Five Ways of Looking at a Trope

[This is a piece I wrote for a seminar at the Modernist Studies Association Conference this month, “Catastrophe and the Limits of Genre.”]

One: a 1924 Eugène Atget photograph, Rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève, a Parisian street scene with the Panthèon dim in the background, beautifully lit yet eerily depopulated. Atget’s documentary photographs became famous when they attracted the attention of the Surrealist Man Ray. Today, we are more likely to rediscover them via Walter Benjamin, who cites Atget approvingly for creating a kind of photography in which “the human being withdraws,” and with it, the cult value of art. Referencing Atget’s “photographs of deserted Paris streets,” Benjamin writes, “It has justly been said that he photographed them like scenes of crimes. A crime scene, too, is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence. With Atget, photographic records begin to be evidence in the historical trial.”[1] To Benjamin and to viewers today, the empty streets whisper of some crime, some catastrophe that has interrupted business as usual.


Two: a photograph by Ryan Spencer, from his 2015 collaboration with the writer Leslie Jamison, Such Mean Estate. Spencer collects still frames from apocalyptic films, rendered in black and white, uncaptioned, and small on the page, dwarfed by the white space surrounding it. This photo resembles Atget’s in composition; it is another deserted cityscape in which “the human being withdraws.” Dark wreckage occupies the foreground, while skyscrapers loom in the lighter, cloudy background, as the Panthèon does in the deep space of Atget’s image.

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In “Catechism,” the essay accompanying Spencer’s photographs, Leslie Jamison begins with a question and answer which refer to this image and others:

What does the sky hold?

Too many birds. Broken freeways. The frail limbs of a charred forest. Blindness if you stare straight at the sun. Helicopters swarming the sky like mosquitoes, then smoked propellers falling past the sign reading BUY LARGE. We did.[2]

Despite the 2015 date on the essay, everything about this screams “modernism” to me. The question and answer form, which might once have evoked only the Catholic catechism, now inevitably reminds me of Joyce’s “Ithaca”; the sentence fragments, meanwhile, recall Imagist poetry. Jamison’s catalogue of images—the birds, the freeways, the tree limbs—both enacts and resists synecdoche. The images gesture toward larger narratives, perhaps the apocalyptic films from which Spencer’s photographs are drawn; but they also refuse narrative itself. The end of the world, Jamison’s prose suggests, is not a storyline but a collection of genre tropes, decontextualized, arranged to elicit the creeping horror and guilt that are perhaps the most interesting things about apocalyptic films. The BUY LARGE sign in this photograph prompts, for Jamison, the same kind of dawning recognition that Atget’s street scenes did for Benjamin: a crime has been committed here.

Three: an excerpt from Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 apocalyptic novel Station Eleven. Weeks after a virulent flu outbreak has killed 99% of the world’s population, a lone survivor named Jeevan leaves his fortress-like Toronto apartment to seek a new life. He walks out into a dark, still, uncanny city:

The world had emptied out since he’d last seen it. There was no movement on the plaza or on the street, or on the distant expressway. A smell of smoke in the air, with a chemical tinge that spoke of burning offices and house fires. But most striking was the absolute absence of electric light. Once, in his early twenties, he’d been walking up Yonge Street around eleven p.m. and every light on the street had blinked out. For an instant the city had vanished around him, and then the lights were back so quickly that it was like a hallucination, everyone on the street asking their companions if they’d seen it too—“Was it just me?”—and at the time he’d been chilled by the suggestion of a dark city. It was as frightening as he would have imagined.[3]

Jeevan has a bright flash of memory in the dark city, and the memory itself is like a photo-negative of the current moment: a flash of darkness in an electrically brightened city, the inverse of a camera’s flash in a dark room. Toronto is now a ghost town, haunted by the people who used to inhabit it and the lights that used to illuminate it. The city’s darkness also makes me think of urban blackouts during World War II, a darkness that promised safety but could not always deliver it.

Four: the end of Katherine Anne Porter’s 1937 short novel Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a story about the 1918 flu pandemic. Miranda, the protagonist, contracts the virus and slips in and out of delirium. When she recovers, she finds that “more than a month” has passed, the war has ended, and her lover has died from the flu. Upon leaving the hospital, she finds her city barren and quiet: “No more war, no more plague, only the dazed silence that follows the ceasing of the heavy guns; noiseless houses with the shades drawn, empty streets, the dead cold light of tomorrow. Now there would be time for everything.”[4] “Time for everything” might include time for recrimination. Feelings of guilt infuse Miranda’s fever dreams, and if the pandemic is a natural disaster or act of God, the war is not. The silent streets remain haunted by the absent presence of the “heavy guns.” This, too, feels like the scene of a crime.

Five: Sometimes the deserted, broken city is not a trope at all, but a reality. Bomber planes were first used during World War I, and aerial bombardment soon became a crucial military strategy. By the end of World War II, few major European cities remained untouched by bombing campaigns. Warsaw, Rotterdam, London, Berlin, Dresden, Helsinki, Rome—none emerged unscathed. Air raids also devastated cities in Japan, including Tokyo, and in 1945 US bomber planes dropped their deadliest cargo of all, the nuclear bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed during WWII air raids, and countless others displaced. Cathedrals, palaces, bridges, houses, offices—it is hard to grasp how many crumbled or burned. This photograph from the British Imperial War Museums was taken in London in 1917, at the height of World War I. One imagines that the photographer wanted to inspire hope by showing St. Paul’s, intact and towering in the background, a faint symbol of British resilience in relief against the lifeless debris of the foreground.


© IWM (HO 81)

What these five images suggest to me is a continuity between modernist culture and the contemporary apocalyptic genre, the texts that express our end-of-the-world fears and our guilt about global war and global warming. This genre does not just look toward an apocalyptic future; it also looks back to the apocalyptic past of the modernist era, when people lived many of the catastrophes we fear. Sometimes writers and filmmakers make these intuitive connections explicit. Station Eleven, for example, mentions the 1918 flu as a precursor to the current outbreak; so do Steven Soderbergh’s film Contagion and Marc Forster’s World War Z. Everyone writing about political upheaval today seems contractually required to quote Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” A Google News search for “the center cannot hold” returns 2530 results, including articles about the Israeli elections, the British elections, Obama’s foreign policy, Syrian refugees in Europe, and ISIS. A search for “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” returns 257 results, including articles about the Greek economic crisis, Canada’s objections to the niqab, the ascendance of Donald Trump, and the surprising playoff bid of the Chicago Cubs. Other times, the connections between modernist and contemporary apocalyptic texts are less obvious, visible only in a faint echo or a graphic match like the photographs above.

Can modernism help us better understand the apocalyptic mood today? Can a more sustained attention to modernism’s apocalyptic visions help us think about our collective guilt over the war, environmental ruin, and predatory capitalism that we’ve seen over the past decade or two? Can it help us recognize the ways our culture has confused the desire to built a new, better world with the wish to see the old one burn? These are some of the questions I hope to investigate in a future research project. I suspect that modernism can offer us a critical distance from which we can look differently at the apocalyptic genre today, a genre which condemns us to watch the world end over and over again, in a thousand different ways, yet cannot seem to move us to change.

[1] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility: Second Version,” in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2008), 27.

[2] Leslie Jamison, “Catechism,” in Such Mean Estate by Ryan Spencer (Brooklyn: PowerHouse Books, 2015), n.p.

[3] Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), 431-2.

[4] Katherine Anne Porter, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, in The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1972), 317.

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