The Arts in a Time of Crisis
What the World is Reading

London: Trash Has the Final Word

The back cover of a new comedy thriller by a British
writer screams at me: “Terrorism—it’s the new rock ’n’ roll.” Its blurb promises a tale of “serial murder, mass slaughter, and professional assassination,” while the press release proclaims that this book “boasts a bigger body count then ever before.” Inside, a jaunty plot unveils the MO of a master terrorist who “could attack anywhere, using any means. There would be no coded warnings, no ‘legitimate targets.’ ” Now, hindsight is the bluntest of instruments, if sometimes the most unavoidable. The publisher concerned has already withdrawn this edition. Besides, the author is no more callous or sadistic than the countless millions of us who have gorged on fantastic calamities, in print and on screen, since early childhood. We have all supped on slaughter.

This week, a Turkish writer sent me an excited fax about a novel he published last year in which a runaway airliner crashes into a Manhattan skyscraper. The dismal truth is that such proleptic glimpses of horror are not rare but commonplace. Whatever human beings can imagine, they will in due time perform—only far more destructively. My Turkish correspondent invented a lone, mad pilot headed for the PanAm building. The worst moment in that silly (but blameless) press release comes when it describes the elusive mastermind as “responsible for the murders of literally hundreds of people.”

Part of last week’s trauma—a small part, but not a negligible one—stemmed from the sudden recognition that such images had taken root deep in the collective consciousness. Those scenes were in no sense unimagined or unimaginable. Hence the witnesses’ instant appeal to Hollywood clichés; they reacted not with descriptions but with allusions, citations.

This collision of pop-cultural nightmares with daylight reality has a perplexingly long history. The “future war” literature of the late 19th century conjured up the genocidal massacres, aerial bombardments, and demented tyrannies of the 20th. (The whole genre kicked off with an 1871 potboiler entitled, bathetically, The Battle of Dorking.) Even then, whenever writers envisaged combat between nations—rather than against Martian invaders—they generally undershot by miles: no Somme, no Auschwitz, no Hiroshima.

The literary scholar (and wartime code-breaker) I.F. Clarke devoted decades to tracing these uncanny pre-echoes of the carnage to come. His classic works Voices Prophesying War and The Pattern of Expectation may be hard to locate, but you can find a definitive essay of his about the doomsday hysteria of pulp fiction around 1900 here. Clarke stresses that these bloodthirsty melodramas were framed as wake-up calls, intended to push European states into massive rearmament. And so, by propelling the pre-1914 arms race, they helped to unleash just the sort of catastrophe their authors feared (or, perhaps, secretly desired).

Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, presses hummed with the lurid visions of annihilation that would, in later decades, supply the templates for disaster movies. A host of shabby little shockers—often xenophobic and inflammatory—trawled for moral and military lessons through the rubble of Manhattan. “We are amazed at the folly and the blindness which precipitated the struggle,” runs a typical postapocalyptic tale from 1890, The Stricken Nation (here, it’s the British who have pulverized New York), “while bewildered and appalled by its effects on the destinies of mankind.”

Humanistic piety pretends that great art alone has special gifts of prophecy. Just at the moment, it looks as though the trash will always have the final word.