A Legacy of Annihiliation

May 23, 2009

Palahniuk takes an expansive approach to the culling song in his book Lullaby. For those who have not read the book, it features a bedtime poem, the recitation of which kills the listener. If word got out that this poem can kill, it would  create mass panic, leading to restrictions on sound and limits on anything that could carry this killer spell. Things would get very quiet.

That puts him within the thematic legacy of annihilation. Gilgamesh and Noah are part of that tradition – one could say they are its progenitors, at least in the scope of Western Literature – while Kurt Vonnegut’s ice-nine in Cat’s Cradle is a 20th-century take on the classic end-of-the-world conceit. What would you expect of literature from a century of nuclear technology, catastrophic wars,¬† and environmental decline, when we perfect our ability to blow up the world?

For Palahniuk, the annihilation is numbing. Big Brother controls through noise, something that winnows its way into your head like the Ceti eels in Star Trek II, and there is no big explosion, no gore … people just drop. Sort of like the people who watched the movie An Echo of Wolves in my serial Martin Garvin. Except I had not yet reached such broad societal implications as Palahniuk.

So, from the first time time we’ve put writing implement to writing recipient, we have been trying to imagine and predict the cause of our annihilation. And we generally imagine it to be our fault. From the early days – when rampant sin prompted the powers in the sky to cleanse the earth – to now, when rampant consumption threatens to make the world uninhabitable. The Bible even warned us that the end of the world is coming (expedited by the flaws in our human natures).

This literary legacy of annihilation makes for an interesting companion to the Socratic tradition on the limits of our knowledge – or if you prefer Shakespeare – “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool” (As You Like It, Act V, Scene I). Truth is, we probably won’t see the killing blow until it is too late. Take, for example, the species disappearing from our planet today. Conservationists have fought for years against hunting and poaching, only to see species, even the most protected species (apes, tigers, cheetahs, rhinos), on the brink due to habitat loss and deforestation. The end is not as dramatic as once envisioned, it is much more gradual, a cancer that is slower, more internal, but just as ugly and arguably more difficult to avert. And one we did not see until, in many cases, we were past the tipping point. Seriously, did anyone expect a bedtime poem to cause the end of the world?

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