At the end of the Planet, there’s an end to the planet. Let’s face it; some of the inhabitants of Planet Literature think the world is going to end but it’s only a world after all; there are worlds too numerous and various to identify and once we think we’ve succeeded, the wheel spins again and another world pops up. Others are sure that there is a REAL world somewhere that (perhaps) can be seen from Planet Literature, and that it has a beginning (a cosmology) a purpose (a teleology) and an end (an eschatology). I do not know but for my own part, it was Greek to me. Actually, that’s Greek to everybody. Especially ancient Greeks.
No I am not going to discuss the Mayan calendar unless it proves to be an integral aspect of this particular literary exploration. I doubt it. Our signpost today reads “Apocalypse (Thataway)” and I’d like to ask the musical question: How could we have an Apocalypse Now if we hadn’t already anticipated an Apocalypse Then?
In other words. The term “apocalypse,” Greek for revelation or unveiling, has been used for centuries to describe the vision of the end of all things, in Greek the eschatos. We now call the end processes themselves apocalypses, and speak of post-apocalyptic visions (which is a little redundant — post vision visions?) of burned-out cities, bare ruined choirs, a ragged human remnant (perhaps fish-men with dubious-looking gills, or Denzel with a book). The moon is almost always the first to go in these end-time activities; the moon is our foundational clock; we couldn’t live at all without the sun, but we could survive, albeit adrift in time, without the moon. My all time favorite of this is Rasputin blowing up the moon in the last reel of Hellboy. No banality of evil for this fellow — evil will be dark and huge and unmistakable.
Evil — is eschatology about evil? Apocalypse is about revealing and disclosing what has been hidden or what is yet unknown. In the cases when the outcome is expected and wished for because that is after all the way of the telos, or purpose of things, why is that evil? But like death itself, it is a consummation expected yet not so devoutly wished.
Over the last couple of centuries (and really not much further back than that) the western world has started adding apocryphal qualities to end-times tales. The Rapture, of course, began with J. N. Darby’s Dispensationalist Theory in 1819 (of course! Everybody knows that and practically nobody was convinced by the “Left Behind” books that it’s in the Bible!). All snark aside, Pre-millenialism, Dispensation, and other modern Christian eschatologies are quite complex and “hardly monolithic” according to Mark S. Sweetnam, in “Defining Dispensationalism: A Cultural Studies Perspective.” (Journal Of Religious History 34, no. 2 (June 2010): 191-212). Even the most ardent believers tend to have differing views on the precise details of the end time. The Revelation of St. John (or, the final reel of the New Testament) gives us a general shape; most refer to the Second Coming of Christ as a pivotal element, but even the number of times Christ will appear differs: once, to end it all; or twice — once to bind the Dragon and then a thousand years later to put an end to the Dragon.
Any way you dispensationalize it, the coming of Christ certainly doesn’t sound evil in itself. The Dragon’s presence might — if only we understood exactly what (or who) the Dragon is. Imagine how certain we would be if we were all just like William Blake:
Other cultures have end-times tales which entirely lack the whole good-vs.-evil Ultimate Fight quality. Sometimes the world just winds down; the Wheel of Fortune literally reaches the apex and begins its unwinding, downward arc. Sometimes the end is an end to all suffering, in a peaceful, redemptive manner; humanity’s Long Sleep; a well-deserved rest. Even with these examples, it’s often hard to take the sting (the Dragon-bite) out of the end of the world. People just naturally tend to panic, wave signs, sell stocks; you know, the usual triple-witching Friday sort of behavior.
You folks are probably getting to know me well enough to realize that I don’t fret much over other people’s beliefs, either to be frightened and angry or moved and converted — usually I am content to be informed by them; inspired to learn more and explore more deeply. Next fall I get to teach Comparative Religion again, after a hiatus of two years, and I am excited to be able to share new perspectives and deeper insights into rich and complex issues like this one. Even though I will probably have to spend a lot of time explaining the Mayan calendar as December 21 ticks closer and closer.
I can’t wait for the beginning of The End.
p.s. I just noticed how many Shakespearean quotes found their way into this Greek-Christian conversation. As April nears, my thoughts turn lightly to Good Will. And, apparently, Tennyson. Stop me before I paraphrase again — jm