Friday, June 27, 2008

The World Without Us: Kid Version. Medieval Version?

by J J Cohen

A. O. Scott, in an eloquent review of the new film Wall-E in the NYT:

The first 40 minutes or so of “Wall-E” — in which barely any dialogue is spoken, and almost no human figures appear on screen — is a cinematic poem of such wit and beauty that its darker implications may take a while to sink in. The scene is an intricately rendered city, bristling with skyscrapers but bereft of any inhabitants apart from a battered, industrious robot and his loyal cockroach sidekick. Hazy, dust-filtered sunlight illuminates a landscape of eerie, post-apocalyptic silence. This is a world without people, you might say without animation, though it teems with evidence of past life.

We’ve grown accustomed to expecting surprises from Pixar, but “Wall-E” surely breaks new ground. It gives us a G-rated, computer-generated cartoon vision of our own potential extinction. It’s not the only film lately to engage this somber theme. As the earth heats up, the vanishing of humanity has become something of a hot topic, a preoccupation shared by directors like Steven Spielberg (“A.I.”), Francis Lawrence (“I Am Legend”), M. Night Shyamalan (“The Happening”) and Werner Herzog. In his recent documentary “Encounters at the End of the World” Mr. Herzog muses that “the human presence on this planet is not really sustainable,” a sentiment that is voiced, almost verbatim, in the second half of “Wall-E.” When the whimsical techies at Pixar and a moody German auteur are sending out the same message, it may be time to pay attention.

[Tangent: a few months ago we allowed Alex to watch about thirty minutes of I Am Legend. He became so distraught halfway through that we offered him the chance to go to bed instead of continuing. He took us up on that offer ... and last night, for the third time, came to our bedside because he'd awakened from a nightmare about the film and couldn't get back to sleep. Damn Emma Thompson and those mutated zombies she created.]

Scott presents a compelling case that we are culturally obsessed with thinking about the world beyond our own vanishing (the sales figures for the book to which I just linked also make such a case). If thinking the earthly apocalypse has trickled all the way to kid films, it must be on our collective minds.

Blog readers know that a version of this question addressed to the Middle Ages has long preoccupied me. Was it possible for medieval people to think of the world emptied of their presence? I have been wondering about the possibility of medieval or prehistoric people sending messages (textual, artistic, architectural) beyond the "event horizon" of their own disappearance. Related to this question is another: can the far future be thought beyond the apocalypse as narrated by scripture and as fleshed out via accumulated exegesis? Is there a way to place Armageddon to the side as the singular and ineluctable future in which the present must culminate? Can this pregiven end be bracketed or ignored, and a future that simply (and in a more lonely, less world-encompassing way) does not include the presence of your people and history be envisioned? Or must the future be an infinite extension of the present to the point of apocalypse?

I hope that makes sense. What I'm really asking you, readers, is do you think that medieval people could conceptualize the world without them? Could they do it without simply reiterating received and hallowed eschatology? Or was the only way to contemplate the world differently configured through the invention of parallel presents, of Other Worlds containing strange people who were actually themselves in other guises?


Dr. Virago said...

I think the OE elegies imagine something like a world without or beyond people. But perhaps I should let MKH speak to this.

Matthew Gabriele said...

JJ, I'm curious what you mean by "reiterating received and hallowed eschatology". Eschatological, perhaps better "apocalyptic," thinking was elastic, malleable, nothing if not static. I've done a fair amount of work, for example, with the Last Emperor legend and that changes constantly from its creation in the 7th century just until the 12th century. By that time, you have darn near 10-12 significantly different versions of that legend around, and the only thing they have in common with one another is that they have a guy who's going to be this Last Emperor. What he does, how he does it, and what happens afterwards all differ significantly across the versions.

Anyway, in answer to your larger question, I'd say that the MA could conceive of a world "beyond" people but not a world entirely "without" people. But now that I say that, I don't know what's supposed to happen to the actual Earth after the LJ and everyone's assumed to the Heavenly Jerusalem or cast down into Hell. Hmmm....

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Dr V: I think you've hit on somthing with the elegies, because they really do attempt to imagine the world without its current peoples -- and, like "The World Without Us," do so by quietly reinserting a contemporary narrator who can sort, meditate over, and narrate the leavings. MKH, what do you think?

Matthew, you are right, I am certainly overstating to ascribe inherent inflexibility to the medieval imaging of apocalypse: medieval authors are inventive when they reapproach even hoary materials, and do tend to make it new, or at least to give it more vitality than I've implied. But I really do wonder about that last sentence, "I don't know what's supposed to happen to the actual Earth after the LJ and everyone's assumed to the Heavenly Jerusalem or cast down into Hell." The OE elegies avoid such a question by not hitching their vanished peoples to Christian apocalypse, but does anyone (outside of contemporary sci fi writers) ever think of life on a post-apocalyptic earth? Or does the earth simply cease to exist when its peoples go to heaven or hell? And as Karl would say, what about the animals?

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Precisely what I was thinking, Dr. V. The elegies -- or really, The Wanderer -- and Beowulf.

In terms of the Wanderer, I think there's the obvious "after humanity" inhabited the geards, the enta geweorc that stands idle, empty, assaulted by snow and sleet. But there's also another bit: the part with the birds.

Now I would never have interpreted this if not for Karl and the rest of you guys obsessed with animals. But let's consider for a moment:

He awakens alone. Sea-birds bathe, and ruffle their feathers,
skim light over the dark waves in snow and sleet.
Seeing shapes and shades of friends of old,
comrades of the past—he greets them with joy,
hails them aloud, fleeting spirits!
They swim away. Sorrow returns.
Old words are useless to him, who
must send his tired mind far over the waters.

We could read this as "well, he scared the birds." But I think it's important that the Wanderer attempts to identify with the birds, connect to them -- but being able to do so only in terms of the human life he's lost...he loses even the shades of his present reality. Not quite the world "emptied of their presence", JJC, but perhaps a world beyond humanity, with its own being they can't touch.

Another instance of this: the dragon in Beowulf. It seems to have its own uses for things that once belonged to men. The hoard is also commemorative in some sense, if I recall - I'm away from my books so I can't quite remember. I'll check when I get home. But if I do have this straight, then the poem says the gold from the hoard, when buried with Beowulf, is as useless to men as it was before, referencing the way the dragon held onto it. Again, it's only a glimpse, but the dragon's hall -- an eorthsele, right? -- is separate, apart, and moreover it would seem after humans, as though the dragon moved in when the humans moved out. The Lay of the Last survivor is another moment, where everything is broken, decaying, brought to a finish by the dragon's intervention. From the Gummere translation (only one I could find immediately):

And the helmet hard, all haughty with gold,shall part from its plating. Polishers sleep who could brighten and burnish the battle-mask;and those weeds of war that were wont to brave over bicker of shields the bite of steel rust with their bearer. The ringed mail
fares not far with famous chieftain,
at side of hero! No harp's delight, no glee-wood's gladness! No good hawk now flies through the hall! Nor horses fleet stamp in the burgstead! Battle and death the flower of my race have reft away."

The translation's too flowery, but it serves its purpose. I do, however, think that Old English is a good place to go for these types of musings. More when I have my books.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Now I would never have interpreted this if not for Karl and the rest of you guys obsessed with animals.

I would never have interpreted it this way...&etc.

Dan P. Carr said...

These themes in kids' movies may mean a collective preoccuputaion with end times, but seen from an adult perspective, not of kids....

Other worlds (and by this do you mean regions beyond the equator and such?) I think still fell within a Christian wordlview, but I could easily be proved wrong I'm sure.

I think medieval people wouldn't have had the tools, so to speak, to think of things the way we would. That is, we can speak of "infrared" and "ultraviolet", but more generally of colors primarily in abstract hue terms as opposed to their being linked to objects and the objects' surface quality and brightness (I've become fascinated lately by OE color terms).

So I mean they didn't have our perspective. Of course, they didn't lack the ability to speculate. When I think of the story of the sparrow flying in and out of the mead-hall, could the idea possibly extend to mean all mankind's time on earth? The empty and unknowable "before" and "after", the cold stormy winter outside the warmth of the hall, could have given each person freedom to supply his/her own answers about an afterlife and time after man, at least before Christianity supplied different answers (or a different working theory). Or people may have been content with not knowing, as modern atheists are happy to not know. Maybe I don't know, but I'd guess many Christians today see the present extending towards apocalypse, or however the world is supposed to end.

I may be ignorant about the elegies, but perhaps they show/are traces of pre-Christian perspectives?... but even then the ruins of giants' work and such could refer to an awe-inspiring past that is defunct in the new, Christian age - the Roman stones fell to pieces, the only still living part of their culture being their language and its power in spreading the faith. But I have to read more....

MKH, I got from studying the Rune Poem (the rune "feoh") that the dragon's hoard represents the evil of wealth if not freely circulated/given out (as it was a culture of ring-giving etc.) - "every man must share it freely" -and so it becomes useless again going back under the earth instead of staying in the living world of men. (Maybe someone can talk more about the thief who steals from the hoard though, because I dont remember how that part goes.) And interestingly the rune poem goes from "feoh" to "ear"/earth/grave.

I hope I made a little sense, forgive me. I need more coffee....

Dan P. Carr said...

"preoccuputaion" - I believe that's preoccupation, in Greek or something

Eileen Joy said...

I've always been obsessed with contemporary post-apocalytic literature, so much so that I devoted a whole segment to it in mt recent course on contemporary fiction, ENG441B Slipstream/Fantastic/Realism [vis-a-vis Denis Johnson's novel "Fiskadoro," the film "Children of Men," and excerpts from James Berger's book "After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse"]. I don't have much to add to the rich commentary here, because my first reaction was, like Dr. Virago, to think of the OE elegies, and like MKH, of "Beowulf." One of the thought experiments I posed to myself in my dissertation, in pell mell/crazy fashion, was: what would it mean to read "Beowulf" in the rubble of Grozny, circa 1999? More specifically, I wanted to think about how "Beowulf" functions as a post-apocalyptic narrative by virtue of the fact that the narrator tells us in the first 80 or so lines that Heorot is always already/about-to-be/not-yet-but-will-be/has been destroyed, meaning that everything that happens in the poem has to be read through the lens of: this world had already disappeared before Beowulf even "got there," as it were.

But while I think it is partly obvious that the Anglo-Saxons thought a lot about their own demise in their literature, and also imagined the destruction of whole worlds and whole cultures [and the narrator of "Wanderer," especially, is a kind of really cool "last survivor" witness to that--the "last man," as it were], JJC's specific question is really a tough one: did medieval persons, in their art and/or other writings, ever try to imagine a life on earth "after the end" of humans? [Not counting various medieval narratives that describe the end of the world, the harrowing of Hell, etc., of course.] I think MKH's reading of the birds in "Wanderer" comes close [and I'm even getting these weird vibes of how that reading could line up with Edelman's riffing on Hitchcock's "The Birds" in "No Future"], as does her mention of the so-called "last survivor" in "Beowulf." I myself am hard put to think of other instances such as these, at least in OE poetry.

Dr. Richard Scott Nokes said...

We're only examining ends here -- what about the first five days of creation?

The pre-lapsarian world and the post-apocalyptic world are both worlds without people. Medieval Christians certainly conceived of a world before us, though perhaps not beyond us as it was prepared for us.

I'm assuming from the context here we are talking about medieval Christians, since obviously the pagan Norse concept post-apocalypse certainly was no New Jerusalem.

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Dan, Dr Nokes: excellent, excellent points. That difference in perspective matters quite a bit, and the beginning really is a place not separable from the termination: in both there is a ind of empty space in which the world without human content can (potentially) be contemplated -- though of course such a space will still likely be saturated with divine intention, so it's not truly empty.

Eileen, I like the connection to Edelman's inhumanism in his bords chapter (as you now, my favorite in his book). I think a similar moment of non-anthropomorphic avian POV happens in SGGK when Gawain is close to Bertilak's castle and at the edge of despair.