Apocalypse days are here again
Philosophers are doom-mongering. Film-makers are at it too. Even pop stars are forecasting the end of the world. Forget the season of good will, says Johann Hari, here come the new horsemen of the apocalypse
Sunday 29 December 2002
A funny thing is happening since the millennium: the apocalypse is back. In the mid-1980s, sweaty people across the globe lay awake at nights thinking of a nuclear holocaust. As Reagan denounced his enemy as "an evil empire", popular culture became dominated by visions of destruction. Sting hit the charts with a prayer that "the Russians love their children too", cinemas showed the apocalyptic cartoon
When The Wind Blows, and two of the most controversial TV films of the decade were the USA's
The Day After, about a Hiroshima-style catastrophe in Kansas City, and our own
Threads about a nuke hitting Sheffield. But then, for a decade-and-a-half, radio silence set in. The earth – refracted through the lens of movies, plays and songs – became safe again. Droughts, floods and AIDS ravaged much of the developing world, but the destruction of humanity disappeared from the Western popular imagination.
A funny thing is happening since the millennium: the apocalypse is back. In the mid-1980s, sweaty people across the globe lay awake at nights thinking of a nuclear holocaust. As Reagan denounced his enemy as "an evil empire", popular culture became dominated by visions of destruction. Sting hit the charts with a prayer that "the Russians love their children too", cinemas showed the apocalyptic cartoon When The Wind Blows, and two of the most controversial TV films of the decade were the USA's The Day After, about a Hiroshima-style catastrophe in Kansas City, and our own Threads about a nuke hitting Sheffield. But then, for a decade-and-a-half, radio silence set in. The earth – refracted through the lens of movies, plays and songs – became safe again. Droughts, floods and AIDS ravaged much of the developing world, but the destruction of humanity disappeared from the Western popular imagination.
And then, and then... This year's surprise hit at the cinemas, 28 Days Later shows a Britain – and, it seems for much of the film, a world – destroyed by an apocalyptic disease. The wildly popular Buffy the Vampire Slayer ends each season with a narrowly averted apocalypse. In one episode, Buffy asks her mentor Giles, "How many apocalypses is this now?" "Oh, six at least," he replies. The best-selling fiction of Michel Houllebecq and Chuck Palahniuk is haunted by Revelation-style visions of mass destruction. One of the most popular US bands, Slipknot, has whole stadia screeching along to numbers which evoke the apocalypse. This list could go on. The lazy explanation for the recent sudden recurrence of these visions is 9/11. The Daily Mail headline on 12 September 2001, after all, was simply "Apocalypse". To be sure, the West was suddenly revealed that day to be vulnerable to attacks which seemed random and designed to cause as many deaths as possible. Tony Blair asserted – almost certainly correctly – that if Al Qaeda could have nuked, smallpoxed or poison-gassed Manhattan, they would have. But, curiously, most of the current apocalypse narratives were written or in production before the attack on America, and indeed the trend towards art-works about the ultimate disaster story was already underway. The under-rated Spielberg movie AI, for example, was withdrawn from circulation in US cinemas on the day of the tragedy, not least because it features, in a horrible irony, a post-apocalyptic New York City in which the only surviving human artefact is the World Trade Centre.
So what has caused this new wave of nightmares? Perhaps the answer lies not in a geo-political event but in a more nebulous philosophical trend. The new wave of end-of-the-world scenarios is markedly different to the 1980s variety, because there is now an attitude towards the end which is at best ambiguous and at worst openly welcomes mass destruction. The satirist-songwriter Tom Lehrer wrote a number in the 1960s looking on the positive side of a nuclear exchange. It was called "We Will All Go Together When We Go." We are humming his tune again, but this time without the irony. In the striking arthouse hit Donnie Darko currently playing in UK cinemas, the eponymous central character says of his apocalyptic visions, "When the world comes to an end, I can only breathe a sigh of relief." The Tears for Fears song played later in the movie says, "The dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had." A significant chunk of Westerners are afflicted by this new, trendy nihilism which sees the death of humanity as a blessed relief.
French novelist Michel Houllebecq is the most extreme example. His break-through second novel Atomised argued that the only solution to humanity's unbearably bleak existence is the total extinction of human life, or, as he coldly puts it, our "metaphysical mutation" into total nothingness. His novel Platform, published earlier this year, extends this philosophy.
His narrator says at one point, "faced with danger, even death, I feel nothing in particular." He later says he is "unworthy of life." Later still, as a character lies dying, he is described as seeming "very happy" – and it is no wonder, given that he exists in a world where human connection other than vaginal penetration is impossible, where death comes randomly, meaninglessly and without remark, and where there is no hope, ever, of things getting better. Death and destruction are to be welcomed as, at least, a distraction from the utter misery of life.
Those who resist death have, a central character argues, simply "become attached to a delusive existence." One of his characters, Valerie, says, "I'm trapped in a system from which I get so little, which I know is futile; but I don't know how to get out." When the narrator sees "immense flocks of starlings formed over Gentilly in the late afternoon," he is "quite tempted to ascribe meaning to them, to interpret them as the heralds of an apocalypse." This offers, at least and at last, a way out.
There are even more respectable and unabashedly highbrow sources of apocalyptic nihilism than this, however. No less an authority than John Gray, Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, has written the Nihilist Manifesto (and shown that such a thing is not a contradiction in terms) in his extraordinary new work, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. Gray is undeniably a force to be reckoned with. He is the most lucid and compelling writer about political theory since Isaiah Berlin, and he was understandably hailed by Will Self as "the most important living philosopher". The book opens with a quote from Jaques Monod, one of the founders of molecular biology: "All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even a part of science testify to the unwearying, heroic effort of mankind desperately denying its contingency." Gray not only seeks to give up that effort; he seeks to question whether we should bother – indeed, whether we can for much longer – carry on.
Gray declares that all the Enlightenment values on which our world is built are utterly bankrupt. The greatest Enlightenment delusion was the ideas that we humans could collectively determine our own fate; that we could shape our world and our destiny as we wished.
We cling to "an irrational faith in human progress" as "the only antidote to nihilism". Gray seeks to strip us of that faith and leave us waiting for the apocalypse. He asks, "Once we switch off the soundtrack – the babble of God and immortality, progress and humanity – what sense can we make of our lives?" He then spends over 100 pages giving us the answer: none.
It is but a small step from here to welcoming the death of humanity, and Gray teeters close. He approvingly quotes James Lovelock, the environmentalist thinker, who says that Gaia (the earth and all the species which live on it) "is suffering from ... a plague of people." A species of "exceptionally rapacious primate" – us – is destroying the globe.
This "homo rapiens" has become too numerous, and the looming global population of eight billion people "can only be maintained by desolating the earth." The movie Starship Troopers depicts a species of beetle-monsters who go from planet to planet, exhausting all the natural resources and killing all indigenous life before moving onto their next victim. For Gray, this is precisely the effect we are having on planet Earth, except we don't have the ability to skip over to Mars – so he quite calmly predicts a natural mass culling of humanity as Gaia moves to defend itself. Within 100 years, he predicts, the human population will fall to between 0.5 and one billion people, an apocalypse which will wipe out 7-7.5 billion lives. He sees this as not only inevitable but actually a desirable situation. It's the end of the world as we know it, and he feels fine.
This body of thought is tempting, intoxicating – but terrifyingly dangerous. The last time the apocalypse dominated popular imagination, there was not a constituency willing it on. This nihilism infects a wider political agenda too. Gray and Houllebecq have made a foolish leap from acknowledging that there are no longer any absolute values of good or bad – an assessment which I share – to concluding that, therefore, there is no better or worse. They have become profoundly reactionary political forces who dedicate most of their energies to sneering at any progressive movement which tries to tackle human suffering. Houllebecq constantly denounces the legacy of 1968, France's last great burst of progressivism.
He longs for a pre-feminist stereotype of pathetic, submissive women, and he derides any notion of guaranteeing human rights as part of a misguided Enlightenment heritage. One of his characters says, "Humanitarians disgust me, the fate of others is generally a matter of indifference to me, nor have I any memory of ever having felt any sense of solidarity with other human beings." It serves as an accurate summary of the philosophy of the new horsemen of the apocalypse.
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