Three Faces of the End of the World: Empire, Decadence, and Crisis
I am currently reading “The Sense of an Ending”by Frank Kermode, a little piece of lThree Faces of the End of the World: Empire, Decadence, and Crisis
I am currently reading “The Sense of an Ending”by Frank Kermode, a little piece of literary criticism examining the relationship between theological apocalypses and fictional narratives as means of making sense of reality. Originally a series of lectures written in 1965, the ideas that Kermode draws together are perhaps even more important for today – in an age where the world ends every imaginable way in our entertainments, where the deepest thinkers debate the viability of end dates, and where certain age-old signs of apocalypse haunt our political and environmental systems.
Kermode suggests some things that I’ve been saying for years – that historically, any apocalypse that claims a specific date for the end of the world or specific harbingers correlated to historic persons/events is a “naive apocalypse.” Humans have since the beginning of time believed they were living at the end of times, but not once have the often obtuse symbolisms and chronologies of apocalypses accurately fit our desired schemas. Instead, narratives of apocalypse – as well as fictional narratives in general – serve another purpose, which is to allow us to make a greater sense of the reality we are living in. Humankind lives in the “middest” – in the middle of the narrative of our own lives and world history – and by imagining the way in which our narratives might end we are able to step outside of time and see the pattern as a whole. As Kermode says, we impose our fictions on the face of eternity, because that’s the closest we will ever get to a total understanding of the world in which we live (though that’s certainly up for debate; personally I know eternity is far more accessible).
While I’m fond of this existential reading of narrative apocalypses, the challenge still remains that we live in times that feel like the end of days, and seem to feel this way much more than at any time before. Stories of the end of the world can not only help us make sense of reality and our own lives in general, but offer ways of responding to the crises and uncertainty of the historical moment we are actually living in (which might attest to the fact that such stories are currently in vogue). In particular, Kermode suggests that there are three doctrines or modes through which we respond to apocalypse: empire, decadence, and crisis. As Kermode unfortunately rushes past this point without fully explaining what he means, I’d like to offer a few words about the three faces of the end of the world.
The first apocalyptic mode is empire, the doctrine in which apocalypses have most often found their expression. Many of the earliest accounts of the end of the world are cast as heralding in a new kingdom, a new empire both sacred and secular. This empire spells life eternal, but only for a small group of elect – those who believe in it, the rich, the powerful, the worthy – while everyone else will be thrown into flames and eternal damnation. The conflation of the imperial urge with the end of the world goes back to the union of the Church and Rome – since then there are those who’ve actively worked to bring about or accurately predict the end of the world in order to bring to fruition this everlasting empire. But as Philip K Dick said, the empire never ended. Even today, conservative American politics is enmeshed in this apocalyptic mode – only the rich are worthy of having the means to live while all the rest of us, including our very environment, must suffer to the end of days. If there is one stance that might actually cause the current global crises to reach a tipping point, it is the urge to empire.
On the opposite hand from empire is the doctrine of decadence, which springs from the age old hope of utopia – for eternal times of peace, love, and aesthetic meaning – star-crossed by turbulent changes that make such hopes impossible. Where the imperial mode seeks to bring the end of the world into being; decadence yawns, oh this old trick, and runs off to have a dance party as the only sane response. History is rife with periods of decadence, perhaps most famously the Fin de siècle moment in France at the turn of the last century. Following the social and technological upheavals of the Second Industrial Revolution, artists and intellectuals chose to drown the crises of this transition in feelings of extreme boredom and aesthetic noodling. Today the decadent mode gives rise to entertainment value of catastrophes; as well as the cultural attitudes displayed in movements like Evolver and Burning Man, which may be fun for their participants, but willfully occlude the significance of the times we live in. I call this the Masque of the Red Death Syndrome – after Poe’s apocalypse, in which, faced with a world-devastating disease, a group of aesthetes lock themselves in a castle to hold a dance party, at least until the plague gets them anyway. Decadence is always a loosing dance with death.
Of the three apocalyptic modes, Kermode spends the least time analyzing the third mode, that of crisis. Kermode suggests that, opposed to the everyday chronological time by which our days tick past, there are also moments of kairotic time – moments charged with significance and transformation, in which the end of the world is immanent and demands to be addressed. Rather than imperially striving for an apocalypse that never comes or decadently hiding it behind the good times, the doctrine of crisis looks the looming collapse straight in the face and chooses to act. History unfortunately offers far fewer examples of the crisis response. One might point to the socio-political struggles of anarchist movements, though these have most often been a reaction to empire rather than an action toward addressing the greater ideological, technological, and environmental crises at work in our historical narratives. Rather than merely fighting against oppressive systems, the crisis mode recognizes that one can and must act in even one’s smallest gestures as if every day is the end of the world. Neil Stephenson’s tome “Anathem” offers an intriguing example of how this mode of crisis might operate. Stephenson’s story contains a group of martial-artist mathematicians who utilize a concept called “emergence.” Certain highly-charged and critical moments offer opportunities for action in which one can push past one’s limitations to effect real changes and transformations in both oneself and in the world. Personally I feel that the crisis response to catastrophe may be the only viable response if humanity is to effect the incredible transformation that awaits us rather than killing ourselves off.
I’d like to sum up with an example of how each of these apocalyptic modes might respond to a very real and present end of the world scenario – the collapse of the environment. Empire ignores environmental destruction or mocks it in the media while actively furthering it through economically advantageous but ecologically destructive policies and technologies. Decadence admits that the environment is imperiled, but shudders in the face of it by either telling myths about how the Native Americans lived in harmony with the environment or by throwing benefit parties. Crisis seeks to address the environment directly: raising consciousness of the real issues at stake; protesting and sabotaging strip-mining and logging corporations; not participating in environmentally destructive practices like driving; and by planting trees, farming, or otherwise re-wilding inhospitable urban spaces. It seems fairly clear which of these responses to environmental collapse will have actual effects on the world. But what remains to be seen is how it might be possible to shift the larger cultural attitudes surrounding the end of the world from imperial or decadent doctrines toward the direct address of crisis. ...more
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