It’s not often remembered these days that the literal meaning of the word "apocalypse" is the revelation of something hidden. The term got its modern meaning because most of the prophecies that have been so labeled claim to reveal one hidden thing in particular, that is, the imminent end of history; but there’s another sense in which the word is even more appropriate, and that sense seems worth exploring just at the moment. The presence and popularity of apocalyptic beliefs, I’ve come to think, reveal something important about any society in which such beliefs occur.
Apocalyptic thinking, after all, doesn’t come out of nowhere. It has an extensive history behind it, a point I tried to make in my recent book Apocalypse Not, but it also has roots in the collective psychology of any society in which it becomes popular. Epochs awash in apocalyptic beliefs are also full of intense social stress, but there are stressful periods in which very few people spend their time feverishly getting ready for the end of the world. What seems to do the trick is a particular kind of stress—specifically, the kind that happens when the narratives a society uses to make sense of the world no longer work.
I’ve talked more than once in these essays about the immense role that narratives play in our mental and social lives. As human beings, we think with stories as inevitably as we eat with mouths and walk with feet; the stories we tell ourselves about the world define the way we make sense of the "blooming, buzzing confusion," in William James’ phrase, that the world out there throws at our sense organs. In what we are pleased to call "primitive societies," a rich body of mythology and legend provides each person with a range of narratives that can be applied to any given situation and make sense of it. Learning the stories, and learning how to apply them to life’s events, is the core of a child’s education in these societies, and a learned person is very often distinguished, more than anything else, by the number of traditional stories he or she knows by heart.
More technologically advanced societies often, though not invariably, move away from this, consigning their inheritance of stories to children—think, for example, of the role of fairy tales in nineteenth- and twentieth-century industrial societies—while narrowing down the range of stories adults are supposed to think with, until all that’s left are variations on one narrative. Serious thinking in these societies is by definition thinking that follows the accepted narrative. To be a respectable thinker in the heyday of the Roman Empire, for example, was by definition to filter the world through a narrative that described how original chaos was reduced to order, peace and prosperity under the paternal rule of a benevolent despot. Roman religion applied that narrative to the cosmos, Roman philosophy applied it to the relation between mind and body, and so on. The difficulty, of course, came when the world started throwing things at the Roman world that couldn’t be made to fit the narrative.
We’re in much the same situation today. Our core narrative, the story into which every serious thinker is required to fit his or her thoughts, is the narrative of progress—the story that defines all of human existence as a single great upward trajectory from the caves to the stars, and insists that the present is better than the past and the future will inevitably be better still. The problem with that narrative, of course, is that for most people the present is significantly worse than the past—standards of living for most Americans, for example, have been declining for more than thirty years—and the future promises to be even worse than the present. The narrative of progress has no room for that perception; in public life, the only way in which it’s possible to bring it up at all is to suggest that someone or something is to blame for the temporary lack of progress, and then offer a plan to get the obstacle out of the way so that progress can get under way once more.
Politicians, pundits, and serious thinkers of every kind have been making exactly this argument for a good many decades, though, and it’s started to sink in across a very broad range of the social spectrum that something has gone very wrong. There have been, so far, two main responses to this recognition. The surge in apocalyptic prophecies is one of them; the logical response when one narrative fails to make sense of the world is to look for another narrative that does a better job, after all, and the narrative of apocalypse—more precisely, the religious narrative of paradise, fall, and redemption in which apocalyptic prophecy has its natural habitat—is one of the very few alternatives that most people in industrial societies are willing to take seriously.
The second response to the recognition that the narrative of progress has failed is to rehash it over again in an even more extreme form. The poster child for this second option just now is a video titled Thrive, which is doing the rounds in the alternative scene as I write this. Those of my readers who are connoisseurs of meretricious nonsense may find it of interest, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else; we will all be hearing far too much like it over the years to come.
The basic message of Thrive is that we all ought to be living in a wonderful Utopian world, and would be doing so if evil corporate conspiracies weren’t suppressing the inventions that would have given us limitless free energy, cures for cancer and, well, pretty much anything else your heart desires. Evidence? We don’t need no steenking evidence—and of course, in an entirely pragmatic sense, Thrive doesn’t; all it has to do is hammer over and over again on a set of emotional hot buttons until the viewer’s ability to reason is overwhelmed, and if the video fails at this, it’s certainly not for want of trying. It’s a pity, in a way, that Thrive wasn’t yet in circulation when I wrote last year’s posts on thaumaturgy; it would have been educational to go through it scene by scene and talk about the crassly manipulative tactics it uses to get its effect.
Anyone interested in a thorough critique of Thrive should read Rob Hopkins’ cogent essay on the subject. For our present purposes, the point I want to make is that Thrive is an all-out effort to uphold the narrative of progress in the teeth of the facts. The narrative of progress says that we ought to have cheaper, more abundant energy with every passing year; in fact, the industrial world’s supplies of cheap abundant energy are running out fast, with predictable effects on price and supply, but those effects and their causes simply can’t be squared with the narrative of progress. Enter a flurry of accusations of conspiracy, which make it possible to insist that progress is still continuing but its fruits are being withheld from the people. The claims that cures for cancer are being suppressed has the same role with regard to the ongoing collapse of public health in America and elsewhere: we ought to be getting healthier, but we’re not, so a scapegoat has to be found to justify the widening gap between the narrative we prefer and the reality we get.
For all the problems with apocalyptic thinking, then, the prophets of apocalypse have at least gotten the first step right; having noticed that the narrative of progress doesn’t work any more, they’ve gone looking for an alternative, and it’s simply their bad luck that the alternative they’ve chosen doesn’t work either. Of course that raises a challenging question: if the narratives of progress and apocalypse don’t fit the world in which we’re living or the future that’s looming ahead of us, what narratives do?
Mulling over this question a few days ago, I started making a list of the more obvious features of the story in which we find ourselves at this point in the turning of history’s wheel. I encourage my readers to follow along, and see whether or not the answer that struck me occurs to them as well.
• We live in a world dominated by a vast, slowly decaying empire that gets quite literally superhuman powers by feeding on what we may as well call the blood of the Earth;
• That empire is ruled by a decadent aristocracy that holds court in soaring towers and bolsters its crumbling authority by conjuring vast amounts of wealth out of thin air;
• Backing the aristocracy is a caste of corrupt sorcerers whose incantations, projected into every home through the power of the blood of the Earth, keep the populace disorganized, deluded and passive;
• Entire provinces of the empire are ravaged by droughts, storms, and other disasters caused by the misuse of the Earth’s blood, while prophecies from the past warn of much worse to come;
• Meanwhile, far from the centers of power, the members of a scattered fellowship struggle to find and learn the forgotten lore of an earlier time, which might just hold the secret of survival...
It was more or less at this point that the realization hit: we have somehow gotten stuck, all seven billion of us, inside the pages of a pulp fantasy novel.
Those of my readers who are significantly younger than I am, and missed the vast outpouring of cheap fantasy novels that played so large and disreputable a role in shaping my youthful imagination, may benefit from a bit of history here. The runaway success of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings in the late 1960s inspired publishers, who are after all in business to make money, to look for ways to cash in on the same market. One obvious gambit was to dredge up older fantasy fiction, and much of what was readily available was the pulp fantasy of the 1920s and 1930s, when H.P. Lovecraft’s overheated prose and Robert Howard’s overheated gonads filled the pages of Weird Tales magazine and the imagination of teenage America with musclebound barbarian heroes, tentacled horrors from three weeks before the beginning of time, and most of the other modern conveniences that have furnished fantasy fiction ever since.
Lovecraft and Howard were, alas, both dead when the late-Sixties fantasy explosion arrived, and so their ability to produce new works was somewhat limited. For a while, accordingly, it was possible for almost anybody who could write a literate English sentence to get into print as a fantasy novelist. Most of what flooded onto bookstore shelves in the years that followed was remarkably atrocious, with two-dimensional characters, engagingly bad prose, and utterly unconvincing plots duking it out in a loser-take-all contest. At the time, I wasn’t a stickler about quality—I was in the market for anything more colorful than the two-dimensional blandness of an American suburban childhood—but I did prefer those who could write well; Tolkien’s trilogy was one of those favorites, and so were the products of the busy pen of Michael Moorcock.
These days Moorcock counts as a serious novelist, having clambered up out of the mosh pit of pulp fantasy fiction into the rarefied balconies of literature. Back in the day, though, he was among the leading figures in the pulp fantasy revival. Better than any of his rivals, perhaps, Moorcock recaptured the flavor of the gloriously trashy Weird Tales era, penning sprawling sagas about a succession of heroes who were all iterations of one Eternal Champion, destined to hack his way forever through an infinity of parallel worlds. And the backgrounds against which Elric of Melniboné and Corum Jhaelen Irsei and Dorian Hawkmoon and the rest of them suffered, swaggered and fought? More often than not, they were vast and crumbling empires propped up by supernatural powers, ruled by decadent aristocrats who conjured various things out of thin air, full of corrupt sorcerers, whole provinces ravaged by disasters, and—well, I suspect you get the point by now.
Aside from the colorful details just mentioned, though, there was something else woven into the pulp fantasy of that era, Moorcock’s and otherwise. The worlds of pulp fantasy are by and large worlds in decline, strewn with immense ruins and scattered with artifacts no one can duplicate any more. The heroes of pulp fantasy are caught up in the undertow of decline, and their battles and quests are generally defined by legacies of the pre-decline past that have to be preserved or destroyed before the future can begin to take shape. Interestingly, that was as often true in the Weird Tales era; Conan the Barbarian, who was placed by his creator Robert Howard somewhere in the conveniently undocumented past between the fall of Atlantis and the beginning of recorded history, spent much of his time dealing with the half-remembered legacies of the assorted drowned continents that Howard borrowed from Theosophical literature.
J.R.R. Tolkien, whose name I’ve invoked a couple of times already in this essay, worked with the same theme. There’s been a great deal of literary criticism of Tolkien’s work down through the years, but I don’t recall seeing any that’s talked about the extent to which Middle-Earth was influenced by the pulp fantasy of the 1920s and 1930s, which Tolkien (like his friend C.S. Lewis) read eagerly. One of the things that makes Tolkien’s work so inventive is the way that he plopped a bunch of hopelessly middle-class Englishmen dressed as hobbits into a world full of pulp fantasy clichés, complete with heroic survivors of drowned Atlantis—excuse me, Númenor—and an evil wizard-king who rides a tame pterodactyl into battle. Framing this arguably satiric dimension and the story as a whole there is, once again, the theme of decline: the twilight of the elves, the last hurrah of the heirs of Númenor, and the end of a sad and tangled story that had been winding down since the Elder Days. Middle-Earth is not a place where progress happens, any more than Conan’s Hyborian Age or age of the Young Kingdoms in which Elric wielded the black sword Stormbringer.
A brand of fiction commonly dismissed as sheer escapism, in other words, provides narratives more useful to the current state of the industrial world than the supposedly serious narrative of progress that still shapes every detail of contemporary public discourse. I’m not sure how far to take that point, though I have to admit that if Mabelrode the Faceless, Demon Lord of Chaos, were to be named as CEO of Citibank, I’m not sure I would be surprised. (On the other hand, maybe he already has been; it would explain a few things.) It would arguably have been better for us all if, when Edwin Drake and his men went to drill the first commercial oil well at Titusville, Pennsylvania back in 1859, they had found an ominous standing stone there carved with glowing runes:
THE BLACK GOLD IS THE BLOOD OF THE EARTH
THE FORCE IN THE BLOOD IS THE FLAME OF THE SUN
TO DRINK OF THE BLOOD IS TO MASTER THE WORLD
BUT THE FATE OF THE EARTH AND ITS BLOOD ARE ONE
THE FORCE IN THE BLOOD IS THE FLAME OF THE SUN
TO DRINK OF THE BLOOD IS TO MASTER THE WORLD
BUT THE FATE OF THE EARTH AND ITS BLOOD ARE ONE
Still, we missed that warning, and so have never quite gotten around to noticing that the world around us has much more in common with pulp fantasy fiction than it does with what passes for serious thought these days.
By this point, though, I suspect that you, dear reader, are wondering about one detail. If we’re actually stuck inside the pages of a trashy fantasy novel, as I’ve suggested, and all the details of the setting and the plot are in place, where is the protagonist? Who is the hero or the heroine who will turn the pages of the long-lost Gaianomicon, use its forgotten lore to forge a wand of power out of the rays of the Sun, shatter the deceptive spells of the lords of High Finance, and rise up amidst the wreckage of a dying empire to become one of the seedbearers of an age that is not yet born?
Why, you are, of course.
End of the World of the Week #4
Some apocalyptic prophecies have a more embarrassing outcome than others, but for sheer anticlimax it’s hard to beat the end of Thomas Müntzer’s prophetic career in 1525. Müntzer was a defrocked Catholic priest who converted to Martin Luther’s newborn movement in the heady early days of the Reformation, then went right on past Luther into that peculiar region of thought where it seems as though divine omnipotence needs a helping hand.
In 1520, Müntzer became convinced that the Kingdom of Heaven would appear promptly just as soon as the righteous, whom he identified with the peasants, rose up and slaughtered the wicked, whom he identified with everybody else higher up the social ladder. He spent five years wandering through Germany preaching his bloodthirsty gospel and publishing a series of pamphlets—the 16th-century equivalent of conspiracy websites—in which he denounced everyone who disagreed with him as slaves of the Antichrist. Most people dismissed him as a mental case, but he built up a small following.
In 1525, though, peasants in much of southern Germany rose up in revolt against the local barons, and Müntzer suddenly found himself in command of an army. After some preliminary skirmishes, his army and that of the nobility came face to face on May 15. In his speech to his troops before the battle, Müntzer insisted that he would catch the barons’ cannonballs in the sleeves of his coat. Moments afterwards, a rainbow appeared in the sky, and the peasant army cheered wildly, convinced that this omen proved that God was on their side.
The other side chose that moment to open up with all their artillery. In a matter of moments, those of the rebels who weren’t killed or wounded took to their heels and ran. Müntzer himself was caught hiding in somebody’s basement a few days later, and died an unpleasant death.
--story from Apocalypse Not