Thursday, August 07, 2008

Oh, Dear, What Can the Matter Be?

The question is starting to bounce around the intertubes: why are some people so obsessed with end times and apocalyptic predictions? Atrios starts it off on the basis of speculation a few years ago that "intelligent machines" (by which, of course, we mean "rational" strictly in the Western European Enligthenment sense of that term. Other forms of "intelligence" and "rational" need not apply, for they will not be considered) would be the next step in human "evolution" (where evolution, of course, means "progress," which is merely Social Darwinism, not true biological evolutionary theory at all. But then, even the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is a Social Darwinist, at least in his critiques of religion, so maybe that distinction is merely pedantic.) Amanda asks, essentially: "My death; is it possible?" , and comes up more or less with an answer:

I think apocalypse scenarios capture the imagination because they’re a projection of our anxieties about mortality, but they also address our anxieties about not being very important in the scheme of things at all. Considering not just that you’re going to die, but that life will go on without you is humbling---which means, if you’re egotistical, humiliating. Think about it. After enough time passes, even the most famous people are forgotten, except for a few extremely unique ones like Julius Caesar, who probably didn’t even realize at the time that he was creating the sort of fame that outstripped other sorts of fame. How many of you can name all the kings of Europe throughout history? We can name all the Presidents, but that’s because our history is relatively short. Given enough time, you’ll be lucky to be a character in a history book that only a fraction of a percentage of the population will read. The fact is most of us won’t have even that. Your family will grieve you when you die, and their children will know about you, but odds are a few generations down the line, they won’t even remember your name. The impact we have in the world is limited to the length of our lives and a few years after that. Even your genetic heritage divides itself into meaninglessness in a few generations.

Apocalypse scenarios put that fear to rest, especially if the apocalypse comes in your lifetime.
Well, yeah, but the real question is: why is the scenario so pervasive? Why, in other words, is it so American?

Christianity, of course, is the answer. Christianity and Romanticism, which took up the elegiac theme from Anglo-Saxon literature and just ran away with it.

If you go back and read Beowulf, you'll find a few almost easily overlooked references to the "giants" who left only their artifacts behind. Beowulf kills Grendel with his bare hands, but even his sword is no match for the blood of Grendel's mother (which may be where Ridley Scott got the idea for the acidic blood of the "Alien"). The Anglo-Saxon hero has to wield one of the swords left by the giants (which only he is strong enough to do) in order to slay the monster. Who were these giants? The Romans. The mead hall of Heorot would have been a squatty, small, dark and rather flimsy affair, especially in contrast to the concrete structures the Romans left behind. Some of their aqueducts and buildings still stand. Where are the mead halls of Hrothgar? No wonder they considered the Romans "giants."

It is this sense of living among the ruins of a once great age, when "giants" walked the earth, that is the root of the elegiac in Anglo-Saxon literature. Life is nasty, brutish, and short in Anglo-Saxon poetry. "The Wife's Lament" focusses solely on her loss of her husband, and how she is now a stranger in a strange land, unable to return to her own people, rejected by her husband's people. "The Wanderer" looks back on his life as a loyal warrior to a now dead king, and all he can think of is what he has lost. Even the people Beowulf ruled, as they mourn him at the end of the poem, know their loss is not just of a noble king, but of the kingdom, too. As they mourn his passing, they know tomorrow they will lose all they have held, to a neighbouring king; the only question is, which one?

British literature is shot through with this elegiac theme. You can even find it running like a continuo through the revived "Dr. Who" series. Once a happy-go-lucky traveler in time and space, now the Doctor is haunted by the war that destroyed his people, and by all the "companions" he has had to leave behind. Every season, nearly every episode, turns on loss to one character or another, and always the losses the Doctor has known; losses that now include a family no one has ever seen or, before, heard of. It is the most British thing about the series: the sense of loss, the persistence of memory: the elegiac.

Romanticism (which began with Wordsworth and Coleridge) took that theme up with a passion, remembering the imagined glories of Greece, frolicking in temple ruins now covered with overgrowth, lamenting the loss of faith until Wordsworth would rather "be a pagan suckled on a creed outworn." And now, facing a modern world that more and more seems beyond our control, a world that daily offers us new promises it fails to deliver, that proffers a very un-Christian salvation in which the millenia will finally appear on earth with the newest car, the latest toothpaste, the most up-to-date laptop, we turn the elegiac into not only what has been lost, but what will be lost, so Paradise can be regained again.

Paradise lost is the modern American threnody. We came to this country to establish a more perfect union, because more truth and light was yet to break forth, because we sought reform and escape from the "Old World," and were determined to establish a new world on this continent, one we proclaimed with our very bourgeois, very market driven revolution. (The French, a decade later, would literally turn their society upside down, loot the national treasury, empty the churches of their valuables, seize land of monks and aristocrats alike, and descend into a Reign of Terror. America's revolution was much calmer and gentler, by contrast, but also less fundamental than was, or is, imagined.)

We came seeking paradise, and we are still determined to find it. If we can't find it, we will make it, either by pursuing evil, which we once called "Communism" and now label "terorrism;" or by building the better mousetrap, or simply through buying, finally, the perfect product which will raise us to the heights of glory we so richly deserve, be the product an idea, an "intelligent machine," or simply a community created and finally perfected, on the Internet.

And the flip side of paradise, of course, is the price. The price for paradise is, and always has been, apocalypse. During the Babylonian Exile, apocalypse was expressed in the Book of Daniel, with the handwriting on the wall and the three faithful in the fiery furnace. A tiny portion of the overall scriptures of the Hebrews, the fiery visionary of Daniel has always held an inordinate sway over the public imagination, much like the "whale" in the book of Jonah (itself a slight book with a very direct point that everyone overlooks, because it is so inconvenient. The point? You are not in charge; God is. Daniel teaches much the same lesson, but again....) There is one counterpart to Daniel: the Revelation to John. In the original Greek, it is actually the "apocalypse." "Apocalypse" doesn't mean "end" in Greek (that's "eschaton," end times). It means "revealing." But we've separated those two words, and given "apocalypse" another meaning entirely in English. So it goes.

On these two books have entire industries been created, industries which have merely flourished as modern industry has given us greater and greater god-like power (and as we have emphasized, more and more, that power as the true attributes of a "god." Read Greek literature, and look in vain for Zeus hurling thunderbolts whenever he appears, or Apollo blowing clouds around or changing people willy-nilly into animals, or otherwise performing miracles. "Magic," too, used to simply a form of wisdom; but now we insist it be an extension of will power. Harry Potter is not wise, he has supernatural "powers." Magic is power, just as industrialization gave us power over night, over distance, over the earth itself and the produce of the land.) Apocalyptic as we understand it today, especially in the dense fields of dispensationalism and the three branches of millenialism (pre-, post-, and amillenialism) all derive from the 19th century, the time of the rise of fundamentalism, itself a reaction to 19th century German Biblical scholarship which is still largely unknown outside of seminaries, despite the fact it changed humankind's view of the Bible forever. Or would have, had the fundamentalists not fought so vigorously against it.

So why are we so fascinated with end times and apocalypse? Largely because it puts us in control. Hal Lindsey wrote a book almost 40 years ago which asserted the Battle of Armageddon would most certainly be between America and the USSR. Oops. Now he says Barack Obama is almost certainly the anti-Christ. Uh-huh. Why is he saying these things? Well, probably because it means he is in control of the future, that scary time no one can see but that we all are racing to live in, because that's the time when finally everything will be better! And we think that because of Christianity? No; because of the Industrial Revolution, becuase of our indomitable faith in "progress," in our power and authority over the material world which will, finally, yield up the "intelligent machines" and the consumer products which will eliminate hunger and want and poverty and greed and usher us, finally, into the future envisioned by Star Trek, where magical devices produce meals and clothes and houses and all of the creature comforts, simply by transforming "energy" into "matter." And where does that energy come from, and how do we circumvent the law of conservation of matter? Easy! Technology! Progress! Science!


But until then, we have our quotidian lives to live, and they aren't always going so well. We find someone to blame for that: Congress, or liberals, or homosexuals, or terrorists; Muslims, bloggers either conservative or progressive; Republicans, Democrats. And when all of those fail to explain the cosmic despair that overwhelms us, or that just doesn't explain why I have not yet succeeded, or why my success has not made me permanently and unalterably happy, or why I still don't feel in control of my existence, rather than turn and to the hard work of self-realiztion, we turn to apocalypse. Now! When all things will, once and for all, come out just the way we want them to, and all problems will be solved, and we'll get to live the way we want to, forever.

Of course, chasing that car and catching that car, are two different things. But the Joker in "The Dark Knight" is almost the perfect exemplar of a modern American: we are offered almost nothing anymore except the chase; the chase, and the promise that tomorrow, our candidates will finally win, our policies will finally be enacted, our choices will finally effect the country as a whole, and then we can relax and enjoy the fruits of our labors. Until then, what hope do we have, except to expect the apocalypse (which will surely come if the Republicans/Democrats aren't defeated, once and for all!) and to imagine we alone will escape alive to tell thee. Or at least to enjoy the millenia of peace and prosperity that is sure to follow.

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