Monday, 18 July 2016

The apocalypse according to Malcolm Bull

A month or so ago I finished reading Malcolm Bull's Seeing Things Hidden: Apocalypse, Vision and Totality (Verso, 1999). I'd like to mention his definition of apocalypse, partly because it's interesting and partly because it rhymes rather well with a few things I've written before.

A good place to start is with a passage from Kristeva, quoted by Bull:
Abjection... is the other facet of religious, moral, and ideological codes... Such codes are abjection’s purification and repression. But the return of their repressed make up our "apocalypse" (quoted on p. 68)
Bull uses this to develop a take on the apocalyptic as a return of the repressed, or in other words of the "undifferentiated" which is excluded by the establishment and maintenance of order. Based on this he manages rather well, I think, to explain why there is a connection between apocalyptic expectations in millenarian movements and a disregard of taboos. Furthermore, it makes it perfectly understandable why the apocalyptic figure is often the scapegoat (Girard), once sacrificed in the establishment of order. "It is not the obvious heroic figures of the patriarchal age who return as eschatological judges, but those whose memory has all but vanished – the missing and the sacrificed" (p. 76). In the apocalyptic we thus see a striking reversal of the logic of sacrifice: “whereas in sacrifice the mimetic crisis is resolved through the exclusion of a symbol of undifferentiation, in apocalyptic the crisis is ended by its return” (p. 77).

This is all very much in line with the fact that millenarian movements have often originated in the persecution. The motif of revenge is of course common in apocalyptic imaginings: on the day of reckoning the wicked and the unjust will get what they deserve. Numerous painters of the last judgment seem to take particular delight in depicting the sufferings of perdition:

Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Last Judgment (detail) 
However, there's a further twist to the argument. If the apocalyptic is the return of the repressed, it's not farfetched to see the apocalyptic judge as a form of ghost - an undead remainder of past injustices that keeps on haunting the living and crying for revenge. But what is it that lays the ghosts to rest? The ghost is itself trapped in its own past trauma, unable to transcend or put it behind itself. There's an ambiguity to the apocalyptic which makes it hard to say whether it must necessarily involve revenge. Sometimes the apocalyptic is something else: a miracle that enables the ghost to dispense with revenge. By dispensing with revenge, the ghosts "wins" since it proves that it is no longer a ghost; it has returned to life again, and become alive precisely to the fact that there are things in the world that are more important and valuable than revenge. At the same time, letting go of revenge is of course usually very convenient for the perpetrators of injustice. There is no way around this infuriating dilemma and that's why its resolution in certain moments - that may involve forgiveness and reconciliation but do not always do so - appears like a miracle. What is a miracle? It's something that by rights shouldn't exist in this world.

Bull seems to lean in the direction of interpreting the apocalyptic as precisely the arrival of this miracle. Thus he states that the apocalyptic ending is not a “victory for one side of a binary opposition, but a transcendence of the polarity” (p 78). When describing how this transcendence may take place, he points out that unlike in detective plots and romance, the apocalyptic ending does not reduce or eliminate ambiguities or resolve the tension: “apocalyptic texts describe a world that grows ever more confusing and may culminate in a new world that is quite unlike the old” (p 84)

This is quite intriguing. What Bull describes here - the ending that confuses and fails to resolve but which nevertheless ends injustice - is quite similar to what one sees in the structure of some Nô plays or the notoriously abrupt and shockingly confusing endings of some of Kawabata Yasunari's novels. I discuss these endings in my old article, "Shock and Modernity in Walter Benjamin and Kawabata Yasunari" (in Japanese Studies, 1999, 19:3), where I also compare them to a kiss scene from Casablanca:
The special characteristic of endings of this kind is that they brutally replace, rather than conclude the narrative. Their effect is in a sense the effect of shock. By its swift negation of the whole, nothing is left to linger in the reader's mind after finishing the novel but its last flashing moments. The bitter shout with which Thousand Cranes ends awakens the reader as from a dream. It doesn't resolve the laboriously constructed web around which the dream has revolved. Rather it tears it apart. The reader is made to vacillate between two worlds, and in this rough farewell the dream seems to shine with an even greater clarity and beauty. In its effect it is similar to the kiss, with which Ingrid Bergman quells Humphrey Bogart's inquisitiveness in Casablanca. Before she kisses him she says: 'There is only one answer that will take care of all your questions.' In the same way the reader's expectations of a resolution of the conflict that has propelled the narrative are displaced in the sensation of shock in the endings. Kawabata kisses the reader, and in this shock the unresolved contradictions disappear from view.
In none of these examples - Nô plays, Kawabata, or Ingrid Bergman's kiss - do we see any real resoluton of the tensions that have propelled the action so far. Instead, something occurs that seems to displace attention, transforming the very standpoint from which the action is viewed, so that the latter loses the significance it once had. Not until reading Bull did it occur to me to call these endings apocalyptic.


Preparing for an apocalyptic kiss?

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