A series of fortunate led me to create this blog by convincing me that it was necessary. I should say that I don’t really believe in coincidences, or more accurately, I believe that they say more about the person who notices them than about anything objective. Each day a person may walk past five things that are green, five things with the word ‘bean’ in the label, five things that are square, and so on. The brain may or may not record them, but the mind won’t bother to take notice of all of them. The five that you do notice are in fact trying to tell you something, only the message comes more from within than from without.
For me, everything lately is apocalyptic…
That’s not as full of drama as it sounds – I’ve been studying atomic panic and the Cold War for some time now – but recently I’ve been noticing what seems to me to be a significant rise in the use of the rhetoric of pending catastrophe. Everyone seems to be in a panic about something, from the weather (either blisteringly hot or overwhelmingly wet), the state of the ice caps, the rise of antibiotic resistant pathogens, the utter lack of a job market, the somewhat delayed rapture or the coming Mayan cataclysm, the debt ceiling crisis…
Okay, I’ll admit that last one certainly has me tossing and turning a bit at night.
Yes, so there are a lot of big things to worry about these days. But there are always things to worry about and problems which loom in the near distance. Meanwhile, the idea apocalyptic, or even just the word itself has lately been unavoidable, even when I choose to take a holiday from the news.
Today was the birthday of Cormac McCarthy, the author whose “apocalyptic vision” drives both the tone and subject matter of his works (I read this early this morning, before arriving at the library to find that the copy of McCarthy’s novel The Road, which I requested several weeks ago, had finally come in).
It seems clear that many of us feel as if we are living in a time of great, decisive, even ultimate struggle. And along with that feeling of sitting precariously poised on a turning point comes a deep, heartfelt sense of nostalgia for some half-remembered time when things were better and simpler (and according to some, better BECAUSE they were simpler) and a sometimes frightening certitude that, even if we have to endure the fall and the pain and damage it will cause, something better is waiting on the other side. And furthermore, most everyone I talk to about this seems as convinced that this sense that we are poised on the brink of a decisive rupture is wholly new and of the present moment; that we have never before faced such a moment of danger, never stood so close to the end of things.
It is easy to feel that way, I think, given how large the present and the imminent future looms in our consciousness, and how quickly the past fades as it recedes. If I have learned anything from my study of the second half of the twentieth century, it is that this spot on the edge of the end of all things is actually a very familiar place for us. Indeed it’s amazing to me how much the rhetoric I find in the daily papers echoes that which surrounded any number of other past crises. We come here often enough that we ought to recognize the décor and that faint whiff of smoke. It never ceases to surprise me how many people seem to enjoy the idea, or at least to find it irresistible to return to again and again.
And in saying that, I am not excepting myself. I requested McCarthy’s The Road because I find myself consistently fascinated by the many ways we envision the end of all things and what comes after. The apocalyptophilia of the twenty-first century seems to have a lot in common with the utopianism of the twentieth, in that both offer the promise of something better to come if only we can endure the radical disruption that will be necessary to launch us out of the present moment. This promise is, I think, the primary pleasure that both offer: the opportunity to linger lovingly over the details of the better world that the few, good people remaining will be able to fashion once freed from the constraints and entanglements of the messy present. Apocalyptophiliacs are, perhaps, just slightly more honest than the utopians in their understanding of just how catastrophic the disruption will have to be in order to achieve the break, but it is the gleam in their eye which accompanies the depictions of the fall which makes me uneasy. Utopians may overlook some of the worst that might come about in the pursuit of their ‘good place’, but apocalyptophiliacs seem too often to eagerly anticipate it. The destruction will be terrible, yes. But many seem convinced that the end will be worth every lovingly recounted minute of the horrifying means.
So, I am giving in. If the idea of the apocalyptic has so permeated my consciousness that I see and hear it everywhere, better to face it head on and consider its permutations and implications.
Incidentally, in checking the online Merriam-webster dictionary for definitions of ‘apocalyptic’ I found a public-service advertisement produced by FEMA to draw attention to the need for disaster preparedness. Huh. Way to go AdSense, it’s not like I was paranoid already…