Author: Christine Hoff Kraemer


Title: The Creative Apocalypse: Post-WWII Narratives of Death, Rebirth, and Transformation


Supervising Professor: Betty Sue Flowers, Ph.D.



The existence of the atomic bomb has made humanity keenly aware of its own ability to shape its destiny – or at least to choose its end. This has problematized traditional apocalyptic narratives, which often focus on the subjugation of humanity to forces beyond its control. In response, poet Gregory Corso ("Bomb"), animation director Hideaki Anno (Neon Genesis Evangelion), and comics writer Alan Moore (Watchmen) have co-opted the apocalyptic narrative to explore the existential consequences of humanity as a self-defining, self-destroying entity. In all three works, apocalypse serves to rip away existing structures and identities. Unlike the Revelation of St. John, where ultimate destruction reveals the divine order beneath, however, apocalypse in these works reveals only a yawning emptiness, an absence of meaning and order. Rather than dissolving into nihilism, however, these works offer strategies for living a fulfilling life in a universe where there is no underlying metaphysical structure. Through taking responsibility for our role in creating meaning and structure in our lives, our ability to collectively and individually self-define becomes empowering. In this sense, apocalypse becomes a creative process, a metaphor for the constant destruction and new birth of our identities and self-narratives. Finally, apocalypse serves to dramatize and exaggerate this process, helping us to become aware of the cycle of self-definition so that we can more deliberately take part in it.



introduction: deconstruction



"Nothingness lies coiled at the heart of being." –Sartre



Gregory Corso called it the "brake of time." This evocative description of the atomic bomb, penned just a decade after World War II ended, only hints at the paradigm-shattering effects the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have on the apocalyptic imagination of both its Japanese victims and its American creators. As the only country ever to have had the bomb used against it and the country that dropped that bomb, Japan and the United States represent perhaps the two most apocalypse-obsessed cultures in the world. Visual media provide perfect vehicles for the terrible yet fascinating spectacle that is such an important component of apocalypse, and so it not surprising that the pop culture (particularly the film) of both countries is rife with apocalyptic narratives and images, from Godzilla and the animated Akira in Japan, to Dr. Strangelove and Terminator 2: Judgement Day in the U.S. Yet this apocalyptic urge, though intimately tied up with technology in the post-WWII era, did not originate with the bomb. Both cultures have apocalyptic traditions that date back thousands of years – the Christian apocalypse drawn from the book of Revelation resonates oddly with the Buddhist account of the slow decline of the "latter days," at the end of which Buddha will come to save all believers. Perhaps more important for the Japanese than this legend, however, is the concept of mono no aware, a kind of elegiac awareness of the world's transience that is woven into everyday life.[1]

            The atomic bomb has problematized both of these apocalyptic traditions even as it has been accommodated and absorbed by them. Though both traditions represent humanity as helpless in the face of forces greater than itself – a judging God, or merely unforgiving time – the existence of the bomb has served to empower humanity, if not to save itself from annihilation, then to determine in limited fashion the moment and method of its death. The possibility of utter self-destruction, of no longer being subject to the whim of forces beyond humanity's control, is both tantalizing and chilling. Though some writers, in responding to this new awareness, have chosen to focus purely on the possibility of a literal nuclear holocaust, the post-bomb narratives that allow themselves to explore the ontological and metaphysical consequences of an entirely man-made apocalypse tend to be far more interesting. In the case of Gregory Corso's "Bomb," Hideaki Anno's Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen, the creators have embraced the very traditional structure of the apocalyptic narrative,[2] but in the process come face-to-face with the postmodern existential crisis.

In his article "Narrative," J. Hillis Miller postulates that one of the primary functions of all narrative is to experiment with possible selves and identities, whether these be individual or cultural.[3] This seems particularly relevant to apocalyptic narratives, which often show an awareness of Nietzsche's idea that the nature of a thing can be seen in its end. Many narratives use their respective ends of the world to interpret and give additional significance to certain elements of history or society, much as director Stanley Kubrick highlights the hypermasculinity and sexualized aggression of Cold War culture in Dr. Strangelove in order to show the probable downfall of a society of that nature. In this way, apocalypse can serve as a critique of culture, but it can also express hope for renewal. In the destruction of old identities and structures, there lies an implicit opportunity for a new beginning, just as the bloody Armageddon of the Christian apocalypse is a preparation for the coming of the Kingdom of God. To reverse Picasso's famous saying, every act of destruction is also an act of creation; apocalypse can be transformative and redeeming, a catalyst for the regenerative cycle of death and rebirth.

The nature of the place that lies between death and rebirth is tied to the original Greek meaning of apocalypse, which has been all but forgotten in the modern era: revelation. Though most readers of the book of Revelation (Gk. Apocalypsis) tend to focus on its epic vision of annihilation at the hands of divine forces, the intended theme of the book is preserved in the English title, which emphasizes St. John's privileged glimpse into the workings of the metaphysical world beyond the mundane. Like the book of Revelation, written by an inspired member of a persecuted and disdained Jewish sect, all three of the works that are addressed in this thesis have a heavy visual component. All are also the product of subcultures that either were or still are considered to be somewhat on the fringe – "Bomb" emerged from the iconoclast Beats and Evangelion and Watchmen from the artistic communities devoted to the scorned "kiddie" mediums of animation and comics, respectively.[4] Yet these superficial similarities are negligible next to the intimate and terrifying revelation that they share – the experience of having the world as we know it utterly ripped away to reveal the nothingness beneath. Finally the all-important symbolic influence of the bomb as the "brake of time" becomes clear – it is the emblem for a man-made experience of revelation, an instrument of deconstruction and discontinuity. In a world where mass suicide is possible, where God is no longer needed to deal the final judging blow, where the challenge of science has already shaken religious belief to its core, revelation becomes not an ecstatic experience of divine spirit but rather a vertiginous and terrifying experience of emptiness. Even when the bomb is not dealt with specifically, its devastating presence can be felt in the warring senses of responsibility and powerlessness that are expressed in all of these works. In true existentialist tradition, these creators face the absence of God and the terrible arbitrariness of meaning and implicitly ask the question, How does one live with the awareness of underlying chaos? As we shall see, the mechanism of apocalypse is central to the answers that "Bomb," Evangelion, and Watchmen attempt to articulate, and in some cases, may even offer the possibility of redemption.



conclusion: a light of meaning



                NEWSVENDOR: I see the world didn't end yesterday.

                KOVACS: Are you sure?

                                                                        Watchmen, III.22



Uncertainty. Madness. Isolation. Violence. "Bomb," Watchmen, and Evangelion form a dark trio that flirt with nihilism and present chaos rather than order as the essential nature of reality. Yet this fascination with the void is only part of what makes these works so compelling. The spiralling path into darkness that these works follow does not leave the reader hopeless and helpless at the mouth of the abyss; instead, each creator provides a light, a ray of hope and stability that is not merely compensation for the difficulty of the journey, but is in fact unattainable without it. Though the nature of the journey and knowledge gained as a result is subtly different in each work, there is a redemptive quality to each rebirth, a sense that salvation from despair can be found only when the troubled older self, individual and collective, is allowed to die.

            The redemptive quality of apocalypse is emphasized by the complicated and often problematic God/Christ figures that appear in all three works. Evangelion's use of religious and occult imagery is scattershot and imprecise, but as in all art, symbols have a life of their own and often convey far more powerful and deeper meanings than the creating artist may have intended. Shinji is explicitly identified with Christ when he is crucified on the combination cross/Tree of Life during the film ending of the series. Though Shinji is hardly the compassionate, self-sacrificing Christ of the gospels, the ending nevertheless explicitly states that because of the apocalyptic process of death and rebirth that has just been completed, humanity has gained the ability to consciously self-create through will. Yet Shinji is not simply a sacrificial lamb, subjected to massive trauma for the good of humanity. In many ways, Shinji also functions as a substitute for God, a vengeful, jealous, and angry force that must annihilate both humanity and himself in order to save them. "Bomb" contains a similarly problematic God/Christ figure in the bomb itself. Corso's poem paints the bomb as the substitute for a dead Judeo-Christian god: a goddess of chaos and destruction suitable for a world gone unrecoverably mad. Yet Corso also includes images of Christ-like origins: the bomb will be "madonna[ed]" by the earth, recalling the Virgin Mary; its coming is hailed with prophetic language reminiscent of Isaiah ("into our midst a bomb will fall") and with hosannahs and hallelujahs as the animals, plants, and the wind itself celebrate it as a divine child. Finally, Watchmen contains a number of both Christ-like and God-like figures, from Jon with his power to rearrange atoms in any way he chooses to Veidt, who arbitrates humanity's fate through destruction but is also its Christ-like savior.

            The implicit or explicit absence of a pre-existing creator god in these works seems to be a natural consequence of the fundamentally chaotic reality they depict. Considering this fact, it is interesting that God-substitutes appear in all three works, and may lead the reader to recall Voltaire's famous statement that, "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to create Him." For what purpose, however, does mankind need gods? In terms of these works, the function of their individual gods is best couched in terms of the nature of the apocalypse they set in motion. In Evangelion, apocalypse and revelation are achieved through fusion; the slate of human possibility is wiped clean by Shinji's decision to return humanity to a state of undefined potential. Of the three works, Evangelion's apocalypse is the one most clearly undergone for the sake of new creation. Humanity is empowered by its experience of divine nothingness to self-create with new awareness and understanding. In this way, Shinji's experience as godhead becomes emblematic of humanity's awakening awareness that humanity itself is God – self-creating, self-destroying, an emergent consciousness that arises from chaos through fragmentation and interaction. Evangelion's God-substitute, then, seems to function primarily to make humanity self-aware and to enable it to take control of its own development.

            "Bomb"'s God, on the other hand, functions more as a symbol for the way reality already is than as a catalyst of change. In Corso's poem, the bomb functions to fragment and blow meaning apart, serving as both the spirit of a chaotic era and as a continuation of the ancient image of the destroyer goddess. By constructing the poem as a love song to the bomb, Corso encourages acceptance of chaos and represents it as a source of beauty and meaning. Unlike Watchmen, where chaos is a terrifying reality that casts a grim pall over the efforts of the characters to do good in the world, the chaos represented by the bomb has a playful, carnivalesque side that balances its more frightening qualities. "Bomb" suggests that acceptance and celebration of the chaos caused by the death-rebirth cycle may be superior to the directed consciousness-change portrayed in Evangelion.

            The functions of Watchmen's God-figures are less straightforward, possibly because there the storyline contains multiple apocalyptic events of different orders of magnitude. Veidt's function as a God-substitute is similar to Shinji's in that he causes humanity to undergo directed consciousness-change, but he is the architect and designer of this change whereas Shinji is merely an instrument in the process. In many ways, therefore, he is a much more traditional God-figure than the two described above; his will is more imposed upon humanity than emergent from it.[5] Like Rorschach, Veidt is empowered by the arbitrariness of meaning to paint a pattern that he chooses upon the face of reality. As a God-figure, he is a source of order and meaning for billions of human beings. Veidt's apocalypse, however, does not function to reveal the nature of reality to humanity as the apocalypses in "Bomb" and Evangelion do. The mechanisms of apocalypse are transparent to the human beings who are affected; though Veidt understands the role of narrative in shaping the behavior and experiences of humanity, humanity itself radically changes its narrative without ever becoming aware of its ability to consciously do so. Unlike in Evangelion, humanity remains unconscious of its power throughout its transformation, never taking responsibility for its own role in shaping its reality. Revelation in Watchmen is confined to the apocalyptic experiences of individuals, whose encounters with the void empower them to take control of their destiny in a way that unconscious humanity cannot.

            The connecting thread between these God-substitutes is their role in creating sources of meaningful narratives of cultural and individual identity. Shinji functions to empower himself and humanity as a whole as conscious self-creators; Veidt imposes a new and hopefully longer-lasting cultural narrative on the world; "Bomb" serves as a concrete symbol through which humanity might come to terms with and even rejoice in its disordered and chaotic condition. Though all three works confront the horror of the discovery that meaning is arbitrarily created, all also propose ways to live fulfilling lives despite and sometimes as a result of that knowledge. In essence, that is the redemptive nature of these apocalypses. In all these works, destruction functions to trigger willful psychological change, thus saving humanity from a double dose of despair: the despair of being unable to change the self and thus being limited, and the despair of living a meaningless existence. In all three works, change is portrayed as the only constant, an eternal dance of shifting meanings and identities, the inherited lot of the human race. Yet this revelation becomes a source of power. For the narrator of "Bomb," change itself becomes a source of joy and fulfillment; Shinji and the other characters of Evangelion escape from their confining and inadequate identities and wield the power to self-define; Veidt remakes the world of Watchmen in his own image and even the detached and disillusioned Jon comes to recognize the unlikely beauty of mutable human life.

            The function of apocalypse in these narratives is to make obvious the constant change that we as individuals and as a collective experience every day. As the Watchmen quote at the beginning of this conclusion suggests, the world is constantly in the process of ending and beginning again, putting on new masks and removing old ones, redefining itself and its identity and telling itself new stories. This process, however, is often a subtle one; just as a child's growth can seem invisible to a parent who sees that child on a daily basis, the evolution of our identities is often invisible as well as unconscious. The dramatic and destructive transformations triggered by apocalypse, however, create the opportunity for awareness, allowing us to harness that destructive power to consciously and directedly form new selves. Apocalyptic transformation temporarily frees us from those sculpting forces in our environment that erode us slowly into shape day by day, like water flowing over rock; change becomes conscious, destruction and re-creation deliberate acts of will. Just as the bomb puts the literal ability to choose collective death into our hands for the first time, symbolically it represents our new awareness that our fate is in our hands, that through technology we have claimed a piece of divine power for ourselves.

            Despite the darkness of these pieces, in living with them almost daily for the past year I have found myself instead blinded by their light. Though they speak of an absent God and the terrifying emptiness of the void, they also speak of responsibility, of empowerment, of limitless possibilities. They are most comforting, I think, because theirs is not an unrealistic optimism. The process of self-creation is a stomach-churning tightrope walk over an abyss; despite our hunger to tell ourselves a fulfilling story, to make all of our experiences coalesce into a pattern, there is always something that refuses to fit, leading us to question the validity of the entire enterprise. As the characters of Watchmen in particular discover, life is characterized by a deep-seated uncertainty that we must put aside in order to live. Oddly, however, perhaps the most unrelentingly optimistic sentiment of the novel comes from its grimmest character: as Rorschach writes in his journal, "Nothing is hopeless. Not while there's life" (II.25). This is, above all, what I believe these pieces offer. From their unwillingness to ignore the contradictions that lie at the center of the human condition, there arises a ray of hope that is doubly bright for the fact that it shines in such darkness.



Copyright (c) 2000 by Christine Hoff Kraemer









[1] Much of this background material was drawn from lectures given by Professor Susan Napier at the University of Texas at Austin in her undergraduate Asian Studies courses "Cinema of the Apocalypse" and "The World of Japanese Animation," offered respectively in the Spring and Fall 2000 semesters.

[2] I use the word "narrative" in J. Hillis Miller's sense here for the sake of convenience; he defines the basic elements of narrative as "an initial situation, a sequence leading to a change or reversal of that situation, and a revelation made possible by the reversal of situation." Though "Bomb" consists entirely of a single narrator addressing an unseen other, it does fit Miller's definition of narrative. Miller, J. Hillis. "Narrative." Critical Terms for Literary Study. Ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995) 75.

[3] Ibid, 69.

[4] Evangelion hails from Japan, where animation and comics have come to be considered respectable art forms. This development, however, has taken place in perhaps only the past 15 years with the release and favorable critical reception of more and more sophisticated animated works, Akira being one major milestone in this category.

[5] This is not to say that Veidt is not also a part of the collective consciousness. The echoes of Veidt's apocalypse in the recurring image of the smiley button/doomsday clock suggest that strictly separating Veidt's individual will and consciousness from that of humanity would be setting up a false dichotomy. Veidt is significant, however, in that he is consciously aware of patterns that remain subconscious in humanity as a whole.