Armageddon Now or “The Last Man”

Lone bather at Scolt Head Island, Norfolk, October 2022. Photo: Harriet Festing.

A barrier island in rural Norfolk

Scolt Head Island National Nature Reserve is an excellent place to contemplate Armageddon. The reserve is a two and a half mile long, half mile wide barrier island protecting part of the north Norfolk coast of England, including the towns of Burnham-Overy-Staithe and Burnham Norton. The cathedral city of Norwich is an hour’s drive southeast, and Peterborough, another cathedral city, is 90 minutes southwest. Because it’s not on a trainline, and London is a three-and-a-half-hour drive away, the area isn’t overrun by visitors. The exception is summer weekends, when the unspeakables from the City occupy the unaffordables in the Burnhams; Houses there can sell for $5 million, and in-season cottages rent for $5,000 per week.

But even then, the island is mostly empty. It takes an hour to walk to Scolt Head from Burnham-Overy-Staithe, and you can only do it when the tide is low enough to wade across Norton Creek. Fording the thigh-deep channel in Autumn is bracing but the yellow-green dunes beckon. Seen up close, they are a multitude of grasses and flowering plants, some with late season blossoms: sea pink and yellow rattle, sea lavender and harebells, sea aster and purslane. Beyond is the North Sea and beyond that – the map says — is Norway, about 600 miles away.

I went there to clear my head of war and politics and the climate crisis, but the very isolation reminded me of “The Last Man” scenarios in apocalyptic fiction and film. Why is it that popular eschatology inclines toward private anguish rather than mass pandemonium? Has our capacity to imagine the collective been so diminished that we can only conceive of Hell as populated by lonely and heavily sweating stragglers? It turns out, the end of the world is a lonely affair.

On the Beach (1959)

Stanley Kramer’s film, On the Beach, concerns the anguish of a group of American and Australian naval officers in Melbourne, following a nuclear war. The blast and radiation have killed everyone in the northern hemisphere, and a radioactive cloud is now drifting south. When it arrives, everyone else will die. What suspense there is in the movie is generated by the discovery of a mysterious radio signal sent from a station in San Diego. Are there survivors after all? A submarine, commanded by Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck) is dispatched to investigate, but when it arrives, a shore party discovers that the signal was only the result of the wind intermittently pulling a window shade that caused an entangled coke bottle to tap-tap-tap on a metal plate. All hope lost, everyone in Australia readies themselves for the end.

The film’s title – and that of the Nevil Shute novel upon which it is based — is not derived from its most memorable beach scene: Dwight (Peck) and Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner) engaging in horseplay on the sand, which ends when the former smacks the latter on the bum with a canoe paddle. (She appears to enjoy it.) Instead, it’s drawn from a line in T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Hollow Men:”

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river.

Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck, On the Beach, dir. Stanley Kramer, 1959.

At 2 hrs. 15 minutes, Kramer’s film was tumid enough. But there wasn’t much effort to “avoid speech.” Pretty much all the characters do is talk – slowly and at length. When I first saw the film, decades ago in a Manhattan revival house, I remember longing for a nuclear blast to relieve my boredom. But aging enhances patience (even as one has less time) and during a recent viewing, I found most of the talk quite affecting. Dwight’s inability to accept the deaths from radiation of his wife and two children in Connecticut was entirely believable. And while his refusal of Moira’s seduction is implausible – they have just months to live, and this is Ava Gardner! – we know he will succumb in the end.

The other subplots are less compelling. The romance between Lieutenant Commander Peter Holmes (Tony Perkins) and Mary (Donna Anderson) feels strained, but that may be because viewers today know that Perkins was gay and so anguished about it that he undertook a damaging course of conversion therapy. Fred Astaire, who plays a sleepy-eyed Navy physicist and amateur race-car driver named Julian Osborne, was badly miscast. He drags himself from scene to scene and looks ridiculous in race car goggles. To amuse myself during his scenes, I imagined him and Ginger Rogers performing “Let’s face the Music and Dance,” from the Irving Berlin musical, Follow the Fleet (1936).

The most powerful shots in the film turn out to be the ones with nobody in them: San Francisco and San Diego viewed from a periscope. We see the empty Golden Gate Bridge, myriad parked cars on steep city streets, stilled cable cars, harbors devoid of bustle. The final scenes in Melbourne are equally lonely: Julian seals his garage door, climbs into his race car, and revs the engine; Peter and Mary prepare to take the fatal pills distributed for free by the Australian government. (Increased privatization of health services in Australia give that scene a nostalgic feel); Dwight’s submarine disappears beneath the waves; Moira stands alone on the quay waving goodbye to Dwight. The film ends, like Elliot’s poem, “not with a bang but a whimper.”

The better the worser

The other day, I let loose on poor Harriet:

“I just don’t see how we are gonna get out of this,” I said, pulling my hair.

“What do you mean, luv?

“The better the Ukrainians do, the worser. The more they humiliate the Russians, the more likely Putin will use a tactical (or other) nuclear weapon. And as Biden says, that offers the ‘prospect of Armageddon.’”

“Do you mean you want Russia to do better and Ukraine to fare worse?”

“No, not exactly, but maybe, sort of?” I was silently begging forgiveness for my heresy.

“My poor thing. Are you very upset?” Harriet asked, lowering the corners of her mouth with sympathy.

“No, yes, no, I mean… if Ukraine did a little less well, they would have greater incentive to negotiate and finally end this thing. They seem to be the ones holding up a settlement, not Russia.”

“How do you know that?”

“I don’t know, but there are clues. For example, Russia’s positive response to Elon Musk’s proposal that Ukraine grant Russia control over the Crimea (which it already has) and conduct internationally supervised elections in the Donbas and other disputed regions. Medvedev and the other hardliners cheered the proposed deal. The U.S. media dismissed it as a sellout, but it would restore borders to where they were before the invasion and allow the disputed regions to decide their own fates. What’s wrong with that? And there are lots of other possible deals to be made involving land for peace, peace for security, NATO rollback for Russian rollback, and more. It’s not very complicated. So, what are we waiting for?”

“You’re asking me?”

“No, sorry – a rhetorical question.” Then I mentioned something else that was bugging me:

“This whole nuclear blackmail thing: OK, so Putin is holding a gun to our heads by threatening nuclear war. Not a nice thing to do, though the U.S. has done it dozens of times. But if somebody threatens you with a gun, it’s no use pretending it isn’t loaded or that the criminal won’t use it. Even if you have your own loaded pistol in your pocket. you are better off talking him down than pulling it out and getting you both killed.”

“That doesn’t sound like you, honey. You’d def pull out your gun.”

“Maybe, but not if the shootout would also kill you and everybody else on the planet – innocent children and animals included. We need back-channel negotiations now! We need to find Putin an off-ramp, a climb-down, a fire escape, a back door, a worm hole – anything!”

“Shall I put in a call to the White House? Do you have the number.”

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

This British classic concerns the efforts of a group of hard-boiled newspapermen to discover the cause of some strange recent weather phenomenon, principally excessive heat. After an opening sequence showing a lone figure struggling through deserted London – the scenes are matte painted yellow to suggest burning heat — the narrative proceeds in flashback. We meet the lonely figure, a dipsomaniac reporter for a Fleet Street tabloid named Peter Sterling (played by Edward Judd). He meets a beautiful typist and phone operator, Jeannie Craig (Janet Munro) who works for the state science ministry where the meteorological phenomena are being studied. Though he quickly falls in love with her, he uses her to obtain access to secret, ministry discussions.

At the same time, Peter’s friend, science correspondent Bill Maguire (played by the great Leo McKern) stumbles upon the cause of the weather disturbances: changes in the planet’s nutation or axial tilt, caused by recent, simultaneous nuclear weapons tests by the U.S. and U.S.S.R. In fact, the shift changed the orbit of the earth around the sun, and every day, the planet edges closer and closer to the inferno. Soon, it will be consumed.

Film still, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, Val Guest, director, British Lion Films, 1961.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire was released in November 1961, just as the influence of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) had begun to wane. Newsreel footage of their protests is included in the film. Established in 1958 by a distinguished group of progressive politicians and intellectuals including Michael Foot and Bertrand Russell, the CND was a mass movement dedicated to eliminating the UK’s nuclear arsenal, as well as global de-nuclearization. In 1960, they succeeded in persuading the Labor Party to endorse unilateral disarmament. But the following year, a right-wing rump of the party successfully organized to overturn the ban. Since that time, unilateral nuclear disarmament — while still a goal of the British left – has never really been on the political agenda. Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition to Britain’s Trident nuclear missile program earned him the enmity of the Parliamentary Labor Party and helped secure his electoral defeat.

At the end of the film, government scientists decide to set off another set of nuclear bombs in western Siberia in the hope of jolting the planet back into its proper rotational axis. The last scenes are of the protagonists gathered in a pub listening to the countdown to the blasts; and then a shot of a deserted newsroom with two possible front pages, “World Saved” and “World Doomed.” There are no protests – it’s too late for that – but also no crowds, and no solidarity. Even in teeming London, death or salvation will be met alone.

The Last Man (1826)

Harriet and I are back in the U.S. now in a very different ecology. Our section of north-central Florida – 60 miles from each coast — is a mix of prairie upland, hardwood hammock, sand hills and wetlands. The town of Micanopy is fortunately surrounded by nature reserves, so we can easily experience this ecological complexity; we’ve even tried to recreate some of it in our garden. This time of year, our sandy soil supports love grass, wire grass, blue stem, swamp sunflowers, tickseed, goldenrod, blazing star, blue mist, and coneflowers, in addition to the oaks, palms, saw palmettos, and magnolias. The place is for us a solace and a refuge. But like Scolt Head, it sometimes invites reflection upon “The Last Man,” which happens to be the title of Mary Shelley’s work of apocalyptic fiction, set in the 21st century.

Morning in a Florida native garden, Micanopy, October 2022. Photo: The author.

In Shelley’s novel, a plague kills nearly everyone on earth except Lionel Verney, the author’s alter-ego, and several companions. For a few years, they find refuge in Switzerland before themselves dying from disease or mishap. Only Lionel lives on; he soon leaves Switzerland to wander across Asia and Africa in search of other survivors:

I form no expectation of alteration for the better; but the monotonous present is intolerable to me. Neither hope nor joy are my pilots—restless despair and fierce desire of change lead me on…. Thus, around the shores of deserted earth, while the sun is high, and the moon waxes or wanes, angels, the spirits of the dead, and the ever-open eye of the Supreme, will behold the tiny bark, freighted with Verney—the LAST MAN.

Shelley’s novel belongs among a large group of Romantic works that explore similar themes, including Lord Byron’s poem “Darkness,” Thomas Campbell’s poem “The Last Man” (1825) and John Martin and J.M.W. Turner’s paintings inspired by Campbell. Broadly speaking, they are expressive of the political despair following the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars: Collective action is doomed to failure, and yet individual heroism is futile.

Here in Micanopy, Florida, I’m not “the last man,” though with a population of just 658, I’m not so far from it. But it’s easy here, to believe these are end-times. This is where Harriet and I hid from the pandemic, and where we feel secreted from war-news, election fears and a creeping American fascism. It’s also HQ for our environmental justice organization, Anthropocene Alliance, a name with more than a whiff of eschaton. And it’s my lookout upon American political paralysis.

Only rarely has American capitalist democracy fostered collectivist movements for national or global renewal: the dozen years of Reconstruction following the Civil War; the mass mobilization in response to European Nazism and Japanese imperialism; the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, and the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements — however short lived and ineffectual. But now, when the survival of human civilization itself is at stake, we are frozen in place. A mass, national and global movement against nuclear war – a re-newed and expanded CND — could plausibly move even Putin to sheath his weapons of mass destruction. It could also prod Zelensky, Biden and Putin to move to the negotiating table. A similarly global rising – deploying walkouts, mass strikes and protests — could force the end of fossil capital. Where are the organizers, politicians, celebrities, clergy, academics, intellectuals, journalists, and artists that will lead us? What will stir the passions of solidarity and spur collective action? Resisting the solipsistic enticement of “The Last Man,” Percy Shelley, husband of Mary, wrote about the Peterloo uprising in “The Masque of Anarchy” (1819):

Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number —
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you —
Ye are many—they are few.

Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of Gauguin’s Skirt (Thames and Hudson, 1997), The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) and other books. He is also co-founder of the environmental justice non-profit,  Anthropocene Alliance. He and the artist Sue Coe have just published American Fascism, Still for Rotland Press.