Until this morning, I had never heard of Norman Cohn’s's book, “The Pursuit of the Millenium.” It’s a study of utopian end-times cults in Europe from the 11th through the 15th centuries. The novelist Ian McEwan refers to it in his discussion of Frank Kermode’s work as having influenced his worldview. Excerpt from McEwan’s Browser Five Books interview:
Frank Kermode, in his famous book The Sense of an Ending, elaborated on Cohn’s masterwork by suggesting that actually it’s very common for all of us – especially artists – to feel that we live at the end of times, and that our own demise means all the more to us because we’re not simply dying in the middle of the plot, in medias res. Our lives take on significance because as we decline we notice our society is declining all around us. It’s part of a yearning for narrative significance. As Kermode said, no one can hear a clock saying, as it does, tick tick. What we hear is tick tock. A beginning and an end. We impose this order.
That’s well said. My late sister Ruthie never gave a thought in the world, as far as I know, to apocalypticism, but she strongly believed that her death from cancer at 42 was part of a larger narrative being written by God, the author of her life, and of history — this, even though she accepted that she could never fully understand her role in the Story, at least not this side of heaven. I agree with this, strongly, and would point out that the apparent fact that humans “yearn for narrative significance” doesn’t make the existence of narrative significane untrue. That is, just because we want to believe something doesn’t make the thing believed in a lie. Whatever you think of God’s existence and his role in human affairs, Kermode’s insight is really helpful, I find. Consider it in light of the political philosopher John Gray’s choice of Kermode’s book in his Five Books interview. Excerpt:
Kermode touches on the psychology of this kind of faith, which reminded me of a quote I enjoy from your own book Heresies: “People need to believe that order can be glimpsed in the chaos of events.” It that the human impulse behind utopianism?
I think it is a very human impulse. It is hard for us to accept the degree of randomness there is in the world and in our lives, especially when that randomness operates destructively on us. I forget who said that paranoia is a protest against unimportance. It may have been me. A paranoid delusion can be of defensive benefit to the person who has it, because it gives them the sense of being at the centre of the world, whereas the reality is practically always that nobody cares about them at all and they are of no significance. The delusion of there being order in the chaos of experience can also lead to great human achievements, in science for instance, or in literature where the chaos of history and experience is shaped and moulded into meaningful and significant forms. So it is a benign impulse to that extent. But it can also be tremendously dangerous, because it leads to the phenomena of scapegoating and targeting which emerge in periods of toxic politics.
This makes me reflect on a short but intense period of my own life — I was 12 — when the monster-selling 1970s Christian apocalyptic book “The Late, Great Planet Earth” fell into my hands. I was a kid who read the newspaper constantly, and brooded over what I saw there. The year was 1979. Iranian militants held American hostages. Inflation ripped through the US economy. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Always, talk of nuclear war with the USSR. I well remember on Saturday morning driving back across a field with my dad, coming home from the hunting camp, looking up at the sky and thinking, “A Soviet ICBM could explode right up there 19 minutes from now, and we would all be dead.” It shook me up.
There was no more fertile ground for that noxious little book to have fallen on than my curious, fearful, anxiety-ridden 12-year-old mind. The idea of apocalypse now was by no means irrational. An entire generation has come along not knowing the kind of fears the rest of us lived with during the Cold War, when the world appeared to be hurtling towards some kind of fiery conflagration. In my case, I was also entering puberty. You have unfamiliar emotions, and strong ones, as the hormones surge and remake the body you thought you knew. And, crucially, you have no control over what is happening to you.
So, when a book comes along that claims the authority of the Bible, and provides you what sounds like a plausible explanation for all these terrible things that are happening, or that look like they’re about to happen, and furthermore tells you that it only seems like things are out of control, but really, all this was scripted by God since the beginning of time — well, you can imagine why that sort of idea could seize one’s mind, especially in that historical, cultural, and subjective (puberty!) context. It was a perverse sort of consolation to be told that I lived in history’s last generation — and, thank you Jesus, I had the opportunity to get a rapture ticket on the last train out of here before the deluge, if I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior. Which, of course, I did as soon as I finished the book, in a single fevered reading.
I burned brightly with that stuff for about a year and a half, then burned out, and was done with religion for what turned out to have been years. The prophecies “Late, Great” made turned out to be false, mostly, but over the years, I’ve come to judge myself less harshly for falling under its sway. I think that’s because I have more sympathy for human weakness in emotional crisis, and the desperate need to discover (or to impose) meaning on chaos. But at the same time, reflecting on that experience has made me more aware, and skeptical, of my own susceptibility to apocalyptic themes in public discourse. The thing is, there really are apocalypses! Not big-A Apocalypses — though as a Christian, I believe that history will culminate one day in an End, though it may be thousands of years from now; nobody knows the date — but small ones. The Apocalypse is the end of the world; small-a apocalypses are the end of a world. The end of the Roman Empire in the West was an apocalypse. The Fall of Constantinople was another. Bolshevism and Nazism were both apocalyptic political cults that brought about real apocalypses for their victims and their victims’ cultures. If I were a pious Arab Muslim living in the Middle East at this time in history, I could well imagine that I would look to apocalyptic prophecies and figures (e.g., the Dajjal) from my own tradition to explain the losses and traumas wracking my culture and civilization, and to give consolation that All Will Be Well in God’s Good Time.
As Kermode, Gray, and others point out, apocalypticism (and utopianism, it’s sister) is by no means only a religious phenomenon. As I said, Bolshevism and Nazism were secular political forms. Today, you will find few more apocalyptic secularists than those whose minds are seized by the prospect of a global warming apocalypse. (But, remember: just because they’re terrified of it in ways many of us don’t understand doesn’t mean it’s not real; perhaps they see something the rest of us don’t).
Some critics of apocalypse enthusiasts accuse them of taking pleasure in the prospect of the damnation of unbelievers. Many no doubt do, but I think this idea is misleading. When I was part of that Late, Great mindset and culture, I didn’t know anybody who relished the thought of sinners falling into the hands of the Antichrist, and suffering horribly. Surely some did, but not as many as you may think. To reiterate, the consolation offered by the Late, Great vision was rather this: 1) it offered an explanation for hard-to-understand, scary events in the world; 2) it assured you that none of this was random, that as chaotic as things seemed, God was actually in control, and things were unfolding according to His plan; and 3) as awful as things were getting, God was going to rapture His people off the planet before the worst happened.
If this sounds like the most ridiculous stuff you’ve ever heard, I would suggest that you ask yourself if you have ever felt terrified, vulnerable, and close to being overwhelmed by chaos.
Something Ross Douthat wrote once — can’t remember where; I’ll link to it if I can find it — revealed to me why even though I roll my eyes at my teenage infatuation with Late, Great, I am still too eager to see the prospect of small-a apocalypses in current events. As I recall, Ross said to a certain kind of conservative, the only prospect drearier than apocalypse is the thought that there won’t be a culmination, a conclusion, but rather that we will just muddle on through.
UPDATE: I got titles mixed up in the first graf. It’s been fixed now, thanks to the graceless correction of reader Leo Ladenson, to whom I am grudgingly thankful.