Our interest in and taste for apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories has never been stronger. We love to see order descending into chaos, and our highly advanced societies being reduced to a state of nature.
Novelists, film-makers and artists have imagined nearly every possible way the end or ‘post-end’ of the world could arrive, based on our societies’ greatest fears as well as its highest hopes.
The advent of the end is nigh.
Regardless of how the end is seen coming – natural disaster, epidemic, anarchy, etc -, the post-apocalypse, if there is one, nearly always ushers in an environment where historical amnesia is part of the new human predicament, like a basso continuo pushing through the plot, whatever that may be.
The end of the word is indirectly the end of history – not of history as events happening in time, but as history as record-keeping, connecting the present to the past through narratives and testimonies. The implication is that in a post-apocalypse, the present is so oppressive that there is no place for the past.
Most dystopian worlds share the inability to look back into the past – at least not without a sense that the link with the past guaranteed by artificial memory (the historical record) – has been nearly or completely lost. In the Book of Eli, the printed past is preserved at gunpoint. In the Blade Runner diptych, historical and biographical memory is so fragmentary that the past is beyond retrieval, despite the advanced state of technology. The Blackout is a vision of historical amnesia in the post-print age.
To find oneself, one must retrieve the past.
We may fear asteroids, fires, earthquakes, famines, floods, viruses, lawlessness, violence and other events susceptible of bringing everything we take for granted to a swift end, or to an abrupt beginning of a long and painful end. But most of all, I think we fear memory loss – the nightmare of waking up one day not knowing who we are, with no memory of yesterday or the day before. A state of perpetual present, a past-blindness which utterly impairs a vision of the future, any future the human person can inhabit.
A dystopian world is one of constant erasure, a palimpsest doomed to self-destruction.
Historical amnesia is not just the loss of memory, it is the loss of biography in which we lose ourselves to a tyrannical present.