Ansgar Allen: Review of Performances for the End of Time by Harold Jaffe

Harold Jaffe’s latest, Performances for the End of Time, has all but given up on humanity. In the assessment of the book, humanity is facing its end, and knows it. This knowledge cannot be digested. There is no digesting the fact of one’s imminent and unavoidable self-destruction.

Humanity persists within the book as a serviceable abstraction. The notion of a shared humanity looms behind its most quotidian and mundane details: a “torn sofa,” “whistling outdoors,” “a strong laxative.” It seems as though humanity must be invoked, must be held up, for the book to be written.

In Jaffe’s analysis, humankind is facing a kind of twin annihilation—sucked into its various electronic devices before which it lives a superficial afterlife, whilst the earth around it, the ecological conditions of its existence, are destroyed by those same, bled out humans.

This book has also all but given up on declaiming against the great malignancy it represents, all the forces of destruction it recounts, where these range from the horrors of ethnocide, rampant capitalism, the military-industrial complex, and the killing of “Mother Earth,” to the daily indifferences of people in the more immediate face of suffering.

Performances for the End of Time has all but given up on literature too—its performances are not foremost poetic pieces but testimonies to futility. They are not self-conscious in their crafting, in their artfulness (or even in their linguistic poverty) but appear as raw descriptive enactments of (some of) the material that our lives, our hopeless lives, are still made of. The book has stripped itself of literary accruements and (most) literary pretenses. It has largely separated itself from all those literary sentiments and signs of falsehood, of self-consolation, of self-delusion, that still somehow appear in so-called literary writing, even in writing described as bleak, or pared back, but still considered evocative, or “beautiful,” or “profound.” And so, although it is a shame that anyone reading Proust on a Kindle cannot smell the fragrance, of, say, “the old Modern Library version,” if they did, they would be inhaling its “underscent of death.”[1]

There is also no real attempt at persuasion, or raising alarm, because the analysis it presents, which is really a kind of descriptive non-analysis, is that all it sets out is already sensed, even if this realization of the end is predominantly expressed in the pantomime of mainstream cinema. Indeed, that knowing already, that ability to live still in these latter years, to prosper even where comfort can be found, is the nub of the problem it presents. Knowing is not good enough, is not sufficient for preventing, or even for attenuating all these destructions, when humanity (this grand abstraction, once more) itself is the problem.

Similar observations might be extended to the interview which accompanies the book on the Equus Press website. In response to a range of considered questions, Jaffe frequently opts for a boiled-down one-liner. But this, again, is more of a deliberate, consciously enacted effect than a mere symptom of a jaded outlook. Presented here once more is a performed stripping back of the interviewee before human curiosity, a stripping back that takes us down to the rawness of the message, a message which is again a kind of non-message, as Jaffe really has nothing left to teach, or proselytize.

All of which makes the operation of reviewing this book—in the face of a doomed humanity—rather moot. Indeed, there is no easy way of praising this book without generating a positive lilt that would amount to a betrayal or refusal of its pessimism.  

Yet despite its gloom, the book still presents an enigma of its own, an enigma which is wrapped into its very existence as a book, and into the performance of the manuscript being submitted for consideration, and then subsequently typeset, published, and printed. This is a book that was written by an author who still permitted it be said, in its backmatter, that “Harold Jaffe is the author of 30-plus novels, fiction collections, essays, and drama.” This is a noteworthy claim simply in terms of its appearance at the end of a text of such overt pessimism.  

By most readings—that is to say, according to the dominant literary conceit—the existence of this book (and it is a fine book), demonstrates there is hope after all, and that the book, this organ of educated sensibility, still has some ennobling, healing, or redemptive potential. Merely the ability of literary culture to bear witness to horror, to the great variety of human brutality, is felt to be a fact of its existence which marks it off as something valuable in itself. “We are still able to notice all this,” seems to be the underlying claim, “and that ability, that refined-consciousness, is surely an achievement if not a toehold for some kind of optimism, some sort of possibility for turning things round.” Or worse still (because the conceit is heightened): “We are able to bear witness to all this, and establish relations with one another, communities of experience, based on that noticing. And this fact, this very fact of our shared (but refined) repulsion, is a demonstration of our continued humanity despite it all.”

But what if we were to reject this option, as perhaps Jaffe himself encourages us to do? What then of the book? What explains its continued production, if book-writing itself can no longer attach itself to any positive sentiment, any favorable assessment of its mission? How might the pessimistic outlook be applied to its existence too?

There are two options worth considering perhaps, and these are not mutually exclusive. First, that the book (book writing, book printing, book consumption), might be considered to be one of the last reflexes of an ailing culture, a culture (in Jaffe’s analysis) in its death throes, a bookish reflex that is flexing still, and might be understood as a kind of death tremor or Lazarus sign. Second, that the book, and all it involves (the desire to write one before all else), is a kind of disease, or is another marker of a diseased state, a terminal condition, a specific form of suffering that is also a mechanism of distraction, of inaction and paralysis, that some of us seem driven to occupy.

Performances for the End of Time, by Harold Jaffe. London & Prague: Equus Press, January 2023. 176 pages. € 12.00, paper.

Ansgar Allen is the author of books including a short history of Cynicism (MIT Press), and the novels, Plague Theatre (Equus Press), Wretch (Schism Neuronics), The Sick List (Boiler House Press), and The Wake and the Manuscript (Anti-Oedipus Press).

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[1] There could still be some pathos here, perhaps, as expressed, for instance, in a performance entitled Imagine, where we are encouraged to imagine that “the young woman sitting on the steps scrolling up and down her smartphone” is now again on the very same steps, but “smoking a cigarette and reading a paperback copy of Orlando, by Virginia Woolf.” Still, there is a bleak reading here too, where, in the face of looming catastrophe, it makes no matter which.