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Painted Brain | The Comforts Of The Apocalypse
We're bridging communities and changing the conversation about mental illness using arts and media.
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  • November 2, 2015

The Comforts of the Apocalypse

Nineteen days after the world failed to end, blood stopped flowing to the brain of Harold Camping, prophet of doom. Had he felt his stroke coming as he confidently forecast apocalypse? Maybe not; maybe he had no more foresight into his own demise than the demise of the world. Or maybe he had simply confused the two—after all, he was approaching his 90th birthday, and his own mortality couldn’t have seemed far off when, on national billboards and his own radio network, he set a date (May 21, 2011) for the end of days. For some, it is a short mental step from “my end is imminent” to “the end of everything is imminent.” Call it apocalyptic narcissism.

We flatter ourselves when we imagine a world incapable of lasting without us in it—a world that, having ceased to exist, cannot forget us, discard us, or pave over our graves. Even if the earth no longer sits at the center of creation, we can persuade ourselves that our life spans sit at the center of time, that our age and no other is history’s fulcrum. “We live in the most interesting times in human history … the days of fulfillment,” writes the Rev. E.W. Jackson, Republican candidate for lieutenant governor of Virginia, in words that could have also come from the mouth of Saint Paul or Shabbetai Zevi or Hal Lindsey or any other visionary unable to accept the hard truth of the apocalyptic lottery: We’re virtually guaranteed to witness the end of nothing except our lives, and the present, far from fulfilling anything, is mainly distinguished by being the one piece of time with us in it.

Perhaps you, like me, are a good secularist, and perhaps Camping’s prophecies strike you as a perverse joke. (You may also be relieved to hear his stroke proved nonfatal.) But I find it harder to mock false prophets, because of the very real fear (of death, nothingness, irrelevance) to which their prophecies speak, and because I’m not at all convinced that secular culture is above their form of self-flattery. We’re living through a dystopia boom; secular apocalypses have, in the words of The New York Times, “pretty much owned” best-seller lists and taken on a dominant role in pop culture. These are fictions of infinite extrapolation, stories in which today’s source of anxiety becomes tomorrow’s source of collapse.

Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games projects reality television and social stratification into a televised tournament of death. Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series manages to combine an energy crisis, an omnipresent surveillance state, and caste warfare between “uglies” and surgically enhanced “pretties.” Nor is the literature of collapse confined to the young-adult section. The World Without Us, Alan Weisman’s 2007 best seller, imagines in loving detail the decay of material civilization on an earth from which humans have vanished. Our extinction goes unexplained, but a sense of environmental catastrophe hangs heavy over the book; billing itself as nonfiction, its premise comes straight from dystopian sci-fi.

All of this literature is the product of what the philosopher John Gray has described as “a culture transfixed by the spectacle of its own fragility.” Call it dystopian narcissism: the conviction that our anxieties are uniquely awful; that the crises of our age will be the ones that finally do civilization in; that we are privileged to witness the beginning of the end.

Of course, today’s dystopian writers didn’t invent the ills they decry: Our wounds are real. But there is also a neurotic way of picking at a wound, of catastrophizing, of visualizing the day the wounded limb turns gangrenous and falls off. It’s this hunger for crisis, the need to assign our problems world-transforming import, that separates dystopian narcissism from constructive polemic. And this hunger, too, has its origins in a religious impulse, in particular, the impulse called “typology.”

Typology was originally a method of reading the Old Testament in the light of the New. More broadly, typology speaks to the sense in which past events prefigure the present, or the present finds fulfillment in the future. Ordinary historical thinking tells us to look backward to understand the present; typological thinking tells us to make sense of the present in light of the promised future. The events of past and present are revealed in their true form only when our faith reverses the flow of history. As the saying goes, “in the Old Testament the New Testament is concealed; in the New Testament the Old Testament is revealed.” Against the dictates of common sense, the past is seen to be the future’s blurred, less-authentic “copy.” So Adam is a type of Christ, the Flood is a type of baptism, and the binding of Isaac prefigures the Crucifixion, as Israel prefigures the Church. This meaning lives on in “typing” and “typesetting”; the words you read on a printed page are the ghostly impressions of a real, three-dimensional piece of iron somewhere.

Typology would be a theological relic were it simply a means of reading Scriptures. But as the literary critic Northrop Frye wrote, it is a far-reaching “mode of thought,” built on the “assumption that there is some meaning and point to history, and that sooner or later some event or events will occur which will indicate what that meaning or point is … that despite apparent confusion, even chaos, in human events, nevertheless those events are going somewhere and indicating something.”

Needless to say, this mode of thought is deeply appealing and deeply consoling. The critic Erich Auerbach argued that typological thinking helped set the course of Western literature: The possibility that seemingly trivial events might represent or prefigure the divine invested the struggles of ordinary men and women with new dignity. Think of how a mundane walk down the street can be transformed into a scene of high drama with the addition of earbuds and the soundtrack of your choice. Typological thinking does much the same thing to history, bringing order and import out of randomness.

That is just what happens, on the grandest possible scale, in apocalypse—literally, “the uncovering.” The destruction of history, and the unveiling of its purpose, happens at one stroke. Our culture’s apocalyptic stories, not least the Book of Revelation, resonate in part because they promise uncovered meaning. The madness of Revelation—its seven-headed Beast, its Whore of Babylon, and its celestial wedding feast in the New Jerusalem—has perhaps struck so many millions as a higher sanity because it speaks to the conviction that our own small victories and losses have a meaning that is eternal and profound. “Anyone coming ‘cold’ to the Book of Revelation, without context of any kind, would probably regard it as simply an insane rhapsody,” writes Frye. “And yet, if we were to explore below the repressions in our own minds that keep us ‘normal,’ we might find very similar nightmares of anxiety and triumph.”

The source of these nightmares must be old and deep—too old and deep to be damned up by mere secularism. To a surprising extent, our secular stories of dystopia and collapse rehearse the old story of apocalypse. We own a slate of anxieties that would have been unimaginable to older generations with fears of their own; but much of our literature of collapse suggests that the future will fear exactly what we fear, only in exaggerated form. In this way, our anxieties are exalted. Yesterday’s fears were foolish—but today’s are existential. And today’s threats are revealed to be not some problems, but the problems. Dystopias can satisfy the typological urge to invest our own slice of history with ultimate meaning: We look back from an imagined future to discover that we are correct in our fears, that our problems are special because they will be the ones to destroy us.

Of course, some tight-lipped dystopias dwell much more on effect than on cause; Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for instance, famously consigns the cataclysmic event to a single sentence. But even works like these offer a strain of arguably false comfort: the reassurance that history concludes like a book, that “events are going somewhere and indicating something.” The Road—with its promise of “a thing which could not be put back. Not made right again”—ends nearly as conclusively as Revelation (“Behold, I make all things new”). It’s this finality, I think, that makes the bleakness of such a book bearable.

In music, a progression that resolves to a minor chord is more pleasant than one that fails to resolve at all; in the same way, even a story of the end of the world may be more comforting than the thought of history as an endless, pointless series of “one damn thing after another,” something too immense and amorphous to be captured by story. Kant, in fact, suggested in his “Idea for a Universal History” that it’s unbearable to imagine history without plan and purpose. Whether or not such a plan exists, we would be paralyzed unless we acted as if it does: “For what is the good of esteeming the majesty and wisdom of Creation … if we are forced to turn our eyes from it in disgust, doubting that we can ever find a perfectly rational purpose in it. … ?”

Kant’s age was more optimistic than ours, and he assumed that a plan meant a story of progress. But in a pinch, a story of regress will still serve a similar, consoling end: The immensity of the future becomes friendlier, more human-sized, when we assume that it has a bearing. And even dystopias reassure us that history moves in a discernible direction, a genuine arc of the universe unfolding through knowable rules.

Dystopian writing, then, can offer us the safe scares of a haunted house. A more radical brand of fiction about the future would still treat our problems with gravity, but it would also be a Copernican kind of fiction; it would not put our lives, our age, or our problems at the center of history. It would start, in other words, from the frightening and less-familiar thought that history has no direction and no center.

I can think of at least two examples of this kind of fiction, and it may not be a coincidence that they were both the work of lifelong socialists who found their faith in historical progress deeply shaken by the wars of the 20th century. One is George Orwell’s 1984, which does not end, as often thought, with the triumph of Big Brother but with “Appendix: The Principles of Newspeak.” The appendix is written as if from the far future, a time in which Newspeak and the dictatorship of Oceania have ceased to exist. In a major shift of perspective, we pivot from the destruction of Winston Smith to the treatment of the novel’s events as fodder for an article in an alien encyclopedia.

We can get a sense of this temporal whiplash by reading the story’s end and the appendix’s beginning consecutively: “He loved Big Brother. Newspeak was the official language of Oceania, and had been devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism.” Some have read this as a hint of hope, a bulletin from a future in which Big Brother has finally fallen. More than that, though, it is a suggestion that not even the most all-encompassing dystopia is final. 1984 contains two successive futures: one dystopian, and one so far removed that we can see nothing of it except the fact that it is distant enough to treat the first future with scholarly detachment.

A second writer, Orwell’s contemporary, took on a similar challenge of historical perspective, and I want to dwell on him at greater length because he deserves to be better known. His name was Olaf Stapledon, and his treatment of history and apocalypse made him one of the last century’s most innovative authors of science fiction. His work, which imagined the course of humankind from the 1930s to its extinction in two billion years, reached an astronomical scope. And his refusal to flinch from historical randomness led to a kind of fiction far more disturbing than the alternately self-pitying and reassuring dystopias of our time—and also, in the end, more honest and more humanist. The question at its heart is a lasting challenge to our political imaginations: If we lose our faith that history is going somewhere, how should we behave?

That question began in a crisis of political faith. Stapledon professed an enormous faith in historical progress—especially in his pacifist conviction that the institution of war could be ended in his lifetime. But sooner than most of his contemporaries, Stapledon grew convinced that this project was collapsing: “There was a time, just after the war of 1914-18, when the pacifist spirit … might have changed the whole course of history,” he reflected as Europe plunged into the Second World War. “The opportunity was missed.” Beginning in 1930, he turned to “future history” in order to process this crushing failure.

Stapledon’s most important book, Last and First Men, charts a universal human history stripped of progress altogether—a history that also deflates dystopian self-pity through its God’s-eye narration of serial collapse. It was just this refusal to impose tidiness or to treat the crises of any one age as central that struck his contemporaries so strongly. Stanislaw Lem, author of Solaris, observed that “Stapledon does not plant fate-like seeds of destruction in his civilizations. They fall because of purely statistical, accidental phenomena, not predetermination.” READ MORE

Rob Goodman, co-author of Rome’s Last Citizen (Thomas Dunne Books, 2012), is a Ph.D. student in political science at Columbia University.

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