This Magpie’s preferred habitat is the bookstore, and lately I’ve been noticing an interesting, and slightly disturbing, trend: special featured stands and shelves of dystopian fiction. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and the recently reprinted classic, Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, loom large. On TV, both the coming HBO adaptation of Atwood’s classic, and the recent BBC serial of Len Deighton’s alternative history thriller SS-GB, are much discussed. And the Hunger Games franchise seems as popular as ever.
Why now, is a question too obvious to discuss here. Dystopias aren’t the end of the world, quite, but they’re the end of the life we’ve been used to, which is much the same thing in most people’s eyes. When the nuclear clock has been moved even closer to midnight, maybe the whole idea of apocalypses is worth looking at more closely.
As I’ve mentioned before, the King James Bible I got for my ninth birthday probably didn’t have the desired effect on me. I zoomed straight in on the mythological parts, especially the final book, the grandly titled Revelations of St John the Divine – a book which only barely made it into the official canon of the Protestant churches (Luther wanted to drop it), but which has sprouted more bizarre theories than any other part of the Bible.
In modern times, claiming the end of the world (to early Christians, due in their lifetime) will involve actual dragons, horned beasts, humanoid locusts and the sea turning to blood, is less common. Various sects instead make a complex game of interpreting the horns as nations, the Whore of Babylon as (usually) the Vatican, and the plagues as various political shenanigans (real apocalyptic weather hints at climate change, something people of this ilk tend to play down). The Antichrist is a fun diversion, having been identified as everyone from Genghis Khan to Bill Gates, and spawned some excellent movies in the process.
The end of the world trope isn’t new. Hinduism, on an astronomically long timescale, predicts the world going through a cycle of successively more corrupt ages (we’re currently, of course, in the worst one, the Kali Yuga) before being dissolved in cosmic fire. The Norse peoples had Ragnarok, in which even the gods died in battle and the worlds were destroyed – but with the hope of a new beginning. And there are Native American warnings of a similar bent…although that whole Mayan thing around 2012 was a misunderstanding. But it took Christianity to turn the genre into an art form.
People seem to love thinking their own time is the worst in history (although, as this ex-Jehovah’s Witness writer points out, there’s a strong case for anyone living in 14th-century Europe to have actually been right about that) and that this means, in the words of Private Frazer in Dad’s Army, ‘We’re doooomed!!!’ Psychologically, I suspect the need for apocalypses is linked to the fear of death: be there at the end, and you assuage the fear that you’ll die and it’ll all go on without you.
But there’s a bigger issue with most end-of-the-world scenarios. They’re basically about Us and Them. We will go to paradise; you infidels will burn. We will be snatched up into the heavens to be with God; you will be (as in the direly written series of popular novels) Left Behind to suffer wrath, plagues and the Antichrist flavour-of-the-month. And that tends to mean…if you’re already damned, why should we treat you, or your life, with any concern? It never ends well.
It’s not just conventionally religious folks, either. Some New Age groups say those of us with the right vibrations will ‘ascend’ to a higher state of being…while those who don’t ‘change their thinking’ will remain stranded while our planet, and plane, descend into chaos. Sixties counterculture guru Timothy Leary believed we’d use technology to become super-intelligent, virtually immortal beings who’d migrate off-world to space colonies…but he still believed ‘the poor and the stupid’ would be left behind in the toxic goop of a dying world.
As the angel Aziraphale says, in Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s biting eschatological comedy, Good Omens: ‘If that’s your idea of a morally acceptable time….’
I prefer the Buddhist viewpoint. Those who achieve enlightenment can quit the round of death and rebirth for good. But the most compassionate don’t; they become Bodhisattvas, who, like firefighters intent on getting everyone else out of the burning building, vow not to claim their own enlightenment until they’ve helped every other sentient being – you, me, the demons, the hungry ghosts, the blobfish, even the POTUS – achieve it first. You can’t help but admire that, can you?
As with all myths that have ceased to be useful, I think we can, and should, do some creative re-imagining with the End of Days. What if we believed this is not the worst of times, and that we haven’t earned divine wrath? What if we took the word ‘Rapture’ in another sense? What if the Bodhisattvas managed to get us all out of the burning tower blocks of our egos, and we all suddenly stood blinking in the daylight and saw the Buddha in one another?
Or what if we just suddenly realised the creative potential in ourselves and others?
Anyone can be a prophet (it’s even prophesied that in the Last Days, everyone will be). What sort of awakening do we need to see? How would it sound, look, taste? Can you put it into words or paint or music?
I tried. But remember, we need everyone’s visions.
And it will come to pass…
…that in the last days, when the whole of the earth has turned grey (apart from little pools of bloodshed)…
that all people will find Spirit in themselves.
And the dead, and the living, and those yet to be born, will rise up and claim their True Names, which nobody shall ever take away from them.
And all things broken and bruised and tired and shameful will be cast into the ocean of creative fire, and be washed up again upon its shores, healed and whole and shining.
And we will all be reborn as art angels.
And we will throw all the world’s propaganda into the air, and watch it rain down again as a flood of poetry.
And there will be dancing and singing and clapping of hands.
And the playful beast in all of us, so long despised, will come romping through the corridors of light with the Muse riding sidesaddle on its back – She whose name is Sophia, Mother of Artists, Queen of Imagination, with her cup full of rainbows and revelations.
And the powers of this world will admit defeat, and tear off their grey suits and dance naked in the sunlight.
And they will beat their guns into guitars, and their missiles into adventure playgrounds.
And nobody will study war any more, because they’ll be too busy hearing and honouring one another’s stories, and seeing and blessing one another’s images.
And the critics will bow their heads in shame, and go fingerpaint with the two-year-olds.
And the new heaven will be the new Earth…and the last days will be the First Days.
Perhaps we shouldn’t forget what apocalypse – and its Latin equivalent, revelation, means: an unveiling. A bringing forth of what was hidden. That can mean ripping the masks off the bad guys, as used to happen at the end of Scooby-Doo, and revealing that they’re not scary supernatural beings after all, just ordinary humans screwing things up, people who can be challenged. Or it can mean unveiling our own human awesomeness. All of us.
And maybe some things about the World As We Know It could do with ending. Over to you, REM: