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Apocalypse Now


I’ve just read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which Robert Farley reviewed on LGM back when it was published a couple of years ago. I hadn’t read anything by McCarthy before, and was very impressed with his stylistic talents, which reminded me of a sort of poor man’s Joyce, in the same sense that Bobby Bonds was a poor man’s Willie Mays, i.e., a great player in his own right, although one who could be harmed by too much being made of a loose parallel.

It’s a compelling book, and it made me want to touch on something Rob mentioned in his original review, which is the enduring popularity of apocalyptic literature in American culture — a genre that’s diverse enought to include, among many other things, Jonathan Edwards sermons, and Jonathan Schell New Yorker articles, and the frighteningly successful Left Behind series.

My sense is that this tradition is wrapped up with a deep if largely unconscious cultural faith that in some sense America represents the End of History, and that there’s nowhere to go from here than up (or down). It’s a kind of millenialism that gets expressed in both obviously religious contexts, but also in the world views of various secular ideologues, who use supposed American exceptionalism to justify all sorts of utopian views of their own, that end up producing a kind of apocalyptic imperialism. The City on a Hill Reagan rhetoric drew on this tradition, as does the “national greatness” conservatism of McCain, who sees foreign policy in terms of a single idea: that America is a unique country that has a special obligation to bring freedom and justice to the whole world (Bush II used to talk this way, but the disturbing thing about McCain is that he seems to take such ideas far more seriously).

A curious thing about the psychology of utopianism and anti-utopianism, or optimistic and pessimistic eschatologies, is how quickly they shift. In the first years of the 20th century, as Orwell notes somewhere in a passage I’m too lazy to look up at the moment, the knowledge classes had a largely unlimited faith in progress, technology, and a great gleaming future of concrete and steel. By the late 1940s it was a routine assumption that civilization would blow itself up definitively within a few decades at the most. (Richard Feynman wrote about how the day after the atom bomb he helped build was detonated over Hiroshima he walked down the streets of New York City with an unreal feeling, wondering why people were continuing to engage in such ridiculous activities as building skyscrapers and bridges and roads).

That feeling gradually ebbed away, until by the 1990s the End of History was being proclaimed by various neo-Hegelians. Then a couple of skyscrapers got knocked down and we were plunged into the current strange mixture of utopianism and dread, as represented by the absurd and childish idea that 9/11 “changed everything.”

Anyway, I’m looking forward to the movie.

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