The myth of an ending: Apocalypse as a spiritual path
An online friend named Karl, who runs the antinatalist blog Say No to Life, responded to yesterday’s post about the apocalyptic direction the weather has been taking (“Heatwaves, wildfires, droughts, floods, superstorms: The future is here“) by giving me a word of caution: “Matt, it sounds like you’re urging on the Apocalypse with all your might and can’t wait for something eschatological in its import to befall,” he wrote. “Bear in mind, though, that people will always be people. The Poles have a saying, ‘Do not expect too much from the end of the world’. Worth reflecting on.”
Indeed, this truly is worth reflecting on. Warnings about “urging on the Apocalypse” are always valuable, so I appreciate this one. And I think it deserves more than just a cursory response in a comments queue.
I’m well aware of the phenomenon Karl describes. For years I’ve been fascinated by the desire / craving / yearning / trembling anticipation — which I have observed not only in history and society but, at times, in my own soul — for some great, apocalyptic Ending, especially as interlaced with a millennarian craving for the final clearing away of human corruption and the birth of a grand new world order. (Cf. Norman Cohn’s seminal book on this subject, The Pursuit of Millennium, which has stayed with me ever since I studied it while earning my grad degree in religious studies). This is a perennial human tendency, a kind of innate wing or mode in the human psyche, that sometimes comes to the fore, and I think in our present world situation it has become active on a massive scale. More specifically, Jung’s “archetype of apocalypse,” one of the major underlying factors in the millennial impulse, has clearly been activated and is influencing the way we collectively see and experience things — which of course means it’s also influencing the actual course of world events. (Note that there’s a kind of paradox here, because, as detailed in an interesting essay at the Website for the Jungian Center for Spiritual Sciences, “Jung recognized that the archetype of the apocalypse exists and is now active in our collective unconscious. He understood that, because it is an archetype, the apocalypse has a certain fascination for us [because of its numinosity]. But he objected to apocalypticism — i.e. to the quest or longing for the end.”)
All of this is what the apocalyptic focus here at The Teeming Brain is all about. This focus isn’t necessarily about anticipating, in the sense of hopefully awaiting, “something eschatological in its import to befall” (a nice bit of phrasing, that), although I am indeed aware of that latent tendency both in the archetype of apocalypse as such and, as stated, in my own psyche. I have also been interested to witness its action and prevalence in the doomer subculture over the past decade, even as I have sometimes participated in the online conversations and communities surrounding that subculture and have watched the same emotions get stirred up within me. The overall picture in this area is one of the sublime mingled with the ridiculous and pathetic. John Michael Greer has observed that much of the gleeful anticipation of apocalypse that attended the cultural buildup to the Y2K non-event was centered upon a widespread sense of relief and pleasure at the prospect of not having to get up and go to work in the morning. This is an astute pegging of the psychology behind much of the craving for apocalypse, which can be scaled downward or upward to include everything from the hope of being set free from your job — a desire we shouldn’t automatically mock and scoff at, given the reality of our exploitative and workaholic civilization of neoliberal capitalism and corporate consumerism — to the desire to be set free from corrupt and oppressive governments and even dark spiritual “powers and principalities.”
When I write about apocalypse here at The Teeming Brain, the point is to underscore the fact that apocalypse is, perhaps, the great supervening myth that informs our collective cultural moment. As Jung pointed out, this has been true since the first half of the 20th century. And, as I mentioned in another recent post, I employ the word “apocalypse” not just with its popular meaning of a catastrophic, large-scale ending in the mode of collapse, but also with its more technical meaning of a situation where underlying truths of a spiritual and philosophical sort are laid bare, resulting in a collapse and wiping away of false superstructures of whatever sort: political, social, economic, psychological, religious, cultural. For context, see, for example, the great biblical prophetic tradition of apocalyptic discourse, including not just the Hebrew prophets but Jesus with his famous parable contrasting the house built on sand with the house built on a firm foundation of rock. When a destructive storm comes, the former collapses, “and great was its fall,” but the latter stands firm. If there is indeed a viable master story or metanarrative for the times we’re living in, then I think this is it, or at least it can be viably taken as such — which is what I’m doing here at this blog.
(That this sense of things is presently Unbound and At Large on a grand scale is, I think, undeniable. People on all fronts are feeling it. For just one pertinent illustration, see last December’s wonderful episode of public radio’s On Being that featured an interview with biblical scholar and theologian Walter Brueggeman. Brueggeman is of course the author of The Prophetic Imagination, the classic 1978 study of the Hebrew prophets that has been more influential than any other single book in raising popular consciousness about the role of those ancient provocateurs in proclaiming divine truth as a way of challenging imperial power structures. Several times during his interview with host Krista Tippet, he commented on the way the biblical prophetic/apocalyptic texts — and prophecy in this sense is indeed intimately bound up with apocalypticism — echo in uncanny ways many currently pressing concerns, intuitions, and emotions in today’s collapse-filled world. “When I hear that kind of poetry [of prophetic utterance with its awe-ful descriptions of divine wrath and the world being unmade and laid waste,] I get chill bumps,” he said,
because it seems to me so contemporary. I think that’s how very many people are now experiencing the world. It is as though the ordered world is being taken away from us, and it’s just so powerfully exquisite…The world we have trusted in is vanishing before our eyes and the world that is coming at us feels like a threat to us, and we can’t quite see the shape of it.
…I think we think in terms of systems and continuities and predictability and schemes and plans. I think the Bible is to some great extent focused on God’s capacity to break those schemes open and to violate those formulae. When they are positive disruptions, the Bible calls them miracles. We tend not to use that word when they are negative, but what it means is that the reality of our life and the reality of God are not contained in most of our explanatory schemes. And whether one wants to explain that in terms of God or not, it is nonetheless the truth of our life that our lives are arenas for all kinds of disruptions because it doesn’t work out the way we planned. I think our recent economic collapse is a huge disruption for many people who had their retirement mapped out or whatever like that, and it isn’t going to be like that. What the Bible pretty consistently does is to refer all of those disruptions to the hidden power of God.
– “The Prophetic Imagination of Walter Brueggeman,” On Being, December 22, 2011)
So, in a sense, the whole subject does wrap back around in the end toward the millennarian tendency, except that I don’t have any personal belief in the establishing of some sort of utopia after a catastrophic clearing-away of the current civilization. As readers of this blog will be well aware of, my expectations lean more toward a dystopian outcome than a utopian one. Nor do I expect or look for a sudden and wholesale clearing-away of a cinematic-apocalyptic sort. To believe in and push for such a thing is not only to buy into an ersatz and Hollywoodized vision of existential reality but to misunderstand the relationship between mythic and literal truth, in the Joseph Campbellian sense of misreading metaphors as factual statements. What’s more, apocalypse is pointedly cruel and immoral when taken as a literal hope, as Adam Gopnik pointed out in his recent review essay (linked to in my most recent Recommended Reading update) on Elaine Pagels’ Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation. The millennarian paradise, he reminds us — and this applies not just to the biblical apocalypse but to these kinds of visions and stories in general — only appears “after all the millions of heretics, past and present, have been burned alive and the planet destroyed…It’s like the inevitable moment in an apocalyptic blockbuster, ‘Independence Day’ or ‘Armageddon’ or ’2012,’ when the stars embrace and celebrate their survival. The Hans Zimmer music swells, and we’re reassured that it’s O.K. to rejoice. Millions are annihilated, every major city has been destroyed, but nobody you really like has died.”
To restate and sum up: the apocalyptic focus here at The Teeming Brain flows from the hunch, intuition, and quasi-conviction that the nexus point of current events, the philosophical/spiritual locus from which we can plug into the power of their mythic undercurrent, is the recognition of a fascinating meta-parallel or collective isomorphism that exists among art, pop culture, ecological trends, frontier scientific research, economic troubles, political gridlocks and conflicts and instabilities, sociocultural movements, technological developments, religious and spiritual movements and developments, trends in psychology and consciousness studies, the ongoing upsurge of paranormal and daimonic events, the experience of cosmic/supernatural horror, and much, much more. And that shared shape or theme, the face of the Spirit of the Age, reveals itself as the great and terrible sense of an Ending, of exhaustion, corruption, and decay of the established world order. Again, this is scalable, and applies both to the particular political-social-economic-cultural situation we have created in and among communities and nations today (and even applies to the very idea of the modern nation-state itself) and to the trajectory of human history as a whole. It also applies individually, to each person’s unique subjective experience. The unfolding of it is gradual and, in fact, perennial.
Understanding life in apocalyptic terms becomes not just, or not even at all, about expecting and/or hoping for some grand disaster, but about seeing and reading both personal reality and life at large as unfolding on the cusp of some imminent revelation of an underlying realm of truth that subverts, undercuts, overturns, reframes, and ultimately tranforms and transmutes the reality of everyday appearances, assumptions, institutions, and relationships. The interplay and tension between this as psychological-spiritual-mythic-religious-daimonic truth and this as the emergence (or sometimes absence) of literal-objective irruptions and disruptions in daily, phenomenal reality — an interplay that is sometimes mutually confirming and sometimes conflicting — only serves to underscore the real nature of the reality in question. And that reality is transcendent, which means it subsists regardless of, and sometimes even in contravention to, the way things look on the outside. Such an understanding is, I think, both an antidote to the longing for a literal apocalypse and a way of maintaining a clear view of and connection to apocalypse as an ever-present influence on subtler planes whose own reality, which our dominant culture of scientistic reductionism has consistently and programmatically ignored, dismissed, and denied for a the past couple of centuries, is likewise underscored and called out in the process.
Apocalypse as a spiritual path, you could call it. And maybe, like any other such path, it’s not something you choose, but something that chooses you.