HomeApocalypse and dystopia in Italian and French literature, 1945 to the present

HomeApocalypse and dystopia in Italian and French literature, 1945 to the present

Apocalypse and dystopia in Italian and French literature, 1945 to the present

Apocalypse et dystopie dans la littérature italienne et française, de 1945 à aujourd’hui

Apocalisse e distopia nella letteratura italiana e francese, dal 1945 a oggi

« Cahiers d’études italiennes, Novecento… e dintorni », n° 42, printemps 2026

*  *  *

Published on Monday, March 18, 2024

Abstract

Les intrigues dystopiques et apocalyptiques sont fréquentes dans la littérature récente et contemporaine. Pour en saisir toute la portée, il faut néanmoins les replacer dans le contexte historique constitué par la révolution scientifique (théorisée par Francis Bacon), la transformation capitaliste de l’économie, la philosophie de l’histoire (née dans la seconde moitié du XVIIIe siècle) ainsi que par les courants « messianiques » modernes auxquels ces intrigues apocalyptiques s'opposent...

Announcement

Editors

Edited by Enzo Neppi, Stefano Lazzarin, Diego Pellizzari, and Valentina Sturli

Argument

Dystopian and apocalyptic plots are very common in modern and contemporary literature. In order to fully grasp their significance, it is necessary to place them in various interrelated historical-conceptual contexts: the scientific revolution (as theorized by Francis Bacon); the capitalist transformation of the economy; the philosophy of history emerging in the eighteenth century’s second half; and modern “messianic” currents to which these apocalyptic plots are opposed. 

From Kant, who theorizes “universal peace” and “the realm of ends” as the “hidden end of nature,” to Kurzweil, who presents the expansion of intelligence in the cosmos as the “end of the universe,” via Fichte, Condorcet, Constant, Shelley, Fourier, Marx, Nietzsche, Marinetti, Trotsky, Keynes, Ayn Rand and many others, “secular” messianism spans the last two centuries in different forms. In its collective and social version, its purpose is not only human domination over nature, but also prosperity, happiness, harmony, social justice, and moral perfection. In its agonistic version, it exalts in turn the superman, the genius, the artist, the hero, the leader; the nation, the race, the social class aiming at a world in which its desires will become world-ruling law. According to circumstances, messianism presents itself as human, Promethean, demiurgic, superhuman, transhuman, super-intelligent.

But in roughly the same period as that marking modern messianism’s emergence, an apocalyptic and dystopian conceptual current appears that was initially theorized by Leopardi (under the stimulus of Rousseau) in the first third of the nineteenth century, then “narrated” by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein, but which was mainly developed in the twentieth century.

In modern and contemporary narratives, apocalypse, understood as a catastrophic occurrence marking the extinction of humanity (or at least of an entire nation), can be caused by the following:  

  • by a long foretold and predictable event such as the sun’s and solar system’s implosion (rendering our planet uninhabitable in about 3.5 billion years), or the extinction of the universe through collapse or entropy. This kind of occurrence can be evoked in apocalyptic narratives such as H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine. But it also appears in messianic narratives such as Wells’ novel Men like Gods, Raymond Kurzweil’s “futurological” speculations, and in other science-fiction novels and films: all texts meant to show that human or superhuman intelligence will eventually overcome all obstacles and limitations (including death and the speed of light), and will continue to extend, expand, and colonize both the universe and multiverse.
  • by an accidental external event such as an asteroid collision (examples being the asteroid crash into the Gulf of Mexico ca. 66 million years ago and the collision causing the end of the world in Lars von Trier's film Melancholia,); invasion of an extraterrestrial force (e.g., the Martians in H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds); and various catastrophic events, including epidemics, similar to those found in ancient and modern literature, extending from the earthcovering flood in the Hebrew Bible to the plague of Milan in Manzoni’s I promessi sposi. These apocalyptic stories may end with the extinction of life on earth or in an entire region, or with an epidemic’s end (as in Camus’s La peste); but they may also develop into post-apocalyptic narratives recounting the lives of survivors during and especially after the catastrophe – narratives describing degraded living conditions or a slow regeneration of human civilization.

As examples of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic narrations we can list: Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud (1901), Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1912), and more recently Guido Morselli’s Dissipatio H.G. (1977), Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968; made into the iconic Ridley Scott film  Blade Runner [1982]), D. James’ The Children of Men (1992; made into an Alfonso Cuarón film with the same title [2006] ), José Saramago’s Ensaio sobre a cegueira (Blindness; 1995), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Stephen King’s The Stand (1978). But we also find post-apocalyptic situations in the classic Beckettian play “Fin de partie” (“Endgame”; (1956) and in some of Michel Houellebecq’s novels.

Apocalypses caused by accidental catastrophes have been strikingly successful in contemporary cinema and other forms of cultural expression, which raises the question of why this is so. Is it because they invite spectacular and magniloquent storytelling, with a high dose of suspense and special effects? Or because they showcase superheroes who defy and overcome catastrophes, or at least individuals who in the most dire of situations keep their human dignity intact (for example, Drs. Rieux and Rambert in Camus's Peste and “the doctor’s wife” in Saramago's Ensaio sobre a cegueira)? Perhaps one explanation is that they reveal how vulnerable human beings remain, despite scientific-technological progress – or, connected to this, that they show us our civilization’s monuments and institutions reduced to obsolete objects and ruins like those of ancient civilizations. Again, perhaps in showing human beings reverted to a state of nature, they present us with messianic regeneration, or a humanity that has indeed begun to develop again, but without any real change in its previous nature. Finally, perhaps one source for the theme’s popularity is its constituting an indeterminate or ambiguous backdrop against which an author, characters, readers may project a range of hypotheses about the nature of the human species and its destiny. (3) But apocalypse, understood as the extinction or near-extinction of humankind, may also be directly caused by human activity; it can represent a consequence of the same scientific and technical progress that, according to messianic visions, should have facilitated human perfection and the approach of the messianic era.

Among the causes of human-originating apocalypse that have been most often invoked and narrated from World War II onward, particularly noteworthy are  (a) increasingly deadly wars and, especially, atomic warfare, as presented for instance in Nevil Shute's novel On the Beach (1957), in Kubrick's film Doctor Strangelove (1964) (based on Peter George's novel Red Alert [1958]), and in the novels  H come Milano  by Emilio De Rossignoli (1965) and Il pianeta irritabile by Paolo Volponi (1978); (b) the environmental crisis catalyzed by pollution, climate change, and the collapse of biodiversity – the so-called Anthropocene, addressed in the chapter “Terra dei fuochi” that closes Roberto Saviano’s widely read book on the Neapolitan Camorra, Gomorra (2006) and in  Bruno Arpaia’s novel Qualcosa, là fuori (2016); (c) the “singularity,” which is to say the advent, sometimes considered imminent, of a superintelligence capable of enslaving or destroying humankind, and ultimately, of destroying itself. The latter scenario (in part already suggested by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein) makes use of basic elements of the optimistic, even euphoric, scenario proposed by futurist Raymond Kurzweil (and which we find again in an “oriental,” mystical, and magical version in the very recent film The Creator), but turns these elements upside down.

There is also a body of dystopian fiction distinct from the apocalyptic variety in that it places its basic emphasis more on the quality of present or future human life than on the physical existence of the species (and its possible annihilation); the questions this type of fiction poses are complex and varied, focused largely on the concept of dystopia itself. In its narrow sense (in line with current generic approaches and publishers’ promotional practices), a dystopian narrative displays a social reality in which people live very badly, due to sociopolitical, economic, and technological circumstances. The term “dystopia” was coined by John Stuart Mill as an antonym of “utopia”; as the term’s etymology suggests, it does not refer to a reality existing somewhere in the present but rather to a reality that may emerge in a more or less near future, as a result of present-day trends. The literary genre tied to dystopia understood in this way includes works such as Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1908), Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), George Orwell's 1984 (1949), and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985).

Emerging here is one question we would like to address to recipients of this call for papers: alongside this rather narrow definition of the dystopian genre, might it not be productive to introduce a broader category: a DYSTOPIA genre (caps intended), or a genre of Modern Infernality, Dys-daimonia as the antonym of eudemonia, “dystopia” (lower case) then constituting a sub-genre? DYSTOPIA would include, as it were, all bad and unhappy states of affairs, all profoundly dysphoric social orders, past, present, and future, arising as a direct or indirect consequence of modernity and the evils it produces. DYSTOPIA would thus be the genre that takes in modern human Hell, the exacerbation of what Leopardi called, on the same page, both “the garden”, and “the hospital” of being (Zibaldone, 4175-4176). This is the “hospital,” in other words, that modernity has been incapable of transforming or restoring into the Garden of Eden, Earthly Paradise (reconquered by human activity), the process for which Francis Bacon had hoped.

Depending on the times or circumstances defining such negative social orders, they will fall within the codes of science fiction, of realist and naturalist narrative (for example, novels of Zola and Lawrence and novellas of Verga and Pirandello about the life of workers in coal and sulfur mines), and of testimonial narrative (as the one treating the Nazi and Gulag camps). Although showing differences in their form and (more narrow) generic classification, these narratives share a focus on evils produced by modernity: evils connected to political regimes, economic systems, administrative and bureaucratic mechanisms; to working conditions, professional practices, and a range of medias; to changes in perception of space, time and the objects that modernity produces. These evils are related, in other words, to the different forms of exploitation and imprisonment, violence and dehumanization – to the alienation, anxiety, and fear – that modernity generates or renders increasingly virulent. 

As a possibility recipients of this call for papers are invited to consider, introducing such an expanded dystopian concept, that of DYSTOPIA or Modern Hell, would encourage a comparative approach to works belonging to different literary genres (again: in a more narrow sense) but nevertheless sharing related referents: for  example, totalitarian regimes that are either real or imagined (but, in the latter case, feared as highly probable); forms of unbridled capitalism from the past, existing in the present, perhaps emerging in the future; varying degrees and levels of computerization and virtualization of sensible phenomena. In short, a comparative interpretive dynamic might emerge centered on referents that already exist or are merely possible, but are in any case all linked to highly potent processes of modernity.

Apocalyptic and dystopian genres have developed mainly in English-speaking and Eastern European countries; at least until recently, contributions to these genres have been less widespread and less studied in Italy and France. But even in these two literatures, there are many contributions that can be tied to different types of DYSTOPIA and apocalypse. In order to treat a relatively manageable body of work, we thus propose focusing on Italian and French literature from 1945 to the present. Our central proposed aim is to explore the specificity and originality of the main French and Italian works concerned. 

For the purpose of guidance alone, the following is a list of some authors whose writing can be explored both as illustrations of different apocalypses or dystopias and as individual or collective efforts to respond to them. Such responses can involve strategies of subversion, resistance, and resilience; of withdrawal from the world, compromise, resignation, nihilistic despair; and even enthusiastic approval, when what others consider a dystopia is reinterpreted in “messianic” terms:

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), Alberto Moravia (1907-1990), Tommaso Landolfi (1908-1979), René Barjavel (1911-1985), Guido Morselli (1912-1973), David Rousset (1912-1997), Elsa Morante (1912-1985), Albert Camus (1913-1960), Robert Antelme (1917-1990), Primo Levi (1919-1987), Emilio De Rossignoli (1920-1984), Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975), Giorgio Manganelli (1922-1990), Italo Calvino (1923-1985), Jorge Semprún (1923-2011), Paolo Volponi (1924-1994), Georges Perec (1936-1982), Walter Siti (1947-), Antoine Volodine (1950-), Michel Houellebecq (1956-), Bruno Arpaia (1957-),Tullio Avoledo (1957-),  Philippe Claudel (1962-), Niccol  Ammaniti (1966-),Aldo Nove (1967-),Laura Pugno (1970-),  Paolo Zanotti (1972-2012),  Xabi Molia (1977-).

Submission guidelines

Articles, to be written in accordance with C.E.I. editorial standards, must be submitted

by February 28, 2025,

and will undergo double-blind review. They should not exceed 50,000 characters, including spaces. Requests for information and proposals can be sent to the following address: apocalissiedistopie@gmail.com


Date(s)

  • Friday, February 28, 2025

Keywords

  • apocalypse, dystopie, apocalissi, distopia, antropocene, dystopia, letteratura italiana contemporanea, littérature française contemporaine

Contact(s)

  • Enzo Neppi
    courriel : apocalissiedistopie [at] gmail [dot] com

Information source

  • Diego Pellizzari
    courriel : diego [dot] pellizzari [at] ens-lyon [dot] fr

License

CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Apocalypse and dystopia in Italian and French literature, 1945 to the present », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Monday, March 18, 2024, https://doi.org/10.58079/w15r

Archive this announcement

  • Google Agenda
  • iCal
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search