Francis Ford Coppola's movie Apocalypse Now came out in 1979. That year, I read a movie review that ended with the results of an informal poll. The reviewer had, it seems, discovered that practically nobody had heard of the word "apocalypse." Just who his sample population was, and why he would have been surprised by his discovery, are details lost to history. I would, however, venture to predict a different result if such a poll were conducted today. Since 1979 (in part because of the enormous hype and popularity of Coppola's movie), the word has passed into our popular American vocabulary. One reads references to "apocalypses" of all sorts in the daily newspaper, and with the approaching end of the millennium, the references will surely increase in frequency and volume. The inexactitude of its popular usage is consistent: the word is almost always [End Page 276] used as a synonym for disaster or the end of the world, rather than a synonym for revelation, and a vision of radical renewal coming out of the destruction.
In academic studies, too, references to apocalypticism are on the rise. The authors of the books under review here use the term, and the tradition, as screens through which to view their chosen texts. Sherrill E. Grace is concerned with a wide range of North American Expressionist art forms and their European precursors: painting, music, dance, film, and especially the theatre and the novel. She devises an aesthetic definition of apocalypticism that allows her to describe and evaluate Expressionist poetics. Joseph Dewey limits himself to examples of U.S. fiction and presents a loosely political definition of an American "apocalyptic temper" that facilitates his discussion of the postnuclear thematics in those works.
Sherrill E. Grace begins her ambitious study with introductory chapters on the philosophy, aesthetics, and historical development of German Expressionism. In a useful overview, she surveys the activities of Expressionist painting, literature, and film during the remarkable period between 1905 and 1933, when the movement literally went up in the flames of Hitler's art burnings. She chronicles the contributions of Die Brück and Der blaue Reiter groups of painters, the former begun in Dresden in 1905 and including Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Fritz Bleyl, the latter in Munich in 1911 and including Franz Marc and Vasily Kandinsky, as well as others who were not associated with any group such as Emil Nolde, Oskar Kokoschka, Ludwig Meidner, and Max Beckmann; in poetry and fiction, the contributions of August Stramm, Gottfried Benn, Franz Kafka, Alfred Döblin; and in the films of Fritz Lang, Robert Wiene, F. W. Murnau. She then moves across the Atlantic, to trace in individual chapters the transculturation of Expressionism in North America in the theatrical works of Eugene O'Neill and Herman Voaden, and in the fiction of Djuna Barnes, Malcolm Lowry, Sheila Watson, and Ralph Ellison.
A study of such geographical and generic breadth requires considerable aesthetic and historical definition, a requirement that the author obviously recognizes and strains to satisfy. Grace provides a number of aesthetic models within which to situate Expressionist works. Each model is based on a binary structure that locates the work of art with respect to its political and social attitudes toward the world, and the resulting degree of abstraction from the world: Worringer's abstraction and empathy, Walter Sokel's naïve and sophisticated Expressionism, Frederick Levine's "apocalyptic regression."
This last model provides Grace's own presiding dualism. She characterizes Expressionism as "a vision that continues to haunt the Western imagination in distorted images of violence and transfiguration, atavism and Utopian dream, ecstasy and despair, and in convulsions of the mind and soul that prefigure either an apocalpytic purging of the world or a slide into regression and oblivion." Grace asserts that these conflicting impulses toward representation and abstraction, regression and apocalypse, lead not to...