In his 1871 essay titled “Democratic Vistas,” Walt Whitman warned a post–Civil War America that it was still being morally tested. He predicted that unless the nation matched its tremendous materialistic progress with a comparable spiritual advancement, it was bound for a fate “equivalent … to that of the fabled damned.”
Here we are 141 years later, and besides the extra hydrocarbons, there seems to be a lot of (at least) metaphorical sulfur in the air over America. What kind of cultural climate change is this? Let’s take a few readings from America’s psychic weather patterns.
In the late 1950s, a century of Anglo-American critical opinion that Hamlet was Shakespeare’s greatest play gave way to a new consensus favoring King Lear. Scholars stopped seeing Lear as portraying one man’s pilgrimage to redemption and started seeing it as being about universal nihilism. If Hamlet had given the nineteenth century its poster boy for the Romantic idealist roughed up by a harsh world, Lear (as scholar Frank Kermode observed) gave the twentieth its defining image of the Apocalypse—with the play’s repeating keynote refrain of “nothing” ringing out of the existential abyss famously surveyed by postwar writers like Sartre and Camus.
In 1968, the Science Fiction Writers of America voted on the best short stories of the genre’s “golden age,” roughly 1929 to 1964. The hands-down winner was Isaac Asimov’s 1941 “Nightfall.” Penned during the Second World War, “Nightfall” concerned an Earthlike planet that apocalyptically plunges into barbarism every two thousand years.
Finally, during the 2012 Super Bowl, the audience for the most-watched television broadcast in America was treated to a car commercial for “the apocalypse-proof Chevrolet Silverado.”
These are just three high- and low-atmospheric indicators of the apocalyptic storm system already well established over America by the mid-twentieth century.
William Butler Yeats famously forecast this age’s apocalypse in 1919 with his poem “The Second Coming,” predicting that an even scarier “blood-dimmed tide” would follow World War I. That this message was echoed by other writers, especially in Europe, may not be surprising given the precipitous global conditions in the twenties and thirties.
But that this apocalyptic theme achieved even greater currency in the victorious and undamaged United States in the relatively prosperous decades after the Second World War—and has carried over into the twenty-first century as well—prompts us to reexamine the fascination that annihilation seems to hold for the American psyche.
But first, a little history. The Western apocalyptic narrative arose in the century before Christ, out of the Judaic prophetic tradition. As the seeming omnipotence of the Roman Empire magnified the helplessness of tiny, occupied Judea, out of the Hebrew tradition that promised local relief through Jewish atonement sprang a more desperate belief that only a universal judgment day could end the otherwise insurmountable Roman tyranny. Following these Hebrew antecedents, early persecuted Christians similarly found this kind of world-breaking, Christ-returning narrative a comforting way to envision their own deliverance.
And so, in this, its original sense, the biblical Apocalypse—despite all the attendant natural and civil upheavals described in the Book of Revelation—is supposed to be an upbeat and reassuring thing. It is reassuring in that to believe in the Apocalypse is to believe that all of human history, all of time itself, is a vehicle of divine purpose. And that on that “Great Come and Get It Day,” as lyricist Yip Harburg termed it in his musical Finian’s Rainbow, everybody gets what he or she deserves. What’s not to like, as long as you’re among the righteous?
But what happens to an apocalypse deferred?
A little more history: because an actual Apocalypse failed to occur during the early Christian era, its meaning changed. Prominent third-century theologian Origen declared that the true Apocalypse was not an historical event at all but a metaphor for divine revelation as internally experienced by individual Christian souls. By the fifth century, St. Augustine had reinterpreted the biblical Apocalypse as merely an allegory of the Catholic Church’s own early struggle and emergence. Finally, in 431, the year after St. Augustine’s death, the third ecumenical council of the Christian church, also known as the First Council of Ephesus, declared the literal Apocalypse a superstitious heresy.
A millennium later, along came the Reformation—and the New World. The discovery of the Americas rebooted widespread, even church-supported, anticipation of a real Apocalypse once more. Sightings of the New World had prompted Columbus to scribble sections of Revelations in his journals. And in the eyes of many of its first Protestant European immigrants, before them literally lay kingdom come.
So America’s literature was bound to be apocalyptic. Increase Mather’s 1687 Puritan tract “New Jerusalem” detailed how events in Revelations supposedly correlated with early New England history. And the first “fictional” best seller in the Americas was a 224-stanza poem called “The Day of Doom.” Published in 1662 by Massachusetts Puritan minister Thomas Wigglesworth, it luridly detailed the many punishments awaiting sinners on Judgment Day. “The Day of Doom” remained the most popular piece of fiction in the colonies for one hundred years. It was once estimated that half the households in New England possessed a copy. Of the first printing not one exists today; it has been argued that this is because they were all thumbed to shreds.
This modern return to apocalyptic thinking has remained, in one form or another, a part of American culture as it has nowhere else in the Western world. While eighteenth-century Europe experienced the Enlightenment, America underwent what became known as the “First Great Awakening,” a massive expansion of Christian fundamentalism. In the nineteenth century there followed a similarly popular “Second Great Awakening”; at the dawn of the twenty-first century, President George W. Bush suggested that America was in the throes of yet a third great religious awakening.
The sixty million-plus members of today’s vibrant Baptist, Evangelical, and Pentecostal Christian churches emerged from these recurring American revivalist movements sharing the belief in the literal Second Coming. But that belief is not restricted to these groups. A 2011 Pew Center poll found that 41 percent of all Americans (that’s over 120 million people) expect a literal Apocalypse to begin before 2050.
If that seems far-fetched, perhaps you’ve never heard of the Left Behind book series. Between 1995 and 2007, authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins published sixteen novels describing the initial Rapture and a serialized Apocalypse in detail far more sensational than Wigglesworth. And they’re not finished; additional volumes are in the works. To date, the series has sold over sixty-five million copies, with seven of the titles reaching number-one on the best-seller lists of The New York Times, USA Today, Publisher’s Weekly.
LaHaye, Jenkins, and a third collaborator, Chris Farby, have also penned, so far, forty titles in their own juvenile spin-off series: Left Behind: The Kids. Does former President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program now start to cha-cha with new meaning?
Modern secular American literature has responded no les
s avidly to the aforementioned sulfur in the national ether. Except that serious literature, along with almost all other secular popular disaster entertainment (unlike the Left Behind books), has abandoned the prospect of any upside to Armageddon. The fiction of such academically esteemed twentieth-century authors as William Faulkner, Nathanael West, Flannery O’Connor, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Coover, Joseph Heller, William Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, and Cormac McCarthy treats us to unrelenting vistas of literal or symbolic American calamity.
Now in IMAX and 3D, this same theme of doom shimmers on the broader cultural main-street of the movie screen in a kaleidoscopic loop of microcosmic, macrocosmic, economic, cybernetic, pathogenic, geologic, nuclear, biochemical, ecological, astronomical, and extraterrestrial menace. (In case you didn’t know it, all those zombies—when not serving as a subliminal argument against gun control—satirize us, the lumpen, soulless citizenry of the entropic void, lurching across Matthew Arnold’s beach.)
Moreover, not only are these images of doom absolute, they don’t even smack of eschatological comeuppance. In fact, there’s nary a whiff of any purpose at all, divine or otherwise. They just display the meaningless suffering of haphazard natural upheaval and/or social decay.
Perhaps one way to hear this big cultural raspberry directed at America is as the sound of aesthetic disappointment. These dystopian visions might burn with their creators’ chagrin over America’s failure to live up to its bright millennial expectations, for failing Whitman’s test—for being, as Jeannette Winterson called it, the “newfound land that spoiled itself and a once-in-a species opportunity to really begin again.”
Perhaps we can stretch a bit farther and look at America’s cultural love affair with catastrophe as some form of Dionysian “Tropic of Cancer,” as Henry Miller called it, some convulsive rejection of the forever deferred Apollonian promises hyped by material modernity, the thing the Enlightenment envisioned in place of kingdom come.
Or shall we go all the way to the sublime and say that America’s apocalyptic reveries are a form of mythopoeic magical thinking—confused prayers, if you will, of our collective unconscious—for there again to be meaning in human history, for there again to be purpose in the whirlwind, for there to be a specifically providential cracking of the world so that it may be reborn?
Maybe we’re not afraid the end is near. Maybe we’re afraid it isn’t.
As many a philosopher has argued, we come more fully to value, or at least more poignantly to feel, our own existence by contemplating our ends. The aesthetically mediated prospect of our death elicits, however irrationally, some autonomic throb of . . . something like affirmation. (Why else would anybody want to watch King Lear twice?)
So the apocalyptic entertainment we so abundantly consume may just be the paradoxical artifice by which even secular America subconsciously continues to sift the rubble of its own apprehended decline for intimations of its once promised “New Jerusalem.”
There used to be a Greenwich Village performance artist back in the ‘70s and ‘80s called Brother Theodore who would stand on a bare, darkened stage dressed in a brown monk’s habit and deliver sepulchral lectures on bizarre subjects in a thick German accent. And he always ended these sermons the same way. He would say: “Vhere zhere is no crucifixion, zhere can be no resurrection … unt … vhere zhere is no death, zhere is no hope … Good night.”
Looking back now, I can see that his act was as American as apple pie.