A Theory of Contemporary Eschatologies

by Alex Quinlain

Routledge, 452 pp., $24.95


Above All There Should Be Cake

by Matija Östberg

Verso Books, 338 pp., $16.95


“the winter of 2012”

by Brad Trumpfheller

Unknown publisher, 1 p., price unavailable


If, following Stevens, our final belief must be in a fiction, it seems at once that our visions of ends have been nothing but. Accompanying always the spectre of destruction is a mythology, a key to the signs; it is difficult to think of an apocalypse absent the slouching beast, or the dark fields of crows, or the opening of scrolls, or the tiresome name-dropping and casual asides by authors to show that they, too, have imbibed the totality of apocalyptic literature. The first hazard of setting down one’s visions of fiery destruction, therefore, is that one tends to do little more than indulge in paraphrase, or of seeing through tiresomely Christian eyes.


The second, a category into which at least one and a half of the reviewed authors fall, is misunderstanding the entire nature of the subject. Apocalypse, one must remember, is a transitional state rather than a true end. It dissembles the logic of a reality, reassembling it in some alien form. Along the way there may be burning bulrushes or frozen wastelands or disobedient falcons, but those are only the symbols and not the key. Trumpfheller’s “the winter of 2012” demonstrates exactly this dismantling and reassembly of logic, this suspension between states. The three parts of “winter” are a movement from certainty to confusion, reciting the recurring metaphors of parts and wholes, of impossibility and possibility, of senses and endings, but with the added complication that one cannot tell, even on the inside of experience, these opposing and complementary states apart. One begins with the assurance that “everything above the ocean is alive / & everything below the ocean is dead,” and ends with an inability to “be sure / If I was above the water / or below it”; in a similar vein, the first line turns against itself as it posits both an end and a continuation—“the world is ending”. In between all the staples of an apocalyptic sequence assert themselves: drownings, fire and ice, the unknown dead, the internally contradicting idea of the ‘post-apocalyptic’.


The final member of the set is what preoccupies Quinlain in his Contemporary Eschatologies, which—fancying itself a comprehensive survey of theories of the apocalypse from St. Augustine to the present—proceeds towards a repudiation of the notion of the apocalypse as the end of the world. If it were, Quinlain argues, the concept of the ‘post-apocalyptic’ would be emptied of meaning. That we recognise there remains a world after the apocalypse at all denies the possibility that the event itself was an end. If his thesis is sound (and this author cannot be entirely sure it is) there remains the problem of brevity; consider, for instance, that the first line of Trumpfheller's “winter” contains in the last word and its present continuous tense a complete statement of Quinlain’s argument. The rest of Eschatologies is superfluous.


A similar excess seems also to plague Trumpfheller’s poem, though (unlike Quinlain) it appears a marginally more thoughtful one that may be explained with some charitable parsing. If half of “winter” is wholly conventional, in the remaining half Trumpfheller begins to sing in a different key: the furniture of his apocalypse sheds its pre-assembled form and attempts to construct a new frame of reference. The symbols repudiate their own significances: the oak tree falls, divided against itself; the ghost swan “whisper[s]…about ghosts not being real, / about swans not being able to perch in trees, and / about the world not being able to end / in the wintertime.” Trees, stilts, parades: challenges to the binary logic of above/below (alive/dead) then assert themselves, each purporting to exist in both realms at once—the tree above and below the ground, the stilts midway between clouds and the atmosphere, and the parade a succession of frozen floats that exist neither beneath the water nor above it. Against this, the Mayan prediction referenced in the title seems almost to congratulate a reader on his cleverness; the obscurity of the reference makes it beneath notice of even the proverbial footnote of history—if anything, it is marginalia, a meaningless pedantic scrawl in the overcrowded margins of failed prophecy.


Östberg’s book, meanwhile, engages in a purportedly literary analysis of a more successful augury: the contents of Walter Benjamin’s briefcase, and his rediscovered writings on apocalypse. The question of apocalypse in Östberg is stretched to a nearly meaningless abstraction, where once again there is a harping erroneously on the notion of ends, and a conflation of the mythic sense surrounding apocalypse with its teleological significance. Neither the willful misunderstanding one detects in Quinlain nor the tangled non-logic of Trumpfheller is present here—instead, Östberg takes a puzzling detour through fiction and history, sorting through ends (the odds are entirely incidental occurrences). She posits, for instance, the shifting forward of some ends and of delaying others: had Keats died at twenty instead of in his middle age, we should not have his magnificent Hymnal (and this author doubts his reputation could have been staked on any of his juvenilia); conversely, if Shakespeare had outlived Marlowe, might we have more than the dark absurdity of Titus? The end of one life is much like apocalypse, in the end, with only a difference of scale; the Mayan prediction, when it was found false, was then explained away as merely the end of a calendar’s cycle. As in Donne, the end of a life or an age, or even the world, is only the point of translation, of being rewritten into a new form.

E. X. Kermote is a professor of negative poetics at the Southeastern University of Zembia. He writes frequently for the Review; his work has also appeared in the two other Reviews of any note, and the PMLA. His forthcoming book from Pearson-Penguin, Stand and Unfold Yourselves: Goldbarth, the Decline of Culture, and the Last Mimic, concerns the final age of theatrical post-realism and its decline in the twenty-third century.