restricted access The Bang and the Whimper: Apocalypse and Entropy in American Literature (review)
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Reviewed by
Zbigniew Lewicki. The Bang and the Whimper: Apocalypse and Entropy in American Literature. Westport: Greenwood, 1984. 135 pp. $25.00.

In the opening pages of this study, Lewicki asserts that the impulse to describe the end of the world, a "vision of total annihilation," characterizes American literature "more than any other single image." In a breathlessly paced opening chapter, Lewicki promises to follow this apocalyptic impulse from John Cotton to Thomas Pynchon, a vow that seems unlikely in a book that, discounting its lengthy bibliography, barely tops one hundred pages. Indeed the promised study quickly devolves into a hasty survey, an uneven collection of loosely related chapters that too often sound like book reports thick with the sort of generalities that would send undergraduate students' pens flying but the more serious academics yawning.

First Lewicki isolates the elements necessary for an apocalyptic writing: the presence of an Antichrist figure, the universal struggle between Good and Evil, the destruction of the world by violence, and the rebirth of a new world. The Puritan writers characteristically emphasized this final stage. But as the religious community gave way to a secular community in America, this apocalyptic temper became more fascinated with the destruction of the world by violence; Lewicki draws this line between Melville, whose Ishmael embodies the Puritan renewal phase, and Twain, whose work is fraught with anxieties over the loss of the possibility of such spiritual rebirth. Lewicki targets the emerging role of science as the catalyst in the transformation of the energy and promise of apocalyptic rebirth into the ennui of modern entropic death by stagnation and waste. To trace this entropic vision, Lewicki begins with Melville's Bartleby, touches briefly on Henry Adams, and then concentrates on the postmodernists—Coover, Pynchon, and Gaddis.

Why then doesn't a book that offers such a suggestive development in [End Page 396] American literature—from the early apocalyptics (the "bangers" of the title) to the modern entropics (the "whimperers")—finally work? Perhaps a study so brief launched with such ambitious promises must disappoint. Lewicki must neglect or must dismiss quickly an impressive list of American apocalyptics (Poe, West, O'Connor, Baldwin, Barth, Mailer, Vonnegut, to name only the most significant). With such exclusions one wonders at some of the inclusions. Ellison's Invisible Man (which even Lewicki discounts as offering a cyclic vision strikingly out of place either with an apocalyptic or an entropic worldview) is treated only to a lengthy retelling that concludes, in a giant step backward in Ellison criticism, that the book is a racist statement that precludes hope for the black man because the "Satanic" white man remains in control. And then there are the brief unconvincing snippets on Susan Sontag and John Updike smuggled into the closing chapter on Gaddis without complete or careful development. Often what Lewicki serves up is a rehash of the accepted critical partyline (particularly in his overview of Moby-Dick and of Twain). What is particularly distressing is his willingness to accept as gospel rather dated critical cliches about Pynchon: that his books are plotless confusions, his characters vague, entropy his universal law, and redemption simply not possible.

Apart from critical disappointments and irritating proofreading gaffs (Melville's Queequeg becomes Queequeq; Pynchon's von Góll becomes van Goll), Lewicki, despite a fullsome bibliography that records the important theological writings on the apocalypse published in the last half century, seems rather unimpressed with the importance of distinguishing apocalyptic subgenres such as chiliasm, eschatology, premillennialism, postmillennialism, christological apocalypticism, Old Testament Hebraic apocalypticism. Indeed, in contrast to a rather lengthy chapter devoted to the scientific background of the theory of entropy, Lewicki accepts a rather popular notion of the apocalypse, and this tends to diminish from the weight of his conclusions.

The book then offers a simplified blueprint to American literature, neatly separating, like the sheep and the goats, a handful of writers as either apocalyptics or entropics, a stubbornly dualistic approach suggested not only by the book's title but as well by its epigraph from Frost's "Fire and Ice." A better study would perhaps resist the easy opposition of religion and science and rather explore suggestive links...


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