In continuing to explore C.-F. Ramuz, I turned to an earlier novel with a later, greater theme, again succinctly contained in its title: The End of All Men. If When the Mountain Fell had, in its treatment of a particular calamity, provided an oblique but chillingly portentous and powerful suggestion of the cataclysm of Nazism and war about to engulf Europe, then The End of All Men should frighten the hell out of contemporary readers: its subject is the unstoppable warming of the world. Though the novel was written in 1927, there has probably been no other work since that has so effectively and devastatingly painted a picture of the catastrophe of climate change.
Of course, Ramuz in 1927 was hardly addressing human-made warming of the planet. As in When the Mountain Fell, Ramuz melds Christian allegory and natural forces, here the prediction in Revelations of the destruction of the world by fire, and inspired, as we infer from the dedication, by a torrid summer in which it seemed the world would never stop getting hotter. His plainspoken vision of such an end to the earth has little to do with today’s complex scientific projections of the interacting mechanisms of warming with which we’re now familiar: the terrifying myriad of potential attendant consequences ranging from rising sea levels to disastrous weather, from disruptions in food supply to release of gases trapped in frozen tundra, from eruptions of disease to cascading ecological effects stemming from alterations in species vitality and survival. Scientists intent on communicating their alarm might learn from Ramuz, as what appears to be a trademark Ramuz ability to convey ideas grandly but in simply understandable terms makes The End of All Men as straightforward and easy to grasp as a Biblical parable.
Simply put, something has occurred, some perturbation of the earth that sends it slowly spiraling closer to the sun, with the temperature rising gradually each day. The first wave of hot days and the first rumors of something wrong get shrugged off:
There is a slight beginning of nothing here, without any outward sign. In the beginning the inventor of the idea is all alone with his idea. The arriving news gets a reception only of inattention and smiles.
Denial gives way to fear, then to panic, desperation, and violence. The strategies for dealing with the heat grow increasingly frantic. Riots break out. Refugees pile onto ships headed for the poles, only to be repulsed by icebergs splintered from the icecaps. In ever-shrinking lakes, people seek solace in whatever coolness remains in whatever water remains. Finding relief in no cardinal direction, others look vertically and head for the high mountains, for what would a Ramuz novel be without the Swiss Alps?
Like When the Mountain Fell, The End of All Men is set near Lake Geneva in French-speaking Switzerland. Ramuz displays a remarkable ability to be both regional and universal, to move seamlessly from the particular to the general. Large portions of The End of All Men could be lifted out of context and understood in any setting, as though Ramuz has found a way to some “ur” essence of phenomena. Even concrete and precise descriptions appeal to a commonality of experience, as when Ramuz juggles singular and plural in describing the discomfort of attempting to sleep in the heat:
That night the stars were too many and too white. Everybody remains merely questioning; everything is stopped. Everywhere, they lie naked on their beds; they toss from left to right, seeking a place for their head. Naked, having taken off their uncomfortable shirts, but there is that other discomfort which is in the air, and which is the atmosphere. Every man argues for himself – continually repelling something he would like to push aside, and it is himself, his own skin, as he is made, the very threat he is to himself; pushing it with each hand, with the two feet, by slow or abrupt movements.
Stylistically, The End of All Men is more experimental than When the Mountain Fell, more a prose poem than novel, a meditation on death, on human interactions in face of calamity, on moral choices when faced with mortality, on communal choices when faced with doom. Characters have no time to develop – rather, anyone given a name in the novel merely seems to detach from the masses for a brief, distinct moment, a brief act, then disappears, a moth in a flame. And yet the cadence of Ramuz’s language, his moving, gentle and even forgiving portrayal of human beings faced with apocalypse, convey an ultimate faith in human dignity, in effort, in life being worth living. The powerful ending of The End of All Men seems to anticipate as its deceptively reassuring philosophical core those lines from T. S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding,” that “the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time” – rather cold comfort for a world reduced to ashes.