Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Twentieth-Century Apocalypse: Forecasts and Aftermaths

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Twentieth-Century Apocalypse: Forecasts and Aftermaths

Article excerpt

We are all haunted by visions that we are trying in vain to put out of our minds.

Robert Jungk (3)

You loved the scenes, didn't you, when I first showed you them? A flat-out fascination with the threat, soberly maintaining that the only thing to do when the world begins to end is to stand aside and paint it.

Richard Powers (341)

The arbitrary chronometric click of the millennium was registered last I year, and it was quite wonderful to see the millennial dawn in every time zone broadcast on Public Television. It was so serious, such an Event, a sure sign that nothing was happening. Only the Danes thought to perform a millennial parody, which ended with the queen of Denmark being assassinated! What was truly noteworthy, though, was not how little took place, but how little was expected. Millennial feeling, for the first time, was almost entirely severed from apocalyptic urges and fears. There were still, of course, people catastrophizing on websites, stockpiling weapons in Texas, and waiting for the end in Jerusalem. But these responses seemed quaintly anachronistic; one could feel almost a pleasant nostalgia knowing that there were still a few people looking forward to the end of the world. The only endemic anxiety concerned Y2K, the possible worldwide computer glitch. Most of us, though, ultimately were convinced by government and business assurances that the problem had been addressed; and, as it happened, the world's computers changed their dates quite smoothly.

And yet, as Walt Whitman once wrote, "Something startles me where I thought I was safest" (208). Certainly, I am relieved that nuclear annihilation no longer seems imminent. One doesn't really feel nostalgia for Mutual Assured Destruction, Ronald Reagan, and Hal Lindsey. But still I wonder about the causes of the sudden evaporation of apocalyptic feeling at the end of the twentieth century, a century so thoroughly marked, perhaps even defined, by apocalyptic impulses, fears, representations, and events. The reasons for this general millennial calm are both obvious and not so obvious. First, there is no great global crisis that would help precipitate apocalyptic fears and desires. There is, of course, a very real ecological crisis, but corporate and government public relations seem to have successfully numbed public concern. Without the Cold War and the Soviet Union, there is no Evil Empire, no Antichrist, no immediate threat of annihilation. The terrible eruptions of bloody local conflicts do not seem likely to widen into Armageddons; even the Middle East conflict, without the added heat of superpower ideological rivalry, has receded to the status of just another brutal, local idiocy, in spite of the efforts of zealots to make it something more.

Furthermore, the apparent prosperity created by global capitalism has made the millennium seem irrelevant. Even those of us bashing this consumerist Babylon and its international war against labor and the environment want to make sure our TIAA-CREF funds are doing well. But there is another factor, I believe, contributing to the relative scarcity of apocalyptic fervor at the end of the millennium, and that is a kind of apocalyptic fatigue, or indeed, a widespread sense that the apocalypse has, in some sense, already happened. No, we didn't actually get nuked or wiped out by ebola or nerve gas; aliens didn't land on the White House lawn. We in the developed West are still alive and more or less kicking. But we need to consider seriously the fact that even the most dystopic visions of science fiction of the last half century cannot replicate events that have actually taken place, events that we have seen, recorded, and reproduced. We don't need to speculate. We know what the end of the world looks like. We kno w because we've seen it, and we've seen it because it's happened. The images of Nazi death camps, of mushroom clouds and human silhouettes burned onto pavements, of not just massacres but genocides in a dozen places, of urban wastelands and ecological devastation are all part of our cultural heritage. …

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