An interview with Peter Trachtenberg- while there’s still time…

An excerpt from the end of  Peter Trachtenberg’s essay “The Finish of All Things: Writing About the End of the World,” appearing in the upcoming Puerto del Sol 47.2:

It’s understandable why the apocalypse is so appealing to many American Christians. Having purged their religion of its elements of “social activism”—of a Jesus who healed the sick and fed the hungry and told people who wanted to follow him they had to give their money to the poor—they badly need some article of faith, and maybe that article is that Jesus will come back and kick some major ass, after reeling the good people up to heaven where they can watch safely from the sky boxes. For the rest of us, and especially those of us who are writers, the apocalypse is irresistible because it can lift a veil on what it means to be human in a world that humans have trampled and degraded. The word “apocalypse” comes from the Greek apokalypsis, the lifting of a veil. The angel who appeared to John on Patmos told him, “Write what you see in a book.” And he obeyed.

Peter Trachtenberg, a professor in the creative writing program at the University of Pittsburgh, is the author of several memoirs, essays, and novels, including The Book of Calamities: 5 Questions About Suffering and its Meaning. In this work, Trachtenberg discusses the ways Americans view suffering- their fear of it, appreciation for it, and sometimes detachment from it. In the upcoming issue of Puerto del Sol, Trachtenberg analyzes suffering again in “The Finish of All Things: Writing About the End of the World,” though this time through literature of the apocalypse, and the strange Christian fascination with how it will all go down. He took some time here to answer five of my own questions about his personal fascination with this upbeat and uplifting topic and what we can learn by studying it.

-What did you learn during the research and composition of The Book of Calamities: Five Questions About Suffering and Its Meaning that influenced your insights to literature of the apocalypse?

Of course I learned a great deal while researching Calamities, since I had little background in any of the subjects I was exploring, e.g. modern Rwandan history and genocide law, the FAA’s estimate of the value of the life of a hypothetical airline passenger, the NYPD’s method for disposing of the ashes of the casualties of 9-11, early Christian martyrdom narratives and the Buddhist text (you could call it a self-help book) the Bodhicharyavattara. More broadly, I learned that people fear suffering, fear being touched by it and probably, on the most primitive level, contaminated by it. This fear seems particularly pronounced among contemporary Americans, who have evolved entire religious and political ideologies whose central theme is that the unfortunate have brought their suffering on themselves and therefore are beyond the concern of the rest of us. Like the old cowboy song puts it, “It’s your misfortune and none of my own.”

I also learned that all my initial ideas about suffering– all the assumptions under which I began the book– were wrong: deeply, shockingly, maybe inexcusably.

-Do you think the American view of suffering has anything to do with our strange interest in the Apocalypse? What factors do you think have contributed to our culture’s recent fixation with this topic? Be it a revelation of the Mayan calendar, a zombie outbreak, or natural disaster, it seems these themes have become common in books, cinema, television, etc. — Is this a fad? Are events current to our place in time dictating this, or will this continue to be part of our social consciousness?

It’s interesting to me that the group of Americans most preoccupied with Revelation and its spectacular mass bloodshed are largely indifferent to the actual, visible suffering of many of their countrymen. I’m speaking of fundamentalist Christians, though, really, the ones I’m talking about strike me as less Christian than Yahwist, their Jesus having almost nothing in common with the one in the Gospels and a lot in common with the big, pissed-off God of Exodus and Deuteronomy. These are the folks who characterized AIDS as divine judgment on homosexuals and blamed 9-11 and Katrina on the libertinism of New York and New Orleans. I think this demographic reads the Left Behind novels (which at the time I wrote Calamities had sold more than 40 million copies) less with fear than with excitement. A lot of its members expect to be Raptured, so what do they have to be afraid of? For them, the Apocalypse is a gigantic video game featuring the wholesale slaughter of unbelievers. That’s how it’s portrayed in the Left Behind novels. It’s wish-fulfillment. And I imagine a lot of this reflects the profound distaste many traditionally religious people feel for secular modernity, and their profound anxiety that in the struggle between religious and secular world views, the secular one has prevailed. Me, I’m not so sure it has. But confronted with a world where gays and lesbians are free to declare whom they love and– in some places– marry, where women have at least some measure of control of their sexual lives, and anyone with a high-speed Internet connection can watch hard-core porn at the breakfast table, I’m sure some fundamentalist feel that world would be better off destroyed. Which isn’t that far from what jihadist Muslims feel.

To be truthful, the new world isn’t that comforting to secularists, either, or not to traditional ones like myself. I mean, I’m not sure I’m crazy about free 24-7 porn on the home computer either. Plus, if you have the remotest environmental awareness, you can’t help seeing that the world we knew– I mean, the physical world, with great polar ice caps and demarcated torrid and temperate zones and species like the polar bear and the African elephant and ten thousand different kinds of beetle– is being destroyed at this moment. We’re living in the Apocalypse. That apocalypse is closer to the one in 2012 than the one in Revelation. (I imagine Mel Gibson using some of its sf/x in his sequel to The Passion; the poster has an enormous, bloodthirsty Jesus looming over the Four Horsemen and the Whore of Babylon with a sword in his hand and a scowl on his face, and the tag line, “He’s back. And this time he’s playing for keeps.”) God plays no part in it. Nobody is destroying the world but us.

-In this essay, you distinguish between Biblical visions of the apocalypse and “lay” interpretations. Are world religious texts, especially the Christian Bible, not examples of apocalyptic literature in and of themselves? Is it possible to fully separate scripture from this topic?

I wouldn’t necessarily dispute you, but I would point out that predictions of the end times occupy a very small portion of the Christian Bible and even less of the Jewish one. A lot of religious historians believe that the chiliastic strand of Christianity is essentially a Persian import, adopted from Zoroastrianism. To me, the chief difference between a religious text and a secular one is that a religious text is meant to be believed. Plenty of people believe in the literal truth of the Bible. I don’t imagine you can find too many who believe in The Decameron or Ridley Walker.

-The nature of humans lies at the heart of all literature, and many writers attempt to illuminate or reveal the ways we manage suffering and loss. As you point out in the conclusion of your essay, the Greek word apokalypsis means “the lifting of a veil.” Does the end of days naturally lend itself to good literature? How might a writer avoid the pitfalls of cliché when covering this topic?

The end times may have inspired good literature, but they also inspired the Left Behind books, which may be the most inept and cack-handed popular entertainments I’ve ever come across. But an apocalypse unveils more than God’s will for the world; it unveils human nature. It shows what we are like when our familiar, sheltering order collapses. Do we raven our way across the wasteland, eating everything and everybody in our path? Do we try to recreate some broken semblance of our old lives, working the soil, playing music, reading books we no longer understand? Do we work? Do we care for our children and our old people? Do we fall in love? Are we the animal that does those things even when the sky rains blood and the stars fall from heaven? And I’d say this attention to human nature, this curiosity about what it encompasses, is what makes the best apocalyptic novels as good as they are.

-Do you have any other projects on this topic currently in the works?

I’m writing a novel about the business failures and late-life bankruptcy of Ulysses S. Grant. Before he became the supreme commander of the Union armies, he failed at almost everything he undertook, running businesses into the ground, getting fleeced by his partners. And at the end of his life, after winning the Civil War and serving two terms as president, he was driven to the brink of bankruptcy by his crooked business partner, Ferdinand Ward, “the young Napoleon of Wall Street.” It was this reversal that drove him to write what may be the definitive American memoir. He finished the book a day before he died. The first royalty check—paid to Grant’s widow by the publisher, Mark Twain—was equivalent to $4.8 million in today’s money. I suppose you could say that the novel is about a man who survived an apocalypse– I mean the Civil War– and then was brought down in the pettiest and most ignominious way, and who then went on to forge a different kind of heroism.

Peter’s essay, and the work of other great writers, is available in Puerto del Sol 47.2. Orders available now!

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