Asymptotic Apocalypse: Why the End Is Always Near
Yes; but it is like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker—may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday.
-Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
For something that never seems to happen, the end of the world sure comes up a lot. I don’t just mean the specifics of the end, such as zombies and the environment, I mean the idea of the end in general. Although I find it thoroughly amusing to hear city folk overestimate their own grit by boasting ridiculous survival plans involving some noble, marrow-sucking return to the land, I am more concerned with our deeply rooted and ever-present preoccupation with notions of apocalypse. So, if you’ve come here to find a detailed, step-by-step zombie survival plan, you won’t. Here is a brief outline, however, of mine, which in its detailed entirety, is rock solid. Unlike the city folk, I have guns.
On to the chase, the wild and ever-flying apocalyptic goose.
Throughout human history, there has been a great concern with endings. Why should there not be? We are born and then we die. The knowledge of our inevitable end has a great influence over the way we live and the way we perceive the world. We each of us, as mortals, have our own beginning and our own end. Why, though, must there be this grander apocalyptic narrative at work? And why do we behave so irrationally beneath it? There are a few things characteristic of apocalyptic predictions. The first is that they never come to pass, and never truly could, seeing as their proof is dependent upon the destruction of all entities capable of perceiving said proof. The second is that even when they are invalidated, the fiction remains, the prediction is pushed forth to a later date. These predictions are not limited to the crazy koolaid enthusiast types. There have been very serious predictions throughout human history. Y2k or 2012 come to mind as some of the more recent and widely followed narratives. Even the current discourse regarding the degradation of the environment is pregnant with notions of an eventual end. The prediction may not be so specific as to involve the date, but the implication is certainly there. So why do we do this? Why do we always need this sense of an ending? Why do we ignore reason when the predictions are invalidated? There are a few reasons.
Endings provide neatness and wholeness. From our stance in the midst of our own personal narrative and the grander narrative spanning the fictive Genesis and Apocalypse of existence as a whole, it is very hard to make sense of things. I will consider this in terms of a single human life for the sake of clarity. Our births are our beginnings. They are obscure as can be, lost in the irretrievable archives of our minds. As we move forward, memory becomes the vehicle by which we ponder our past. Memory, however, obscures as much as it reveals. Significance is placed easily on episodes of our lives once they have come and gone, but it is a significance that only exists in retrospect. The ‘truth’ of each past moment, is that it is as shrouded in mystery as the present. Small endings and changes provide a metaphorical framework from which we can retroactively trace themes and gather meaning where there initially was none. History works in a similar manner. People are constantly proclaiming that our nation is in an identity crisis, or that there is a lack of culture, a lack of something meaningful, but the truth is that years after our time has passed, when scholars look back to define what we are doing, it will be much simpler, albeit almost entirely constructed by the very act of looking back. So, with obscure beginnings impressing their uncertainty upon us, we look forward. The future, however, is endless.
As we struggle to extract a sense of higher significance out of the present, facing the future proves to be the greatest obstacle. The knowledge of what could and will be is even more unreachable than the knowledge of what has already been. So, we force narratives into the gaping chasm, fictions that will give it a shape, no matter how unreasonable that shape may be. With some sense of an ending exerting influence upon us, we can feel as though we are moving between two points –Genesis and Apocalypse, birth and death, page one and page final. We like the clean, linear, and novel-like shape this gives our lives and our existence. When we read a novel from Genesis to Apocalypse, we are granted the privilege of surviving that world’s End. This puts us in that desirable position of retrospect, from which meaning –however false –is easy to derive. Themes, motifs, trajectories, patterns. The existence of these things requires an ending. The ending makes it whole. It completes the work, the life. I think of the legends in Western films who must walk into the sunset at movie’s end so that all the remaining can gaze upon him as a concluded image, a finalized pattern from which all the positive and heroic conclusions can be drawn. What could we possibly do with John Wayne if he hung around after the danger had passed? What would we come to think of him? Without that final word, the possibility of what could be steals away all hope of drawing conclusions regarding the present.
A pattern is not truly definitive until final. 2 – 4 – 6 – 8… The next number is probably 10, but the open-ended nature of the pattern obliterates the possibility of truly knowing it. 2-4-6-8-16-18-20-22-24-48. The same goes for the mortal narrative and the grand narrative. To make sense of how you feel, what you are doing, why you are doing it, what it all means –requires the pull of some ending, which for a mortal man could be the knowledge of said mortality, but for a race entire requires a constant sense of apocalyptic anxiety and crisis. So, when predicted apocalyptic events come to pass without the promised fire and brimstone, of course we push them forward. We do not need them to arrive. Most of us, I hope, do not want them to arrive. We need them to be ahead of us, always near enough to feel, so that when we look upon our race and our planet we do not see the random and unknowable universe that is actually there, but a friendlier one that takes the form of a digestible narrative that we can navigate with a smile. The end is both imminent and immanent in our culture, as it needs to be. This does not mean you must subscribe to one of the many ridiculous theories bouncing around cyberspace, no, whether you know it or not, endings pull you constantly. Change. Death. Forgetting. It is the fiction that keeps us sane, protecting us from the apathetic approach of an unknowable future without end. The end is always stayed, always held at bay. It can never come, for when it does, its arrival will come hand in hand with the loss of our ability to perceive it.