This month marks my forty-eighth essay for the post calvin. That’s four years of posts and a whole lot of ground covered. But while those four years have found me (ab)using the post’s standing invitation to write about whatever strikes my fancy—which fancy, apparently, has thoughts on everything from organized labor, to VeggieTales, to 1930s Jell-O recipes—there’s one topic I’ve never directly discussed: my research.
There is, of course, a very good reason for my silence. In short, I don’t like talking about my research. Although my tenure as a post calvin writer overlaps almost exactly with my tenure as a prof-in-making, I find it uncomfortable and often unrewarding to bungle my way through my weird intellectual hang-ups in front of a bunch of people I don’t know. But my wife says it’s good to challenge yourself to do things you don’t like. And, besides, the prospect of my getting actual tenure is, statistically, pretty much zilch, so the time left for me to ramble about my interests in a professional capacity is rapidly winding to a close. So today, for your reading pleasure, I’m going to explain what I’m studying, and why.
My research focuses on apocalypse and, more generally, the idea of “the end” in US fiction and poetry after World War I. This focus suits the period. Although end-times fantasies have enjoyed a robust history in American intellectual life—from the thundering jeremiads of the Puritans onward, basically—sources of apocalyptic anxiety multiplied during the last hundred years. With the advent of nuclear technology especially, folks began to realize that we sinners no longer needed an angry God to shuffle us offstage. We can handle it well enough on our own. And so my research traces the many ways that American storytellers and poets have imagined the end—that final vaudevillian shepherd’s crook reaching for us from behind the curtains. How, I’ve been asking myself, have visions of the end transformed across time? How does John Steinbeck’s vision of rising floodwaters at the end of The Grapes of Wrath compare with, say, H. P. Lovecraft’s xenophobic hand-wringing about the extinction of white people in “The Horror at Red Hook”? Alternatively, how has apocalyptic thought developed as we’ve moved from mid-century fears of nuclear war to concerns about climate, or superintelligent AI, or whatever touched off the zombie craze of the 2000s?
Naturally, half the fun in chasing answers to these questions comes from the scraps of trivia you pick up along the way—and then get to spring, without warning, on unsuspecting friends and family. And, certainly, I’ve socked away some good ones. (Did you know that in 1958, an Air Force bomber accidentally opened its bomb bay and dropped a nuke—thankfully, sans fissile core—on Mars Bluff, South Carolina? Or that in 1961, the Air Force almost did one better when a B-52 broke apart in midair and released two partially armed thermonuclear bombs just outside Goldsboro, North Carolina?) But as interesting and disturbing as it is to learn, for instance, that the US Senate consulted Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton as an expert on global warming, more interesting and more disturbing, I think, is our attraction to apocalyptic thinking in the first place.
In fact, I’d go as far as to argue that we crave fictions of the end. And by “fictions of the end,” I don’t mean apocalyptic and postapocalyptic genres specifically. Rather, I think there’s something deeply reassuring about the prospect of an end. After all, apocalypses promise clarity. They don’t linger ambiguously. They aren’t wishy-washy. Sure, it might not be a good end, but even in the case of a bad one, at least we know where we stand. For this reason, the appeal of a story like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road owes not to its vision of burned-out, cannibal-ridden United States, but to the fact that its narrative rather neatly allows us to separate the “bad guys” from the “good guys.” The goats from the sheep.
The damned from the elect.
At this point, the clarity of apocalypse, which literally means “unveiling,” starts to get dicey. Because if you believe that humans are ultimately parsable into good bodies and bad, and if you’re also pretty confident of where your body belongs, then two things are likely true. First, you probably won’t have much patience with moral complexity, with things like mitigating circumstances and ethical gray areas. In a world of goats and sheep waiting to be revealed, there’s simply no room for a bunch of weirdo, hybridized “geep.” And, second, if the arc of history eventually exposes the goats for goats and the sheep for sheep, then all actions taken on behalf of the sheep, to shield the sheep and protect the sheep, automatically justify themselves.
If you know who the sheep are, I suppose that’s how we get a nation that can rationalize preemptive war, or that can argue with a straight face that locking kids up in “immigration detention centers” helps prevent a national crisis.
I suppose that’s also how we get a Christianity that can shrug its shoulders at the widow, the fatherless, the foreigner, and the poor while bending the knee to big business and empire.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.