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A Visual History of New York City’s Destruction in 200 Years of Fiction

What visions of the magnificent city’s destruction reveal about American ideology and the dominant social issues of each era.

This week, Hurricane Sandy struck New York to become one of the city’s most devastating natural disasters on record. Officials from both energy monolith Con Edison and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have called it “the worst” in their respective 189- and 108-year histories. I feel incredibly lucky to have survived with virtually no damage and no power loss, but thousands of people across the river in Manhattan, including many friends, haven’t been so fortunate. How jarring it is to see this magnificent city, always so proudly imbued with its own myth, brought uncomfortably close to the scenes and landscapes we’re so used to seeing in apocalyptic fictions.

A ghostly Manhattan, hauntingly devoid of people and cars, prepares for Sandy. October 29, 2012.
Gotham braces itself for the superstorm. October 29, 2012.
Around my neighborhood after Sandy. October 30, 2012.
Around my neighborhood after Sandy. October 30, 2012.

Indeed, the destruction of New York City has a prolific history in fiction, revisiting which feels strangely cathartic in the face of this all-too-real disaster.

In 2001, Amherst architecture and history professor Max Page began working on an exhibition proposal in partnership with the New York Historical Society, exploring all the gory, fantastical, fanciful ways in which New York City had been destroyed in fiction over the years. He wrapped up the proposal on September 10, 2001. What happened the following day, an event so terrifyingly real many eyewitness accounts described it as “surreal,” was to remain forever etched into modern history in chilling detail — but it left Page all the more convinced that his study of apocalyptic fictions was an important piece of the city’s narrative. In The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction (public library), Page collects two centuries’ worth of chronologically arranged fictional devastation — floods, fires, monsters, aliens, nuclear explosions — lavishly illustrated with images from vintage posters and pamphlets, graphic novels, book and album cover art, video game packaging, and more.

Page writes:

America’s writers and imagemakers have pictured New York’s annihilation in a stunning range of ways. Earthquake, fire, flood. Meteor, comet, Martian. Glacier, ghosts, atom bomb. Class war, terrorism, invasion. Laser beams for space ships, torpedoes from Zeppelins, missiles from battleships. Apes, wolves, dinosaurs. Environmental degradation, nuclear fallout, ‘green death.’ American culture has been obsessed with fantasizing about the destruction of New York. It is fascinating to explore the most common methods American culture makers have intended for the city’s end — floods and fires, bombs and ice. Why has the watery death had such staying power, along with the image of the city left physically intact but stripped of its people by a mysterious disaster? The recurrence of similar modes of death across time stands out.

[…]

Visions of New York’s destruction resonated with some of the most longstanding themes in American history: the ambivalence toward cities, the troubled reaction to immigrants and racial diversity, the fear of technology’s impact, and the apocalyptic strain in American religious life. Furthermore, these visions of the city’s end have paralleled the city’s economic, political, racial, and physical transformations. Projections of the city’s end reflected and refracted the dominant social issues. Each era in New York’s modern history has produced its own apocalyptic imagery that explores, exploits, and seeks to resolve contemporary cultural tensions and fears.

Thomas Nast, ‘Something That Did Blow Over,’ Harper’s Weekly, 1871.
That Liberty Shall Not Perish From the Earth,Buy Liberty Bonds, ca. 1918
The cleansing action of the apocalypse, as pictured in ‘Amazing Stories’ from 1920

Page argues there are two main reasons New York City holds such high destruction appeal — one conceptual, because it has become a symbol-city that stands for urbanity itself, and the other conceptual, because New York, with its glorious skyscrapers and perfect grid, simply looks better than any other city while being destroyed.

Louis Guglielmi, Mental Geography, 1938.
Danny Shanahan, cartoon representation of Godzilla and King Kong in Manhattan © The New Yorker Collection 1997
Little Nemo in Slumberland, 1907, reproduced in In The Shadow of No Towers, 2004

The trope of New York’s destruction, Page observes, is the proto-narrative of American ideology:

New York’s death is a story line that plays through every type of fiction American culture has produced. As varied as the media are, the narratives play in two consistent if harmonically different keys. One is the dark, minor key of alarm and warning, lessons and political arguments, fear and premonition of real disaster. The other is the key of celebration and entertainment, homage and love for the city. These two registers mark the two ends of the American ideological composition: a persistent embrace of progress and modernism, utopia and ascent, but also a suspicion of failure, and the harsh truth of the jeremiad. American identity has been built on ‘a culture of calamity.’ That culture has been built on imagining our greatest city’s end.

Eric Drooker, ‘Turtle Island’ in FLOOD! A Novel in Pictures, 1992
The Twin Towers are attacked in Challenge of the Superfriends, 1978

Page goes on to argue that there’s an evolutionary basis for the appeal of fear imaging: it produces a rush of adrenaline, coming down from which triggers a feeling somewhere between relief and joy — the same mechanism that drives us to seek out haunted houses, horror movies, and bungee-jumping. And yet, he says, it’s bigger than that — and who better than Susan Sontag to articulate it through?

But there is something more, beyond the desire of advanced society to recapture what was once a regular experience of heightened fear and response. Susan Sontag wrote in her 1966 essay ‘The Imagination of Disaster’ that ‘we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror.’ Sontag was writing in the 1960s, under the fear of worldwide nuclear holocaust and William Whyte’s nightmare of the deadened ‘organization man.’ The fears today are somewhat different. Rightly or wrongly, we don’t fear nuclear world war the way we once did. But we have our fears of dramatic catastrophe — terrorism, West Nile virus, avian flu, global warming and the angry natural phenomena it is producing. And through we don’t worry about the banality of everyday life, we do fear the insecurity of work, and the powerful, invisible forces of globalization. The workings of the global economy — moving capital and jobs dramatically around the globe according to decisions made on the Internet and in corporate headquarters — feel as inevitable and unstoppable as bad weather.

Ralph E. Lapp, ‘before; and ‘after’ illustrations from Must We Hide?, 1949.
Alexis Rockman, Washington Square, 2004
Stuart Leeds, New Yorker cartoonist parodying meteor hysteria, 1992 © The New Yorker Collection

In 1949, E. B. White wrote a now-legendary passage uncomfortably prescient of 9/11:

A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.

Harry Belafonte, as Ralph Burton, in a deserted Times Square in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, 1959
Paul Sahre graphic for the Week in Review section of The New York Times, July 10, 2005

But, ultimately, what makes the scenes in The City’s End appealing is precisely their fictionality, their unreality, their permission to fantasize as catharsis rather than grapple with the devastating results of real disaster — and the implicit affirmation of a contrast reminding us that, in real life, this phoenix of a city always manages to shake off the dust, stamp out the fires, swallow the waters, and rise with its inextinguishable brilliance once more.

Page images courtesy of Yale University Press; Instagram photos by Maria Popova

BP

Alan Watts on Death, in a Beautiful Animated Short Film

“Think about that for a while — it’s kind of a weird feeling when you really think about it…”

Philosopher and writer Alan Watts (January 6, 1915–November 16, 1973) is best-known for authoring the cult-classic The Way of Zen and popularizing Eastern philosophy in the West alongside John Cage. In this hauntingly beautiful animation based on a Watts lecture, produced by Luke Jurevicius and directed by Ari Gibson and Jason Pamment, Watts considers what death might be, exploring the notion of nonexistence and pitting it as “the necessary consequence of what we call being” — something he examines in greater depth in his indispensable book The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (public library).

UPDATE: A reader points out that the animation comes from a video for “Sometimes the Stars” by Australian band The Audreys from their 2010 debut album of the same title. What you see here is a mashup of the video and an Alan Watts recording.

What’s it gonna be like, dying? To go to sleep and never, never, never wake up.

Well, a lot of things it’s not gonna be like. It’s not going to be like being buried alive. It’s not going to be like being in the darkness forever.

I tell you what — it’s going to be as if you never had existed at all. Not only you, but everything else as well. That just there was never anything, there’s no one to regret it — and there’s no problem.

Well, think about that for a while — it’s kind of a weird feeling when you really think about it, when you really imagine.

Complement with Watts on our illusion of separateness and his poignant probing of what you would do if money were no object.

For a closer look at his philosophy on death, and how “death and life imply each other,” here is some rare footage of Watts speaking in the 1950s:

BP

Grapefruit: Yoko Ono’s Poems, Drawings, and Instructions for Life

“A dream you dream alone may be a dream, but a dream two people dream together is a reality.”

In 1964, more than a decade after the publication of her tender story An Invisible Flower, Yoko Ono collected a selection of her poetic meditations on life in a small but whimsical book published in Tokyo in a limited edition of 500. More than thirty years later, Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions and Drawings by Yoko Ono (public library) — part irreverent activity book for grown-ups, part subversive philosophy for life — was republished, with a new introduction by Ono herself. Here’s just a small taste of this immensely delightful tiny treasure:

A dream you dream alone may be a dream, but a dream two people dream together is a reality.

AIR TALK

It’s sad that the air is the only thing we share.
No matter how close we get to each other,
there is always air between us.

It’s also nice that we share the air,
No matter how far apart we are
the air links us.

from Lisson Gallery brochure ’67

MIRROR PIECE

Instead of obtaining a mirror,
obtain a person.
Look into him.
Use different people.
Old, young, fat, small, etc.

1964 spring

MAP PIECE

Draw an imaginary map.
Put a goal mark on the map where you
want to go.
Go walking on an actual street according
to your map.
If there is no street where it should be
according to the map, make one by putting
the obstacles aside.
When you reach the goal, ask the name of
the city and give flowers to the first
person you meet.
The map must be followed exactly, or the
event has to be dropped altogether.

Ask your friends to write maps.
Give your friends maps.

1962 summer

CITY PIECE

Step in all the puddles in the city.

1963 autumn

COLOR PIECE

Visual world not exactly shaped —
Sense of smell, anticipation, senses that
are not exactly shaped —
Dark shadows casted —
Rat colors with faint hairly smells and pale
dark spots like those on a transparent sheet
of celluloid —
Rose color with a glitter and softness that
is cool and motional —
The kind of color that does not exist by
itself but only when it is casted between
two moving objects —
The color like a remaining stain of illusion
on a moving object —
The color that only happens when movements
cut the air in a certain way and go immediately.
Use such color to tint your absent thoughts.
Have absent thoughts for a long time.

1964 summer

BP

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