Today’s post is largely just to pose a few questions and get a conversation going. So I’ll try to make my windup brief.
A week or so ago I treated myself to a summer movie, Searching for a Friend for the End of the World, the story for which is only too aptly captured in its title.
I enjoyed the picture quite a bit, partly because it’s cleverly written and charmingly acted and deftly directed, partly because I have a mild crush on Keira Knightley, but mostly because what the film got right, in a number of truly funny and poignant scenes, was the variety of ass-backward ways we deal with love in the face of the inevitability of death. I’m a hopeless romantic and the idea of true love in the face of total annihilation has a certain resonance for me. I cried. More than once.
Then over the weekend I noticed that Showtime was playing 28 Days Later, a film I also very much enjoy, for much different reasons, even though I’ve never seen the whole thing. I’d watched it from the midpoint to the end, and this weekend got to watch from the beginning to the midpoint. In my head, it all makes sense now. I think.
But these two films got me thinking about the end of the world as a story motif. Perhaps I’m wrong, but there seem to be a great many apocalyptic scenarios cropping up in the narrative ether these days, from all manner of zombie fare to games like Wasteland and I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream (based on a Harlan Ellison short story), to films such as I Am Legend and Melancholia and Children of Men to literary novels such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, José Saramago’s Blindness and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.
Even comedians have gotten in on the act — what greater pratfall or punchline can there be than self-inflicted extinction:
Of course there’s a long tradition of such stories, reaching back to Gilgamesh and Genesis to the constanly recycled Book of Revelations, interpreted anew by each generation. In the modern era H.G. Wells rejuvenated the secular approach, kicking us along through two world wars to the nuclear era, which gave earth’s utter destruction a real shot in the arm.
One might have thought the tempo would have decreased after the end of the Cold War, but the opposite seems to be the case. Nuclear Armageddon just began sharing the stage with virulent pestilence, environmental devastation, alien invasion — or the old standby, man’s monstrous egotistical stupidity.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about such stories is they’re never really about the end per se. (Though the ones that are about the real end seem to stick with us longer.) Most such films are about the apparent end, and serve as cautionary tales. There but for fortune, they seem to say. Or: There but for the hero.
I’m going to propose a few theories for this, all of them utterly non-scientific. Then I’m going to ask folks to chime in with their thoughts on whether we are truly obsessing over the end of the world more than ever, and if so why. Or is this a theme as old as man, and we’re just churning out the most recent iterations.
Who knows, maybe it’s just in the air. Stories beget stories. The more we think about something the more we keep thinking about it. Picture it as a kind of narrative snowball. Rolling all the way to hell.
Regardless, here’s my top ten theories for why we’re now (more than ever?) obsessing about the apocalypse:
- The American Dream is disintegrating into a Hobbesian “war of all against all,” a period of radical historical transformation, that we symbolically understand as “the end of the world.”
- The Mayans were right.
- The end really is nigh, and our animal brains or our intuition or the Collective Unconscious or whatever understands this, and is trying to alert our conscious selves so we can spiritually prepare for our collective demise.
- The dogs are taking over.
- In an era of relatively few wars, and relatively minor ones (to all but the combatants and affected civilians, obviously), plus a worldwide economic downturn no one seems to know how to solve, severely restricting a ravenous consumer culture, people need some form of violent outlet to expiate their guilt and shame for having been so consumed with self-gratification. The apocalypse, with its savage violence and moral message of good versus evil, serves the symbolic need for cataclysmic violence, cultural upheaval, and moral certainty.
- The UrGod Demon Slavengorg has escaped the Tunnel of Doom, and now seeks revenge against the Sybarite Prince Ramalama and all those who have served him so blindly (read: us).
- The planet’s climate is changing so dramatically that our bodies—and thus our unconscious minds—are trying to alert our habit-besotted brains that a real different tomorrow is right around the sweltering bend.
- We’re constitutionally, psychologically, biologically and culturally ill-adapted to change, evolution be damned, and as we enter a period of rapid, devastating and unpredictable change — including the end of mainstream publishing as we know it — the uncertainty of our fate creates a profound anxiety that we relieve through creating nightmares we can control.
- The Boomers are aging, and this is their way of processing their collective, generational demise.
- The cats are taking over.
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What do you think, ladies and gents?
Why can’t we seem to get enough of the end of the world?
What’s your theory?
Better yet, what’s your favorite end-of-the-word book or film or video game? Why?
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JukeBox Heroes of the Week: Who else, what else? (Incidentally — I used to think the lyrics went, “It’s the end of the world AND we know it. Quite a different message there.)