Better apocalypses

Kind of chaos

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I have been considering the microphysics of apocalypses. Not blazing lights and the pale horse of Judgement Day, but smaller devastations. The death of a family matriarch, for example, or an oil spill in the coastal wetlands. I find myself thinking about plots against the throne that never quite matured into coup d’états, wildfires burning across the state in late autumn, an aggressive strain of cancer that moves through the body like the horsemen of the apocalypse. 

These realities are not necessarily indicative of the end of times, but they are the end of something. The evisceration of life as it once was, or perhaps more to the point, of life as it might have been. 

Which is a fancy way of saying that I sometimes struggle to keep up with the pace of my own boredom. For years, I have been collecting scraps of information that may come in handy in troubled times. This may seem like a reasonable enough pursuit, except that the information I latch on to comes increasingly from works of epic tragedy and magical realism, and the “troubled times” I read about are not likely to test me in this lifetime. 

And yet my brain refuses to let go.  I believe that I have a plan in place in case anyone I know gets poisoned. Feed them mustard flowers, boil bitter herbs to induce vomiting and wrap them in five layers of blankets to sweat out the toxins. I have these steps memorized, because they are an embellished version of what Úrsula Buendía did when her son drank a cup of coffee laced with poison in Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

I also think I know what I would do if someone I loved was nearly starved to death by a deranged political regime. I would go to a chic French bistro and rent (for the cost of 1,000 lire a day) a meat extractor. After months of starvation, solid food can prove fatal to the internal organs, and beef extract can be a viable substitute. I know this because it is what Marguerite Duras does in her novel and memoir “Cahiers de la guerre et autres textes” when her husband returns from a concentration camp during the Nazi Occupation of Paris. 

It does not take a discerning eye to understand I have no idea what I’m talking about — that these literary examples are tantalizing only as long as they hold narrative sway. It would be easy to read these scraps of information as the machinations of an idle mind.

But then again, a discerning eye might understand something else, something more intrinsically connected to the root of the problem: my tendency to drum up the end of the world when work is slow on a Tuesday afternoon. I have a tenacious fantasy of being useful. I am drawn to stories about women who know how to fix things and save lives, which tells you a great deal about the person I would like to see myself as and the person I am not. 

As it turns out, I am also drawn to stories about men who need to be nursed back to health — men who are not in a position to step out of the narrative and walk away. This tells you something about the men that I have known, and the lengths my mind will go to in order to prevent the narrative possibility of abandonment. 

But narrative possibilities aside, there is a functionalist argument to be made here. These chaotic machinations are ways to avoid the real chaos in my life. The pacing, stagnancy and ongoingness of grief, which blossoms into mourning and ages into a nondeciduous emotion. 

Why shouldn’t I entertain the idea that I might have a son who could grow up to be a general in need of a reliable food tester? Especially when doing so allows me to avoid thinking about my grandmother’s death —  a prolonged cancer that worked its way into her spinal column and slowly broke her back? 

Why should I not imagine myself as a woman working for the resistance in occupied Paris — my nerves shredded by the mere sound of a telephone — in order to eclipse a tendency to replay how my first love broke my heart twice? 

This touches the questions of narrative sway and possibility, but most closely touches the question of narrative vice. Joan Didion wrote that: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Stories are a way for us to process the microphysics of apocalypses — not the end of the world, but the end of someone’s world. 

And yet, I still find myself drifting toward the romance of grander apocalypses. The problem and the promise of disastrous reckoning. The splitting of the earth — entire oceans boiled into evaporation or else rising to the point that the end of the world is not a trial by fire but by water. 

It is fascinating to consider that I may actually encounter this conceptualization of the apocalypse in this lifetime. And I am the first to concede that nothing I have ever seen or read makes me feel prepared to develop that prospect into a narrative solution.

Blue Fay writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on the relationship between art and chaos. Contact him at [email protected].