Books: The apocalypse, now and then

Peter Jukes wonders if the time has come to curb our taste for millennial fantasy; Living at the End of the World by Marina Benjamin Picador, pounds 12.99
Omen Formation is a rare but documented symptom of that popular disorder, post-traumatic stress. Sufferers see writings on every wall, interpret every sign as a portent. Taken to an extreme, it can lead to paranoid psychosis - or, perhaps even worse, into cultural theory.

Marina Benjamin's study covers a larger canvas - over two millennia of apocalyptic projections - but her findings are not dissimilar. Our fantasies of the end tell us more about the traumas of this world than the possibilities of the next. She makes imaginative and enlivening links between myth, fiction and political psychology. Her study is a timely look at our craving for divine violence, from the fire next time of biblical prophecy to Travis Bickle's vision in Taxi Driver: "One day a rain will come and wash all this shit away."

The most focused parts are, perhaps inevitably, seen through the longest lens. Benjamin explores the Judaeo-Christian origins of Apocalypse: a myth born of exodus, exile and enslavement. It mutates through medieval millennialists and Protestant sects to the Levellers and Fifth Monarchists of the English civil war. Benjamin has a sharp but sympathetic eye for bizarre religious sensibilities, and vividly conjures the tragi-comic ghosts of Joanna Southcott and the founder of the Mormons, Joseph Smith.

One might have thought that she would connect revelation and revolution in modern fundamentalism. After all, religious terror is not confined to Islamic jihad. Christian crusades and Jewish holy wars still shape events from Hebron to Oklahoma. But the present is too confusing. Instead, after a demolition job on Jehovah's Witnesses, she takes a strange deviation to the West Coast, and compares chiliastic prophecy with a few cranky attempts at immortality represented by the Biosphere in Arizona and a Cryonics expert in California. But dreams of fleshly resurrection are hardly new - nor even particularly apocalyptic. On this basis, chiropody could count as a millennial sect.

With the odds so stacked against it, modernity has little chance. It's no surprise to find Benjamin affecting disenchantment in disparaging asides about "our contorted world". This disillusion makes her vulnerable to apocalyptic thinking. The only antidote is to appreciate how the myth persists, its deep undercurrents clouding our secular culture.

Bearded dreamers of the absolute have dominated vanguard politics for the past 200 years - with obvious results. Most icons of the avant-garde have been iconoclasts, celebrating what Bakunin called "creative destruction". Benjamin's error is to mourn a myth that is by no means buried.

By the time she nears her own denouement, she ends up coming down on the side of the angels, and devils, rather than the mixed-up people in between. She claims we need the awe and trepidation of "living at the end" to stimulate our hope. This is a bit like saying that Tina Turner needs Ike, or that the state should sponsor artists by ensuring they have unhappy childhoods.

During the domino collapse of European communism, Fay Weldon remarked, "The fin has come early this siecle." Maybe it came too early. The perverse effect of this pre-millennial build-up is that it seems to have emptied 2000 of any real portent or threat - except for computer programmers. But is this really a source of regret? Faced with a choice between champagne celebrations and psychotic final solutions, I know which I would choose. Show me the way to the Millennium Dome. Arm-a-geddon out.