The Appeal of Apocalypse

What is so seductive about the end of the world?

Evidence of the eschatonic impulse are around us everywhere. Disaster movies often reign supreme in the theaters — and the bigger the disaster (Independence Day, Armageddon, etc.) the more successful the movie. Foreign policy seems more and more a push for one last throw of the dice. Preachers orate, as they always have, of the coming of hellfire. Books like Left Behind are runaway best-sellers.

Why is it that we are drawn to the end of the world? More below the fold.

I might be sensitized to it because I’m a child of the Reagan years, when just about everyone “knew” that the Soviets would be invading Western Europe — any day now — and it would all come down to that final draw. Heck, one of the formative movies of my youth was WarGames, And while I breathed the same sigh of relief at Armageddon averted as everyone else, I have to admit: One of the most viscerally cool scenes of any movie in the 1980s was the sequence of wars Joshua plays out at the end, as he/it obliterates the human race in an ever-rising crescendo of apocalyptic excess.

The appeal of apocalypse struck me while I was reading World War Z. I enjoyed that book like I have no other for a while, and I began to wonder why. Then I looked back on my reading and realized that the previous “good book” I’d read was Oryx and Crake. It occurred to me that much of what I read and watch has apocalyptic overtones. Once noticed, the thought would not go away and I’ve been thinking a lot about it.

I don’t know if the same impulse exists outside of Western (indeed, American) culture. The rhetoric flowing out of both sides in the Middle East implies to me that the appeal of apocalypse is not confined to those of European descent. It’s interesting that the major proselytizing faiths share an apocalyptic bent. Does a fixation on eschaton make one more motivated to go out and convert the unbelievers, because the apocalypse means this Really Matters?

Normally I’d shrug off deep analysis but lately I’ve begun to wonder if the fascination with the apocalypse is causing real difficulty in the real world. “Knowing” that the world is ending soon might well dissuade one from the hard work of real solutions to actual problems. If God’s going to come in and wipe the slate clean anyway, why exert oneself to overcome poverty or racism? Heck, for that matter, why bother working out or eating right? Hard problems suddenly seem intractable, because they can’t be solved “in the limited time available”.

It’s no joke to think that the current Middle East quagmire resulted from an overstuffed diet of apocalyptic symbolism. It’s all just Good and Evil, after all, and (of course) we’re on the side of Good. There’s no reason — or time! — for nuance, for carefully crafting responses, for getting to understand the culture and history of the peoples you’ll be invading. With Archangel Mike puffing up to blow that horn, “history” is about to become past anyway. If we just bully through and keep right in our hearts, it will all work out, or at least, it will all end. The current occupant of the Oval Office, raised on the same end-of-the-world cliffhangers as I was, lacks the mental acuity to see past the final reel, to consider what remains after the credits roll. Invasion is easy, occupation is hard — and it’s plain silly to do the hard stuff, since God’s gonna press the old End of Game button anyway.

Out here in the real world, of course, life is not a movie and wars can’t be scripted. Apocalypsism is a successful meme because as it gets more widespread, it creates the conditions that lend it credibility. All these people convincing themselves that the world is about to end, are by that very act of belief, helping to bring it about. And the truly tragic thing is, there’s no obvious counter. How does one breed optimism about the future in a world rewriting itself to not have one?

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2 Responses to The Appeal of Apocalypse

  1. Let’s not forget the “coming apocalypse” of Global Warming Global Climate Change.

    “I don’t know if the same impulse exists outside of Western (indeed, American) culture.”

    As the only country to have been nuked, the Japanese are also pretty preoccupied with Armageddon. Watch some Anime sometime and you’ll see that a whole lot of it takes place in worlds “after the fall” or fast heading toward one.

    The biggest harm we have done to ourselves in the Middle East, and a major cause of events including 9/11, was convincing the Bin Ladens of the world that we are decadent and weak-willed. He was NOT expecting us to come after Al Quaeda, because we’ve spent the decades since Jimmy Carter’s capitulation with Iran convincing them that we’re too much of wimps to follow through. Even now he is quite happy watching all the reports of American politics, because of all the political posturing of those demanding that we pull out immediately.

  2. I tried to comment on a different post. It was eaten because the captcha image is missing. Perhaps you need to reinstall Spam Karma?