I've been thinking, for obvious reasons, about plague and its representation in literature. One broad-brush sense I have (it could stand, really, being rather more thoroughly unpacked and investigated, I know) is that there's a shift in the way literature figures plague around the end of the eighteenth-century. Boccaccio's Decameron is a plague book, but not only is its emphasis not on the disease itself, the stories it collects as diversions for its quarantined nobles are overwhelmingly light-hearted, satirical contes, comic tales and love-stories, with the occasion nice clean tragedy intermixed. Fast-forward to Byron, Shelley, Polidori and Mary Godwin socially isolated in the Villa Diodati in 1816, and the stories they come up with are all Gothic and Ghostly-ghastly. Conceivably this reflects the fact that the Black Death was so horrible that the last thing people wanted was to be reminded of it, whereas the plagues of modernity, whilst still ghastly (TB, cholera, typhus and typhoid fever between them killed hundreds of millions across 19th-century Europe) are more diluted by a larger population, less concentrated in specific bursts and more a matter of background noise. (Until now, at any rate.)
Whatever the reason there has been, I think, a shift in tone. Holbien's famous Danse Macabre woodcuts from the early 16th-century are grisly, yes, but also witty, even hilarious. Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826) is ponderously gloomy, its dramatis personae all poseurs, its plotting an improbable emulsion of aristo soap-opera and war. The story is set in a late-21st-century England more-or-less indistinguishable from England in 1800. Shelley's three main character are cyphers for herself and her friends: Lionel Verney, the Last Man himself, is a gender-swapped Mary; Adrian, Earl of Windsor (son of the last King of England) is Percy Bysshe Shelley; and the charismatic and passionate young nobleman Lord Raymond (who becomes Lord Protector of England as the plague continues to cull the population) is Lord Byron. As the population thins, Verney and friends flee Britain in the hope of escaping contagion. A vain hope: they die on the way or drown in a shipwreck, all except Verney who swims ashore at Ravenna with the knowledge that he is the last human being alive. The novel ends with him walking to Rome, his only company a sheepdog he picks up on the way. There he contemplates spending the rest of his life roaming the now empty world:
A solitary being is by instinct a wanderer, and that I would become. A hope of amelioration always attends on change of place, which would even lighten the burthen of my life ... Tiber, the road which is spread by nature's own hand, threading her continent, was at my feet, and many a boat was tethered to the banks. I would with a few books, provisions, and my dog, embark in one of these and float down the current of the stream into the sea; and then, keeping near land, I would coast the beauteous shores and sunny promontories of the blue Mediterranean ...Thus around the shores of deserted earth, while the sun is high, and the moon waxes or wanes, angels, the spirits of the dead, and the ever-open eye of the Supreme, will behold the tiny bark, freighted with Verney—the LAST MAN.There were loads of ‘Last Man’ poems and stories at the start of the nineteenth-century (Shelley's was far from the first; de Grainville's Dernier Homme (1805) was the first big hit of, and prototype for, this particular vogue). Part of the appeal of this kind of story, evidently, is its peculiar blend of melancholy exhilaration. The deal here is the thrill of a guilt-struck but liberated loneliness: tragic finality combined with all sorts of spacious possibilities, the whole world our oyster, unrestricted by other people. D H Lawrence drifts into this kind of (it seems to me, antihuman and repellent) fantasy in Women in Love, when Birkin asks Gudrun: ‘don't you find it a beautiful clean thought, a world empty of people, just uninterrupted grass, and a hare sitting up?’ This vision may be beautiful to Birkin, the death of everybody: but it's only beautiful if, in some phantasmic way, we are there to observe it, if our consciousness escapes the collective extinction-event to wander, Verney-like, through the new pristineness.
There's something interestingly dialectical going on with this, I think. When we fantastise about the End of the World—as we very often do, as we have been doing since St John's Revelation—it makes us simultaneously guilty (we're projecting the deaths of billions, after all; we're doing that) and liberated: freed, precisely, from everybody else, from the myriad forces and obstacles that prevent us from being free, the whole civilisation-and-its-discontents kit & kaboodle. For this reason I'd argue the prototype of the Last Man figure is Cain, at once the father of guilt and the first great liberated wanderer of the earth.
Byron was particularly fascinated by the figure of Cain. His closet drama Cain (1821) styles the first murderer as, surprise-surprise, a Byronic hero.
Adam Phillips's ‘Byron on the Run’ essay (in his In Writing: Essays on Literature volume) has interesting things to say about this:
Byronic heroes are always haunted by shameful secrets, but Byron is always as interested in whether (and how) people can hide things as he is in what they are hiding. We can only be governed by people who claim to know us, and so we must be able to hide things from themselves and others, as in what is hidden. We can be governed only by people who claim to know us, Byron seems to assume, and so we must be able to obscure ourselves; to hide things not only from from other people but from ourselves. Indeed, Byron sometimes intimates that the original Cain—who clearly fascinated him for obvious and unobvious reasons, as his mother's only child—may just have had to be excessively ingenious at isolating himself. That stigma can be a perverse form of privacy. That transgression is a quest for solitude. That it gives one a life (and a death) of one’s own. [Phillips, 87]Mary Shelley's Last Man, striding out into a world picked clean (just uninterrupted grass, and a hare sitting up) is essentially Cain stepping out into an empty world. Both are inheriting arenas of tainted freedom, tainted because absolute, purchased with death. The end of things and the beginning of things become, in this knot of guilt and liberation, the same. And if Phillips is right, then this is, in an important sense, a dream of the perfection of privacy.
As an ace in card games can be high or low, this solitary figure can stand either for the last or the first man. But this isn't some Zen koan, in which the end of things and the beginning of things are the same thing. This is, rather, about apocalypse as privacy. We've been misreading the celebrated Marvellian couplet as lament, when it's actually a kind of celebration:
The grave’s a fine and private place,The context for Phillips' argument is the idea that, through 1816, under Shelley’s influence Byron tried to ‘transform himself into a nature poet of the Wordsworthian variety’, but that he failed in this project. In retrospect: duh. ‘Soon realising,’ Phillips says, ‘he couldn’t “find solace for his acute unhappiness in landscape”, he began to see what kind of poet he wanted to be by realising what kind of poetry he distrusted. Shelley, it seems, had radically misunderstood the kind of poet Byron was. He was neither transformable nor in any way Wordsworthian.’ Instead of opening himself to the outward, Byron sought to preserve a sanctum of private individuality from the crush of everything else.
But none, I think, do there embrace.
‘I only go out,’ he had written in his journal in 1813, ‘to get me a fresh appetite for being alone.’ It was after he left England in 1816 that he began to realise that the very idea of privacy – or a secret inner self, like the idea of a God – was under threat, or even that it might be, to use his preferred word, cant. All life was becoming public life; you needed something to hide in order to have somewhere to hide. What MacCarthy calls Byron’s ‘pathological desire for privacy’ was his growing acknowledgment that there may be no such thing, or at least that it might need to be reinvented. Privacy might mean whatever no one, including yourself, ever knows about you. [Phillips, 89]This, perhaps, is the dialectical force of the Last Man trope: the phantasmic externalisation of that suspicious, subconsciously entertained, that the only way to ensure that no one ever knows about you is to eliminate everyone. Of course this leaves the dangerous supplement of you yourself, still lingering-on after the collective extinction.
Is this dialectical? I'm reminded of the rhetorical question Jameson, with his characteristically ponderous levity, poses in his Valences of the Dialectic book: ‘is the dialectic wicked, or just incomprehensible?’ I'm not being entirely flippant in suggesting there's something apocalyptic in the antithesis component of that celebrated, opaque conceptual machine: that this negating omega will, by virtue of its negation, magically emerge synthesised as a new alpha. The rabbit tugged, with such a flourish, from the top hat of history. And that's the point, I suppose (it's Hegel-and-Marx-101 of course): the dialectic can only appear in time. All these eschatological fantasies of last men and ends of history begin from the impossible, travel-faster-than-the-speed-of-light premise of time stopping, of time finding a resting point from which bourgeois individualism can (impossibly) take stock without being continually eroded by the ablating flow of history. History, of course, is other people, and the appeal of this apocalyptic dream is not only that its lonely harmony, but that it tacitly validates the notion that such a harmony is worth even the price of everybody else in the universe dying. I'm going to quote some Adorno now, so brace yourself:
Dialectical thinking acquires its character through its movement in and through the extremes: development as discontinuity. But it too arises from the experience of an antagonistic society; it does not originate in some mere conceptual schema. The history of an unreconciled epoch cannot be a history of harmonious development; it is only ideology, denying its antagonistic character, that makes it harmonious. [Adorno, Hegel: Three Studies (trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen; MIT 1993), 82]An Adorno-apocalypse would be the redeeming negativity that engages the remorseless and destructive positivity of advance industrial capitalist society. Or, to be a little more crass: maybe Lukács's ‘aspiration to totality’, his desire to grasp human experience as a whole, collectively and historically, becomes radically simplified when the whole of human experience is one person, and history has cancelled all its myriad terms out, like a mathematical equation, to leave as remainder only a timeless now. According to Jameson, what is crucial in any programme of Utopian imagination is always its form rather than the content: ‘what is important in a Utopia is not what can be positively imagined and proposed, but rather what is not imaginable and not conceivable’ [Jameson, Valences, 413]. What is more unimaginable than our own death? What else are these end-of-the-world apocalyptic fantastikas but attempts to body-forth this unimaginable by projecting our individual mortality upon the widescreen of the world?
This, I suspect, is what makes Zombie Apocalypses, specifically, so ghastly. The world has ended, but instead of the one-dimensional harmony of last man solitude the landscape is still filled up with people: people from whom has been subtracted all the positive potential of interpersonal interaction, but who retain all the abilities real people have to obstruct, threaten and overwhelm. The worst of both worlds! This may be why I prefer the Mathesonian I Am Legend version of the zombie myth (all three of the movie adaptations of this peerless fable are excellent, each in a different way: The Last Man on Earth (1964) starring Vincent Price, Charlton Heston in The Omega Man (1971) and yes even Will Smith's 2007 I Am Legend) to, say, The Walking Dead, graphic novel or TV serial, and notwithstanding how enormously successful that latter has been. I'm not knocking the show, although it does revert to a kind-of brutalist soap opera, characters pairing off and fighting one another against a dark background of zombies to keep the tension from flagging if the plotlines flag. The show's shambling ‘walkers’ could be swapped-out for any other kind of threat, really. Better to style your zombie story as a Last Man tale. Mind you, I have to concede that the three Mathieson-adaptation movies I mention also dilute the novel's effectiveness by introducing a possible ‘cure’ for zombism and holding out a Zion-style haven of surviving human community. The book is better, because the better version is the more extreme one.
This, also, is dialectical, I think. If what we're articulating, in howsoever veiled a form, with these myths of the end of the world is not only our relation to our individual mortality, but our complicated and troubled orientation towards otherness as such—other people, for instance—then the iteration cannot be one of compromise. The cool thing about zombies is that we cannot make treaties with them. If the whole world dies, mortality and other people have both reached their ne plus ultra. And that's the proper way to figure the problematic. One last quotation from Adorno:
For Hegel mediation is never a compromise beween extremes, as, since Kierkegaard, a deadly misunderstanding has depicted it as being; instead, mediation takes place in and through the extremes, in the extremes themselves. This is the radical aspect of Hegel, which is incompatible with any advocacy of moderation. Hegel shows that the fundamental ontological contents that traditional philosophy hoped to distill are not ideas discretely set off from one another; rather, each of them requires its opposite, and the relationship of all of them to one another is one of process. [Adorno, 9-10]There's a similar dialectical tension in the way Coronavirus has presented Shelley's Last Man fantasy of perfect mobility with a reality of lockdown and house-arrest. And here we are.