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Apocalyptic Literature

  The root thought that gave rise to apocalyptic literature was the Judaeo-Christian idea that human life, indeed the life of the universe, is not random but an ordered progression from the Beginning through to the End. Some apocalyptic writers, for example William Blake, were particularly concerned with the End, and developed images, ideas and language directly from Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, which details the final days of the world.

Apocalyptic writers in general, however, are more concerned with the sequence of dire events, the crumbling of civilization, which precedes that end. Dystopian writing of this kind sees the human race as doomed (usually self-doomed). We are trapped like animals, laboratory specimens at the mercy of irresponsible powers; we are overbred, especially intellectually, and our own ingenuity is destroying us; we are too prolific; we are plundering the planet. Once such broadening of the idea is allowed, a huge range of writers can be described as apocalyptic, from Swift to George Orwell, from Zola to Wyndham Lewis. Critics have suggested that the apocalyptic imagination is a particular characteristic of 20th-century writing, both directly in sf (where writers such as J.G. Ballard, Harry Harrison and George Turner regularly depict the horrors of a future in which present-day problems—the greenhouse effect, over-population, too many cars—are multiplied in geometric progression towards oblivion), or in writers who have used sf ideas and techniques in a wider context, such as John Barth, Alasdair Gray, Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut.

The New Apocalypse was a short-lived, 1940s movement, involving poets who wrote for a 1940s anthology with that title (edited by J.F. Hendry). Their interest was in ‘love, death, and adherence to Myth and an awareness of war’—slightly wider than such earlier war-haunted poets as Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon—and they included such people as Vernon Watkins, Henry Treece and Norman MacCaig. KMcL



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