Apocalypse: An Epic Poem
by Frederick Turner.
The Ilium Press, 2016.
Hardcover, 352 pages, $25.
Whereas The University Bookman often confines itself to reviews of scholarly books, that is to say, of nonfiction, the present review-essay, although it addresses several works of nonfiction, takes both as its occasion and its focus the appearance in print of a piquant literary anomaly that belongs outstandingly to the realm of fiction, and in a genre, moreover, that most modern readers would consider archaic or obsolete. Frederick Turner’s Apocalypse: An Epic Poem is nothing less than its author’s third epic poem, his most ambitious yet, and a work directly, powerfully relevant to the contemporary condition. This new epic’s precursors, The New World and Genesis: An Epic Poem of the Terraforming of Mars, appeared in 1985 and 1988 respectively; they and it find complementation in Turner’s novel, A Double Shadow, which, despite having been published nine years before Genesis, presupposes the events of that work.
Turner (born 1943), apart from his activities as modern-day epicist, novelist, lyric poet, and translator, has also authored important items of literary and cultural criticism that differentiate themselves strongly from the prevailing discourses of the so-called deconstructive or postmodern dispensation, whose ethical and epistemological weaknesses Turner has never hesitated to call out. A consideration of Apocalypse justifies itself because, in the case of Turner’s authorship, the fiction and the nonfiction blend seamlessly,and complement one another. The whole that they constitute shows itself impressively informed by a remarkable range of disciplines from classical scholarship to anthropology and including history, philosophy, political science, sociology, and much else besides. Turner’s nonfiction can, itself, be highly literary, as in the instance of In the Land of Temple Caves (2002), a study of prehistoric cave-art; while the fictional works advance theses of social and cultural criticism. Indeed, In the Land of Temple Caves reconstructs the implicit heroic narrative of the famous subterranean frescoes and Apocalypse recreates a similar narrative, complete with its natural theological implications, in a plausible futuristic setting.
Turner’s three epic poems and his novel belong, in part, to the science-fiction genre, and particularly to the high-literate phase of science fiction, as instantiated by the works of H. G. Wells; Olaf Stapledon; C. S. Lewis; Stanislaw Lem; the brothers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky; and, although he seems to belong to the low end of the category, of Edgar Rice Burroughs, a true modern prose epicist in his own right. Turner has favored science fiction because he sees it as reconstituting a combined cosmic and spiritual view of life in an age that, in scorning just such a view—in scorning philosophy even—has driven itself into a state of obliviousness concerning the cosmos and of bereftness concerning spirituality. One writes “in part” because, as much as these works employ the paraphernalia of science fiction, and as much as three out of the four take as their stage a fully navigable solar system and beyond, they incorporate the conventions not only of the original epics—Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey—but of medieval romance, of the Arthurian quest, as well.
Turner values epic, beyond the genre’s grand compositional challenge, as embodying in story-form the fundamental knowledge of the worldly reality—and of the human portion of that reality—that people need to know in order that they might survive and bequeath to their descendants a meaningful inheritance. In his study of the genre, Epic: Form, Content, and History (2012), Turner writes that “Epics until now have been largely rooted in the idiom and culture of their composition, though their subject is, as I will argue, the emergence of the human race itself.” In the same book Turner explains the massive consistency of epic—the recurrence worldwide of certain epic “memes”—by invoking narrative “super-attractors” that by recourse to the legendary past guide humanity towards its future of “transformative tenure in the universe.”
Where Turner’s Genesis took its title from the first book of the Old Testament, his Apocalypse borrows its name from the last book of the New Testament. As Turner notes, epic narrative tends to begin in medias res, without much in the way of explanation. Apocalypse, Book I, “The Flood,” precipitates its reader with a minimum of preamble in “Amsterdam’s once-famous Rijksmuseum” on the night of a great North Sea storm in November 2067. The narrator recalls events, in many of which he has been personally, even intimately, involved from the vantage of fifty-one years later in 2118. He knows of that November night because a survivor, Anneliese Grotius, has told him of her experience. The Rijksmuseum is, for the narrator, “once famous” because it was once there, but no longer is, nor the lovely city of canals that it graced.
Turner masterfully enriches his scene through the emplacement of carefully chosen symbolic details and by subtle allusion to the full cosmos of literary and artistic references. Apocalypse as a whole adorns itself with an epigraph from Herman Melville: “The future is the Bible of the free.” In “The Flood,” Turner lets on that, absorbed in her work as “senior curator” and as “theorist of the commons and intellectual property,” Grotius has set playing as a musical background Simeon Ten Holt’s Canto Ostinato. Ten Holt, a Dutchman only recently deceased (2012), is a real composer, and the Canto Ostinato for keyboard ensemble is a real work, composed in 1976, which musical critics increasingly regard as a classic. Turner obviously regards it as significant, too, perhaps because although it pioneers many of the gestures of the so-called Minimalism, it operates on a maximal, indeed on an epic, scale, running as long as three compelling hours in some performances.
Turner’s idea of consciousness and culture as collective and commemorative, and not least teleological, finds reflection in the compositional processes of Ten Holt’s score. The epic tradition is itself a type of canto ostinato that draws on a repertoire of basic, heroic gestures—refreshing and reconfiguring them with each new improvisation on them but never betraying them. Like the motifs of Ten Holt’s score, the basic, heroic gestures lead the bard toward the formation of his new or new-old tale. The epicist channels a tradition, of which at the same time he—or she—is the curator, a term with an agricultural origin having to do with care of the soil. When the dikes fail and the deluge begins to drown the city, Grotius risks her life to save a single item from the Rijksmuseum’s collection: Rembrandt’s Night Watch.
Apocalypse assumes the Global Warming hypothesis. It belongs to the major conflict in its story that the seas are rising, but Turner confronts his readers with an entirely plausible twist that will make the politically correct among them squirm: That the global establishment, by 2067 thoroughly ensconced and implacable, has prodigally invested itself in the shrinking availability of habitable and arable real-estate; the governing elites find in the crisis—and therefore in the misery of millions of others—both the means to enrich themselves and an ongoing opportunity to manipulate and control the masses.
“A crisis is a dreadful thing to waste,” thinks Turner’s central figure, Noah Blazo, to himself, and “the problem suits them fine, the perfect / Mix for taxes, martial law, and wars.” They are “the statist group,” of “Bureaucrats / And sheiks and warlords, kleptocrats and kings.” They are also “the New Rent Seekers, / Industrial environmentalists” who “spend the money from the carbon-taxes”; and “The socialists, of course,” who “welcome the crisis, / Last best contradiction of Capital.”
Blazo, a man of wealth, intelligence, and subtle foresight with a supreme talent for organization, has devised a magnificent plan on the largest scale for reversing climate change and then, not merely stabilizing, but optimizing the climate. Leave it to Turner to turn the essential tenet of the crisis-mongers on its ear, in a lyric poem, inserted in the narrative, whose operative lines are: “When carbon in the air is illth and filth, / Then carbon in the earth is health and wealth.” Blazo recruits a team, quietly. The team begins its work in secret, necessarily, but they cannot keep the secret for long—hence the titles of Books IV and V, “The Battle of Kerguelen” and “The Battle of Candlemas Island.”
The name Noah Blazo entails one obvious and two less-obvious connotations. Everyone knows who Noah was—the savior of humanity and most of the animal kingdom in the days of the biblical deluge—but whence Blazo? The surname stands one vowel away from blaze, which harbors two meanings at least for Turner. A blaze is a spiritual fire, a fierce drive, and a criterion of heroism. A blaze is also, as Turner explains in his study of epic, “the mark that the hunter or explorer cuts on a tree in order not to get lost in the forest and to enable him to find his way back.”
The son of anthropologist Victor Turner (1920–1983), Turner the younger understands the role of the blaze in archaic and tribal ritual, especially in the rites de passage by which the individual advances from a lower to a higher station in life. Often such rituals involve leaving the community to follow a trail marked out by precursors who have already graduated to the higher station, perhaps to bring back a token signifying the completion of the task. In this way, Turner writes, blaze is related to metaphor (literally, “the carrying beyond”) in that it draws the initiand along a path “from the world that we know to a realm that we do not know and enables us to find our way back.”
Every trail must, of course, have its original trail-blazer. Linguistically, these would be the innovators of language, the original coiners of words to describe things hitherto unknown, often by way of employing a familiar term metaphorically in a new way, as well as by pure novelty. “There is only one place to cut the blaze,” Turner writes; “and that is at the exact edge of the circle, just when the explorer crosses into terra incognita.”
In Apocalypse, events sweep the whole of humanity into terra incognita, with Blazo and his Round Table, so to speak, trying to lead to safety a confused humanity propagandized into passivity by the institutions, while at the same time trying to outmaneuver a self-righteous and heavily armed world alliance whose stale piety has blinded it to the very possibility of opening up new territories of freedom—and which indeed stands terrified of freedom. It comes to bellicose confrontation in two vividly described sea-battles that draw, through Turner’s immense reading, on the complex emotions experienced by the men who took part in the great naval battles of the twentieth century, most significantly the Battle of the Denmark Strait on 24 May 1941 with the subsequent sinking of the Bismarck by H.M.S. King George V and H.M.S. Rodney. The German memoirists of the Battle of the Denmark Strait report that their elation over the destruction of the Hood changed almost instantaneously into profound sorrow over the deaths of so many men who were simply sailors like themselves. The British memoirists of the revenge attest similarly their sense of tragedy in victory and their feeling of guilt when reports of enemy submarines in the area forced them to break off their attempted rescue of Bismarck’s survivors in the cold Atlantic waters.
Blazo’s makeshift navy, which has equipped itself with surprising new weapons designed to be as non-lethal, but as disarming, as possible, takes heavy losses, but by nimbleness and tactical audacity it defeats its opponents in the sequence of two contests in remote ocean regions. When one of Blazo’s commanders rashly inflicts unnecessary casualties on a ship of the world armada, Blazo immediately orders his fleet to take the risk of ceasing fire and showing itself in order to aid the stricken enemy. The display of mercy and courage wrests from the costly military advantage a priceless moral advantage, which blazes the way for resolution of conflict and peaceful completion of the climate project.
The defeat of a large conventional armed force by what seems materially a weaker force serves as metaphor for the defeat of something intangible but, for a long time, powerfully effective: an ideology of false, Pharisaical morality masquerading as rational politics and exploiting rather than addressing an encroaching disaster. In his Culture of Hope: A New Birth of the Classical Spirit (1994), Turner had undertaken a sweeping critique of the prevailing postmodernity, which despite its showing a few cracks, dominates the scene even more acutely today than twenty-five years ago.
In the opening chapter of The Culture of Hope, “The Failure of the Avant-Garde,” Turner systematically refutes the basic assumptions of leftist neoliberalism in politics, the arts, and education. Beauty is not subjective, as the liberal-modern mentality asserts; it is objective. Human nature is not “socially constructed”: it cannot therefore be reconstructed on a whim or for utopian purposes. The Left relentlessly attacks hierarchy, but, as Turner argues on solid evidence and with good logic, “the more complex and multileveled the hierarchy, the greater the opportunity for individuated behavior, free decision, and creative innovation.” Indeed, “rigid authoritarian structures usually emerge when a natural and evolving hierarchy is overthrown on ideological grounds.”
Again, while logic is not everything, as Turner sees it, yet the Left’s remorseless rejection of logic as “part of our oppressive Western patriarchal racist system” implies the sole efficacy of power in human affairs, with its concomitants in practice of “control of the press, coercion, liquidation, and reeducation camps.” These phenomena appear in the dystopian aspects of A New World and Genesis. They are again present in Apocalypse, but like the nonfiction study, the epic poem is hopeful.
Turner gives his readers, for example, the birth of a new type of life, an artificial disembodied intelligence that is nevertheless despite its novelty fully and beautifully human, as well as genuinely feminine. The Kalodendron emerges from the massive complexity of the familiar Internet, based in the next century on quantum computing technology that mimics neuronal activity. Kalodendron, however, as her name suggests, is tree-like and organic, as well as beautiful, rather than cybernetic. She springs to life in a moment of mass-death during the Battle of Candlemas Island when she “heard the shriek across the Net / Of those two hundred men burning in pain,” such that “Pity gave birth to love.” Fully and immediately self-conscious, “she named herself.”
The moniker Kalodendron, magnificently rich in connotations, suggests by allusion the Edenic Tree of Life as well as the fateful Tree of Knowledge of the biblical Genesis; the Yggdrasil or Great Yew of the Scandinavian Edda; the fractal geometries that fascinate Turner; and the intertwining helices of the DNA molecule. Kalodendron emerges Logos-like:
When she first spoke, it was as if the screen
Was a pure ray of green, blazing across
The whole laboratory, modulated
By visual music in pulse and hue
According to her speech and intonation.
These lines witness Turner’s mastery of motivic interweaving, for they recall Ten Holt’s Canto Ostinato (“pulse and time”), the metaphor of the blaze carried over into the character name, Blazo’s scheme to re-fecundate the deteriorating environment, and they celebrate the references in a birth occasioned by a death. Kalodendron’s radiant chlorophyll-greenness promises a cornucopia.
The emergence of Kalodendron correlates itself with an event of cosmological significance. With Kalodendron’s help, observers discover a massive neutron star, dubbed “Wormwood” from the baleful star in St. John’s Apocalypse, on a course that will take it through the solar system, resulting in the destruction of the now-healing earth. Religious upheavals occur, involving a pope who believes Kalodendron to be a demonic manifestation and who machinates wickedly and effectively to suppress her. A new pope, succeeding his Judas-like, self-condemning predecessor, delivers an inaugural sermon addressing the impending doom, to which Turner gives ample space in Book VIII, “The Oblomovs,” named after Ivan Goncharov’s novel about a man so morally lethargic that he cannot get out of bed in the morning. Such is the effect that knowledge of impending doom exercises over humanity.
Turner handles his theology as deftly as he handles his political critique or spins out his story. Like A New World and Genesis before it, Apocalypse, true to its title deals centrally with religion and religious experience. Unsurprisingly, Turner has devoted a book to religion, his Natural Religion (2006). Turner insists that no fundamental contradiction separates religion from science, especially in light of the latest findings of biology, physics, and cosmology. That conscious beings have an ancestral past is indubitable, and both religion and art celebrate and preserve that past, making it real and contemporary again with every ritual or performative enactment; but conscious beings also have a destiny in the future, which religion acknowledges in prophesy and art in visionary poetry.
If God were the Creator, Turner argues, he would be as much in front of humanity, drawing it towards its maturity by means of those strange attractors, as he is behind humanity, as it were, pushing from the rear along the emblazoned trail. Man and earth are the simultaneity of matter and spirit, of past and future, of the dead and the not-yet-born, in free collaboration with the natural world over which the Deity, who only persuades and never coerces, has granted him stewardship.
Turner’s Apocalypse avoids any cheap end-of-the-world cynicism, but it would be a shame to give away too much of the story. What would happen, for example, if the dead could be called forth to life again? Turner’s answer attains a degree of poignancy that the reader rarely encounters in contemporary literature.
Apocalypse and its two companion-epics stand, not exclusively in their own company, but in a gallery of twentieth- and now twenty-first-century epic. Turner’s trio of epics finds a significant precursor in the Swedish poet Harry Martinson’s Aniara (1957), a “Review of Mankind in Time and Space,” although Martinson’s Cold War pessimism is likely to strike an aficionado of Turner as a bit morally etiolated. Aniara nevertheless precedes Turner’s epics in belonging to the science-fiction genre, which its author implicitly valorizes in adopting its conventions.
Nikos Kazantzakis worked on his Odyssey, a Modern Sequel from 1924 until 1938, the year that saw its publication. The American poet William Carlos Williams was still adding new books to his Paterson at his death in 1963. Turner himself remains unconvinced by Williams’s effort on the technical grounds that Williams’s verse-structures fail to accord themselves with the task of epic narrative, but he acknowledges Williams’s ambition as legitimate. As the Icelandic sagas and the medieval Arthurian prose-romances testify, epic is not exclusively verse-embodied. The dense prose of Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930), with its New-Testament reference in the title, and Star Maker (1937) has exerted a formative influence on Apocalypse, as on Turner’s nonfiction. Turner’s New World and Genesis in their turn exerted a formative influence on Kim Stanley Robinson’s colossal Mars trilogy, whose weighty volumes appeared at short intervals in the mid-1990s.
Primary epics like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Beowulf poem, and The Saga of the Volsungs establish themselves on the basis of an oral tradition that preserves the memory of events from about five hundred years before the story’s commitment to text. The record of research, both philological and archaeological over the last century and a half—from Schliemann’s excavations at Troy, in the 1870s, to Tom Christensen’s excavations at Lejre in Denmark, the probable seat of the Spear-Dane kingdom, in the 1980s—has been to affirm the rootedness of epic in actual places and highly probable events, sometimes right down to architectural details about which the epicist somehow knows but which he could not possibly have seen. Turner, solidly grounded in the knowledge of epic, has, in Apocalypse, transformed epic’s memoriousness into prophecy: Turner is confident that the future, in realizing itself, will approximate his narrative; and should that prove the case, it will be so because the future is remembering the present in the form of its past and, in so doing, is blazing a trail for its ancestors, through what to them is terra incognita, that they might be led to their own future and so sublimely to themselves.
Thomas F. Bertonneau is a long-time visiting professor on SUNY Oswego’s English faculty. He writes about literature, music, religion, politics, and culture.