Apocalyptic America: Our psychic lens of doom and gloom

Earth-Asteroid

Stefany Anna Goldberg recently offered some interesting reflections on the reality and nature of America’s enduring obsession with the idea and sense of an impending apocalypse. She rightly points out that, culturally speaking, the roots of this tendency extend all the way down to a positively genetic level:

America is a nation rooted in Apocalypse. The very foundation of the nation is tied to the End Times. Apocalypse is in America’s DNA. When the Puritans stepped out into the bitter wilds of New England they brought with them the forecast of annihilation. These exiles came to America not to delight in religious freedom but to ring in the last of days.

. . . In the mid-19th century, William Miller’s obscure Millennialist movement became a national campaign. His prophecy that Christ would return to Earth around 1843 or 1844 came to be known as the Great Disappointment. Some of Miller’s followers went to live with the Shakers (who didn’t need to wait for the new Millennium as they believed it had already come) and the rest formed an entirely new religion and called themselves Adventists. David Berg told us the End would come in 1973 and Pat Robertson guaranteed that 1982 would bring “a judgment on the world”. Reverend Bill Maupin from Tuscon, Arizona preached of a rapture that would happen on June 28, 1981. 50 Arizonians gathered at Maupin’s house to be “spirited aloft like helium balloons.”

There is one thing that unites all of these Apocalyptic Americans. They do not see America as a place to create a new civilization. They see America as a place to settle into a wilderness of the soul.

FULL STORY: “Apocalypse Now

In another recent reflection on the same subject, religion scholar Ira Chernus describes the psychic toll this apocalyptic obsession may be taking on us, especially in its brand new historical-cultural guise, which, hailing from the dawn of the nuclear age in the mid-twentieth century, looks not to an impending clearing away of corruption that will be followed by a new and purified way of life (as in the traditional mythic/religious view) but to the end of all possible futures via the total extinction of life on earth:

Wherever we Americans look, the threat of apocalypse stares back at us. Two clouds of genuine doom still darken our world: nuclear extermination and environmental extinction. If they got the urgent action they deserve, they would be at the top of our political priority list.

But they have a hard time holding our attention, crowded out as they are by a host of new perils also labeled “apocalyptic”: mounting federal debt, the government’s plan to take away our guns, corporate control of the Internet, the Comcast-Time Warner mergerocalypse, Beijing’s pollution airpocalypse, the American snowpocalypse, not to speak of earthquakes and plagues. The list of topics, thrown at us with abandon from the political right, left, and center, just keeps growing.

Then there’s the world of arts and entertainment where selling the apocalypse turns out to be a rewarding enterprise.

. . . Why does American culture use the A-word so promiscuously? Perhaps we’ve been living so long under a cloud of doom that every danger now readily takes on the same lethal hue.

Psychiatrist Robert Lifton predicted such a state years ago when he suggested that the nuclear age had put us all in the grips of what he called “psychic numbing” or “death in life” . . . . Lifton’s research showed that the link between death and life had become, as he put it, a “broken connection.”

As a result, he speculated, our minds stop trying to find the vitalizing images necessary for any healthy life. Every effort to form new mental images only conjures up more fear that the chain of life itself is coming to a dead end. Ultimately, we are left with nothing but “apathy, withdrawal, depression, despair.”

If that’s the deepest psychic lens through which we see the world, however unconsciously, it’s easy to understand why anything and everything can look like more evidence that The End is at hand. No wonder we have a generation of American youth and young adults who take a world filled with apocalyptic images for granted.

. . . [S]uch a single-minded focus on danger and doom subtly reinforces the message of our era of apocalypses everywhere: abandon all hope, ye who live here and now.

FULL STORY: “Apocalypses Everywhere

For those of you who, like me, live right in the midst of this circumstance both psychologically and geographically, I suggest bearing the above observations in mind as you surf the waves of apocalyptic sentiment that continue to cascade across America — including the ones here at this blog.

Image courtesy of manostphoto / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD, GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES, and HORROR LITERATURE THROUGH HISTORY.

Posted on March 5, 2014, in Religion & Philosophy, Society & Culture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. In bizzaro fiction especially I enjoy apocalyptic scenarios. Dunno why. Yes I do, but I’m lazy in finding ways to elaborate.

    Read Carlton Mellick’s Satan Burger. Helluva story to tuckk yourself into bed with.

    • I’ve crossed paths with Carlton at several writing/publishing/genre conventions, beginning with 2001’s World Horror Convention in Seattle. I think the apocalyptic strain in bizarro fiction (which isn’t generally my cup of tea, but I’ve read some that I enjoyed) is used to good effect in that context. Maybe it’s because there’s an odd element of surrealish self-awareness injected into the very idea of apocalyptic breakdown in this type of writing.

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