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Essay

Backstory: The End of the World As We D'Oh It

The end times have been with us for a long time.  Nearly every human culture has postulated some epic finale for the universe.  But as our power to shape the world (for better or worse) has grown, so has the genre of doom.  The Industrial Revolution brought a spike in apocalyptic fiction (Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, 1826; H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, 1895; and War of the Worlds, 1898), but the atom bomb kicked things into high gear, exponentially multiplying the ways we’ve been able to conceive of our end.  In the last seventy years, our stories have wiped civilization from the planet’s surface by way of nuclear war, pandemic, extraterrestrial attack, impact event, cybernetic revolt, technological singularity, dysgenics, runaway climate change, resource depletion, ecological collapse, assorted geological and astronomical catastrophes, and that old standby: divine judgment.  But what of after?

Among contemporary works that imagine life post-apocalypse, many are simply stories of survival:  The Day After Tomorrow (2004), 28 Days Later (2002), The Road (2006).  But many others confront the question of how to rebuild.   And, sure, in the cases where the apocalypse was one of our making, the characters will aim to build a society less likely to err in the same ways.  But largely we see an attempt to preserve or restore the values and identity of the culture that was lost, to rebuild using the pieces that we have.

It’s usually a good thing to hang on to a key artifact or two of the old times: say the works of Shakespeare (The Postman, 1985), The Bible (The Book of Eli, 2010) or the US Constitution (The “Omega Glory” episode of Star Trek, 1968).  What’s important in a world of scarce resources and manpower is to try to choose a document that packs as much data as possible about the lost culture into the least amount of space.  

The Simpsons, in its unrivaled 24-season-and-counting run, has reached a mind-bogglingly wide audience.  Meanwhile, as Scott McCloud asserts in his terrific Understanding Comics, the simplified features of the cartoon character allow us to project ourselves more readily onto him or her, and for that character and his or her world to absorb layers of meaning about our own that a more photographic rendering would make impossible by virtue of its specificity.  Even casual fans of The Simpsons will tell you that the citizens of Springfield remind them of their own community.

On the one hand, the characters are archetypes: Homer, as Anne Washburn suggests in her Perspective, is at once the Holy Fool who has appeared for centuries in our literary canon and also a more specific, lovingly satiric jab at American masculinity and fatherhood.  On the other hand, the ever-growing population of Springfield has evolved over the show’s lifespan into a microcosm of the nation as a whole.  And on a third hand (anything’s possible in a cartoon!), in its insatiable hunger for satiric cannon-fodder, The Simpsons has made reference to pretty much the entirety of the Western Canon. 

Just a small sample of works of literature that have been given full-episode treatments on the show: Lord of the Flies, The Raven, Hamlet, The Lottery, Macbeth, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Tell Tale Heart, Moby Dick, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Old Man and the Sea.  Of course, that hardly includes the smaller allusions packed into countless bits, lines and sight-gags, and it says nothing of the show’s considerable treatment of films, other television shows, musicals, operas, and more.  There are also the show’s famous guest appearances (it holds the Guinness Record), which not only span the entertainment industry from Elizabeth Taylor to Justin Bieber, but include (among many others) Richard Dawkins, Tony Blair, Thomas Pynchon, Stephen Hawking and Julian Assange.  The series’ reputation as a thorough disquisition on Western civilization has even been bemoaned by its rivals, as in the South Park episode enviously entitled “Simpsons Already Did It.”  

Having spanned three decades reflecting American life back to us, The Simpsons has become a kind of Library of Alexandria for 21st century America.  Assuming it doesn’t go up like the last one, we should be OK if the Four Horsemen come calling.

Alec Strum
Associate Literary Manager