Literature at the End of the World
Author: TT Jax
December 11, 2012
A variety of theories, predictions, prophecies, astronomical fears, and ancient calendar concerns mark December 21st, 2012—the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, the return of the sun—as the end of the world. By bomb, the annihilating suck of black hole, planetary collision—the ultimate triumph of entropy, blinding; a shadow, a flash of light—we are predicted to extinguish—exhale, a mushroom of smoke—before Christmas, Kwanzaa; before the calendar New Year, with all its promise of newly legal gay marriages, legal tokes, discounted gym memberships, repackaged smoking cessation products.
Think of the weight of literature. The heft and crush of an 18-wheeler loaded with boxes of books, the underlying system of cracked concrete and road kill, the oil, the wars. The brick and steel of libraries; the beep, flash, and suck of data storage warehouses. Think of all the books ever written, the books to be read, the books forced on us to read in the name of so-called education. Think of the power of professors, of writers, of grammar and literary conventions. Literature inspires want—want of fame, want of books, of shelf space, of room; a desire to grow, to be heard, to fit, change, learn, travel, fuck, love, cheat, escape, live.
Literature is not necessary—the boxes of books, the dust on the shelves. Literature is not necessary—nor its pounding printers and factories, its publishing offices, shipping distribution centers, its Amazon reviews and Kindles, its laptops and browsers—its glass filaments radiant with light in dark tubes under the ground, under the sea, a network, artificial roots, a web. Literature is not necessary, nor has it always been—nor has its agents, its Facebook pages, its cooled conference cafeteria lunches and tenured professors, the lonely writers hunched somewhere dark and mildly moldy, spinning beautiful bullshit from our own heart strings.
At the end of the world art means nothing, beyond the change and conflagration it inspires in the people who spent precious time, their finite and passing time still able and alive, to engage for a while with the works artists conjure with pressure, fingers, guts.
What is committed to the page or screen is impermanent, as impermanent as we are—our words like the ghost of my grandmother, lurking in the dreams of others. Art, at its best, shapes others, inspires them, fucks them up. This contact, this conflagration of inspiration or disgust, is more important than Facebook likes or Amazon sales ranks—this is us, artists, humans: what we learned, who we loved, what we’ve lived through and transformed to ghost and font.
Last winter it snowed in Olympia—a light crust, the day we arrived; later banks, drifts, branches frozen and shattered, electric lines lying inert like ink drawings in ice, people skiing through the streets.
Once or twice in my childhood a blizzard hit Atlanta, but nothing like this. I brought one pair of shoes across the country with me, shoes with cracks and holes in the soles. I had thin gloves, a thin jacket, a sweater, jeans. My partner, a New Yorker by birth and thus no stranger to a city steeped in ice and white, insisted that we could walk it with no problem. We were to go on a rare date to a screening of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia at the Capitol Theater downtown.
So we went. Within minutes I was soaked to the thighs, freezing and furious that my partner considered it romantic to tromp through a snow storm to see an apocalyptic Lars Von Trier movie. With better shoes and water-resistant pants, I might have agreed; but as it was, I slipped and huffed back uphill, clinging to ice-encased thorn bushes for better traction, to return home and resume warm, dry clothing. My partner trailed dejectedly in the ugly trail of crushed foliage and muddy snow stirred by my exertions; a steaming trail of exhalations followed me like the little engine that maybe could, but wouldn’t.
Even the rats living in the walls had better sense than to go outside in that, I later told him.
Often I dream of my dead grandmother. Lately in my dreams she is younger, thinner—a dark haired woman I’ve only seen in black and white photographs. She will no longer look at me. Instead, she cooks—the wings of her shoulder blades, the sharp angles of her elbows stiff with fury. This: angles on a woman I’ve only seen curves on, the soft slopes of her arms, breasts, belly, thighs as she sat crocheting on her couch. She cooks.
In my dreams her house extends beyond its original confines—longer, wider, catacombed with unexpected corners and closets. The whole family fits inside this new house, the living and estranged, the dead; we never speak; around every corner we discover a new threshold, a new darkness to duck in and away from each other.
My grandma lives inside me—an elder, a furious young mother, a scrawny child. In a new dream perhaps she will be an infant; I will hold her, broad-faced, blank, fists lightly curled beneath her chin, loose and as yet innocent of splitting skin.
A diary. A music box shaped like a gramophone, oily, cracked. A fogged pair of glasses with murky, scratched lenses. A sewing kit, letters: my grandmother’s. These I have kept with me through the years and miles that have extended beyond her crossing. Sometimes I look through her glasses to see the world as she saw it. To see with the eyes of the dead, through glass once fogged with her breath; still the lenses are smeared with her fingerprints, a glimmer of eyeshadow, an eyelash. My grandmother.
She wanted to be a writer. Instead, a mother of six, a share cropper, a factory worker, blue hands in ice, packing shrimp. Twice an intended murderer: first of near-infanticide, her unexpected twin son; later of a man who slept with her, but would not marry.
I no longer dream of my uncle, he who lived past the lifting of her hands. New born, she carried him to the open hospital window, offered him to the rush of open sky. My great-grandmother snatched him from fall, impact; he lived to marry, father three sons, work in a car factory, die at 55 of brain cancer, the first of my grandmother’s six children to pass.
They held hands and sang to him as he died, his siblings. They sang him songs my grandma had sung to them, my mother to me, old country gospel songs. My grandmother came to his wake but would not look, her back to him, eyes wide; he colorless and stiff in satin.
Yellowed letters in ink, cursive, neatly folded, letters about husbands, chicken, children, God. Needles, the eyes crusted nearly shut with crumbs and oil. Faded, tangled skeins of yarn; gum wrappers; receipts. I carry the dead, the children and intended murders of my grandmother. Her pelvis, her breasts, her hands, her hips. Her dreams and loathings have shaped generations.
Thich Nhat Hanh says in his book No Death, No Fear that we do not die. We never truly existed separately from everything else to begin with, our atoms, our electrons, our vast secret stretches of empty space mingling with the electric jumping bits of empty-everything else—trees, hair pins, squirrels, sinks. We are everything; interstitially, nothing- soothing stretches of vacancy, space. And that which we call self—that which experiences sensations, separation, thought—lives on in the shape and memory of those who survived us.
We finally watched Melancholia at home, once we had one. The movie begins with visions, followed by a series of increasingly dark mishaps at a wedding reception. A planet, Melancholia, is expected to cross the earth’s trajectory with the potential for cataclysmic collision. In the end two sisters and a child face the apocalypse together in a cave of sticks.
My grandmother, as I knew her, read often, mostly paperback historical romances. My mother, raised largely in ignorance of literature, was exposed to it by my father, a rich-raised and unabashed literary snob. He recommended, demanded, challenged, bullied, condescended, queried, and quizzed. For all of his hawking of white alcoholic men, however, it was Joyce Carol Oates that my mother wove into the fabric of her heart and gut.
Oates’ 1971 novel, Wonderland, is the book of my mother, the book of our family. My mother and I live in those pages, horrified, home. Wonderland is a thin thread of fiber and ink that, past suicide attempts, nuthouses, divorce; past incest, neglect, blame, crushed drywall, and dial tones, connects us still. I cannot read the book without reading her—the lines of her face, the brown of her eyes alight with the recognition of artistry, pain, vision.
Wonderland lives in me, its murder, lies, lives. With letters, glasses, skeins of thread I carried it across the country, an old, hardbound copy I found in a free box, rust brown, stained.
Were I to lose these artifacts still I would carry them—my mother, my grandmother, pelvic bones and amniotic fluid, empty sky, splinters, blood. I never believed in gods, in ghosts until my grandmother became one. Now I realize that I am, always have been, possessed, carried.
In Melancholia, as the planet impends, the mother, the son, the aunt hold hands. The son believes that the cave of sticks is magic, imbued with his aunt’s love, it will protect him from annihilation. He closes his eyes, does not see the tears.
His calm is eerie; impressive, his willingness to trust and believe the lovingly carved lie of sticks and magic that his aunt has conjured. He is alive, safe. If the world is destroyed, where will my son grow up?, his mother had demanded to know, unable to even conceive of his death. This moment of love and protection for him is eternal, ultimate. As he sits calmly, as Melancholia looms over them, closer, closing, his mother arches back wildly in the circle of hands, her mouth, face, neck, chest open to the sky in mindless grief.
The first time that my child flew in a plane I felt that I’d swallowed my heart. He was riveted, nose stuck to thick sheets of cold glass, enthralled by height, by the shrink of the world to calm geometric patterns of green, brown, blue. Powerless to prevent any plummet, the impending death promised by the fall—metal, pressure, glass; unspeakable—I smiled, swallowed, clung to my partner’s hand. He clung in kind—survivors do not do well, powerless, miles high.
I closed my eyes and breathed. Exhale, inhale; hours to go. Cold canned air blew down on us; tiny hairs on my neck once slicked with sweat now dried, lifting, inviting further chill. D. cantered a small plastic horse across the window sill, nickering to himself; clouds, blue sky, his tiny body a silhouette. Bodies packed elbow to elbow in cold and tin; I held my partner’s hand.
If we go, we go together, I thought. Everything, every one that I love and need is with me, here beside me. If we go we go together, face it together, say what we need, hand to hand. No one lost, no one left behind to shatter and grieve. The thought, gruesome as it was, was oddly comforting. Eventually I opened a book and read till landing.
When I was a teenager my then-best friend and I argued about the worth and meaning of humankind, namely as it related to the end of the world.
I, at the time a self-professed atheist and anarchist, held that people were shit, and that the sooner we stripped off the trappings of government and social decorum and really sunk our fists to the elbow in the ribcage of our true calling—namely, greed, destruction, hate, and fear—the sooner that we could all destroy each other, and thus the universe could recover from the cancer of our kind.
My friend, a Republican and devout Roman Catholic, held that whatever vagaries existed within the human species, the loss of humankind would include the loss of art, literature, and history, and that this would be an unspeakable tragedy.
The end of the world necessitates the end of literature, the end of cyanotypes and raku, the end of tutus, drag performances, punk concerts. The end of Wonderland, of dreams of my grandmother; the turning of books, bones, spines to ash and dust; the end of memories of my uncle, his body suspended in air.
But if we go- particularly in the case of total planetary destruction- we go together. The woman with four children who lives beneath us and avoids eye contact when we cross ways in the parking lot; my sister’s cat; my sister, her dreams of a child, her hopes of finishing her long-postponed bachelors; the delicate furl of a fern; the wet pink interior of a sea-shell or a lamb’s mouth; barn swallows, mud wasps, slugs; mushrooms; Lady Gaga; the Pieta; Burning Man; Stephen Hawking; the grave of Edgar Allan Poe; my cousin, Josh, who has yet to leave Georgia and move to LA. We all go—everything we love, we made, we need. No loss. The universe will expand and suck, expand and suck with the atoms of us, the way it always has, a pulse yet to cease.
What of literature, then? What of experience, success? I still have things to do, my partner retorted when I asked if he found the end of the world at all relieving.
I do, too. Books to read, books to write, multiple unfinished projects in clay, ink, fiber. Places to live; milestones to anticipate. I have yet to meet the family my child forms outside of us, to see him truly and fully rebel, to see if and how he can shock me with dress, language, mien. I have yet to reconcile with my friend, yet to return to the mountains, the desert, the sea.
I fear failure. I fear limitations, cessations. I fear the vacuum pull of never. I fear the cold, the dark; sickness, hunger; I fear never feeling normal, a part of things, whole. I fear the way my grandma must have feared as she offered her fifth born to the sun; I fear the way her children must have feared as they grew up stunted in the rain of her slaps and wit; I fear the way my mother must have feared as she uncapped a bottle of pills and tipped it. I carry fear, along with eyeglasses, needles; fear, along with dreams of my grandmother.
I fear failure—failure as a writer, a parent, a person. But if there is no tomorrow, if failure is guaranteed, what is there to fear? What matters then? The things I wrote, the things I read, the people I touched, loved, held?
Who would I ask about the end of the world? My grandmother, all angles and fury at her kitchen sink? The dead, the dead speaking in letters, in glass, in ink? What can the dead teach us about loss, failure, relief, sorrow, gratitude? We carry the dead—dead authors, the dying or dead characters of books—with us. These dead—real, imaginary, enshrined in text—become a part of us, woven into neural pathways; guides, teachers, extending vast beyond the limitations of our familial homes, the labyrinthine kitchen of my grandmother’s house. Sylvia Plath, after all, taught me to hear a child’s cry as a balloon rising—something light, sweet, lifting.
For a short time we lived in an aluminum tool shed on the side of a mountain. It was not our abode of choice; it was what we could afford, and far from the town where my mother grew up.
We lived for a short time near Darien, Georgia, where my grandmother’s house, no longer her house, still sits along the brown bend of the Darien River, separated from its alligator waters by a gray dirt road circling the massive trunk of an oak.
My mother attended and taught at the school my child enrolled in. The people of her town, however, made it plain that they did not welcome transgender people in their schools or on their streets.
We learned what it was to be hunted, as the mice in the walls knew. Throughout the night I beat the particle board roof with a broomstick; winter was coming; the mice wanted in. Sometimes I read. Rarely I slept. People twice came to the shed; we were in the news, albeit a state away, after the ACLU represented our case; but most often it was, unreasonably, a bear that I heard sniffing us through the walls. I listened to his breathing, the slow rub of his hip against corrugated aluminum. When I moved, he slapped at me through the walls. I lay with knives, a baseball bat, a busted camping stock pot filled with similarly insufficient weapons—a can of RAID, makeshift slingshots of plastic bags and rocks.
I turned pages slowly. I read boneyard, A Man of Glass and All the Ways We Have Failed, Meat is All, The Iguana Complex, How the Days of Love and Diptheria. I read The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, A Friend of Kafka, The Letter Writer. Each offered its own inherent lesson and approach to trauma, terror, loss, mortality. I read as my child and partner slept—to watch over them, to listen, to not be alone.
Later, far from the shed and the bear, I would say that I hoped to read The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer as I die. I imagined a slow hospital death, with dull stretches of IV drips and time to immerse myself in a story.
But who has time to read at the end of the world?
Perhaps out loud—we could read to each other. Beyond books—before books—are hands, voices—language evoked in tongue folds, the systematic release of air through passage ways, internal tensions; the lift of a lip, the widening of eyes, the arc and flutter of fingers.
We might speak, at the end of the world. Touch, dance, sing. The physical arts—painting, sculpture, fiber, literature—can’t last the apocalypse. Their power will remain in us only insofar as they have become a part of us, part of what we carry, our Wonderland, our dreams of deserts or cities, our dead grandmother dreams.
How full we will be, then, at the end of the world. Perhaps art—seemingly unique to our species, attendant with the awareness of mortality—exists not to be preserved, not to outlast death and the passing of ages, but to prepare us for annihilation, to incrementally pass our intentions, our knowings, through generations—in stories, song, pigments; fiber, mud, stone- so that the generations that face immediate extinction—be it a few weeks, or hundreds of thousands of years from now—will face the end of the world impossibly full with the dreams and visions and wisdom of all of humankind. Thus carrying the accumulated experiences of thousands of years of human life—in our neurons, in our bones, our genes, our dreams, our bonds—we release to that collision, release to that blinding flash of light and final darkness the earnestness and ingenuity of us, the creativity and wonder of us, the crass and greedy, pompous ridiculousness of us. And in those few moments remaining, when failure is inevitable, when all that can be done has been done, when all that is left to hold is pressure and flesh, is love and fear and wonder, the hands and bones of our beloveds erupting from skin and ground, the suck of lungs sharp with inhale and ash, pounding hearts flooded with fear and gratitude to have been, to have known, to have carried and whispered through generations the story of our being—we will be what we have been all along—a family, a dream of family, possessed with love, carried, until the universe pulses, obliterates, returns us to atoms and vacuum, wordless, dreamless, moving.