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Russell Samolsky’s magisterial new study argues that apocalyptic futures are etched by violence in ink and blood both on the body of the apocalyptic novel’s text and the bodies of its victim subjects. Pre-figuring (but not prophesying) apocalypses for whole peoples, these proleptic codes are realized cyclically in apocalyptic and revelatory decryptions. The novel’s reception relies on the reader’s living experience, immediate or mediate, felt as sensations sweet with decay and death—the “stench of truth,” Kafka calls it in “The Savages”—scented with the blood and burning of apocalypses past and yet to be.
Samolsky’s paradigmatic foci, a chapter for each, are Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), and Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), fictions in which narrators and victims alike marked by personal apocalypses, minds and bodies harrowed by their tyrants’ tormentors and torturers. So, the body of the text appropriates, and is appropriated by, every other apocalyptic catastrophe: the Holocaust, Hiroshima’s atomic deluge, the South African apartheid state, Pax Americana’s Vietnam War, the Rwandan genocide. A coda devoted to Art Spiegelman’s postapocalyptic Maus (1986) sets the seal on Samolsky’s achievement.
Beyond invoking boar-gored Odysseus and Cain’s beastly mark (89), Samolsky avoids revisiting the “marking” archetype and its tropes, their universality apparent in the mythohistory of intra- and intertextual violence. To cite a few instances: the Iliad’s ekphrastic shield cast by crippled Hephaestus for ill-heeled Achilles after Patroclus’s suicidally noble lie; the Fisher King’s thigh-maiming and the Arthuriad’s Dolorous Wound (passim in Coetzee’s Dusklands); Queequeg’s carving his body’s tattoos on his coffin, encrypting lamed and mad Ahab’s mist-veiled destiny; David Jones’s In Parenthesis (1937), [End Page 886] its final chapter “The Five Unmistakable Marks” (of the Crucifixion revenant), with its cabala of flare-lit shoulder numerals, a severed head, and a spectral platoon whose ranks the victim protagonist longs to pass beyond, stripping off a bloody cloth; Ray Bradbury’s, The Illustrated Man (1983), in which Carl, a vagrant not unlike Vercueil of Coetzee’s Age of Iron (1990) is marked in tales by the tattoo needle; and Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), its hallowed circuit design antedating the Flame Deluge and Simplification, its mutant “sports” monstrous marks of nuclear violence.
Samolsky’s ambitious aim, “to articulate a new thinking and textual practice of the relation between reception and embodiment” (31), is consummately realized; yet a minor lacuna is his omission of Northrup Frye’s The Great Code (1981). Frye pioneered the hermeneutic tradition to which Samolsky is heir, analyzing the Book of Revelation, its allusions to the Septuagint, a vision of truth (aletheia: unveiling), a metalepsis of the synoptic gospels as encryptions of apocalypse and revelation. As described by Frye, John experienced his vision of the inwardness of present events with his spiritual body, thus anticipating Samolsky’s understanding of Kafka’s condemned man (“ItPC”), who, beyond pain, experiences his sentence in his body, an inscape transcending linear time, appropriating past and future, which confer meaning on each other in an eternal present.
The main chapters of Apocalyptic Futures—“Metaleptic Machines,” “Apocalyptic Futures,” and “The Body in Ruins”—are a richly sourced and recondite son et lumière, deftly marshaling classic, modernist, postmodernist, structuralist, and deconstructionist sages as various as Nietzsche, Barthes, Pawel, Langer, Bloom, Bloch, Benjamin, and Scholem. Would that Samolsky had eschewed such semiotic icons as Derrida, Lacan, Saussure, Foucault, and Rancière—even the latter’s erstwhile companion Althusser, mad memoirist of The Future Lasts Forever. Their costive effect may be to blame for occasional discursively leaden lapses of otherwise lucid prose—for instance, this opaquely otiose brow-crinkler: “Kafka’s texts do indeed seem to contain their own exegesis, even if that exegesis is a stratagem for the evasion of exegesis or exegesis at least as foundational interpretation” (40).
Instead, Samolsky might have affirmed the...