The Absolute End

By Thompson, Damian | New Statesman (1996), October 9, 2000 | Go to article overview

The Absolute End


Thompson, Damian, New Statesman (1996)


APOCALYPSE

DAMIAN THOMPSON is disappointed by the Royal Academy's lazy exploitation of shock value

"Beauty and horror in contemporary art" is the subtitle of the Royal Academy' s "Apocalypse" exhibition. It's not a bad line. The fission of the beautiful and the horrific is precisely what produces the raw power of the apocalyptic genre. We forget, in our post-modern toying with the most barbaric images in the Book of Revelation -- homed beasts, spectral horsemen, fire and sulphur, the armies of Armageddon -- that it contains the most bewitchingly lovely depiction of paradise in the Bible:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people [. . .] And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any pain: for the former things are passed away." (Rev 21:1-4)

Although this passage follows swiftly the final defeat of Satan, it is not really postapocalyptic. On the contrary, it is the essence of apocalypse. The Greek word "apokalupsis" refers to an unveiling, and this is what is unveiled; without it, the blood-drenched drama of the previous 20 chapters would be meaningless. With it, however, something very strange is accomplished: the most terrible acts of violence, whether directed by or at the forces of good, are retrospectively sanctified. The world has ended for a purpose.

This is what makes apocalypse proper -- the religious vision, extending over millennia from the Book of Daniel to the last poisoned supper of Heaven' s Gate -- so much more interesting and morally complex than secular caricatures of Armageddon. The beauty of violence is one of the greatest and most enduring of anthropological idees fixes, and in apocalypse it finds its most refined expression. The waves of catastrophe that come crashing down on humanity in Revelation have a grandeur to them that is derived from their divine origin. This presents the modem observer, who has been taught that empathy is crucial to understanding, with an almost impossible dilemma. If the peculiar symmetry of apocalypticism demands that the reward of the elect is balanced by the suffering of millions of the unsaved, does that make it intrinsically repugnant? How do we assess the motives of those who retreat into apocalypse? Are they mentally ill, or sane people labouring under a socially constructed delusion, or a mixture of the two? …

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