For a lover of cities and an inveterate optimist, a curiously persistent thread over the years here has the destruction of cities. From an older entry on visions of deserted cities in films to later entries on drowned worlds in Brisbane, 'Apocalypse Sydney', and eliding the firestorms of Dresden and Tokyo with the bushfires/wildfires encircling Australian and Californian cities.
Continuing in this slightly morbid vein, and reading The Road recently not long after Nevil Shute’s On The Beach, I wondered if we could line up these books, along with JG Ballard’s The Drowned World, thus:
Each book depicts the aftermath planet suffering some kind of apocalyptic event in different ways, all post-nuclear interestingly (as far as we can tell with McCarthy’s), though all in different ways.
On the Beach (1957) describes a Melbourne as the last city on Earth, as a post-war cloud of radioactive fallout slowly enshrouds the globe. It’s a fascinating book, entirely redolent of its time, but in its depiction of denial entirely apposite now too. Climate change can stand in for this post-nuclear world, but appears more susceptible to denial due to its creeping diffuse nature.
In Shute’s novel, several of the characters struggle to deal with the impending death of human civilisation, from the American naval officer steadfastly believing his wife and child to be alive, even though he knows they cannot be, to the wife of the Australian naval office who plants vegetables she’ll never see come to fruition. (In the depiction of a car culture faced with dwindling oil reserves, we also see the kinds of autogeddon we can assume to be with us at some point this century.)
Clive Hamilton, in a brilliant essay in The Monthly on climate change denial, completes the Rumsfeldian square with his suggestion that climate change denial is about “unknown knowns, the facts we know but push from our consciousness.” On The Beach is more about this form of denial than reconciliation perhaps. It’s closer to ‘interpretative denial’ than ‘literal denial’ or ‘implicatory denial’, in Stanley Cohen’s model from his States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering.
This first form of denial is arguably where we are now with climate change. Although such change may take a different form, what echoes of 20th century behaviour will we see? WG Sebald’s On The Natural History of Destruction depicts a form of mass consensual denial after the complete obliteration of Hamburg during the Second World War:
“Instead, and with remarkable speed, social life, that other natural phenomenon, revived. People’s ability to forget what they do not want to know, to overlook what is before their eyes, was seldom put to the test better than in Germany at that time. The population decided - out of sheer panic at first - to carry on as if nothing had happened.” (p.41, On The Natural History of Destruction, WG Sebald)
JG Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962) concerns a form of attempted psychological adaptation, perhaps also as denial. Ballard’s vision depicts living organisms, including humans, regressing to a prehistoric consciousness, a form of long dormant lizard brain awaking and grappling for control of consciousness and subconscious, in parallel with the rampantly fertile flora of the Triassic era. This is hardly denial, consciously or subconsciously. Rather, a surely doomed attempt by the human mind to reboot itself into another mode more appropriate to the conditions, like DOS suddenly re-emerging from within Windows.
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2007) is shattering, and one of the finest novels I’ve read. Certainly one of the most emotionally affecting. The protagonists in The Road are further advanced along this destructive linear progression. Indeed, further on down the road. They're far removed from any possible form of denial. Their ash-cloaked dead world is one of grim realisation and numb despair.
Happy new year.