Animals and apocalypse, part one

This post reflects on a few recentish post-apocalyptic films, but in particular on the role of animals therein…

As a great, great many people have noted, apocalyptic imagery, narrative and revelry are circulating with a certain dull, frenetic energy: it’s hard to get away from zombies (figuratively anyway), zoonoses, or environmental collapse. Apocalypse is a rejoinder to the pervasive risk management of late modernity, in which the future becomes something mouldable through action in the present: all this management won’t do any good, apocalypse implies; accounting and governance are not sufficient to avert disaster, nor are they the proper response. As the old man in The Road, Ely, puts it:

“Even if you knew what to do, you wouldn’t know what to do”.

Of late, it’s the post-apocalyptic that is in the ascendency. In such fictions the world doesn’t end with either a bang or a whimper, but continues interminably on, in slow entropic decay. Post-apocalypse abandons traditional narrative form – no story, no prospect of a conclusion, instead we have a fascination with being on the verge of an end that never comes.  This is a vision which offers no ‘cosy’ after-fall gathering but instead a slow, uncomfortable, and above all gloomy future.

If the light of modernity was about highlighting our own animality that we might better manage it, in order to become political beings, that light was acquired from the sun. Since the sun bequeathed us oil, and in turn fossil fuels made possible the Anthropocene and carbon humanity, then the sun must also, to follow Timothy Mitchell, set its limits. That is to say, the anthropos of the Anthropocene is not a self-sufficient subject – it has been made out of a willing together of flows of geology, biology, materials and energy

Thus the absence of the sun in The Road (which while a bit old now [2009] was such an instant classic that it is still impossible to ignore), brings the dark animality of North American humans into the light. Thrust from deadening routine and habit, from their pre-fall introspective bubbles of egotism and meek supplicancy to capital, post-apocalyptic life on the road forces its characters (and us) to affirm what they want to live for – to affirm their (and our) desire for something positive. Not to be cannibals. The Road’s moral lines are starkly drawn: do they eat babies? This question becomes the basis for a new ethics for the Child in a world with no justice, no accounting or law, just interminable survival. Throughout The Road, the Man looks back to his past, a past the Boy cannot share – the Boy’s burden, meanwhile, is the future, carrying forward the ‘fire’. Thus what lurks on the far side of apocalypse is our own animality, let loose from a political subject constituted by geological networks of fossil fuels. There is a new project of on-going enlightenment (small E) in which the challenge is not just to survive, but to surpass that which we were before.

The Road - bug

But while the film version of The Road is largely faithful to Cormac McCarthy’s novel, there is one striking addition: a bug. The bug of course embodies that weird combination of fear, instrumentalism, disgust and fascination, but above all radical alterity, so wonderfully traced by Hugh Raffles. The Boy discovers a beetle in a metal container, which flies heavenwards into dark cloud. On one hand, this could be seen as an attempt to recoup some possibility for redemption – that not all animals did die, and that other beings, too, struggle towards a precarious future. Life continuing is a supposed consolation against pain and loss of certain beings. But the bug does not show that nature has survived the Fall after all, for it too will surely die. Instead, it heightens the feeling of loss, showing how we recognise, belatedly, that the absence of non-human others limits our own possibilities of becoming with. But at least its final flight takes the film beyond an anthropocentric tragedy – we are robbed of allies for world-making loops, denied the ways of being human-in-connection, through companion species of all kinds, be they commoditised forms of life, domestic critters, or ingested food. This reading of the Road still leaves us, however, in a landscape where the line is drawn too simply, with non-humans as victims.

In other films animals are behaving more oddly, and more interestingly.

In The Life of Pi (which is not properly apocalyptic because we assured of a happy outcome by the Hollywood flashback) Pi is trapped on a lifeboat with a (CGI) tiger, with seemingly no possibility of co-existing peaceably. Life of PiHowever, a moment of connection is made, but not until the boat’s life-sustaining processes have been exhausted and the pair face imminent death – it is only then the tiger rests its head on Pi’s lap. After the pair are miraculously saved, however, the tiger just wanders off into the jungle without looking back, without saying goodbye, rejecting any chance of friendship or shared kinship. Similarly, in Melancholia, Kirsten Dunst’s horse seems to refuse to carry on when they come to a bridge – it seems to be the first creature in the film to realise that the planet is going to hit the earth after all (as suggested by Bruno Latour in his Gifford Lectures).

A horse is also a key character in Hungarian director Bela Tarr’s 146-minute epic The Turin Horse – a gruelling film shorn of the sentimentalism of The Road and which replaces McCarthy’s natural theology (typical of American apocalypse and largely absent in this and other genres of apocalypse – these will be the subject of post no.2!) with a bleaker cosmic un-making.

The Turin horse - horse

The Turin Horse describes six days on a wind-swept, dusty farmstead. After the first opening scene, a mesmeric close-up of the journey home from the village, which seems to stress how family and horse are bound together in suffering to a blasted scrap of land, the horse is packed away in his damp stable. The old farmer and his daughter begin their daily routines: they stare out the same windows, eat the same meal (one boiled potato) each day. On day two however, despite being whipped, the horse refuses to move. On day three a neighbour warns them of the encroaching final darkness, and on the fourth day the horse refuses to eat or drink, or to respond to the woman’s entreaties, and then the well runs dry. The farmer and daughter try to escape. They load up their possessions on their cart and disappear over the horizon, the daughter pulling the cart, the horse following meekly. But they are forced to return, even more desperate and exhausted than before. The horse is shut away again, and does not reappear. On the sixth day, the wind and storm has ended, but a great darkness has descended; their lamp can be lit, but only for a short while before it gutters and dies. The film’s closing shots are of the man desperately clawing at a raw potato; although we don’t see the final breath, the end is inevitable.

The Turin Horse - the horse

On one level Tarr’s film is an all-too human Nietzshcean vision in which the farmer and daughter fail to break out of their lives and drown in repetition, even as the cosmos slowly slides back to its dark origins: “What is all this?”, the woman asks, “I don’t know, let’s go to bed,” the man replies. By the time they realise what they have to do they cannot leave – change comes too late. But attending to the horse takes us further. The farm’s residents are a companion species knot bound together on a journey into darkness. The horse, their more-than-human ally in farming and with whom they inherit a shared history stretching back to the Eurasian steppe, although it shares unequally with humans in the suffering of a hard life, seems to want to go it alone. But it is far from the dumb beast of burden who can only accede to demands, as described by Nietzsche. Instead, the horse becomes more than that, it betrays the man and daughter and embraces the inevitability of decline and death. Crucially, it is when the horse refuses to eat that any possibility of escape is extinguished. The final terror here is not any historical calamity; the final terror is that that ‘we’ are deserted by our non-human allies.

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