[(essay date October 1991) In the following essay, Wesseling explores the apocalyptic paradigm of In the Country of Last Things, crediting Auster with reshaping prophetic discourse by contradicting the progression of beginning, middle, and end.]
Postmodernist novels are often said to be "apocalyptic," an epithet which raises about as many questions as it answers. The concept "apocalypse" derives from the context of Christian theology and carries the original meaning of "revelation." The apocalypse constitutes the culmination of human history, entailing the complete obliteration of the human order and the subsequent revelation of a new, divine order. These notions about human history belong to rectilinear, rather than cyclical thought. The totality of history is considered as a singular, unique process and its final ending is regarded as irrevocable and absolute. Evidently, the term "apocalypse" is not used in this sense anymore in discussions about contemporary literature. Now that it has been cut loose from its theological moorings, the concept has become somewhat blurred.
After a lengthy secularization process and numerous falsifications of eschatological predictions, it has become increasingly difficult to take apocalyptic thought literally. At the same time, it seems to be impossible to wean ourselves away from it. How then does the apocalypse live on in the modern mind? In my opinion, Frank Kermode's by now almost classical The Sense of an Ending1 (1967) still offers one of the most satisfactory treatments of this problem. Kermode argues that the status of the apocalypse has changed objective truth into an imaginative scheme. It is not so much the literal contents of apocalyptic thought which matter nowadays, but its overall structure of a teleological coherence welding past, present and future together into one single process: "Apocalypse depends on a concord of imaginatively recorded past and imaginatively predicted future, achieved on behalf of us, who remain 'in the middest.'"2 Although it has become hard to actually believe in prophecies about the end of the world and the world that is to come, the "apocalyptic paradigm"3 is still with us as an ineradicable habit of the secular, modern mind, which apparently has to impose shape on an itself shapeless reality. In other words, modern apocalyptic thought has become ironical. The urge to transform the contingencies of history into a coherent process which moves towards a preordained end cannot be suppressed, but while we satisfy it we cannot help realizing that the end on which the organization of time depends is but a fiction.
If we redefine the concept of apocalypse in this manner, observations about the apocalyptic nature of postmodernist literature begin to make more sense. Novels by writers like John Barth, Günter Grass, Thomas Pynchon and Salman Rushdie are all permeated by doubts about the vitality and legitimacy of Western civilization. They express the feeling of living in a period of crisis or transition, in which the established order is about to fall into ruins. At the same time, these writers deprive the end of (Western) history of its...