March 18, 2020

Apocalypse Theater

How does one approach the end of the world?

The End of the World, capitalization required, isn't nearly as prominent a topic as the Post-Apocalyptic World. For one thing, The End doesn't come with zombies or vampires or other cool special effects. As Eliot says, it comes not with a bang, but a whimper. For another, it tends to be a very personal experience; everyone prepares for death in their own individual way, even (especially?) when one is surrounded by people.

Lois Nettleton faces "The Midnight Sun"
In The Midnight Sun, one of the most famous of Twilight Zone episodes, the earth is dislodged from its orbit and heads for a rendezvous with the sun. Rod Serling, who wrote the script, paints a grim portrait of life near the end: deserted streets, empty shelves, water usage limited to an hour a day, law and order essentially nonexistent. As the thermometer soars past 130°, our protagonist Norma collapses, only for us to discover that it has all been a fevered dream on her part. The earth is moving not closer to the sun, but away from it, and as the last survivors face their inevitable death from freezing, Norma has been dreaming of how nice it would be if it were warm. As I said, the end affects people differently.

The 1990s revival of The Outer Limits presented a story called The Inconstant Moon, based on a short story by Larry Niven, in which a professor of physics observes a blinding flash reflect against the surface of the moon, leading him to believe that the sun has gone nova, and that there are only a few hours left to live. Knowing the end is coming encourages him to confess his love to a female friend; they marry and prepare to spend the last night on earth together. The nova turns out to be "merely" a solar flare which, nevertheless, wreaks destruction and death, leaving the professor and his wife one of the few alive. The end of the world does not come for some without the promise of love.

In 1960, Playhouse 90 broadcast Alas, Babylon, an adaptation of the novel by Pat Frank, in which a nuclear war breaks out between the United States and the Soviet Union. As with movies like The Day After, the point of the story is how the survivors react in the aftermath of the nuclear holocaust, and the time prior to the war is given over to the crumbling geopolitical environment that leads to the inevitable nuclear confrontation. Having been tipped off to the pending war by his Air Force brother, Randy Bragg spends the waning days gathering friends and family around him, and taking what action he can to provide for their survival. His ingenuity, combined with the individual talents of those with him, enable them to hang on until the Air Force arrives the following year. America has won the war, but at a fearful price; for her 45 million survivors, it is the end of one world and the beginning of another.

A Canadian movie from 1998, Last Night tells of the imminent end of the world, scheduled for midnight. The cause is never explained, but the end has been some time in coming. At first society breaks down into panic and violence, but as the last night approaches, a modicum of civilization has returned. Patrick, a widower, attempts to help Sandra, a young woman looking for her husband, with whom she has a suicide pact. Her efforts having failed, she and Patrick sit on the roof, awaiting midnight, each holding a loaded gun to the other's temple. In the last seconds, they discard their guns and embrace in a kiss, as the world comes to an end. Love triumphs, not in the same way as in The Inconstant Moon, but affirming the importance, the need, for human contact and compassion.

For Ted Turner, the end of the world was part of his mission statement for CNN. He vowed that his news network would survive until the end, and, in fact, would be around to cover it, including a video of a band playing "Nearer, My God, to Thee" as the last thing to be broadcast on the network before the ultimate sign-off. That's another story, of course, but one has to admit that the end of the world as a period on a business plan is novel, if nothing else.

A revival meeting prepares people for the end in "On the Beach"
The premier end-of-the-world story is probably On the Beach, written by Nevil Shute in 1957 and given an adequate movie adaptation by Stanley Kramer in 1959. As in Alas, Babylon, the end is triggered by a nuclear war, but in this case the focus is on Australia, where the world's remaining survivors wait for the radiation to reach them. It is an extended meditation on the situation described in Last Night, an extended period of waiting (over a year), knowing that death is certain. Cars and buses are now pulled by horses; a necessary state of denial keeps people going from day to day, planting gardens they'll never see bloom and moving up the date of the fishing opener because the original date would have been—too late. In order to ease the suffering, the government has provided everyone with a suicide pill they can choose to take, rather than suffering the horror of death by radiation. Having preordained the ending, Shute concentrates on how each character faces the end. For Commander Towers, in charge of an American submarine, it means carrying on with his duty while buying gifts for his wife and son, both of whom are certainly dead back in America. He falls in love with Moira, a young Australian who has been drinking her way through the waiting; their love remains platonic, however, because is is, after all, a married man. As the end approaches, gasoline reserves suddenly become plentiful, and the final Australian Grand Prix is held, with many drivers choosing to die in reckless moves rather than wait for the world to kill them; Moira decides to make something of herself by taking secretarial classes, and Towers determines to take his submarine and crew out beyond the reefs, where he will scuttle it and the men will go down with the ship.

It is this, more than anything else, which echoes in what we've seen the last few days. Sporting events are canceled, stores and restaurants are shut down, schools are closed, people are laid off or told to work from home. It does feel almost as if one is expected to sit at home and wait for death. A statistician would point out that even the most dire prediction of two million American dead pales when compared to the death toll of On the Beach (100%) or Alas, Babylon (roughly 150 million Americans), but in some ways it's like a game of viral Russian roulette; the odds favor the players, but the house will still get its share, and nobody knows which is which.

Personally, I think that while those seeking to contain the virus—to "flatten the curve," so to speak, through the noxious term "social distancing"—while they mean well, and while they may well be right, we're losing something of our humanity in the process. Not our will to live, so much; if anything, it's symptomatic of clinging too tightly to life itself. Rather, I think we're loosing what it means to be alive, living and breathing social creatures. As we see in these examples, man has been created as a social creature, one meant to be with others, to love and be loved. For a people that have become obsessed with the phrase "quality of life," and have demanded the right to kill themselves if they find that quality to be sufficiently impaired, we seem to have become awfully lax in adhering to that in the face of this threat. Only the young seem to have continued to insist on living life their way, and while part of it is their derision for boomers, there's another aspect that suggests that they, however imperfectly, understand the importance of hanging on to routine, of actually living rather than merely existing.

Life is, after all, a risk. And in this surrealistic way of life, with deserted streets and closed buildings and people cowering behind curtained windows, helpless, intimidated by a media that acts as if panic is merely a selling point, it becomes more and more important for us to remember that. We are not living in those worlds; we're living in this one. Life is worth living, and live is to be lived. Remember: nobody gets off this rock alive.

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Here's Bishop Sheen talking about "Fear and Anxiety," which you'll hopefully find helpful.


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