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Eschatology as Entertainment
The complete text (2010)
[Here, as on a few past occasions, I provide the text of one of my older published essays, but in a slightly longer and more authoritative form than originally appeared. In part, this is to fill in a gap in my publishing schedule created by the inadvertent early release of the article “The Sage of Jena.” But it also seems to serve quite well as a supplement to my series of posts on New Testament Eschatology, which will resume—with its glorious finale—sooner or later.]
King K’inich Kan Bahlum II, reigned in Baalak from 685 AD until his death in 702 AD. Like his father before him, the great K’inich Janaab Pakal, he was responsible for many of the most glorious architectural and artistic achievements of Mayan civilization’s “classical period,” including the completion of the great pyramidal Temple of Inscriptions in Palenque, on one of whose walls he left a legend predicting that his dynasty would last until 21 October 4772. I have always been impressed by the absolute precision of these old Mayan prophecies, I have to say: never any vague predictions of nameless catastrophes occurring at uncertain hours—“In the time of great sorrow, when the moon is in the third house and the curlew’s nest is empty, a dark fortune will descend upon the house of Tarquinio” or anything like that—but only exactly dated auguries of specific events. Of course, I would be considerably more impressed if, in addition to their precision, they had occasionally exhibited some tendency toward accuracy (which, alas, turns out not to have been the case). Kan Bahlum’s dynasty, for instance, died out some time in the early ninth century. We need not quibble, though—and what’s four millennia here or there, anyway?—because the most interesting thing about Kan Bahlum’s prophecy is that it refers to an event that will occur exactly 2759 years and ten months after 21 December 2012, which is supposedly the day on which, by the reckoning of the Mayan long calendar, the current “Great Cycle” of 5125 years (which began in 3114 BC) will reach its end. And the reason this is so interesting is that we have just recently entered a period of popular fascination with this date, or at least with the year 2012, which will almost certainly become more intense over the next thirty-six months or so. According to any number of recent books, articles, television programs, and viral videos, as well as one particularly cretinous film, this is when the classical age Mayas predicted the world will end, or at least suffer a cataclysm of such enormous proportions that the vast majority of life on earth will perish. And yet here was Kan Bahlum, ever the sunny optimist it seems, confidently asserting that his family’s reign in Palenque would continue on unbroken for better than twenty-seven centuries beyond that mark.
There is no mystery here, really. The truth of the matter is that the ancient Mayas understood 2012 as the terminal year not of the cosmos or the planet, but of a calendrical rotation. There is clear evidence that they did indeed regard every transition from one Great Cycle to another as something quite momentous, with some greater mystical or cosmic significance, but they certainly did not see it as ushering in the end of time. In fact, the ancient Mayas do not seem to have had any real concept of the end of time. Rather, they had an insatiable predilection for large numbers arranged in magnificently intricate mathematical schemes, as well as an equally insatiable fascination with astronomy; and these two appetites in combination produced marvelous and fantastical myths and monuments and vaticinations, all embraced within a vision of time as a kind of endless epochal spiral, rather like Yeats’s system of “gyres,” but on a far greater order of magnitude. For them, as for other Mesoamerican cultures of pre-Christian times—such as the Aztec, Toltec and, more distantly, Hopi—time was apparently conceived as a complex system of circles, but not circles of total cosmic recurrence of the sort one finds in Stoicism or certain schools of Platonism or Hinduism. The Mayas appear rather to have thought in terms of a regular, natural, and continuous succession of distinct aeons, each with its own special character, and each leading to the next according to some deep and inscrutable law of spiritual evolution. And the Great Cycles themselves were seen as being contained within other, larger cycles, and those perhaps in larger cycles still, of unimaginably vast duration, and so on indefinitely, all together playing their gyratory roles in the grand, elaborate, circumvolving dance of eternity.
There could scarcely be a more drastic confusion of categories, therefore, than the application of eschatological themes to what is in essence a mythology of perpetual periodic regeneration within natural time. It is probably an inevitable mistake for modern Westerners, however; it is the result of what might be called our “Zoroastrian heritage.” At least, according to tradition, it was Zarathustra (who lived, according to the best current estimate, some time in the eleventh or tenth century BC) who brought about the great divergence in Arya culture between Persian and Bharatan—or Avestan and Vedic—religion, and who first clearly framed the cosmic narrative that would come in time to dominate all the great faiths of the Near East: the story of a universal struggle between good and evil, light and darkness, God and the devil, played out along the axis of a single linear history, and culminating in a final overthrow of and judgment upon evil, a general restoration of cosmic order, and the arrival of a cosmic savior (or Saoshyant). It was a version of this story, it is generally assumed, that migrated into the Judaism of the post-exilic or “Persian” period, producing Jewish apocalyptic literature and sects and giving shape to eschatological expectations that would appear again, with distinctive variations, in Christianity and Islam. But, really, the material history of such eschatological motifs is not very important (and only someone prone to the genetic fallacy could imagine that that history tells us anything regarding the truth or falsehood of eschatological expectations). It simply is the case that for all of us who have been raised within the fold of one of the “Abrahamic” faiths, or at least within a culture formed by such a faith, it seems perfectly natural to think in terms of a last day: of a catastrophic, or redemptive, or catastrophic and redemptive conclusion to the narrative of history and nature as we know them. Our imaginations are haunted by the prospect of a final age of tribulations and terrors—wars and rumors of war, wormwood and fire, desolation and wrath—and at the same time enticed by visions of creation’s final restoration, the cessation of worldly suffering, the vindication of virtue, and the inauguration of an endless age of peace and joy.
The pathos of the eschatological, however, is not indigenous only to Near Eastern prophetic religion, or to creeds that think exclusively in terms of the “arrow of time.” Many systems of thought that involve some idea of eternal recurrence presume that the end of each cosmic revolution will be announced by an age of decline and depravity, which will grow progressively worse until a final calamity consumes the universe. The last, bleak dawn of each world-age, just before Vishnu wakes from his demiurgic slumbers and everything returns into him again, and the nuptial play (lila) of Ishvara with Maya reaches one of its caesuras, is a “Kali Yuga,” a brief interval—say, a mere 432,000 years or so—of demonic vice and cosmic degradation, when knowledge of eternal dharma will dwindle away, God will be forgotten, evil will run rampant through the earth, wars will multiply, lust and dissipation will go unrestrained, and piety will wither away. And, of course, any mythology of genuine recurrence must necessarily presume a periodic annihilation of the cosmic order, so that the cycle can begin anew. Thus, for the Stoics, every Great Year must end in a universal “ekpyrosis” or conflagration, in which the divine fire that pervades all things resumes the universe into itself again. The conviction or, at any rate, apprehension that “time must have a stop” is part of the common conceptual property of the whole Indo-European world. And that, in itself, explains a great deal regarding certain persistent motifs in the Western popular imagination. It does not, however, explain everything.
I realized this several weeks ago when my young son was deeply disturbed by a two-minute conversation he happened to see on television. The fault was entirely mine: I thought I had turned on one of his beloved nature programs on the National Geographic Channel and had walked away before I realized that I had mistakenly turned to one of those cable channels that specializes in “investigative” programs about UFO’s, undiscovered monsters hiding in mountains or forests or inland seas, the Holy Grail, the secret “histories” of the Templars or the Masons, and things of that sort. On this occasion, the topic was the impending extermination of almost all life on earth, scheduled to arrive in 2012, when—or so a pale, angular, ectomorphic, slightly epicene, and rather debauched-looking fellow with an Austrian or Hungarian lisp and a thin, sibilant, phlegmily emphysemic voice was informing us—a vast increase in solar electromagnetic emissions will induce a reversal of the planet’s magnetic poles; this will apparently bring about earthquakes of unprecedented scale, tsunamis large enough to inundate entire continents, the collapse of every conventional structure in the inhabited world, and so on (or something like that). When I became aware of my mistake, I switched over to the belugas or penguins or katydids or whatever it was that we were supposed to be watching, but not before my son had been visibly shaken. Ignore this fragile mitteleuropäische degenerate, I told my son; he’s just a nasty charlatan spouting lies in order to make a bit of cash by playing on people’s anxieties or morbidities. My son already knew this, though; what had bothered him was the weird, sadistic pleasure the odd little goblin seemed to take in prognosticating “such horrible things.” Happily, though, the salamanders or eels or elk or whatever they were soon intervened and restored my son to equanimity.
There is a question here worth pondering, though. Why are chiliastic and apocalyptic fantasies such inexhaustible sources of popular entertainment, especially now? What is it that draws us, or a great many of us at least, to the idea of a world shattered and scorched and whelmed by the seas, and to the thought of civilization reduced to savagery in a single day? And, more importantly, why is the prospect of that day’s imminence one of the most tantalizing elements in these fantasies? Of course, I suppose we would not really be entertained by them very much at all if we really believed them. But, still, there has been such an abundance of post-Armageddon novels, works of “nonfiction,” films, television stories, “documentaries,” and so forth over the past four or five decades that the whole genre seems now to enjoy the sort of popularity that once attached to westerns or romantic musicals. This is especially true of cinema; since the birth of the nuclear age, there has been a broad and incessant flow of films set in the aftermath of doomsday, usually with some bitter but redoubtable survivor of the cataclysm at its center—Gregory Peck, Ray Milland, Edward Judd, Charlton Heston, Mel Gibson, Will Smith, Viggo Mortensen, Denzel Washington, and on and on—attempting to make his way, alone or at the head of a small troupe of fellow survivors, through the wastes. The larger market for eschatological fantasy, moreover, crosses almost every demographic cultural boundary, albeit with significant variations. For some, the post-apocalyptic genre is simply a subcategory of the horror genre, and as such has no grander function than to inspire little macabre thrills of unease or Schadenfreude, and is best served up with a generous complement of cannibals, zombies, mutants, or things of that sort. For the more morally serious, it has a graver, more minatory purpose, and should apprise us, as ponderously and as sanctimoniously as possible, that nuclear war, environmental devastation, genocidal pandemics, swarms of omnivorous nano-robots, and dangerous experiments on subatomic particles are very bad things that ought to be avoided on most occasions. Then again, for certain evangelical Christian fundamentalists, “end times” fantasy is a kind of licit pornography, absorbed with unhealthy relish; the deeply perverted Left Behind novels are a splendid example of the pathology and its degrading symptoms. And there are other variations as well. But I suspect that, underlying all the superficial differences, some essentially uniform impulse of the imagination is at work, some species of shared desire or fear.
Not to say that I have any clear notion of what exactly it is. It may simply be the result of history, of course. The latter half of the twentieth century was hardly an encouraging period for persons of sanguine temperament; in one sense, our shared visions of the impending eschaton might be nothing more than memories of the recent past allegorically inverted into fabulous premonitions of the near future. And, certainly, the past six or seven decades have given all of us sufficient cause for anxiety regarding the extreme fragility of civilization, and just as much cause to wonder whether civilization still exists in any form other than a residual collection of cultural habits and souvenirs. That, however, explains only the element of collective therapy in these fantasies, not the great pleasure they seem to afford many people (at least, apart from the momentary pleasure of emotional release). Perhaps their appeal reaches down to a more fundamental level, one either more basically physiological or more obscurely metaphysical, or perhaps both at once. One of the few ideas of Freud’s that I have ever found remotely interesting—and then, admittedly, more for its poetic than its empirical value—is the notion he developed in Beyond the Pleasure Principle of a constant tension in each of us between the will to life and the will to death. Perhaps when we fantasize about the destruction of the world that we know we are merely allowing Thanatos a brief, playful period of predominance over Eros, so that once the crueler god has been served we can return to the task of living temporarily relieved of the restive weight of material existence. Perhaps there really is some sort of primordial agitation at the heart of the experience of finite being that longs for final repose even as it resists extinction, some tension in the organic ferment of animal life between the elation of persistence and the yearning to subside into the peaceful oblivion of inert matter. Or, to borrow Bergson’s terminology, perhaps our susceptibility to the allure of apocalypse is just one psychic register of the constant fatigue that our élan vital suffers as it strives against matter’s gravity, and a sign of some urge lurking at the physical roots of consciousness to lapse gratefully again into restful nothingness.
On the other hand, the popularity of eschatological fables may, much more simply, proceed from a fairly understandable desire to know how any story ends (and, of course, now we have some inkling of how that ending might plausibly be brought about). We all suffer from the often intolerable knowledge that each of us occupies only a vanishingly minuscule particle of terrestrial time, and that most of us are not destined to play any conspicuous role in the great drama of history. In many of us, surely, there must be some tacit impulse to rebel against the indignity of our own transience and seeming irrelevance; and maybe that impulse is somewhat soothed when one allows oneself to aggrandize one’s brief moment in the light by imagining that it coincides with the end of time. Then again, of course, it is also true that very few of the stories we tell about the end of the world are actually about the end of the world. That is to say, most of them are about the end of the world as we know it, but not the total extinction of the human race or life on earth. There is usually a saving remnant, a small community intent upon surviving the devastation and beginning the human story—and the cycle of history—anew. These are not so much “Zoroastrian” tales, really, as tales of cosmic recurrence, pitched in a somewhat violent and apocalyptic key.
This suggests to me the hopeful thought that some substantial part of the appeal of such stories lies not in the satisfactions they offer to some latent death-instinct in us, or to some malicious appetite for destruction, or to some egoistic desire to subsume the destruction of the world into our own deaths, or even to plain morbidity and nihilism, but in a curiously subdued but persistent longing for innocence—the bright golden innocence of the desert. Perhaps what draws many of us to the poetry of annihilation is the thought of a world of sublime simplicity, purged of politics, taxes, national and corporate interests, social coercions, and private ambitions: a world without the ambiguities or structures of sin. In utter desolation there is a kind of purity, the fertility of the fallow time before Eden, the simple chaos from which a blameless new order of things might arise. It would, at any rate, be pleasant to conclude—in good Christian Platonist fashion—that, since even our most vicious desires spring from and only distort a more original desire for the good, we cannot really be entertained by the spectacle of universal destruction without simultaneously longing, even if at only the most deeply hidden levels of consciousness, for a world redeemed “as by fire” and returned to the innocence of pure possibility.
But who knows, really? I certainly don’t. This much, though, seems certain to me: Whatever it is that makes eschatological fantasy so entertaining for so many people, it really is in extraordinarily bad taste for television producers to summon up leering trolls from the grottoes of the Danube to scare children just before bedtime; and it is a grave injustice to implicate the poor, defenseless, long departed classical age Mayas in depraved fables about impending cosmic destruction. The world, I think we can confidently predict, will not end in 2012. Kan Bahlum II—however wrong the rest of his prophecy may have proved to be—certainly got that part right.