New Internationalist

Life After Death

Issue 163

new internationalist
issue 163 - September 1986

Life after death
Nuclear war now crops up in soap operas and rock videos
- but does this help the cause of peace? According to Ken Rolph,
some people are starting to look forward to life after the holocaust

Mushroom cloud images like this one from Nagasaki may have the wrong effect.
Photo: Camera Press

Will the survivors of a nuclear war envy the dead? In recent decades the peace movement has made the conventional answer 'yes'. We use this fear of survival in a grotesquely changed world as the basis from which to work for peace. But what if this conventional wisdom no longer holds true, and many people have come to believe that the survivors will be the ones to be envied?

The idea that you could benefit from such destruction seems irrational, and so it is in the world of fantasy that the idea first appears. Popular literature, particularly science fiction novels and films, contain a large element of wish-fulfilment (which is why they are popular), and best-selling books often reveal what people wish for.

The past few decades have been particularly rich in stories of the destruction of civilisation as we know it. Some of the first I remember reading were John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids and The Chrysalids, and John Christopher's Death of Grass. One of the features of these stories is that they are about survivors. Threads is a recent TV treatment of the same theme.

These works are intended to be horrifying and depressing, and aim to prevent people from letting this sort of global destruction happen. But one effect of them is to increase people's feeling of hopelessness. In Sydney we saw a particularly vivid example of this when the US attacked Libya. My wife came home from teaching that afternoon and said that the girls had been sobbing in the corridors, Newspapers the next day reported that this had happened in schools all over Sydney. The kids wanted to be assured that they were going to live until their final examinations before they would agree to study for them.

Some of the teachers did not feel so strongly. One was heard in the staff room saying that if nuclear war broke out they would just go to Switzerland, because it is neutral! (There should be plenty of room there since the Swiss apparently have plans to relocate to Australia in the same event.)

One of the problems of working for peace is that people don't make rational calculation the basis of their life. Instead they guide their actions by a set of myths, ideals or inarticulate hopes. When I was talking this topic over with a number of people, the book Z for Zachariah was often mentioned. This is a children's book and tells the story of a teenage girl who lives in a valley which has survived the nuclear holocaust - a meteorological quirk had protected it from fallout. Into this valley comes a strange man wearing an anti-radiation suit. In the end of the story the girl takes the suit and goes off in search of other survivors and other valleys. Both the meteorological quirk and the 'anti-radiation' suit have overtones of magic. The story is a fairy tale of our times. It seems to be read by as many adults as children.

Some clues as to why this should be so come from The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times by Christopher Lasch. This book starts: 'In a time of troubles, everyday life becomes an exercise in survival'. Lasch proposes that as an atmosphere of crisis becomes normal, so crisis becomes trivial. People abandon 'normal' life and live in expectation of disaster. This kind of life, becoming a 'minimal self, is best shown by people's behaviour in concentration camps.

Reagan and the Antichrist

President Reagan is looking forward to life after the holocaust too - to the Second Coming of Christ that will follow Armageddon. Here he draws his own lessons from the Bible. Might he be tempted to make fact fit fantasy by pressing the button?

"Libya has now gone communist, and that's a sign that the day of Armageddon isn't far off. it can't be too long now. Ezekiel tells us that Gog, the nation that will lead all of the other powers of darkness against Israel, will come out of the north. Biblical scholars have been saying for generations that Gog must be Russia. What other powerful nation is to the north of Israel? None. But it didn't seem to make sense before the Russian Revolution, when Russia was a Christian country. Now it does, now that Russia has become communistic and atheistic, now that Russia has set itself against God. Now it fits the description of Gog perfectly."

In conversation with former California State Senator James Mills in 1971.

If people experience life in society as life in a concentration camp, then they have no stake in preserving that same society. Life in Western countries seems to be increasingly characterised by bureaucratic restriction on what can be done, and by increasing personal debt. And to a person who sees society only as something that makes demands, the possibility of becoming free will be attractive. So the holocaust becomes something that will wipe out your credit-card debt in one electronic blitz. After that we'll be free to help ourselves to whatever we want from the vast supermarket that Western societies have become.

Those who want to frighten people into peace by painting horrific pictures of the world after war may have made a strategic error. Human beings have a bias for hope and personal survival. And I suspect that some of these fictional treatments, particularly the American The Day After have only helped to normalize the apocalyptic vision.

I think that we will begin to see a flood of post-apocalyptic stories that show the survivors as being better off in a cleansed world. This seems to have begun already in popular novels, and is now working its way up towards the more 'serious' literature. The Sydney Sun-Herald reported on an American book fair and mentioned that 'a new novel, by Californian writer Carolyn See, dares to suggest we can all look forward to a happy life after the Bomb'.

There are people in our society waiting for this kind of literature. Peace workers need to keep a careful eye on it and the people who read it. They are the ones we are going to have a difficult time convincing that peace is worth working for. They are starting to believe not only that they have nothing to gain from peace, but that they will be better off after the destruction.

Ken Rolph is an independent publisher based in Sydney.

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