The Frisson of Apocalypse

The Owl has promised to avoid wrangles and obsessions already amply displayed in public. What follows makes reference to some of those, without taking up a position on any of them. We address them as quasi-religious cultural phenomena, tangentially related to our other writings on apocalyptic and eschatology, and the consequences of foreshortening these, referring them back to the present milieu.

Our friend Ken sent a link to a news article entitled “California’s next nightmare,” predicting a big flood in the San Joaquin delta sometime in the next fifty years. I would answer him as follows:

I’m no geologist or meteorologist, so I guess I’ll have to take their word for it: a big flood is possible in the Sacramento and San Joaquin delta: 64% chance in the next 50 years. I needn’t worry much about it because I have zero chance of living 50 years.

Something there is in us that loves catastrophe. There is a certain frisson to entertaining apocalyptic wishes or fears—it’s hard to tell which they are—of events that would change the course of our politics, or force the whole world to address an environmental crisis. Bogies and messiahs are invented to fuel the party—party in a banal sense: noisemakers, funny hats, bands, marches, shouts, brawls, the works. And party in the deadly serious sense, in which people fueled by ideology carry weapons to the streets to injure and kill. News organizations eat this up, manufacturing more clickbait than information.

The end is near. A toxic patriarchy has to be thrown off lest we descend into fascism. Global warming must be arrested lest the disaster spin out of control; the point of no return is only n years away. The authority of “science” is invoked on every side. Behind the authorities, one of our oldest and most insidious cultural tendencies comes out. By that I do not refer to racism, dangerous though it is, but to the way we put adversaries out of bounds, beyond the pale of civil discourse. It is more than a tactical error, it would be giving aid and comfort to the enemy even to credit them with good faith. They are not only irrational or self-interested, but vicious. It is not just mistaken in their thinking, but wicked, deserving condemnation, with all the ancient religious overtones of that word.

In this atmosphere, elections turn into moral crusades. Apocalyptic and messianic thinking take hold of the population as a whole. One president claimed that America was exporting freedom and democracy, which everybody would naturally prefer to life under corrupt or dysfunctional governments. Another announced that upon his election the seas ceased to rise and threaten whole civilizations around the world. Rather than be repelled by such hubris, people adulate the speakers.

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Getting back to the news item Ken sent: Isn’t it odd that these tendencies take hold in “scientists’’” minds? Sure, California is full of wicked people (I raise my hand). If there’s a God in heaven, he’ll git’em. But so far, living here, I’m enjoying a hurricane- flood- tornado- and (for now) earthquake-free existence. God will probably git me for saying that.

4 thoughts on “The Frisson of Apocalypse”

  1. Historically, there was a serious flood in the San Joaquin Valley, long before the water controlling canals and dams and whatever were set into place. Apparently the water was several feet deep, and 10% of the population drowned out of 40,000 number back in the 1800s. (Josh can tell you more. He told me.) Personally, I prefer to live in the unexciting times where life is stable and banal, with beneficence toward others. As I age, it seems to be lessening. Too many people, too much media. Perhaps I should stay away from the news and concentrate on what (very) little I can do . . .

    1. Thank you -N- for the information about nineteenth century floods in the San Joaquin. I have no doubt about the value of infrastructure to protect lives and property, and the value of sober analytical engineers to guide our choices. “Stable and banal” is right. We seem to have a generation who are nostalgic for the “interesting times” of the sixties, though they weren’t born yet. They are susceptible to the new business model of media that runs on clickbait and eats anger for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I think we greatly underestimate the value and the fragility of our feelings of common cause with each other.
      The Owl asks: Why now? What is it about this moment in our history that makes us susceptible to such fury in public. I don’t think it’s any one cause célèbre or list of them. To get apocalyptic interpretations, it takes a subliminal quasi-religious desire. It’s a thin line between desire and fear.

    1. Thank you, Carol, for reminding us. Indeed, the Thomas fire of December 2017 came within a few hundred yards of my house, and destroyed many others; I was one of the lucky ones. In my county the authorities performed admirably; only two lives lost, one of them a firefighter. In my town the public response was not the breathless exhiliration that new reporters project. It was sober, generous solidarity among neightbors, gratifying to watch.

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