After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse

After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse

After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse

After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse


Apocalyptic thought is hardly unique to the end of the twentieth century; it's been a fixture of American culture for decades. Currently, the media are rife with omens and signs, and we're bombarded with warnings that "the end is near." But as James Berger argues here, the end never comes. There is always something left.

In this study of the cultural pursuit of the end and what follows, Berger contends that every apocalyptic depiction leaves something behind, some mixture of paradise and wasteland. Combining literary, psychoanalytic, and historical methods, Berger mines these depictions for their weight and influence on current culture. He applies wide-ranging evidence -- from science fiction to Holocaust literature, from Thomas Pynchon to talk shows, from American politics to the fiction of Toni Morrison -- to reveal how representations of apocalyptic endings are indelibly marked by catastrophic histories.

These post-apocalyptic visions reveal as much about our perception of the past as theydo about conceptions of the future. Berger examines the role of such historical crises as slavery, the Holocaust, and the Vietnam War and describes how these traumas continue to generate cultural symptoms. The shadow of impending apocalypse darkens today's vision of the future, but it's a familiar shadow: traumas we have already experienced as a culture are recycled into visions of new endings. Our "endings" are already after the end.

Berger demonstrates that post-apocalyptic representations are both symptoms and therapies. Contemporary culture continually draws on these traumatic histories, trying to forget, remember, deny, and recover. After the End puts these visions in context, revealingthem in some cases as dangerous evasions, in others as crucial tools for cultural survival.


“Young man, I was with Mr. Kane before the beginning. And now, here I am—after the end.”

Bernstein, the accountant, in Citizen Kane

What does this mean, this oxymoron “after the end”? Before the beginning and after the end, there can only be nothing. At the beginning, something begins; and at the ending, it ends. Of course, we know these are figures of speech. Bernstein had a life before he met Charles Foster Kane, and he is alive as he speaks and remembers. But Bernstein only recognizes significance in that intermission, between that beginning and that end. The story—the set of linked, cohering, shaped events—transpires within those boundaries, and outside them, before and after, is chaos and insignificance. Everything after the end, in order to gain, or borrow, meaning, must point back, lead back to that time; and everything before that beginning (seen as the “beginning of the end”) reconfigures itself into prologue and premonition. Kane's life and career become a fulcrum or prism that repositions, refocuses all that preceded or follows. The departed Kane still occupies the center of every consciousness in the film. As Donald Barthelme wrote in The Dead Father, “Dead, but still with us, still with us, but dead” (3), so Kane and his catastrophe (that hulking collapse from his colossal striding across the center of American mass culture into humiliation and doddering irrelevance) continue to haunt and scar all the stories that try to describe him.

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