Essay — From the September 2016 issue

Only an Apocalypse Can Save Us Now

On the politics of nostalgia

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The urge to divide time into ages seems embedded in our imaginations. We notice that the stars and the seasons follow regular cycles and that human life follows an arc from nothingness to maturity, then back to nothingness. For civilizations ancient and modern this movement in nature has provided irresistible metaphors for describing cosmological, sacred, and political change. But as metaphors age, and migrate from the poetic imagination to social myth, they harden into certainties. One need not have read Kierkegaard to know the anxiety that accompanies historical consciousness, that inner cramp that comes when time lurches forward and we feel ourselves catapulted into the future. To relax that cramp we tell ourselves that we actually know how one age has followed another since the beginning. This white lie gives us hope of altering the future course of events, or at least of learning how to adapt to them. There even seems to be solace in thinking that we are caught in a fated history of decline, so long as we can expect a new turn of the wheel, or an eschatological event that will carry us beyond time itself.

Epochal thinking is magical thinking. Even the greatest minds succumb to it. For Hesiod and Ovid the “ages of man” was an allegory, but for the author of the Book of Daniel the four kingdoms destined to rule the world were a prophetic certainty. Christian apologists from Eusebius to Bossuet saw God’s providential hand shaping distinct ages to mark the preparation, revelation, and spread of the Gospel. Ibn Khaldun, Machiavelli, and Vico thought that they had discovered the mechanism by which nations rise from rude beginnings before reaching their peak, decaying into luxury and literature, then returning cyclically to their origins. Hegel divided the history of nearly every human endeavor — politics, religion, art, philosophy — into a snaking temporal web of triads within triads. Heidegger spoke elliptically about “epochs” in “the history of Being” that are opened and closed by a destiny beyond human understanding (though it sometimes leaves signs, like the swastika). Even our minor academic prophets of the postmodern, by using the prefix post-, can’t seem to overcome the compulsion to divide one age from another. Or to consider their own to be the culminating one, in which all cats are finally revealed to be gray.

HA051__03HF0-1Narratives of progress, regress, and cycles all assume a mechanism by which historical change happens. It might be the natural laws of the cosmos, the will of God, the dialectical development of the human mind or of economic forces. Once we understand the mechanism, we are assured of understanding what really happened and what is to come. But what if there is no such mechanism? What if history is subject to sudden eruptions that cannot be explained by any science of temporal tectonics? These are the questions that arise in the face of cataclysms for which no rationalization seems adequate and no consolation seems possible. In response, an apocalyptic view of history develops. It sees a rip in time that widens with each passing year, distancing us from an age that was golden or heroic or simply normal. In this vision there really is only one event in history, the kairos separating the world we were meant for from the world we must live in. That is all we can know, and must know, about the past.

Apocalyptic history itself has a history, which stands as a record of human despair. The expulsion from Eden, the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the crucifixion of Jesus, the sack of Rome, the murders of Ali and Hussein, the Crusades, the fall of Jerusalem, the Reformation, the fall of Constantinople, the English Civil Wars, the French Revolution, the American Civil War, World War I, the Russian Revolution, the abolition of the caliphate, the Shoah, the Palestinian Nakba, the Sixties, 9/11 — all these events have been inscribed in various collective memories as definitive breaches in history. For the apocalyptic imagination, the present, not the past, is a foreign country. That is why it is so inclined to dream of a second event that will blow open the doors of paradise. Its attention is fixed on the horizon as it awaits the Messiah, the Revolution, the Leader, or the end of time itself. Only an apocalypse can save us now: in the face of catastrophe this morbid conviction can appear to be simple common sense. But throughout history it has also provoked extravagant hopes that were inevitably disappointed, leaving those who held them even more desolate. The doors to the Kingdom remained shut, and all that was left was a memory of defeat, destruction, and exile.

For those who have never experienced defeat, destruction, or exile, there is an undeniable charm to loss. An agency in Romania offers what it calls a Beautiful Decay Tour of Bucharest, which gives the visitor an overview of the postcommunist urban landscape — buildings full of rubble and broken glass, abandoned factories invaded by local vegetation, that sort of thing. Young American artists, feeling unappreciated in gentrified New York, are now moving to Detroit, America’s Bucharest, to feel the grit once more in their teeth. English gentlemen succumbed to something similar in the nineteenth century, buying up deserted abbeys and country houses where they shivered on the weekends. For romantics, the decay of the ideal is the ideal.

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is a professor of humanities at Columbia University. The Shipwrecked Mind, from which this essay is taken, is out this month from New York Review Books.

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