Description   |   Syllabus

Writing The End of the World: Literature and Apocalypse
Bard College
Spring, 2017


Writing The End of the World

Literature and Apocalypse

Spring 2017 /Literature 342 / Wed 1:30-3:50/ Olin LC 115 Mark Danner

Almost from the time people began using styluses on clay tablets they wrote to depict the end of the world. Apocalypse was the act of revelation, an unveiling of what had been hidden: What was to come. Revealing it belonged to the voices of the prophets and the sacred markings of the written word. Likewise moments of extremity have always brought movements toward apocalypse. In this seminar we will study apocalyptic writing from its emergence in the sacred books of the Middle East to its contemporary efflorescence in novels, poetry and film. We will seek to study the wellspring of apocalypse and the progressive development of our writing the end of the world. Texts will include Gilgamesh and associated texts, John’s Revelation, and the Book of Daniel; Mary Shelley’s The Last Man and Richard Jefferies’ After London and more contemporary work by Ballard, Beckett, Brooks, Crace, DeLillo, Disch, Markson, Pynchon, Stapledon, Vargas Llosa and Wells.


 Class Requirements--This is a seminar – a discussion class - which means the success of the class depends on student participation. The most important requirements are that students

*Attend all class sessions

*Participate in class discussions

*Do all reading and writing assignments

*Deliver one in-class presentation

A student’s record of attendance and participation in class discussion, together with the thoroughness of his or her preparation, will determine the success of our class and contribute the better part of the grade.

Schedule--Note that all classes will take place on Wednesday afternoons, 1:30 p.m. - 3:50 p.m in Olin LC 115.

Reading-- Our primary reading will draw largely from a series of novels and stories, and some actual apocalypses, which are listed below. These books have in common a predilection for “end times” thinking. I strongly urge you to obtain these books in your own copies, and in the edition specified, either from the school bookstore or from online suppliers, so that you will be able to highlight and annotate them as you read.

Presentations--Each student will make one presentation in class on one of our books or authors, or on a subject related to our assigned reading, or on another narrative of apocalypse, written or filmed. Use of multimedia is encouraged. Schedule your presentation in consultation with the course assistant.

Writing--Students will be assigned one final research paper of twelve pages. A précis of four sentences suggesting a topic and direction is due a month before the final paper.

To bolster the clarity and vigor of your English prose, I strongly suggest reading two works: George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language” and Strunk and White’s little manual, The Elements of Style.  The text of the Orwell essay can be found easily on the web.

Deadlines--A four-sentence précis setting out an idea for the final paper is due April 19. The final paper is due May 10. Students handing in the final paper on May 3 or earlier will receive a bonus of one-third grade.

Grading--Students will be graded on their attendance, their preparedness and their participation in class, the strength of their presentations and the quality of their written work, as follows:


25 percent


25 percent


25 percent

Final Paper

25 percent

For all of these reasons a solid record of attendance is essential.

Office Hours-- I will count on meeting with each of you individually at least once during the course of the term. We will make these appointments on an ad hoc basis. I am best reached via email, at My writing, speaking and other information can be found at my website,

Required Texts

Robert Alter (trans.), Strong as Death Is Love (Norton, 2016)

J.G. Ballard, Hello America (Liveright, 2013 [1981])

Max Brooks, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (Three Rivers, 2007)

Samuel Beckett, Endgame (Grove, 2009 [1957])

Jim Crace, The Pesthouse (Vintage, 2008)

Don DeLillo, Zero K (Scribner, 2016)

Thomas Disch, The Genocides (Vintage, 2000 [1965])

Richard Jeffries, After London (Book Jungle, 2008 [1885])

Richmond Lattimore (trans.), The New Testament (North Point, 1997)

David Markson, Wittgenstein's Mistress (Dalkey, 2006 [1988])

Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (Harper, 2006 [1965])

Mary Shelley, The Last Man (Wordsworth, 2004 [1826])

Olaf Stapledon, Starmaker (Dover, 2008 [1937])

Mario Vargas Llosa, The War at the end of the World (Picador, 2008 [1981])

H.G. Wells, War of the Worlds (CreateSpace, 2014 [1898])

Supplemental Texts

Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and the Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1970 [1957])

Robert Crossley (editor), An Olaf Stapledon Reader (Syracuse, 1997)

Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (Oxford, 2000 [1967])

Kelly J. Murphy and Justin Jeffcoat Schedtler, Apocalypses in Context: Apocalyptic Currents Through History (Fortress, 2016)

Elaine Pagels, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy & Politics in the Book of Revelation (Penguin, 2012)

Mitchell G. Reddish (editor), Apocalyptic Literature: A Reader (Hendrickson, 1990)

Tentative Syllabus

February 1, 2017?– Introduction to the Seminar. The Sense of an Ending. The Roots of Apocalypse. Eschatology. The Shape of History. Beasts, Zombies and Other Monsters. The Second Coming. Gilgamesh, The Flood and the First Apocalypse. Writing the End of the World: A Very Broad Definition.

February 8 – H.G. Wells War of the Worlds (CreateSpace, 2014 [1898])

February 15 -- Max Brooks World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (Three Rivers, 2007)

February 22 – The Revelation of John in Richmond Lattimore (trans.) The NEw Testament (North Point, 1997), pp. 531-66

The Book of Daniel in Robert Alter (trans.), Strong as Death Is Love (Norton, 2016), pp. 157-234.

March 1 –?Mary Shelley, The Last Man (Wordsworth, 2004 [1826])

March 8 – Richard Jeffries, After London, (Book Jungle, 2008 [1885])

March 15 – Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men 

March 22 – Spring Break, No Class

March 29 – Mario Vargas Llosa, The War at the End of the World  (Picador, 2008 [1981])

April 5 – Samuel Beckett, Endgame(Grove, 2009 [1957])

April 12 -- Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (Harper, 2006 [1965])

April 19 – Thomas Disch, The Genocides (Vintage, 2000 [1965]) Final Paper Precis Due

April 26 – J.G. Ballard, Hello America (Liveright, 2013 [1981])

May 3 – David Markson, Wittgenstein's Mistress, (Dalkey, 2006 [1988])

May 10 – Jim Crace, The Pesthouse, (Vintage, 2008)

Final Paper Due

May 17- Don DeLillo, Zero K(Scribner, 2016)

Annotated Syllabus

February 1, 2017– Introduction to the Seminar.

The Sense of an Ending. The Roots of Apocalypse. Eschatology. The Shape of History. Beasts, Zombies and Other Monsters. The Second Coming. Gilgamesh, The Flood and the First Apocalypse. Writing the End of the World: A Very Broad Definition.

William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” Jewish and Christian themes and allusions. This poem, written just after the first world war

Mark 13 (“The Little Apocalypse”), themes of apocalypticism, antichrist, maskil (biblical wise apocalypse seers)

Prophetic eschatology envisioned God accomplishing divine and mysterious plans through and by human agents. Apocalyptic eschatology emerged when the people of Israel began to lose faith in God’s divine plan. But it also represents the idea of finding hope in a future when the wicked are punished and the good rewarded

The War Scroll 1:1-12 describes the future, final battle between the forces of light and darkness. Apocalyptic imagery similar to the book of Revelation.

Gilgamesh Book X tells of a legendary flood similar to that of Noah’s Ark. The flood is dissimilar in that it is voted upon by several gods instead of being created by one God as divine punishment. The flood rebirths a new world.

February 8 – H.G. Wells, War of the Worlds 

Published in 1898, under the reign of Queen Victoria (a veritable empress ruling the vast Brit empire)

Like The Time Machine, classified as a “scientific romance,” predecessor to sci-fi genre.

Also part of a tradition of invasion literature. But of course War of the Worlds extremifies the rational fear of invading forces by making these enemies inhuman.

Expresses English anxieties about being conquered or overtaken by greater forces in the world arena as well as tapping into the fear that Britain’s imperial power stems directly from their superior technology and not from their moral duty/ability to civilize savages.

Indeed, if God created life on other planets, especially life endowed with

If we look through microscopes at miniscule cells and find them insignificant, what if aliens look at us the same way? (relativity, Darwinian ideas of natural selection)

“And we men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us.” (6-7, or Book 1 Ch 1 The Eve of the War)

Contemporaneously, Schiaparelli observed “canali" on Mars’ surface, mistranslated into English as “canals” instead of “channels.”

Characters in Wells’ story are often called by their role instead of a name--the curate, the artilleryman... (humans are reduced to their abilities or social roles--the story is global and less about individuals)

The narrator works as a philosophy essayist and Wells’ style is quite journalistic, with a smattering of biblical allusions, and a suspenseful tone. This narrator works effectively as an educated, literary voice in the midst of the madness.

Works referenced or related: Kipling's The White Man's Burden: The United States and the Phillippine Islands; Darwin's Natural Selection; H.G. Wells, The Time Machine; Orson Welles' 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast.,

1953 film version clip ?,

2005 film version clip

February 15- Max Brooks, World War Z

Philosophical zombie (p zombie) is a hypothetical person with no consciousness or “qualia.” It is a useful exercise in determining personhood.

The zombie apocalypse is a useful vehicle of ending both civilization and the entirety of the human race--zombies lead to the collapse of the current world order, and they have the capacity and “will” to drive humankind to extinction.

The zombie can function as a metaphor for the masses taking back their power (left wing zombie apocalypse), forcing society to be entirely reestablished instead of just reformed. This view paints the zombie as cleansing the Earth of human evil and can also have an environmentalist, anarchist spin.

On the other hand, this apocalypse can also lead individuals to prove their prowess in a violent, libertarian paradise freed from useless restrictions (right wing zombie apocalypse). This view would see zombies as “sheeple,” a mess of stupid and ill prepared people who prove the mettle of the survivors. The idea of immunity to the zombie “virus” heavily relies upon the idea that some people are inherently special and excluded from the rules.

Zombies are anthropocentric creature--often focused on eating human brains (the seat of reason). They seem obsessed with what they no longer have (functional human brains).

Unlike any other apocalypse harbinging attackers, zombies do not need sleep or food or provisions. Their numbers are always greater. World War Z’s journalistic style shows the human advantage--the free exchange of life-saving knowledge between groups of survivors. Brooks seems to consciously support this free exchange, especially in the section on North Korea.

While the rest of the world fought off the zombies, the entire North Korean populace retreated to underground caverns and their fate is yet unknown. While this fact never poses a danger to the narrator or any of his interviewees, it does seem to cause a significant amount of anxiety for the rest of the world to wonder if millions of zombies are hidden just below the surface of a (nearly) post-Z world. In this way, there is the looming shadow of another outbreak and a future challenge to a newly formed world regime.

Zombies are formidable, but unchanging save for their physical degradation; as such, they test the human ability to adapt.

Presentation by Max

Class Recording

February 22- The Revelation of John, The Book of Daniel

Popular images and motifs originating in these texts: Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the Grim Reaper, “the writing on the wall,”and the great, red dragon.

The Four Horsemen are Death, Famine, War, and Conquest and they herald the end of the human world. The Grim Reaper, armed with a scythe, cuts down the “harvest” of human souls at the end of their lives. The writing on the wall is unavoidably prophetic, and the

“The occult” is defined by accessibility to only the chosen, and yet these texts are multivalent and have been written about ad nauseum.

“Vaticinium ex eventu,” or prophecy from the event, refers to a prophecy written after the author already had information about the events he “foretells.” By referencing events that have truly happened, the prophet gives more credence to any future predictions.

“Chialism” is the doctrine of Christ’s imminent reign on earth for

1000 years (although the exact amount of years is contentious). Presentation by Teddy

March 8- Mary Shelley, The Last Man

Shelley’s father in law forbade her from writing a biography of her husband. The Last Man memorializes him and Lord Byron, recently deceased members of what Shelley called “the Elect.”

This book is a “roman a clef,” a novel in which invented names disguise the real people and events that inspired it. (Raymond for Lord Byron, Adrian for Percy Shelley, Lionel for Mary).

In the intro, Shelley claims the story was found in caves in Naples that Percy and her had actually visited. Indeed, the story is actually a prophecy written on leaves by a long-dead Sybil.

The events of the story take place in the 2090s, but the only technological advancement seems to be flying balloons--the future is a device used to give Shelley distance from her story.

This story is Shelley’s personal grief amplified to the end of the world.

Presentation by Madison

March 29- Richard Jeffries, After London

Among the earliest examples of post-apocalyptic fiction, the book shows what happens after London falls to disaster.

It is split into two parts--The Relapse into Barbarism, and Wild England. Jeffries seems enamored with the natural beauty of England and treats London like a scourge that has been returned to its natural state. However, the London swamp is poisonous--a lingering scar of the toxic civilization it once hosted.

Survivors return to a quasi-medieval state of survival over civilization. The culture is one of barbaric, petty dictators enacting injustices upon the weak.

March 29- Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men

Vaguely reminiscent to the Book of Daniel’s “vaticinium ex eventu” (prophecy after event), Stapledon’s book is a future history of several (18) generations of humans.

The book introduced the concept of a supermind, telepathically linked minds (especially relevant to today’s cyberspace) and anticipated genetic engineering.

Stapledon’s 18th generation also has “sub-genders,” an interesting social dynamic that perhaps anticipated non-binary genders.

The book is cyclical--following the rise and fall of different civilizations that reach new heights each time. There are also sub-humans, reminders of man’s ability to also fail or fall.

April 5- Mario Vargas Llosa, The War at the End of the World

 Originally planned as a film, Vargas Llosa published the story of

the Counselor in 1982, close to the end of the century and set close to the end of the previous century.

Antonio Conselheiro (the Counselor) was a real man who caught his wife cheating and became a wandering pilgrim, cleaning and rebuilding churches with a small following in different towns. This history is left out of the book, but Vargas Llosa explores his psyche.

Pg4??“...looking with his incandescent eyes… at something or someone only he could see. Things that were understandable because they had been vaguely known since time immemorial, things taken in along with the milk of one’s mother’s breast. Present, tangible, everyday, inevitable things, such as the end of the world and the Last Judgement, which might well occur before the time it would take for the town to set the chapel...What would happen when the Blessed Jesus looked down upon the sorry state in which they had left His house?”

Events take place in the desert backland state of Bahia, Brazil in 1897. In real life, this would have been a mere ten years after the end of legal slavery in Brazil. South America was replete with upheaving revolutions.

The Republic is identified with the Anti-Christ by the peoples of Canudos.

Canudos is the seat of the Counselor’s power and Vargas Llosa’s characters each have different ideas and fantasies of what it is (such as Galileo Gall who never actually makes it there, but who envisions it as an anarchist place of free love). On the other hand, the Republic considers it a place of “free love” in a more lecherous way.

The larger Canudos grows, the more alike it becomes to a biblical land--turning a teeming favela into the perfect spot for the Counselor to

rise up to heaven. Canudos is most specifically associated with Jerusalem/the new Jerusalem.

Presentation by Wilberforce

April 12- Samuel Beckett, Endgame

Beckett was an assistant to James Joyce. After a brief affair with Joyce’s daughter, he proclaimed he could not love.

Beckett’s play Endgame is as dark as its maker. “Endgame” means that the largest pieces have been taken and the game has been whittled down to just pawns or small players, except for the necessary kings. The endgame is the part of the game that takes place after both players know who will win--a play-out. Mother Pegg, an unseen character quite literally dies of light deprivation at the end of the world. Hamm, a blind man who cannot stand, lives with his parents, Nell and Nagg, who have no legs and are kept in trash bins.

Hamm is similar to Hamlet and to Hammer. Clov to Cleu (French for ‘nail’). Nagg to nagel (German for ‘nail’). Nell to a death knell.

There is no progression within this play, it is circular, it could begin and end at any moment, save for Nell’s passing. Thematic progress is undermined by the play itself. It is a one act play, though Beckett outlined sixteen different scenes.

Secret networks of experience, covert modes.

Presentation by Mason

April 19-- Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

Oedipa Maas’ name alludes to Oedipus--who is deluded into believing in a life that is not his. She resembles Oedipus in that they both think they know the world and then learn what it truly is (and not because of any strictly incestual reasons…)

Oedipa Maas may also sound like “Oedipus My Ass.”

This book is very emblematic of its time (published in 1965)--rock n roll, “mind expanding” drugs, and the disillusionment of the people by authority figures.

The novel takes place in a suburban wasteland of tupperware parties and small rebellions.

This story is the apocalypse of a construction of reality within Oedipa’s mind. Through discovering her construction is not real, Oedipa loses hold of her physical reality, of her loved ones, of her normal life.

She is lost to convolution, however, Pynchon seems to suggest it is an external convolution as well as an internal crisis for Oedipa. One can see anxieties manifested in something as simple as The Paranoids, a band of pot and teen angst fueled youngsters.

Pynchon describes the center of Bordando el Manto (“embroidering the world’s mantle), a triptych by Remedios Varo. The imprisoned girls of this triptych are unlike Rapunzel in that they do not seek escape from their tower. They seem to be helpless actors.

“The repetition of symbols was to be enough, without trauma as well perhaps to attenuate it or even jar it altogether loose from her memory. She was meant to remember. She faced that possibility as she might the toy street from a high balcony, roller-coaster ride, feeding-time among the beasts in a zoo—any death-wish that can be consummated by some minimum gesture. She touched the edge of its voluptuous field, knowing it would be lovely beyond dreams simply to submit to it; that not gravity's pull, laws of ballistics, feral ravening, promised more delight. She tested it, shivering: I am meant to remember. Each clue that comes is supposed to have its own clarity, its fine chances for permanence. But then she wondered if the gemlike "clues" were only some kind of compensation.”

Presentation by Ying

April 19- Thomas Disch, The Genocides

Written in Disch’s twenties, published in 1965. Disch grew up attending Catholic school. He was also the writer of the Brave Little Toaster series. One of these things undoubtedly affected his writing, which is rife with religious guilt, contemplations of the Catholic God, and a fixation on end times.

The Plants, an alien weed, have taken over the Earth. They reproduce quickly and invasively. Starvation seems inevitable, and now is the after-period of the disaster.

Do civilized people remain civilized in a broken world?

Anderson, a despotic community leader, kills any outsiders who do not have a use. It is implied his people also cannibalize the bodies of these outsiders, a gross bastardization of partaking in the body and blood of Christ.

Jeremiah swears vengeance against him, but ultimately the novel finds Anderson’s young daughter, Blossom, and Jeremiah hopeless and alone, robbed of the nutritious root growth of the Plants and trapped on the surface of a dead planet.

The aliens in this novel are an unseen force, almost godly.

Like Pynchon, Ditsch must have been influenced by social issues of his time, as some of his characters become addicted to the Plants’ pulp and turn lazy and complacent even at the expense of their own survival.

Presentation by Austin

April 26- J.G. Ballard, Hello America

Born to English parents but raised in Shanghai, Ballard spent part of his childhood in a Japanese run internment camp for Allied civilians.

Some of his work, including the semi-autobiographical Empire of the Sun, has clear influences from this period.

The death of his first wife and mother of three children also shocked him.

There is a distinct flavor to Ballardian writing--sharp and penetrative, dystopian, the dark and hidden desires of man made clear in a bleak world built by/for man.

Hello America follows an expedition team on the first trip to North America in thirty years.

It has been several generations since the continent’s ecological demise,the last team to go never returned, and there’s increased radioactive fallout in England--the trip begins with bad odds.

Ballard’s future world saw the Soviet Union manipulating global weather for their own benefit, a conspiracy that persists into today, in the real world.

Ballard also makes governor Jerry Brown into the last president of the United States--a laid back man who represents west coast liberalism in the face of a real disaster.

Each of the crew members on the SS Apollo mission have their own ulterior reasons for making the trip, and Ballard is at his best when he constructs these depthy psychological characters within a straightforward apocalypse adventure ride.

In a reversal of history, some of these crew members come from an American ghetto in Ireland. Ballard explores their inexplicable attachment and draw to “their home.”

Presentation by Juliet

May 3- David Markson, Wittgenstein's Mistress

Heralded by David Foster Wallace as a triumph of experimental fiction.

“Once I had a dream of fame. Generally, even then, I was lonely.” (repeated line--loneliness and fame in a depopulated world).

Repetition of lines, there is no audience for Kate, her mind becomes like an infinite loop.

Kate references are sometimes wrong or muddled--she is an unreliable narrator.

She has never actually read Wittgenstein, though she is obsessed with him.

How do we know that the world exists? How do we know we are not alone in the world? (solipsism).

There is a cat that Kate does not ever see, but she imagines, and names. There is also a cat she knows does not exist, but is comprised of noises of a record scratching.

Presentation by Tara

May 10-- Pesthouse, Jim Crace

"Pesthouses"used to quarantine and treat people to prevent outbreaks of diseases such as the bubonic plague, cholera, TB

In Crace’s novel, one is not truly freed from the pesthouse until their hair grows to their shoulders--bald heads are a sign of sickness.

Presentation by Jack

May 17-- Don DeLillo, Zero K

Follows Jeff, the son of a “George-Soros type” Ross, who vacillates on whether or not to join his younger, ill wife, Artis, in a cryogenic slumber. Sleek, modern world and typical DeLillo stylish musings on death and technology.

The cryogenics facility is an underground compound called “Convergence.”

Compared to Kafka and Beckett.

Based in part on Silicon Valley efforts to extend human life. 

© 2022 Mark Danner