Recurring Themes, Part Five: The End of Humanity

November 30th, 2007 | Category: Essays, Reviews

“Through fiction we saw the birth
Of futures yet to come
Yet in fiction lay the bones, ugly in their nakedness
Yet under this mortal sun, we cannot hide ourselves”
— Isis, “In Fiction”

There’s an episode of The Twilight Zone I watched as a kid that stuck with me. I don’t remember all of it, just the end: There’s a man, a bibliophile, he’s the last person left on earth, and he’s ecstatic because he’s surrounded by books. Then he breaks his glasses.

Since first seeing Children of Men’s vision of humanity without hope about a year ago, I’ve been spotting eschatological themes everywhere. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress are a couple more examples from my recent reading. The release of the film I Am Legend marks another for the pile.

Children of MenThough both movies depict a dystopian picture of humankind’s future, Director Alfonso Cuarón said that he envisioned Children of Men as the “anti-Blade Runner.” He told the set designers, “I don’t want inventiveness, I want reference,” adding “Don’t show me the ‘great idea’, show me the reference in real life.” The result is not only a very gritty and real feeling but also a very possible one, a feeling that our world could look like the one in the film sooner than we care to realize. Wholesale infertility notwithstanding, indeed, a lot of what is depicted in Children of Men is happening right now.

In a talk that should certainly be included in future printings of his recently reissued Enjoy Your Symptom! (Routledge, 1992), philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek describes the infertility in Children of Men as “spiritual infertility.” Just as the works of art collected in the museum in the movie lack their historical context, so do the citizens lack hope. Most of their spirits are blatantly suffocated by its absence. This hopelessness is evident in nearly every aspect of the movie, from the government-sanctioned “suicide kits” to the stagnation of technology. The lack of offspring produces a society with no need for maintenance (Though national security is of the utmost concern in Children of Men, the deterioration of the infrastructure couldn’t help but evoke to me James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency [Grove Press, 2006], in which he cites strip malls, suburbs, and big-box retailers as signs that we’re building “a country not worth defending”).

Among the many visual metaphors in the film (e.g., the many animals, Theo’s lack of shoes, etc.) is the boat in the final scene. Zizek interprets the boat as a metaphor for humanity’s lack of roots in the movie. The refugees in captivity, the artwork in the museum, and — even with the hope of Kee and The Human Project — the extant populace of Children of Men’s world are set adrift on a sea of existential uncertainty and spiritual bankruptcy.

The RoadSimilarly, the man and the boy (they’re not given formal names) in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are adrift in a post-apocalyptic world with nothing but what they can carry or scavenge to live on and nothing but their wits to protect them as they trudge farther and farther down a road. The road is apparently leftover from a decimated infrastructure, a lone strip of asphalt plodding toward the sea like a geographical lifeline. Steven Shaviro pointed out a perfect example of their dire situation in the line “Mostly, he worried about their shoes” (funny that a similar metaphor was evident in Children of Men).

“There were few nights lying in the dark that he did not envy the dead.” — from The Road

The Road’s agoraphobic landscape leaves one aching for shelter. Its mise en scène is one of nonstop exposure and unknown dangers lurk seemingly at every point along the road. In the same way that silence can be deafening, McCarthy’s economy of prose only adds to the feeling of stifling openness. There are no lush turns of phrase, no whimsy in words just as there is neither lushness nor whimsy in the world described.

Wittgenstein’s MistressDavid Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress depicts a similarly desolate world, though the narrator seems much more sanguine about it. She roams from place to place, taking what she needs from abandoned households, borrowing vehicles as needed, and pausing intermittently to type her story on a typewriter. It’s a beautifully written and intricately realized story.

The end may or may not be coming, let’s just be careful with those glasses, just in case.

Further Posting:


  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Well, I Am Legend certainly fits in this cadre of eschatological stories, but it is not among the best of them. Initially Dr. Robert Neville and his dog Sam are the lone main characters roaming a New York devoid of any non-zombied human life, but then, as Neville reaches the end of his wits, the deus ex machina, Anna, appears, and the plot quickly sputters to an end. Unlike 28 Days Later, its closest recent analog, and 30 Days of Night, perhaps a cousin of sorts, I Am Legend‘s last half fails to deliver on the promise of its first.

    Yet another of these stories I’ve come across since writing this post is The Wanting Seed by Anthony Burgess. England’s future government in the book attempts to slow (and nearly end) humanity systematically due to overpopulation. Births are limited to one (dead or alive) per married couple, homosexual behavior is rewarded (with gays the most likely to receive promotions), and food is unnatural and rationed. This system quickly implodes as cannibalism and free love spread throughout England, and the central government is dismantled. The backlash is bound to fit the suppression.

  • Antonio said:

    The Twilight Zone episode was called “Time Enough At Last,” starring the late Burgess Meredith.

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