Friday Book: The long wait for the world's end

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The Independent Culture


SO WE have survived. The End of the World was, according to some interpreters of Nostradamus, supposed to come last Sunday. But if you feel cheated at missing it, don't worry. Between now and the end of the year, there are numerous other opportunities for Armageddon. Apocalypse is in the air.

The usual assumption is that this is something to do with the new millennium, or with a sense of fin de siecle at least. But according to Eugen Weber, the eschatological impulse is always with us. Those who dismiss it as the obsession of a lunatic fringe are likely to miss something crucial in their understanding of one of the key influences on human history.

In support of this thesis, he produces some interesting material. Time and its divisions are social constructs through which we discover significance in the random events of our lives. But they are no less significant for that. (Why else would suicides peak on Mondays, or heart attacks at the start and end of the year?)

Once years themselves become entities they, like other organisms, grow weary. With the end of a century comes a sense of decrepitude and decadence. Which perhaps explains why, at the end of the 19th century, Liberty fabrics were said by doomsayers to engender pederasty and the bicycle was seen as another nail in the coffin of civilisation.

The first Christians expected no such degeneration. Christ, they thought, would return in their lifetime. But as the years passed there was no Second Coming, and the Church became an institution that distrusted enthusiasm. In the fifth century, St Augustine, troubled by contradictions between the accounts of Jesus's origin in the gospels of Luke and Mark, decided that they were to be read symbolically. Thenceforth, the wild, fantastic Judgement Day visions of the Book of Revelation were also to be read as theology rather than prophecy.

Yet apocalyptism lingered, surfacing especially at times of political crisis or social change, but always there. Those who took it literally were not just the primitives and ill-educated, Weber argues. Among believers that the end of the world was imminent in their time were great men such as Milton and Cromwell. The discoverer of oxygen, Joseph Priestley, and the inventor of logarithms and the notion of decimal fractions, John Napier, were others. Isaac Newton's writings on the Apocalypse were products of his prime rather than his dotage. Other believers included the social reformer and opponent of slavery, Lord Shaftesbury, and the suffragette, Christabel Pankhurst, who eventually gave up on votes for women and began to preach the Second Coming.

Nor was all this merely a private belief. Visions of apocalypse influenced actions. Columbus's motivation in discovering the New World was to bring about the age of universal conversion preceding the end of the world, which he thought was about 155 years away. Cromwell re-admitted the Jews to England to hasten the advancing time of the Lord's return, while Lord Salisbury later opposed Jewish emancipation because he wanted the Jews to return to Zion and rebuild the Temple - one of Revelation's pre-requisites for the Second Coming. The Second World War military hero Orde Wingate went to Palestine with the aim of helping biblical prophecies come true.

The problem with Professor Weber's thesis is that, after the Enlightenment, notions of Apocalypse began to seep out of educated consciousness. Over the century which followed, the Church's most eminent theologians began to talk about myth and metaphor, and emptied Christianity of much of its literalism.

So Weber's long and somewhat desultory catalogue of believers becomes less and less mainstream the nearer he gets to the present. He is reduced to Hare Krishnas and the Nation of Islam, and those who have become victims of their own eschatological certainty in Jonestown or Waco; in the Solar Temple, Heaven's Gate or Aum Shinrikyo cults.

He has a brief respite with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, which worked in the perspective of Apocalypse and Armageddon. Reagan's secretary of the interior, James Watt, told Congress in 1981: "I don't know how many future generations we can count on until the Lord returns." But, although polls show that 53 per cent of adult Americans expect Christ's Second Coming quite soon, this all descends into the banal - as with Pat Robertson's plans on how the Last Days might be televised. Will Jesus's radiance be too bright for the cameras, he wonders. The interpretative conclusion that Weber might have provided after his catalogue of the bizarre is sadly lacking.

In the end, all apocalyptic prophecies are attempts to interpret their times. Which is why our own most real fears of Doomsday are environmental. Pollution, over-population, agricultural exhaustion or greenhouse gases are our Four Horsemen. That, of course, would have been a different book - less lurid, perhaps, but more frightening.