The Apocalyptic Mind

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.  —REM

6-apocalypseYou may already know this, but I think it’s only right to remind you that we are on the heels of the next apocalypse. 2012. Said by some to be the year of the “great awakening” but by others–and they’re a louder bunch–the end of the world.  Are you ready?  Perchance all of the economic, social, political and religious turmoil around us is leading to point terminus. The big good bye.  At least the Mayans thought so (the Mayan calender ends in 2012), and since we’ve been relying on their vast expanse of scientific and technological knowledge these many years, I see no reason to doubt them.

But seriously (and with much respect to the Mayans) it’s not at all clear what they thought would happen in 2012.  Since they did not have a conception of an “end” as we do (but rather continuous rebirth), it’s fairly certain they were not predicting the end of the world, and likely weren’t predicting anything.  That will not, however, stop the apocalyptic mind from conjuring precisely what the 2012 finale will look like — comet, nuclear war, global plague, all of the above?  One thing’s for sure, it’s going to make a hell of a movie. In fact, it already has (see video clip below). 

I could strain for hours trying to decipher the apocalyptic mind, its motivations, its presuppositions. Or, I can rely on someone who already did – the estimable author Iawn McEwan in this piece does a rather nice job of it.  He’s careful to note that apocalyptic thinking doesn’t only make for speculative chatter, it also effects our world in a very real way – it’s an idea with potentially dire consequences. I especially liked this word sketch… 

Estimating the nature and timing of our collective demise, the end of civilisation, of the entire human project, is even less certain – it might happen in the next hundred years, or not happen in two thousand, or happen with imperceptible slowness, a whimper, not a bang. But in the face of that unknowability, there has often flourished powerful certainty about the approaching end. Throughout recorded history people have mesmerised themselves with stories which predict the date and manner of our wholescale destruction, often rendered meaningful by ideas of divine punishment and ultimate redemption; the end of life on earth, the end or last days, end time, the apocalypse.

Many of these stories are highly specific accounts of the future and are devoutly believed. Contemporary apocalyptic movements, Christian or Islamic, some violent, some not, all appear to share fantasies of a violent end, and they affect our politics profoundly. The apocalyptic mind can be demonising – that is to say, there are other groups, other faiths, that it despises for worshipping false gods, and these believers of course will not be saved from the fires of hell. And the apocalyptic mind tends to be totalitarian – which is to say that these are intact, all-encompassing ideas founded in longing and supernatural belief, immune to evidence or its lack, and well-protected against the implications of fresh data. Consequently, moments of unintentional pathos, even comedy, arise – and perhaps something in our nature is revealed – as the future is constantly having to be rewritten, new anti-Christs, new Beasts, new Babylons, new Whores located, and the old appointments with doom and redemption quickly replaced by the next.


Graphic: The Apocalypse of St. John the Divine by John Buckland Wright 1931.


1 Comment

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One response to “The Apocalyptic Mind

  1. Humanity’s end strangely straddles both certainty (that we won’t last forever) and total uncertainty (as to the timing, as you say). In that sense the notion is intellectually both fascinating and vexing. However, despite all our problems it seems statistically unlikely to happen in our lifetimes, so in a personal sense it is a merely abstract issue.

    It is interesting to compare it then with personal death, which is absolutely certain (and therefore intellectually empty) and overwhelmingly concrete and relevant in a personal sense. Perhaps apocalyptic thinkers just find it convenient to conflate the two.

    I think Freud wrote somewhere that we can’t truly imagine life going on as normal after our own deaths. Just think, whole civilizations going on for eons without knowing or caring about us (personally)–the apocalyptic avoids that disconcerting thought. When I go, everyone else goes, and vice versa. Again, very convenient.

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