A & H Colloquium

October 11, 2017

Friday, October 20, 2017, 10am - 11:30am

Malaspina Theatre (Bldg 310) 

Vancouver Island University

You are encouraged to come early for coffee, juice, cookies and conversation in the foyer

Parking - courtesy parking, enter through Gate 5D (access from Fifth Street) and park in the lot to the right. From 9am - 10am, a student in a safety vest will be near the entrance to guide you and provide you with a pass for your dashboard. The pass will be good until 1pm.


Dr. Anna Atkinson, from the English Department, will give a presentation entitled It’s the End of the World as We Know It: Archetypal Narratives, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Fate of Civilization.


Atkinson’s talk will be both historical and modern. Climate Change, Peak Oil, Economic Meltdown, The Rapture: nowadays there seem to be a thousand ways for the world as we know it to end. Indeed, in The Last Myth, Matthew Barrett Gross and Mel Gilles note that “[i]n America, everyone believes in the apocalypse. The only question is whether Jesus or global warming will get here first.” In fact, so numerous are the conversations about various apocalypses that, on the Internet and elsewhere, there is now an acronym which those “in the know” recognize immediately: TEOTWAWKI (The End of the World as We Know It).


Using the example of the first known recorded work of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem from ancient Mesopotamia, her presentation begins with an analysis of the archetypal genre which coincides with the foundation of civilization: the Epic. Through it, and through the two genres which typically follow the Epic in the progress of civilization (the Romance and the Tragedy), she argues that the problem with civilization which is evident in the Epic, and which the Romance attempts unsuccessfully to mitigate, in the end inevitably leads to Tragedy (and, of course, to TEOTWAWKI).


Atkinson notes that TEOTWAWKI refers to “the world as we know it,” not “the world.” This is key: “When ‘we,’ that is, humans in an industrialized civilization, talk about the end of ‘the world,’ we actually mean the end of the way that ‘we’ live in the world; that is, the end of civilization. What we fail to acknowledge is that there have been several civilizations, and that they have all ended, and that civilizations will continue to end because they are by their very nature unsustainable.” 


“And really, perhaps we should already know this,” she says.  Oswald Spengler in The Decline of the West (1918), Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988), and more recently Jared Diamond, in a number of books, have all written about it. But what her presentation argues is that it is possible to see the end of civilization in the literature of its very beginnings, in The Epic of Gilgamesh.


Atkinson will talk about the end of the world as a persistent theme in literature, using The Epic of Gilgamesh to draw comparisons to modern sentiments. “Buried in every epic are the seeds of the destruction of the civilization whose beginnings the epic wants to recount,” she says. “It’s something that has obvious connections to contemporary concerns of ecological collapse. The first epic ever recorded tells us everything we need to know about what’s wrong with our culture.”


Dr. Atkinson is a scholar of Colonial American and Biblical Literature. She received her PhD in English Literature from Queen’s University in Kingston Ontario. She is also a farmer, a singer of the traditional songs of the British Isles, a permaculture designer, a fibre artist, an amateur naturalist, and a fan of the Inklings (look them up). She lives with her husband, author Robert Pepper-Smith, on a 21 acre permaculture farm south of Nanaimo, and is currently co-authoring a book on the “back to the land” movements, entitled Back Before We Got There, with friend, colleague, and fellow permaculture farmer Toni Smith.


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