Lessons On The Apocalypse From ‘Adventure Time’ And ‘Huckleberry Finn’

What if the apocalypse came and went and things still ended up being . . . interesting? Worthwhile, even? What if we re-conceived our very notions of what The End looks and feels like, confronted our very notions of mortality, and imbued it with new perspectives — ones that are light-hearted, impulsive, and happy?

What I’m describing may sound like an acid-induced hallucination poised to dissolve faster than a lemon-drop, but bear with me.

What if we stripped away all the referential dross that tells us The End is not only nigh, but miserable, i.e.: The Walking Dead, The Road, The Stand, Hunger Games, The X-Files, The Twilight Zone, JG Ballard, Kathryn Schluz’s New Yorker piece on the coming earthquake in the Pacific Northwest (“the worst natural disaster in the history of the continent”), Y2K, The Cuban Missile Crisis, Cat’s Cradle, Always Coming Home, The Terminator, The Matrix, Mad Max, 12 Monkeys, I Am Legend, Radiohead’s “Idiotheque,” Dylan’s “A Hard Rain,” An Inconvenient Truth, La Jetée, or Zero K (“Everybody wants to own the end of the world,” Don DeLillo’s latest novel begins) . . . and instead decided that the apocalypse could be joyful?

In short, why are we obsessed with the darkness when we could be basking in the light?

I’d like to argue that if we put in dialogue two seemingly disparate pieces of art — Adventure Time and Huckleberry Finn — we can use them as a means for a beautiful socio-cultural alchemy.

We can use them to banish the unbearable weight of the apocalypse, a collective fixation on blood, misery, and depravity we needn’t be imagining.

And here we go.

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In Adventure Time — a show that occurs entirely in a world that seems to have been previously destroyed in an apocalyptic, nuclear-like event — Finn (our young boy protagonist) and Jake (his shape-shifting dog) are consistently happy and relaxed.

And why not?

Finn creates a bubble blower that blows bubbles in different dimensions. He and Jake enter the Land of the Dead to reclaim the soul of a flower they accidentally killed. They wait in line with demons in The Nightosphere. Finn becomes a lycanthrope, but one obsessed with hugs. A character that for all the world looks like a talking, intelligent Game Boy investigates a film-noir-styled murder. A horse named James Baxter arrives balancing himself on a beach ball and declares his name over and over again. An intergalactic figure takes selfies with a demonic ghoul in a room that exists beyond time and space. Finn and Jake see what the longest-running high five they can do will be. Jake sings about making pancakes.

One way into our reconception of the apocalypse is through the notion of adventure. In the absence of expectations, in the absence of our formal world, which is governed just so, there leaves a tremendous amount of breathing room for possibility.

Don Quixote was famously mocked intra-text; it was felt there had long since ceased to be the need for knights errant — those purposely searching for adventure — but modern media tells us nothing if not that there remains an ardent need for knights errant.

Westerns have transformed themselves from John Huston films into episodes of Breaking Bad. James Baldwin called for “the fire next time” — a poignant nod to a slave-song prophecy from the Bible — and Ta-Nehisi Coates has arrived with some of that fire. Things transform, oftentimes inexorably so. If everything transforms, there’s no reason why our understanding of the apocalypse can’t do the same as well.

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I’d also like to argue that our current collective moment has a preoccupation with the apocalypse serving as a moral and situational trump card — something in the ballpark of Godwin’s Law (i.e. all internet discussions lead to Hitler).

But the positing of the apocalypse as the most powerful conceivable force — i.e. it ends everything — or as the ultimate means of gaining existential perspective doesn’t serve the discussion as well as it should. We’ve reduced our imaginings of the apocalypse to less than even a binary. There is no choice in its manifestations — we’re left with only carnage.

If we’re going to talk about the apocalypse in terms of it being synonymous with nullification, we should talk about how we came to make those two things synonymous. To understand where we are, if we want to even consider where we’re going with some degree of agency, it behooves us to look to the past.

(For the sake of definitions, let’s say that when we use a term like “the apocalypse,” we mean — as the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann put it, or so I’ve gathered from reading this — “the inclusion of all exclusions . . . Apocalypse introduces into the system a possible observation of the end of time and the end of the system.”)

So let us look to Mark Twain. Just where the hell is he amongst all this carnage?

Admittedly, it’s a little bit like asking where Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry has gone to in the middle of all this rock’n’roll, but unless we’ve forgotten, there is a slight degree by which Huck engages with the idea of the apocalypse almost as soon as the book begins, when the story of Moses and the flooding of the world is invoked. Upon learning that Moses has been dead “a considerable long time,” Huck responds by saying that he “don’t take no stock in dead people.”

So why is it worth putting Huck Finn — a reluctant adventurer with an initial interest in being carefree — in the middle of the apocalypse, as opposed to someone determined to carry the moral responsibility of what the apocalyptic world means?

I think it’s worth putting Huck Finn (and, by extension, Adventure Time’s Finn) in the middle of all this because rather than “the inclusion of all exclusions” winning the day, we are instead met with radically persistent openness; we don’t bear witness to the end of time or even the end of the system itself, but our ability to dance above, around, and straight on through it.

Huck and Finn are certainly being pursued by one version of the apocalypse, but instead of feeling miserable and nihilistic about their pending doom, they respond by spending “all the afternoon in the woods talking” with their “co-conspirator . . . reading the books, and having a general good time. . .”

Some will talk about American literature’s relationship with slavery and race, and that is often apocalyptic — readers of Between the World And Me will be aware that Coates’s personal 9/11 occurred well before 9/11 itself, when the police gunned Prince Carmen Jones Jr., a friend of his, down.

Confronting racism, slavery, and what it means to be someone helping a runaway slave — as best as he can — is how Huck achieves a moral transformation over the course of the book. It’s why he thinks he’ll “go to hell” for helping Jim — his friend — his best friend, and it’s something that wouldn’t have happened if he wasn’t open in the face of this kind of apocalypse.

Huck dealt with the apocalypse of slavery and — when confronted with the prospect of returning to civilization and “civilized” society, per the threat of Aunt Sally — he vows to “light out for the territory ahead of the rest,” heading literally to some place like California and onto a new life. He isn’t pursuing the apocalypse; he’s trying to break through a system that engenders it and has the gall to call it civilization.

Meanwhile over in Adventure Time, Finn and Jake may deal with problems, but they don’t engage with something as serious as what Bob Dylan once called America’s “original sin.” The closest the show comes to consistently dealing with something seriously is in the case of The Ice King, a lonely man struggling to emerge from beneath centuries of madness, who is — perhaps — one of the few people left on Ooo who saw the previous version of the world end.

But, even with that, everyone ends up treating The Ice King — or “Simon,” as he becomes known after a certain point — sweetly. They make an effort to understand where he’s coming from. Episode after episode, they too “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest.” They demonstrate that problems aren’t permanently intractable: “Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness,” the writer Italo Calvino once said (and here it is easy to switch out the word “heaviness” with “apocalypse”):

“I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. I don’t mean escaping into dreams or into the irrational. I mean that I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification.”

The value of this discussion is its ability to act as a strategic leverage against that particular “inclusion of all exclusions,” and strikes me as being a key to pursuing sensible future moral foundations. It feels useful; it feels like a way to potentially avoid the kind of doom that befell Prince Myshkin in The Idiot — “a completely beautiful human being” sacrificed on the altar of Christ-like “goodness” — for example.

If I could urge you to take anything away from this essay (beyond the suggestion that you print it up and use it as kindling fire should the apocalypse actually come), it would be this: Don’t worry about the fact that twinning “lightness” with “the apocalypse” seems a little too morally complicated or just simply odd: For Huck, Jim, Finn, and Jake, it’s a way out — and it can be for you, too.

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Lead image: flickr/Fred Seibert