After The Apocalypse

Stephanie and I were listening to David Bowie's album "Heroes" quite some time ago. We often spend Sunday mornings playing each other albums that we love. Upon listening to the title track in all its original epic glory, Steph commented that she'd never heard a remake that seemed to understand how incredibly tragic this song is.

We can be heroes. Just for one day.

On a discussion board I frequent there's been a long-running thread about imagining post-apocalyptic management. The folks are generating ideas about how they would set about creating and maintaining their own community in the face of total social collapse -- what sorts of rules should we live by, what resources will we need, what skills will be most valuable. All that fun stuff.

And it occured to me that the post-apocalyptic story is really just another frontier story. These stories are cowboy stories, gold rush stories and gangster stories. Even Robert E. Howard's Conan stories echo with the same idea.

The idea is a compelling one: that what holds us back, what restricts us from achieving our deserved glory, is the society and the social rules that we are forced to live by. If we could just (goes the myth) unshackle ourselves from the chains that anchor us to this workaday life, we could rise above all this petty day-to-day fearfulness and timidity we labour under, we could show our TRUE, unfettered natures, savage and strong, we could be warriors in truth.

We could be heroes. Forever and ever.

Nowadays, when heading out to the frontier is not the possibility it once was, when criminal gangs can no longer be viewed as romantic rebels, the promise of the apocalypse breathes seductively to those who carry that sense that they have been denied their true stature.

"If only we could start over, we could build a society that valued strength, and courage, and independence!"

You'd think the myth would start to lose its power after a century or so. James Fennimore Cooper's little tale about Mohicans can be seen as a tale of this type, that's for sure -- our hero is plunged into a world where the rules of his society no longer apply, and, freed of those annoying strictures, he is able to transform the world around him, and to make the universe adhere to those higher moral principles that we're all so fond of.

A hundred years later, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard are writing pretty much the same kinds of stories, set in pre-history, on Mars, in Africa -- anywhere one could plausibly lose the rules of society. And these stories continue to perpetuate themselves endlessly. If only we could be free, goes the dream, we could be as great as we deserve to be.

I could be king

Now of course all kinds of adventure stories rely on some sort of device to separate the story's world from our familiar dwelling; the defining characteristic we're looking for here is that hand-rubbing glee I remarked on earlier in discussing Howard's happy anticipation of civilisation's (inevitable) collapse. That notion that once all these awkward rules (that are really just in place to be nice to the weak -- a group that WE'RE not a part of, of course) are out of the way, we can get to building that society we always knew we could build.

Even more, the notion that if human beings would just stop interfering with their namby-pamby caring and sympathy, the universe really would work out so that everyone got what they deserved. At which point WE (being, you know, part of the strong group, the noble group, the certain-to-come-out-on-top group), can finally be ourselves.

Maybe we're lying; maybe we better not say.
But we could be us just for one day

All of which brings me back to David Bowie and HIS take on the apocalypse. "Heroes" is an anguished cry of a man who HAS lost all the rules and strictures that form society. But this loss isn't cause for individualistic ecstasy; it leads to terror and desolation, to which Bowie's only response can be the repeated, insistent, and ultimately hollow assertion that we can be heroes, that we can escape these confines.

But Bowie turns the whole notion of escape inside out at the operatic climax of "Heroes":

I can remember
Standing by the wall
The guns shot over our heads
And we kissed as though nothing could fall.

Ah, yes, the wall. Of course, Bowie recorded this album in Berlin, so we know what "The Wall" must mean, right? On the other side of that wall is our escape. Here, guns shoot at us as we kiss, but surely all we have to do is cross that wall and we're free, right?


And the shame was on the other side.
Maybe we're lying; maybe we better not say.
But we could be us just for one day

If we can't be us right now, on this side of the wall, what makes us think we'll be us when we've crossed over? Here, standing as guns shoot over us, is where we must make our stand. Not waiting for the apocalypse to come along and give us our grand chance to shine. If we're not shining this very second, it is only because we are afraid to do so. Putting off our moment of self-creation until we've crossed to the greener fields over the wall will only expose us to the shame of running away.

"Heroes" may be tragic and horrible, but it is also strangely uplifting and hopeful. We CAN be heroes, and whether it's for one day or forever makes no difference -- once I've learned how to be myself, they're the same thing. The apocalypse is now, inside myself. I have no one to blame if I miss it.

Berlin Wall photo by Joost Commandeur