Trying to Understand

We are surrounded by visions of the end of time. The recent obsession about the “end” of the world when the Mayan calendar runs out is just one example of how our culture is fixated on apocalypse. Hollywood epics, enhanced by special effects, provide multiple visions of how our world will end, or what it will be like to live on after the destruction of civilization as we know it.

Earlier decades had similar preoccupations. Mutant monster movies thrived after World War II. Before that, mad scientists unleashed their Frankensteins on an unsuspecting world. In retrospect we can grasp what specific social realities such visions were responding to. Hiroshima explains the radioactive monsters, while the runaway effects of new technologies – planes, rockets, radios, electricity, drugs — go far to explain the fears of science. Those discoveries simultaneously made us more powerful and more vulnerable. Our power over nature has not been an unmixed blessing.

But what lies behind our current fascination with the end of the world? Increasingly, we grasp that we have lost control over events. Global warming is making it clear that we lack the collective will to avert environmental disaster. Economic crises demonstrate that our politics are helpless in the face of the financial industry ability to pursue profit at any cost, while the gap between the rich and the poor keeps widening. Our international organizations are unable to contain rogue states that harbor terrorists and build nuclear weapons or, merely, decimate their own citizens. At home there are senseless out breaks of violence in schools, shopping malls, and subway platforms. Everywhere we look we see danger and looming catastrophes.

But it’s not just the threats we perceive. It’s the paralysis we feel. Government seems broken. Citizens have lost faith in the integrity of their institutions, while corruption increasingly seems less the exception, more the rule. How to protect ourselves? Where to go?

And what can we believe in? God is increasingly irrelevant for most people, or else, in the strict eyes of fundamentalists and fanatics, is seen as unforgiving and punitive. Free markets for a time seemed the answer to most problems, but that faith has evaporated. Socialism is discredited. Liberalism has come to seem obsolete.

I am exaggerating, of course, but to make the point that these visions of apocalypse come out of our own experience. For some, the end of the world seems a fitting finale to our moral and civic collapse. Some see it as simply inevitable. For others it may feel like a deliverance, a way out of the mess we have made. A few seem to think that they will escape by building a boat or a pod or visiting a holy mountain, but the rest of us are more simply haunted by an inevitable doom.

The poet T.S. Eliot famously wrote that the world would end, “not with a bang, but a whimper.” Personally I think if the world ever does come to an end, it’s likely to be in that fashion. But there is no doubt that most people are waiting for a big bang, and some may even be looking forward to it.