How does one track down the sublime? It is not moldy lemons that I am referring to here (haha do you get it??) (sorry), but that feeling of your organs permeating through your skin, of your stomach turning into an abyss and swallowing the rest of you up whole. I remember a few years ago being told that my pet cat had died (R.I.P Oberon Eccles) and suddenly Nothingness was staring me in the face in all its whiskery glory and it took a moment before I was able to scoop myself off the ground and squidge myself into something human-shaped again. Despite the angst I was left hankering for another touch of total dissolution once the initial moment had faded. For practical reasons I was unwilling to buy a new pet, form a bond with it and then murder it, so I limited my search for awful thrills to the realm of the aesthetic and representational. What I learnt was that the best place to find sublimity is on the edges of human comprehension, and what we self-obsessed humans find most difficult to comprehend is the idea of our eventual demise – not our singular deaths. I, like the best of us, am akin to whittling away a rainy afternoon by fantasizing about my own funeral whilst the titanic soundtrack warbles in my mp3, and although I do sometimes shed a tear over the various speeches made about how I transformed people’s lives with my general joie de vivre, how I inspired so many to be kinder and also better dressed, how so many had harbored a deep and passionate love for me and had wished they’d had the courage to tell me whilst I was alive and now it was too late… Wait, where was I? Oh yes, my point is, the whole experience doesn’t tend to leave me feeling existentially shaken. If you really want to look death in the eyeball you’ve got to up the ante and contemplate the extinction of the entire human race.
Whilst Hollywood is all too keen to serve up the apocalyptic on a plate, this plate tends to be lukewarm and you can find yourself wandering through a whole lot of visual rubble before you get so much as a whiff of finitude. To save yourself from such undignified scrabbling, allow me to offer you two novels and a film that should enable you to experience every level of apocalyptic despair from the coziness of your own bed.
Colson Whitehead’s Zone One is a zombie novel with a twist. The twist is that it’s not trashy. In fact, when I started this book I was really disappointed with how un-trashy it was. Then I got over it and learnt to appreciate the descriptions of zombie brains in the same way that one appreciates jazz or fine wine. Mark Spitz, our unremarkable protagonist, shuffles through the streets of New York cleaning up “stragglers” whilst trying to avoid being eaten. It’s a story that insists upon the mundane right until the very last moment, in which you are dipped into a (zombie filled) pool of elation. There is something immensely satisfying about imagining the entirety of the humanity being transformed in such a radical manner, even if this radicalness is constituted by moldy body parts and cannibalism.
If you prefer your apocalypse in a less gruesome form, then I suggest you say g’day to the golden oldie that is On the Beach. Neville Shute imagines a world that has been ravaged by a nuclear world war, causing the systematic extinction of entire countries as deadly radiation lazily drifts down the hemisphere. Like Zone One, Shute’s novel avoids melodrama, thus disallowing you to be distracted from the ontological certainty that, quite soon, everyone will die. Yes, that includes you.
Finally I offer you the Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, which truly does what it says on the tin. When I was a spotty first year, being taught about Kant’s aesthetics, my seminar tutor suggested we watched this film as a means of getting a feel of the sublime. Merrily I trotted down to the student cinema, only to leave two hours later with a Wagner song in my brain and a splinter of agony in my heart. Unlike Zone One and On the Beach, Melancholia doesn’t just portray the demise of the human race but also the destruction of our habitat, the world. Thus no comfort can be had by imagining Earth still peacefully turning away, unencumbered by us pesky oil guzzling humans.
Luckily scientists predict the world isn’t going to end for another 865 years*, so you’ve plenty of time to experience imaginative recreations of the big day before it finally happens. But, before you scuttle off to gorge on my findings, remember that the sublime can only be felt occasionally. Like all good things, over-usage will result in desensitization. So tread with caution, and only dip your toe into the depths of despair when your mundane life is really and truly in need of a pick-me-up.
*Yeah this seems worryingly soon to me too, but it’s what came up when I did a bit of googling.