Thursday, March 12, 2020

Joni Tevis: The End of the World as We Know It: The Nonfiction of Apocalypse

Friends, I intended to read this essay at AWP in San Antonio on March 5, 2020, as part of a panel titled "It's the End of the World as We Know It: The Nonfiction of Apocalypse." Then the coronavirus pandemic happened. So I share it here with you in this form, a little changed. My thanks to fellow panelists Beth Peterson, Matt Donovan, and Desirae Matherly.


Friends, thank you for your attention, for sharing these thoughts with me.
     For me, writing the apocalypse isn’t fortunetelling. It’s history—looking at the past through the eyes of the present, and looking reflexively, too, to try and discern what the past has to tell us about now. I think of a textile mill in my hometown, in upstate South Carolina, abandoned twenty years, overgrown with briers and Virginia creeper.
     If to write about apocalypse is to write about history, how do I want to do history at its most seductive as an essayist, not a historian? I love material culture—the dogwood shuttle from the textile mill—and the power that comes from creating context between objects, phrases, and moments. I want to figure something out that I can’t any other way. Poet David Kirby calls the poem the problem-solving machine. That’s how I think of essays.
     Because apocalypse is nothing new. The collapse of the textile industry is, for me, a regional economic apocalypse that started in the 1960s and crested in the mid-1990s. For evidence of earlier environmental apocalypses and shifts, look at limnology, the study of mud cores taken from wetlands; the yellow bands of pollen that sink to the bottom of the lake each spring tell the story of what lived there before. Look at paleodendrology, the study of thin cores of trees, whose annular growth rings speak of the climates of the past.
     What does “apocalypse” mean? We take it as an ending, often a dramatic, violent one. But literally “apocalypse” means unveiling. Several years ago, I hauled myself halfway around the world to the tiny Greek island of Patmos to visit the Cave of the Apocalypse, where according to tradition, the writer John had the visions that he shaped into the biblical book of Revelation. This book had frightened and fascinated me ever since I was a kid in the mid-1980s, late Cold War, hearing a lot of sermons about Revelation and its coded meanings. I can trace my love of close reading to those Sundays.
     So I’m struck by the title of the panel that inspired this piece: “The end of the world as we know it.” Let’s do a close read of that song, released by Georgia rockers REM in 1987 as track six of their platinum-selling album, Document.
     Michael Stipe delivers the lyrics with driving insistence. This is not a minimalist song. I can’t always understand what he’s saying, not because of the mumblecore singing he’d favored on the band’s earlier work, but because the world of the song is crowded. His voice gallops along like someone’s about to pull the plug on his mike. Remember the first lines:
That’s great! It starts with an earthquake,/birds and snakes, an aeroplane. Lenny Bruce is not afraid.
In medias res. Dramatic! REM has four members and this song needs all hands on deck. We hear Bill Berry’s drumming first: rattabattadap, rattabattadap, rattabattadap, tap, like a snare drum in a military band. That’s great! sings Stipe, his cynical, defiant tone surely part of why the song is still popular, spiking in play, for example, before the predicted Mayan apocalypse in December 2012. Peter Buck’s guitar, jangly and tight, keeps the train on the track that Berry’s drumming lays down. And I’m a sucker for Mike Mills’ backing vocals, particularly on the chorus. Against and beneath Stipe stutter-singing it’s the/it’s the end of the world as we know it, Mills sings, It’s time I had some time alone. Nobody sounds sad about any of it.
     Which might be a problem. The lyrics are dark but the music—uptempo, major key—skids along like a happy little road trip. It’s the lie at the core of the best rock songs; I hear it in the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Places where the form itself comforts by its very existence. Implied: things will work out now; they have before. It’s hard to imagine the world without at least some trace of yourself.
     Let’s talk about traces; let’s talk about debt. REM guitarist Peter Buck said that “It’s the End of the World” was influenced by Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” And I buy it: the insistence, the particulars, the much-madness-makes-divinest sense absurdity. Said rock critic Andy Gill, “an entire generation recognized the zeitgeist in the verbal whirlwind of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’” as Dylan sang about the man in the trench coat, the tapped phone and the fire hose in a rapid-fire, flat-affect delivery that Stipe would later echo. Dylan, in turn, acknowledged his song’s debt to Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Jack Kerouac, Chuck Berry. Nothing happens in a vacuum.
     But out of REM’s whole song, its outpouring of rage and fear and excitement, the lines that hit me hardest are the ones clinching the first verse:
Tell me with the rapture and the reverent in the right, right.
You: vitriolic, patriotic, slam, fight, bright light;
Feeling pretty psyched.
With the rapture and the reverent: Sunday morning preaching. Slam, fight, bright light: that was atomic. Nuclear. It was a springtime Saturday, April 26, 1986, when Chernobyl melted down in the world’s worst nuclear reactor accident to date. When Michael Stipe wrote his song in 1987, Chernobyl must have been on his mind. Of the time, he said later: “In 1987 and ‘88 there was nothing to do but be active….Our political activism and the content of the songs was just a reaction to where we were, and what we were surrounded by, which was just abject horror.”
     In thinking of Chernobyl, I think, of course, of Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. In her work, Alexievich preserves the words and stories of eyewitnesses to counter the state narrative and the historical amnesia we’re all subject to. She includes little of her own context; she’s arranged these narratives, but they speak for themselves.
Her own thoughts she leaves until the end of the book, “In Place of an Epilogue”:
For three years I rode around and asked people: the workers at the nuclear plant, the scientists, the former Party bureaucrats, doctors, soldiers, helicopter pilots, miners, refugees, resettlers. They all had different fates and professions and temperaments. But Chernobyl was the main content of their world. They were ordinary people answering the most important questions.
I often thought that the simple fact, the mechanical fact, is no closer to the truth than a vague feeling, rumor, vision. Why repeat the facts—they cover up our feelings. The development of these feelings, the spilling of these feelings past the facts, is what fascinates me. I try to find them, collect them, protect them.
And after reading Alexievich’s work, I hear REM’s song differently. The children from the exclusion zone would have been too tired to sing a song that frenetic, or maybe any song at all. Said a teacher: these seventh-graders “are always tired and sleepy. Their faces are pale and gray. They don’t play and they don’t fool around. If they fight or accidentally break a window, the teachers are pleased”.
Said an evacuee, echoing ideas I’d heard myself at the time:
Everything that’s written in the Bible comes to pass. It’s written there…about Gorbechev. That there’ll be a big boss with a birthmark and that a great empire will crumble. And then the Day of Judgment will come. Everyone who lives in cities, they’ll die, and one person from the village will remain. This person will be happy just to find a human footprint!
     REM’s video for the song shows a teenaged boy in an abandoned farmhouse. The boy drums on a tin globe. Holds up an old photograph. I can’t watch much of this. I’ve always ignored the NO TRESPASSING signs, and this looks too much like what I’ve seen. A sagging sofa. Papers on the floor. Outside the window, yellow grass.
     A hunter in the exclusion zone spoke of:
The empty villages, just the stoves. 
     Said one evacuee:
I washed the house, bleached the stove. You need to leave some bread on the table and some salt, a little plate and three spoons. As many spoons as there are souls in the house. All so we could come back. 
     This is about suffering, grief. For the dogs and cats, deer and boar, rabbits and birds that lived there; for the fir trees near the reactor that turned orange, then red; for the people. Writes Annie Dillard:
If you were to glance out one day and see a row of mushroom clouds rising on the horizon, you would know at once that what you were seeing, remarkable as it was, was intrinsically not worth remarking. No use running to tell anyone. Significant as it was, it did not matter a whit. For what is significance? It is significance for people. No people, no significance. This is all I have to tell you.
     Said the wife of a liquidator:
I don’t want to hear anything, read anything about Chernobyl. I’ve seen it all.
     The little girls in the hospitals play with their dolls. They close their eyes and the dolls die.
     Why do the dolls die?
     Because they’re our children, and our children won’t live. They’ll be born and then die. 
     Says a liquidator: “When I got there, the birds were in their nests, and when I left the apples were lying in the snow. We didn’t get a chance to bury all of them. We buried earth in the earth.”
     Said a widow:
I stopped the clocks in the house when he died. It was seven in the morning. 
     Said Alexievich, in her book’s last lines: “These people had already seen what for everyone else is still unknown. I felt like I was recording the future.”
     It's time I had some time alone. This line, sung by Mike Mills against and underneath Michael Stipe’s chorus, enacts community. Two voices singing, alive and in harmony. Mordant, yet hopeful. Almost naively so. Implied: I’ll make it. And a joke: I needed a break from y’all anyway.
     Said a liquidator:
We buried trash heaps and gardens. The women in the villages watched us and crossed themselves. We had gloves, respirators, and surgical robes. The sun beat down on us. We showed up in their yards like demons. They didn’t understand why we had to bury their gardens, rip up their garlic and cabbage when it looked like ordinary garlic and ordinary cabbage. The old women would cross themselves and say, ‘Boys, what is this—is it the end of the world?’ 
These things are unspeakable. But it is our job—as historians, as essayists—to speak them. To play it straight, or play it for laughs. If we can, to share the words of those who were there. And most of all, to pay attention.
     Michael Stipe said he wrote his song after he dreamed a party attended by people with the initials L.B.: Lester Bangs, Leonard Bernstein, Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce.
     Said Lester Bangs, rock critic: “Realizing that life is precious, the natural tendency is to trample on it, like laughing at a funeral.”
     Said Leonard Bernstein:
The 20th century has been a badly written drama, from the beginning. The opposite of a Greek drama. Act one: Greed and hypocrisy leading to a genocidal world war, a boom, a crash, totalitarianism. Act two: Greed and hypocrisy leading to a genocidal world war, a boom, a crash, totalitarianism. Act three: Greed and hypocrisy … I don't dare continue.
     Said Leonid Brezhnev, Soviet leader:
Only he who has decided to commit suicide can start a nuclear war in the hope of emerging a victor from it. No matter what the attacker might possess, no matter what method of unleashing nuclear war he chooses, he will not attain his aims.
     Said Brezhnev: “God will not forgive us if we fail.”
     The only name Michael Stipe repeats is that of comedian Lenny Bruce. If you’re looking for Lenny Bruce quotes, you can find plenty; he wrote a book (How to Talk Dirty and Influence People), and recorded several of his routines (including I Am Not A Nut, Elect Me!). Said Lenny Bruce: “Life is a four-letter word.” Said Lenny Bruce: “Take away the right to say ‘fuck’ and you take away the right to say ‘fuck the government.’” (Lenny Bruce is not afraid.) But the quote I like best is something he maybe never said.
     Said Lenny Bruce: “There are never enough I love you’s.” To write is to assume a reader. Or a listener. While we’re here, together, now, let me add to this moment one more I love you.

Songs, Images, Texts:

Touched upon or silently obsessed over, in order of appearance:

Arnold, Walter (US, b. 1981.) Photography. Check out
Kirby, David. All of his books are terrific. His most recent two are More Than This
(2019); Get Up, Please (2016), both from LSU Press.

Limnology at the University of Minnesota. Check out the Limnological Research Center,

REM, Document, the band’s fifth album. IRS. Scott Litt, producer. Recorded March-
May 1987. Video directed by James Herbert.

Rolling Stones, “Gimme Shelter.” On Let it Bleed, released Dec 5, 1969. Decca Records.
Jimmy Miller, producer.

Dylan, “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” On Bringing It All Back Home, fifth studio
album. Released March 22, 1965. Columbia Records. Tom Wilson, producer.

Alexievich, Svetlana. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster.
Translated by Keith Gessen. NY: Picador, 2005.

Dillard, Annie. “Total Eclipse.” From Teaching a Stone to Talk. NY: Perennial, 1982.

Much Admired:

Didion, Joan. “At the Dam.” From The White Album. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1979. An
enactment of past civil engineering, present research & obsession, and future
apocalypse, all in five paragraphs.

Burtynsky, Edward (Canadian, b. 1955). Photography, including Nickel Tailings #34,
Sudbury, Ontario.

Misrach, Richard (US, b. 1949). Photography, including the Salton Sea series. 1983.

Nix, Lori (US, b. 1969). Photography of handmade dioramas, often of abandoned
scenes: Chinese Take-out (2013), Subway (2012), Circulation Desk (2012).


My books, both published by Milkweed Editions:

The World Is On Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse (In which I write about Patmos, the Cave of the Apocalypse, and many other things.)

The Wet Collection: A Field Guide to Iridescence and Memory

Stay in touch via Twitter @jonitevis

Joni Tevis is the author of two books of essays, most recently The World Is On Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse. Her essays have appeared in Orion, The Southern Review, The Oxford American, Poets & Writers, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and elsewhere. The winner of a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, she serves as the Bennette E. Geer Associate Professor of English at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, and is at work on a new book of nonfiction about music, destruction, and iconic American landscapes.

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