Tuesday, 7 October 2008

A Personal Apocalypse

Mark Hancock

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. - Vladimir Nabokov

When we try to imagine the end of the world, we tend to conceptualise it in terms of a grand scheme that encompasses a global or universal ending to existence. We ask ourselves: “Surely, there can be no cessation of the individual without a shut down of the whole of existence?”

But there are more personal and certainly more existential forms of ending available to mankind. The subsuming of the individual ID that takes place in certain Buddhist belief systems may seem a viable option and within the understanding of most people. It isn't that hard to approximate an idea of what it would be like to 'not exist', but only from the safe and comforting position of the existing identity.

Perhaps this difficulty is one of the reasons we create art works that give us a window though which to view this ending? It's easier to divorce ourselves from the ending of existence through art than it is from the reservoir of ideas, preconceptions, memories and assorted ephemera that make us, 'us'. We can switch off, turn away and walk out while still retaining a firm grasp on the self.

Within the many paths of Buddhist philosophy, the idea of the death of the self lies at the end of the path of enlightenment. To really understand the nature of the universe, so Buddhist thought goes, you have to allow yourself to be consumed by it without the pretensions of the self. Sounds straightforward enough. Except what we most often imagine as being a relinquishing of the self, is actually a replacing of the self with another identity. It's easier to place another self in the position of our body than it is to imagine there being nothing at all. This attainment of Selflessness, known as Anatman, is the gradually becoming aware that there is no fixed identity and that once we've let go of it, we're free to fully understand the universe or attain Nirvana.

Philip K. Dick approaches the idea of the death of the individual in much of his writing, but in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (filmed as Blade Runner) he has his anti-heroes exploring what it means to know you are facing the end. What measures would you take and where would you end up? Although different from the novel, the film explores these same themes. The famous showdown at the end between Roy Baty and Deckard, in which the actor Rutger Hauer (as the dying android Baty) improvised the final speech where he recites a litany of the fantastical, life-affirming things he has seen in his life:

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I've watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those... moments will be lost in time... like... tears..in rain"

A lyrical and positive viewpoint, which is probably at odds with the reality that most of us would experience in the face of imminent death. In train fires in the London underground, passengers scramble and crawl over each other to escape the heat and flames of destruction. Despite the heroic and selflessness in the stories arising from the events of September 11t h 2001, there are bound to be numerous stories of selfish actions and people turned against each other trying to survive the collapse of the towers. But these aren't the stories we want to hear about. We want to know that our ending will be glorious and a positive statement about mankind and more importantly, ourselves.

Roy Baty's ending is an ideal one, in which the beauty of existence and the importance of life is revealed to him. Facing death and annihilation of the psyche, he realises that life is an amazing glorious, wonderful thing. Perhaps this is the reason we dwell on the idea of the apocalypse and try to envision it within the arts? We want to hope that life is a reaffirming experience and that the ending will be worth looking forward to, being the one unavoidable experience guaranteed to us. If the attempt is futile and we ultimately just fizzle out without any glory or dignity, washed away by an orange flare of nuclear rage or just petering out in the cold dark night of a solar winter, the one function our imaginations can give back to us is to remind us of how alive we are and how much more we all have to live for.


steve said...

Face it. You're going to die in bed in a bleak high rise flat, alone, save for your dog, and your withered husk-like corpse will not be discovered for months, years.

Just joking. There wouldn't be dog! Good post. I had a firend, though, who lectured political philosophy and would give the "I've seen things..." speech to his students. One year, he told me, they just looked blankly at him and he realised that he too was getting old.

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