Apocalypse, apocalyptic literature

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Apocalypse, apocalyptic literature

Apocalypse, apocalyptic literature: Apocalypse, or The Apocalypse of John, is an alternative name for the book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament of the Bible, which through complex and detailed symbolism depicts a catastrophic end to the world. The term also refers to the violent end of the world and subsequent Day of Judgment prophesied in the book of Revelation and Christian theology more generally.

The term apocalyptic stems from the word Apocalypse, which is in turn derived from the Greek word apokaluptein, meaning “to uncover.” Literature is called apocalyptic when it purports to uncover, reveal, or prophesy the future. A number of Christian and Jewish writers produced apocalyptic religious works during the period 200 B.C.—A.D. 150. In general, these works as well as subsequent apocalyptic texts involve visions of unbridled doom and destruction — predictions of an imminent, often fiery, and terrible end to the world.

Recently, some critics have used apocalyptic even more generally to refer to visionary or revelatory literature. Classic examples include William Blake’s prophecies (The Book of Thel [1789], The Four Zoas [c. 1800]), John Keats’s “Hyperion” poems (1818—19), Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1820), and William Butler Yeats’s A Vision (1925). Other noted examples are Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man (1826), certain stories by Edgar Allan Poe (“Ligea” [1838], “The Fall of the House of Usher” [1839]), James Thomson’s poem “The City of Dreadful Night” (1874), H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898), Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1935), and Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins (1971). More recent examples include Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s graphic novel Kingdom Come (1998), which builds to an apocalyptic climax, and Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’s Left Behind series of novels (1995—2007).

In giving his 1979 retrospective film about the Vietnam War the title Apocalypse Now, director Francis Ford Coppola used the term apocalypse somewhat loosely, since an apocalyptic retrospective is something of a contradiction in terms. Moreover, as noted deconstructor J. Hillis Miller pointed out in “Heart of Darkness Revisited” (1985), “Apocalypse is never now.”