Apocalypse Nowish, by Michael Robbins

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December 2022 Issue [Essay]

Apocalypse Nowish

The sense of an ending

Kiss the Son (detail, center panel of triptych), by Nicora Gangi © The artist

[Essay]

Apocalypse Nowish

The sense of an ending
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I first read the Book of Revelation in a green pocket-size King James New Testament published by the motel missionaries Gideons International. I was in seventh grade. I remember reading the tiny Bible in the hallway outside my chemistry classroom, in which lurked a boy I loathed named Glenn, who would make fun of my Journey T-shirts. It would be years before I really got into Iron Maiden, but at my friend Jonathan’s house I’d heard Barry Clayton’s creepy recitation of Revelation 13:18 on the title track of The Number of the Beast: “Let him who hath understanding reckon the number of the beast: for it is a human number; its number is six hundred and sixty-six.”

I wanted to know what that was all about. My father was so dismissive of any form of religious thought that I was in second grade before I realized that some people believed in the devil, whom I had drawn for an art project. My teacher wouldn’t post my drawing on the wall with the others, on the grounds that it might offend Christian sensibilities, though it was a standard cartoonish red devil with horns, pitchfork, and pointy tail. I was nonplussed: surely Satan was a fictional character, like Santa Claus or Batman. (Of course he is, my dad explained that night, but not everyone realizes this.)

By seventh grade I was much better acquainted with religious belief, aware even of its stirrings within myself. Revelation still seemed as fantastical as my drawing. It’s a trip, sure—seven-headed dragons, lion-headed horses, and lakes of fire are inherently cool. But no one in his right mind could actually believe this stuff.

Not the dragon stuff, which scans as symbolic to even the dullest seventh-grader, but whatever the evangelicals thought the dragon stuff was a metaphor for. I knew they had notions on the subject, for they had briefly kidnapped me and made me watch a filmstrip about hell in what appeared to be a taco truck. This would have been a few summers earlier, in Salida, Colorado, in a park along the Arkansas River.

Anyway, I thought Revelation was deranged,1 and I loved it. “And I heard a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder: and I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps.” Its closing lines struck me then and still strike me as immeasurably moving: “He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.”

In the decades following Jesus’ death, the apocalypse2 was believed to be so imminent that Paul felt he had to hurry, complaining that barely had he begun to spread the gospel in one place when another beckoned to him. In the first few centuries of the Christian era, the world was “a dark house full of war,” as Anthony the Great wrote from the desert, and heavy shit was being revealed to prophets all over the place. Some of it has been passed down in text, such as the Secret Book of John, to whom “a figure with several forms within the light” appeared to tell of “what is, what was, and what is to come, that you may understand what is invisible and what is visible; and to teach you about the unshakable race of perfect humankind.”

Wild forms of millenarianism flourished in Europe from the Middle Ages through the seventeenth century, as Norman Cohn and Christopher Hill have delightfully documented. The Second Coming was expected any moment; Antichrist was abroad in the land—he was the pope, or he was Martin Luther, or he was just the general vibe. “The judgment day is at hand,” proclaimed John Bunyan in 1658. The so-called Amaurians of the thirteenth century, precursors to the Brethren of the Free Spirit, held that they were living in the last of three ages, the Age of the Holy Spirit, which was to culminate in a series of catastrophes that would kill off most of humankind, leaving only a saving remnant who would become divine.

I’ve always liked them—the ranters, revivalists, the killer messiahs and flipped-out founders of communes. The camp meetings in the woods where young people would bark and howl and writhe on the ground and fall into trances that lasted for days. Jonathan Edwards in full gallop, reading the chiliastic signs.

I’ve been thinking about all this lately for obvious reasons. We live in a dark house full of war. Not that I anticipate the Christian eschaton—who needs divine revelation when you can google “more plastic than fish by 2050”? Nor have I been “black-pilled.” I didn’t ask to get “Eve of Destruction” stuck in my head. I desperately want us to get our shit together. We could build a free society that doesn’t view the planet as a profit engine. I just really doubt that we will. Climate disaster, economic collapse, war, resurgent fascism and nationalism, assaults on basic political freedoms, mass violence: all these mutually reinforcing in a sinister feedback loop, the structural stresses of capital’s death throes accelerating ecological catastrophe and exacerbating reactionary forces, which in turn further stress the structure. The collapse won’t be a single event, but a slide into what the world-systems analyst Giovanni Arrighi calls “systemic chaos.” Late-capitalist society is a coyote suspended above an abyss, believing he still stands on solid ground. We are in the interval before he notices he’s supported by thin air and plummets to the canyon floor.

The voluminous scholarship of apocalypse tends to follow a pattern. The Book of Daniel is cited, and Revelation; Zarathustra is wheeled onstage; the Sibylline Oracles perhaps are mentioned. It is noted that there are “apocalypses” or revelations (such as the Secret Book of John) which are not “apocalyptic” in the derived doomsday sense—Bruce Willis blowing up an asteroid to save the earth. Often apocalypticism is then differentiated from both millenarianism and eschatology.

These phenomena are then further delimited. The great Russian Orthodox theologian Sergei Bulgakov wrote that “The sense of the end is widespread in humankind. Humankind has an instinctive knowledge that the world will end, just as a man dies.” But apocalyptic traditions such as those of the Near East, from Zoroastrianism to Islam, are not universal. There is no Hindu equivalent of the “last day,” for instance, and “apocalyptic ideas entered Mesoamerican culture only after the arrival of the Europeans,” according to the scholar of religion Lorenzo DiTommaso. As the Lakota historian Nick Estes has noted, “Indigenous people are post-apocalyptic. In some cases, we have undergone several apocalypses.”

These are important distinctions. But I’m more interested here in what Raymond Williams termed a “structure of feeling,” the general drift, an atmosphere. If I confuse divine and secular, religious and political, in what follows, it’s because they’ve been all swirled together in my head since I read Revelation while avoiding Glenn, as they are in popular culture, where each is an allegory for the other: Neo in The Matrix is the Messiah; the spacecraft carrying the bombs to blow up the comet in Deep Impact is named the Messiah; Armageddon is called Armageddon. I don’t believe the New Jerusalem will descend from the heavens, but nor do I regard spiritual revelation as simply “a feeling inside,” as the ever-subtle Richard Dawkins put it, probably not with reference to Elton John.

During the apocalyptic summer of 2020, I was walking along the Rivanna River in Charlottesville, Virginia, when Jackson Browne’s “Before the Deluge” came up on my still-functional 2008 iPod:

Some of them were dreamers
And some of them were fools
Who were making plans and thinking of the future
With the energy of the innocent
They were gathering the tools
They would need to make their journey back to nature

Yeah, I know. Browne writes songs you want to hear again while also wishing you’d never learned English. But these lines evoked a certain structure of feeling, born in the counterculture of the Sixties, whose remnants I hazily recall from the late Seventies and early Eighties.

When I stayed with my mother growing up, I spent time with people who lived in school buses and people who claimed to be witches and people who followed the Dead and a guy who got free drinks in Leadville by passing for Bob Seger. They threw the I Ching and talked about ESP and smoked copious amounts of marijuana. They seemed ready to take off at any moment for just about any reason, and many of them did.

This milieu could be enticing for a kid—I could do whatever I wanted. But since the reason I could do whatever I wanted was that the adults around me were completely irresponsible, it was often a drag. I knew what an eviction notice was, I knew how to use food stamps, I knew not to trust cops. It was erratic; everyone was unstable. Still, wasn’t there something romantic about this pitiful rejection of what they called “the straight world”—or is it just nostalgia that makes me think so? But T. J. Clark calls nostalgia “that most realistic of interpretive tropes.”

There was a pervasive sense, entirely absent from my sojourns with my father in the straight world, that the whole system was headed for a crash, and you needed to be ready. Some of this was explicitly religious—the school bus folks expected Jesus’ imminent advent in the clouds—and some of it was political, but much of it was vague, something in the air, in the songs that floated through my childhood, shadowboxing the apocalypse. the end is nigh read the sandwich board of the street prophet in the comics of my youth, from MAD to Watchmen. I might be predisposed to believe the bridge is out up ahead, is my point.

This was the element in which I encountered The Late Great Planet Earth, Hal Lindsey’s 1970 eschatological bestseller. My mom or her roommates would leave books lying around, and I would read them, no matter what they were—Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The Stand, The Amityville Horror. (Don’t give a ten-year-old a copy of The Amityville Horror.) I’d like to think that even then I admired the shamelessness of Lindsey’s gotcha opening:

This is a book about prophecy—Bible prophecy. If you have no interest in the future, this isn’t for you. If you have no curiosity about a subject that some consider controversial, you might as well stop now.

Lindsey had a snake oil salesman’s sleazy charm, and a pandering sense of scale: “When the reality of the moon landing really hit, it was awesome.” But you ain’t seen nothin’ yet: “There is another trip which many men, women, and children will take one day which will leave the rest of the world gasping.” This is the Rapture, when believers will be swept up to heaven, leaving behind empty beds, unpiloted planes, half-mown lawns, and unmanned information kiosks, before the coming of Antichrist. The Rapture has no scriptural basis besides an obviously metaphorical verse in Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians. (The literalists always forget that the preferred genre of the New Testament’s protagonist is the parable.) I didn’t really believe it, but it’s a hell of a premise.3 It left a permanent impression on my imagination.

This era saw umpteen popular paperback prophecies of parousia, many of which I read simply because they were there. My favorite was Salem Kirban’s now forgotten precursor to the Left Behind novels, 666, bearing on its cover the same verses that Iron Maiden cite in “The Number of the Beast.” And these had their umpteen popular secular counterparts, often no less absurd or tragic. In the early Sixties, while Billy Graham was informing crowds that they were living in the Last Days, U.S. News & World Report assured subscribers that their checks would still be good “if bombs do fall” and their banks get vaporized. William and Paul Paddock predicted that overpopulation would lead to Famine 1975!, a 1967 bestseller in which the authors regretfully conclude that “hopeless countries” like India and Egypt must be abandoned to their fate because “to send food is to throw sand in the ocean.” Paul Ehrlich was listening: his apocalyptic screed The Population Bomb opens with a racist description of “one stinking hot night in Delhi,” lent “a hellish aspect” by cooking fires, the streets “alive with people,” confessing that he and his family “were, frankly, frightened” as they rode safely in a taxi to their hotel. Rather than reflect on the legacy of colonialism, Ehrlich decided that there were just too many damn “people, people, people.” In the Seventies, more than one hundred million of them were sure to perish in a global famine.

There were also intelligent versions of the apocalyptic structure of feeling. Some were militant, like the poems in Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters, which abound with practical advice for the revolution, a Letters to a Young Poet for the budding Weatherman:

store water; make a point of filling your bathtub
at the first news of trouble: they turned off the water
in the 4th ward for a whole day during the Newark riots

    *

at some point
you may be called upon
to keep going for several days without sleep:
keep some ups around

    *

there are those who can tell you
how to make molotov cocktails, flamethrowers,
bombs whatever
you might be needing
find them and learn

There was Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, which recounts with fascinated horror the advertised amenities of civil-defense preparations, a “combination family room . . . and family fallout shelter” comfortably accoutred with carpet, television, lounge chairs, and board games. A bourgeois nuclear winter for the nuclear family, as today’s sociopathic billionaires construct luxury bunkers in missile silos in which to ride out climate chaos. And Norman O. Brown’s strange, mostly forgotten Love’s Body, a mélange of mysticism, psychoanalysis, and apocalyptic rhetoric: Melanie Klein and William Blake, Augustine and Artaud, Kerouac and Mircea Eliade. “Thank God the world cannot be made safe,” Brown wrote, “for democracy or anything else.” Marcuse hated it.

Expecting the apocalypse has been an American pastime since the colonial era. Marcuse wrote One-Dimensional Man in Massachusetts, not far from where Jonathan Edwards discerned the scriptural prophecy of the millennium “plainly to point out America, as the first-fruits of that glorious day.” Henry Adams decided that the second law of thermodynamics applied to human history as a closed system. “The apocalypse has been announced so many times that it cannot occur,” as the situationist Raoul Vaneigem put it in his book on the Brethren of the Free Spirit. The end of the world is always around the next bend. Look out of any window.

So I’d be foolish not to scatter some asterisks. “Beginning to be the end it seemed,” writes Nathaniel Mackey. “Ending begun to be come to again.” “The imagination,” said Wallace Stevens, “is always at the end of an era.” And Robert Frost: “It is immodest of a man to think of himself as going down before the worst forces ever mobilized by God.” Many ends of the world have come and gone. “When it appears that it cannot be so,” Frank Kermode noted in The Sense of an Ending, “they act as if it were true in a different sense.” What can I say, Frank, you got me.

The conflation of religious millenarianism and revolutionary politics is an understandable, if misleading, tendency. But I want to consider some arguments about how, precisely, they are related. A frequent aim of each is omnia sunt communia—all things in common (Acts 2:44)—and for each to achieve this aim requires the overturning of the existent social order, which is adjudged corrupt, never inaccurately. “The earth,” wrote the Digger Gerrard Winstanley in 1649, was created “to be a common treasury . . . a common storehouse for all,” but it “is bought and sold and kept in the hands of a few.” Christopher Hill notes that Winstanley envisaged “a state monopoly for foreign trade” after the abolition of private property, “one of the first things the Soviet government established after taking over power in 1917.” Engels saw in the ideas of the Anabaptist Thomas Müntzer, leader of the sixteenth-century Peasants’ Revolt in Central Europe, a precursor of modern communism. Karl Kautsky was less sure. The Great Awakening, wrote the Congregationalist minister Charles Chauncy in alarm, “has made strong attempts to destroy all property, to make all things common.”

The field guide to millenarianism remains Norman Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium, that magical mystery tour of Ranters, flagellants, Free Spirits, messiahs, lesser messiahs, autocratic messiahs, disappointed messiahs, and anarcho-communists. Guy Debord, who admired Cohn’s book, nevertheless felt he had the wrong end of the stick, as he argued in The Society of the Spectacle:

So, contrary to what Norman Cohn believes he has demonstrated in The Pursuit of the Millennium, modern revolutionary hopes are not an irrational sequel to the religious passion of millenarianism. The exact opposite is true: millenarianism, the expression of a revolutionary class struggle speaking the language of religion for the last time, was already a modern revolutionary tendency, lacking only the consciousness of being historical and nothing more.

Eric Hobsbawm more or less concurs, finding Cohn’s study “vitiated by a tendency to interpret medieval in terms of modern revolutionary movements and the other way around.”

As the present essay attests, it’s hard to resist this sort of thinking. Thirty years after Hobsbawm slapped Cohn’s wrist, he was writing that

like the early Christians, most pre-1914 socialists were believers in the great apocalyptic change which would abolish all that was evil and bring about a society without unhappiness, oppression, inequality and injustice.

Maybe so. But I want to hold on to the slight difference between Debord’s and Hobsbawm’s corrections of Cohn. Hobsbawm faults him for interpreting the medieval in terms of the modern phenomena “and the other way around.” But Debord says Cohn gets the relationship exactly backward: one must read religious millenarianism in the light cast by modern revolutionary hopes, not vice versa. It’s not, as Cohn has it, that revolutionary struggles are religious; it’s that medieval millennial movements were revolutionary struggles expressed in the language of their time.

This is in one sense Debord turning Hegel on his head, asserting the materialist base of religious ideas. But I read it also as a statement of solidarity with the mad prophets on the burning shore: they often fought the good fight. The Bohemian millenarians of the fifteenth century, a contemporary chronicler relates, inspired fear “on all sides” that “the poor” and “the rough folk” would soon “turn against all who were decent and law-abiding, and against the rich.” As well they should. “I take for religion / / its joyousness, not its millennial / struggle,” Pasolini wrote. But the historian Paul Boyer is onto something:

Radicals seeking evidence of grassroots disaffection with the structure of modern society have ignored a rich potential source—the torrent of skeptical commentary by premillennialists, whose array of prophetic “signs” included social, economic, and technological processes so broad as to be almost coterminous with modernity itself.

It is not quite true that radicals have “ignored” these sources, but the point is well-taken. John Brown and Thomas Müntzer ventured (and lost) their lives agitating against tremendous systems of domination because of and not despite their religion. Of course, Frederick Douglass drew the sharpest distinction “between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ.”

Today’s apocalyptic structure of feeling differs from its predecessors in that it is totally pessimistic. “Remain calm,” communist theorist Bifo Berardi advises readers. “Don’t be attached to life, and most of all: don’t have hope, that addictive poisonous weed.” Nuclear warheads may or may not fall from the skies. Ditto Jesus. But the planet will get hotter. Even in the most realistically optimistic scenario,4 coral reefs face complete die-off, sea levels rise, and entire species and ecosystems vanish. Extreme weather—storms, wildfires, floods, droughts—will become ever more commonplace. And of course it is the less optimistic scenarios that are more likely to come to pass.

Bulgakov denied that the “philosophy of history as the ‘philosophy of the end’ ” could be characterized as pessimism. “But neither is it optimism, for, within the limits of history itself, there is no resolution for this tragedy.” That is, nothing can be done until history is ended, in the transfiguration of the world through the parousia, the coming of Christ the King. At the risk of nullifying its true content, I would secularize, or historicize, Bulgakov’s insight.

As a synecdoche for the tragedy of our historical moment, consider a news item about the murder of nineteen schoolchildren in Uvalde, Texas. One victim, ten-year-old Maite Rodriguez, was identifiable only by the green Converse sneakers she wore. She had drawn a heart on her right shoe. After the actor Matthew McConaughey, for some reason delivering a press briefing at the White House, made this detail known to the public, the shoes sold out as appalled consumers ordered them online.

It is impossible to understand a society whose response to the slaughter of children is to purchase green Converse sneakers as anything other than psychotic. It is impossible, I believe, to wish for such a society to continue—a society that is also bent on murdering as many other forms of life as possible, driving entire species extinct, rendering the planet uninhabitable. To say nothing of the millions of incarcerated souls, the hundreds of millions living in slums while the superrich eat like emperors on private jets. And on and on. No, “I always wanted this world ended,” as the communist Franco Fortini said.

Within the limits of history, there is no solution, whether we look to climate accords or philanthropic billionaires. Liberals stroll the fairylands of blue waves and Green New Deals or cling to the hope that science will save us, through geoengineering or nuclear power, carbon capture or magic beans. I think of Los, in Blake’s Jerusalem, “Striving with Systems to deliver Individuals from those Systems.”5 The crisis cannot be resolved from within the institutions that gave rise to the crisis.

Just this morning I read a book review in the Washington Post with an assertion that made me laugh out loud: “It’s likely that at least some people will survive climate change, and that 1,000 years from now their gadgets will make ours seem primitive.” Some people will survive climate change, sure. But is it “likely” that they will produce advanced gadgets a millennium from now? They’ll figure out a magical way to sustainably produce advanced technology without depleting natural resources and once again poisoning the planet? Perhaps they will also build starships to spread humanist values to strange new worlds.

Or perhaps the people left behind after climate apocalypse will have learned from our mistakes. I think of a scene from the television adaptation of Station Eleven. Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis) is fielding questions from Alex (Philippine Velge), a young thespian born after a pandemic that erased civilization, about what smartphones were like:

“So how many plays fit on this one?”
“Alex, every play. All of the plays fit on it.”
“I wish I coulda had a phone.”
“They weren’t that great.”6

The series adapts Emily St. John Mandel’s surprise bestseller, itself part of a recent end-of-the-world boom. The Road, The Walking Dead, This Is the End, How It Ends, Melancholia, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, I Think We’re Alone Now, It Comes at Night, A Quiet Place, The Passage, The End of October, Survivor Song, Y: The Last Man—these are just a few that occur to me off the top of my head. The titles alone are a structure of feeling. And they keep coming, every day another title imagining the end, or what comes after the end, as if we keep trying to get it right—no, it will be like this . . .

It is seventy-five years since Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer lamented the tendency of people to take the status quo, “which they themselves constantly create,” as given, “a fortress before which even the revolutionary imagination feels shamed as utopianism, and degenerates to a compliant trust in the objective tendency of history.” The Marxist Helmut Reichelt, paraphrasing Adorno, called this seemingly given fortress “an objective structure that has become autonomous.” We can still demolish this structure—though the hour is getting late—but instead we search within it (not very hard, it must be said) for ways to ameliorate its effects.

I sure don’t know how to demolish it. I just know that the oil companies will not stop drilling unless we force them to, unless we take matters into our own hands, as Andreas Malm recently suggested in his ambitiously titled How to Blow Up a Pipeline. I just know that we can’t look to the state to save us, as even Malm ultimately does. The state is nothing if not the guarantor of the very property relations that got us into this mess in the first place. Anahid Nersessian, in a bravura reading of di Prima’s “Revolutionary Letter #7,” defines “action” in the poet’s sense as “a name for a concrete but open-ended intensity to which some unidentified people are giving everything they have for an unspecified amount of time.” Thoreau complained in his journal:

It galls me to listen to the remarks of craven-hearted neighbors who speak disparagingly of [John] Brown because he resorted to violence, resisted the government, threw his life away!—what way have they thrown their lives, pray?

What way will we throw our lives? The historian Mike Davis has imagined the horseman of pestilence telling a reporter on the White House lawn, “Your whole society is suffering from acute apocalypse denial.” The thing about wanting this world ended is you want it ended the right way. If we don’t end it ourselves, if we don’t stop those who are killing everything, it will almost certainly end quite badly, especially for the poorest and most subjugated among us. And what comes next could well be even worse. The George Floyd rebellion of 2020 remains, along with Occupy, Standing Rock, the Arab Spring, and several other scattered refusals to comply with the status quo, a bright beacon of possibility. But the disappointing issue of these, the reversion to the positive facticity of what exists—in no small part due to the other side’s overwhelming monopoly on naked force—conjures an image of the future in which, in solidarity with the dead, isolated subjects click to add shoes to their shopping carts forever.

And yet. Perhaps it is my early grounding in eschatology and the counterculture that allows me to see—not hope, not at all, but opportunity. Is it not when things are darkest, when all hope is lost, that one fights with abandon, shamelessly shoots for utopia? For then there is nothing left to lose. And I have heard that another word for nothing left to lose is freedom.