culture at this point is to be constantly mourning lost things—and also to be told, just as constantly, that the mourning is out of place. It is never to know, for sure, whether Tony Soprano is actually dead.
But it is also to know that he has, in some sense, been dead all along. One of the first lines of dialogue in The Sopranos finds Tony, the mob boss, attempting to explain to his new psychiatrist why he’d had a panic attack. “It’s good to be in something from the ground floor,” Tony muses, ostensibly talking about the family business. “I came too late for that, I know. But lately I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.”
Dr. Melfi’s reply, written for 1999 but all too relevant, still, for 2019: “Many Americans, I think, feel that way.”
Kermode wrote The Sense of an Ending within the psychic clouds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; today’s world retains the threat that terrified his, but also compounds it. Our anxieties radiate and insinuate. They have slipped the bonds of tragedy. The Good Place began as a whimsical meditation on interpersonal ethics; it has steadily tightened, over three tremendous seasons, into an indictment of the wrenching complications of goodness itself: how hard it is to act ethically at this moment when, just as the Post suggested, everything you can do will be done within a world that is losing its bearings.
The Good Place is broadcast into a world that is defined, in every sense, by fatigue: spent resources, imposing scarcities, weary people. Burnout has become a cultural diagnosis. Cli-fi, climate fiction, is the current age’s answer to the Gothic. Last year, the Doomsday Clock was moved a little closer to midnight. The recent pair of documentaries about the Fyre festival, an event that was a scam in the most classic sense, were generally interpreted not as new chapters in a tale as old as time, but rather as parables of a specifically millennial form of precarity. All our resources—attention, fame, money, the air itself—are exhaustible.
This is what it feels like not just to be aware of impending tragedies, but also to live within them. This is what it feels like to understand, intimately and collectively, that old Shakespearean lament: “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.” The end is nigh, and also the end is … sigh. The contemporary sense of an ending takes its form not as the dramatic fulfillment of an ancient prophecy—“Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand”—but rather as a tangle of dull and daily inevitabilities. Warming waters. Whipping winds. Things falling apart. The leader, careless and cruel, refusing to see what is plain. If every age has its version of apocalypse, the soft tragedy of our own is that it can no longer be safely situated in the future. Our end-times, instead, lurk among us, furtive and fierce and all too present-tensed, waiting, watching, lingering, biding—understanding, far better than we allow ourselves to, how little it takes to turn the good place into the bad.