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CHICKEN LITTLE AND THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE
There will be no more Time.
There is no such thing in nature as an H-Bomb; that is all man's doing. We are the great danger. The psyche is the great danger.
C. G. Jung, Jung on Elementary Psychology (1979)
On October 22, 1844, in a little town called Lincolnville in the state of Maine, a hundred or so local followers of the self-styled Christian prophet William Miller donned their white "ascension robes" and climbed majestic Mount Megunticook to await the Second Coming of Jesus.
Alas, no Christ Triumphant swinging his terrible swift sword appeared on high in the clouds that day—or since, for that matter.
Much to his dismay, Miller had been proven wrong again. His first failed prophecy had been for March 21, 1844. As his followers grew increasingly restive and disenchanted with his faulty prognostications, his movement fizzled. Or did it?
Perhaps it only underwent a metamorphosis, for it could be argued that we have lived under Miller's spell ever since. We are, as it were, Millerites of the spirit—the letter be damned. For, despite the repeated abject failure of our most feverish apocalyptic prognostications, we remain steadfastly wedded to the titillating possibility of the End of Days. Nothing seems to disturb this robust belief.
Is there any good reason to suppose that, if the world doesn't end under some other apocalyptic vision, some new version of Millerism will not resurrect itself? Not if the evaporation of Y2K fears or the dashing of Millennial hopes in 2000 are any guide. The computers didn't break down. There was no Rapture. And yet ...
No matter. Like a stealthy vampire on the prowl, the End of Time story rises again and again from the crypts of human consciousness to feed on the unwary, never to be vanquished—garlic, crosses, and wooden stakes notwithstanding.
The past sixty years have proven to be a particularly fertile period for Great Enders. First we had atomic Armageddon, Mutually Assured Destruction, and nuclear winter. However, long before the collapse of the Soviet Union, other players were warming up in the bullpen: Silent Spring, global warming, and climate change, followed by pole shifts, earth changes, extraterrestrial salvation from beneficent space brothers—or invasion from hostile aliens—and, lately, collision with Planet X. Not to mention peak oil, food-system collapse, global financial meltdown, global pandemics, and, of course, the War on Terror and the clash of civilizations.
The End is near. Or is it?
Waiting for Godot
Take, for instance, the Big Daddy of universal denouements—the end of the Mayan Long Count calendar—which began in 3114 BC and marks time in 394-year periods. This calendar is believed by some enthusiasts to herald the catastrophic destruction of the world as we know it, as, to put it as simply as possible, all kinds of rare celestial and terrestrial phenomena will create the conditions for a perfect cosmic storm that will bring the Great Ending, once and for all: game, set, and match.
This idea was originally championed in the 19th century by a French Catholic priest-turned-archaeologist named Charles Etienne Brasseur de Bourbourg. But was this ex-priest merely guilty of an anachronism, reading backward the Christian belief in the Apocalypse into the Mayan astronomical cosmology?
Some Christian apologists argue that this projection is not necessarily an anachronistic error, as they are eager to find hints and anticipations of the "one true religion" sprinkled about, here and there, in earlier, so-called "primitive" religions. Presumably they were put there by a considerate God, who wished to prepare humanity for the real revelatory deal that would come later on.
Thus, as Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430 CE), one of the early Church Fathers, opined: "What is now called the Christian religion, has existed among the ancients, and was not absent from the beginning of the human race, until Christ came in the flesh: from which time the true religion, which existed already, began to be called Christian." Or, as the modern British philosopher R. G. Collingwood (1889–1943) put this same point: "Hence even the darkest heathenism is, as Christians have always said, an implicit, blind or caricatured Christianity."
The notion that the Mayans were among the very first people to "get it right," apocalyptically speaking, was taken up in more recent times by the late Terence McKenna, the gadfly thinker who became an enthusiastic proponent of psilocybin mushrooms as the only viable path for the exploration of human consciousness. Based on his own mathematical and metaphysical calculations, McKenna forecast an end, not only to human history, but to time itself that would correspond to the Mayan prophecy.
In The Archaic Revival (1991), McKenna envisioned the Mayan calendar as heralding some sort of zygotic fusion of the computer and the psychedelic experience. He was admittedly pretty vague about what this would entail, but he proclaimed that humans would soon be able to project themselves into a mental, Alice-in-Wonderland world of pure imagination: a Wachowskibrothers- like Matrix—though one presumably innocent of all the dystopian, totalitarian hitches and glitches—with the mere click of a computer mouse. Our physical bodies would become mere secondary organs, and not very appealing appendages at that.
Like Karl Marx and other thinkers of his ilk who believe themselves to have discovered, not mere probabilities or sheer possibilities, but rather the ironclad, deterministic laws of necessity that dictate the course of future events, McKenna declared that this transfiguration is fated to be: "This isn't something human beings have to decide to do," he declared, "this is something that is happening!"
Shadows of Things
What will be, will be. As the ancient Greeks said: "The Fates guide him who will; him who won't, they drag." In other words, like it or not, the End of Days is coming: It's a predetermined mass event, cosmically orchestrated, totally beyond our individual free choice or control. So, sit back, relax, and strap yourself in. You're either going to enjoy the roller-coaster ride, or else be terrified—it'll either be a joyride or a white-knuckle nail-biter—but, in any case, there's absolutely nothing you can do about it. So just hang on!
While some thrill-seekers seem eager to go along for the ride, many others are clearly terror-stricken at the prospect.
Ann Martin is an astronomer at Cornell University who runs a website that fields astronomical questions from the public. Of late, she's been inundated by anxious queries about impending global disaster. Martin says she gets e-mails from worried fourth graders who plead that they're too young to die. Even their parents are not immune to the fear. "We had a mother of two young children," Martin reports, "who was afraid she wouldn't live to see them grown up."
To such frightened souls as these, the fatalistic mantra of "What will be, will be" offers cold comfort indeed at the imminent approach of the Great Ending.
You may recall that in Charles Dickens's classic tale of last-minute spiritual redemption, A Christmas Carol, that old reprobate Scrooge is forcibly led by the Ghost of Christmas-Yet-to-Come to view his own tombstone in the dark twilight of a life lived according to the misanthropic philosophy to which he'd theretofore been wedded. A terrified Scrooge implores the fearsome spirit: "Are these the shadows of the things that Will be or are they shadows of the things that May be, only?"
Or perhaps they are just the insubstantial shadows cast on the wall by crude papier-mâché puppets manufactured—either by others, or perhaps by our very own subconscious minds—strictly for our entertainment. Not will be or may be, then, but rather, got to be—as in, "you've got to be kidding."
In other words, perhaps all this ballyhoo about the End of the World is just a lot of media hype, along with some good, old-fashioned American hucksterism, plus a dash of simpleminded hysteria thrown into the crock-pot for good measure.
Such snap diagnoses, while attractive to many critics, are perfumed with the condescending air of moral and intellectual superiority. It is easy, and perhaps tempting, to pretend to be above it all. Yet few of us enjoy an automatic immunity to the lure of the lurid.
I'm no exception to this rule. When I was younger—maybe eight or so—I'd hop into bed and switch on my magic carpet ride: a twelve-transistor radio with a tinny-sounding speaker. I'd plug in the earphone and—whoosh!—I was off. I loved listening to humorist Jean Shepherd tell tall tales about his youth and growing up in the Midwest. Some of my other favorite shows were interview programs that featured guests who spoke of exotic things like extrasensory perception, the search for the Loch Ness monster, UFOs, psychic surgeons, and haunted houses. Such topics were tinder to the fire of my youthful imagination. More than that, they spoke to my already awakened sense that there is far more to reality than meets the eye.
Sandwiched in-between, on Sunday night, was a show called The World of Tomorrow, which featured a preacher who evidently ran his own church, as there was always an advertisement at the end. Week after week, in stentorian tones, he delivered the same basic message: Repent, for the end is nigh. His sermons were peppered with anecdotes of everyday life—little moral parables—exhortations, and Bible quotations. But the idea was the same: The Lord is coming.
Now, I didn't believe in Jesus, and I wasn't worried about my eternal soul. Nevertheless, what always struck me was the note of absolute confidence in the minister's mellifluous baritone. This guy sounded as if he really knew something. He seemed so sure of himself, so dreadfully certain of his vision. Did he actually see the future—the world of tomorrow? Would we even want to know the truth if he did?
Imaginations can, and should, be stimulated. But they can also be warped—even poisoned—if we are not careful. The question is, of course: How do we tell the difference? How can we open our imaginations without making them vulnerable to contamination by dangerous diseases and mass imbalances of the collective psyche?
Some may argue, however, that our imaginations are inherently perverse. From this it can be inferred that the root source of our seemingly endless fascination with the prospect of doomsday is hardwired into human psychology.
For example, Saint Augustine, the principal architect of the idea of Original Sin, believed that our enjoyment of tragic drama illustrates that we are all basically sadomasochistic voyeurs at heart. Our pleasure is to watch others suffer pain, the more exquisite the better. We get a cheap thrill out of feeling badly for them. "What miserable delirium this is!" he declared. We enjoy their misfortune, even if they are fictional characters, because we feel superior to them even as they evoke our pity. Moral self-congratulation is the mask of the Peeping Tom.
It's true that we guffaw at the pratfalls of physical comedians like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Chevy Chase. We slow down on the highway to gawk at an accident on the opposite side of the road—"rubbernecking," as the traffic reporters refer to it. A video clip of one of those aging Las Vegas casinos being reduced to instant rubble by clever demolition experts is almost guaranteed to make the evening news for similar reasons. We are fascinated by disaster. We like to watch—and perhaps breathe a not-so-secret sigh of relief: At least it's them, not us.
Following this line of argument, the End of the World is the ultimate Vegas hotel collapse. Nothing draws spectators like a spectacle, after all. And what could possibly be more spectacular than doomsday? From classic films like King Kong (1933), Godzilla (1954), and The War of the Worlds (1953), to more recent offerings like Armageddon (1998), Independence Day (1996), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Apocalypto (2006), Cloverfield (2008), The Road (2009), The Book of Eli (2010), and, of course, 2012 (2009), we are titillated by the prospect of having a safe ringside seat at the last cosmic picture show.
But is this sort of natural curiosity really so awful, degrading, and morbid—or, as Augustine would have it, "unholy"? Is it really fundamentally different from, say, wondering what it would be like to attend your own funeral?
Augustine's view seems unnecessarily dour. He regards the imagination as evil and perverse and out of control, because, for him, everything human is evil and perverse and out of control, and always has been—at least, ever since disobedient Eve wondered what it would be like to have wisdom and, in a daring act of imagination, took a bite of the apple and offered the rest to Adam.
For Augustine, you see, "natural" is a virtual synonym for "depraved." Even seemingly omnipresent, if often inconvenient, features of human existence like spontaneous sexual desire and death were not—at least according to him—part of the package deal of creation as God initially put it together. They were not part and parcel of his original intention. Rather, they were subsequent additions to the list of justly deserved divine punishments visited on the first couple and, by extension, on all of humanity, for eating that one piece of forbidden fruit.
But if we set aside such churlish notions, it is plain to see that the ability of images, either outwardly perceived by the physical eye or inwardly constructed and entertained by the mind's eye, to evoke certain kinds of more or less automatic responses in us has a prime survival value. That we may experience lust at the sight of a potential mate, or fear at the sight of a sabertoothed tiger, or tenderness at the sight of a helpless infant, is obviously good for the species in the actual world in which we live and have always lived— Eden notwithstanding. Not everyone who is sexually aroused by the image of an attractive prospect gets lost in pornography, however. Not everyone who can feel sympathy becomes addicted to television soap operas. We can, and do, choose how to cultivate and exercise our imaginations. We are responsible because we can decide to look the other way—or even not to look at all.
Just Do It!
If Saint Augustine's diagnosis of a corrupt imagination points to a possible link between a morally dangerous, pathological spectator psychology on the one hand, and the popularity of doomsday speculation on the other, there is yet another possible analysis—one that focuses on a somewhat different set of pathologies that inspire direct action rather than passive anticipation or strictly vicarious enjoyment.
Yes, there are indeed those overly enthusiastic End-Timers who, in their fierce urgency to respond to the final cosmic curtain call, decide to forgo waiting in favor of becoming more proactive in their cause. These actors attempt to force the curtain to go down: Ready or not, here it comes! Suicidal doomsday cults have thus proliferated like poisonous mushrooms sprouting on the underside of a rotting log.
In 1978, for example, more than 900 followers of pastor Jim Jones quaffed poisoned Kool-Aid when U. S. Congressman Leo Ryan led a delegation down to the jungles of Guyana to investigate the People's Temple cult—specifically, the accounts of Jones's sexual and psychological abuse of his flock. Ryan himself was assassinated at the hands of Jones's lieutenants on the tarmac of the Guyana airport.
In the 1990s, members of a Swiss Rosicrucian splinter group, led by a con man named Luc Jouret, took their own lives in a suicide pact. Adherents of the Heaven's Gate troupe in California, headed by the self-castrated former pastor, Marshall Herff Applewhite, believed that by shedding their lowly "vehicles"—to wit, their physical bodies—they would be transported aboard a hidden UFO that was concealed in the tail of a passing comet. Dressed in identical purple robes and Nike sneakers, they quaffed poison cocktails in order to speed their ascent to the skyborne Mothership—an updating of the Christian Rapture for a space-age sensibility.
Excerpted from THE MYTH OF THE GREAT ENDING by JOSEPH M. FELSER. Copyright © 2011 Joseph M. Felser, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
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Prologue: The Beginning of the End of the End of the World 1
Chapter 1 Chicken Little and the Doomsday Machine 5
Chapter 2 Apocalypse Now, and Then 23
Chapter 3 Breaking the Circle, or Mending the Hoop? 37
Chapter 4 From Sacred Hoops to Time Loops 55
Chapter 5 Can You "In-See" the End? 75
Chapter 6 To Thine Own Self 101
Chapter 7 Into a Dark Forest 121
Chapter 8 The Womb of Myth 133
Chapter 9 Doing the Best You Can 159
Chapter 10 Barrier-Breaker, World-Ender 177
Chapter 11 The Circle of Dreams and the Ends of Myth 195
Epilogue: Trust the Process 209
Works Cited 243