Friedlander, S., Holton, G., Marx, L. and Skolnikoff, E. Visions of Apocalypse: End or Rebirth?

Visions of Apocalypse: End or Rebirth? New York and London, Holmes and Meier, 1985 

In a recent conversation I mentioned the ‘nuclear winter’ hypothesis to a colleague. His response was that he did not want to think about it and found it depressing. I don’t. The more credibility and imaginative force the notion has the more I believe it likely that this ‘unwanted future’ can be avoided. There’s a fundamental ambivalence inherent in negative images of futures and this ambivalence is reflected in the title of the present work. Apocalypse, dystopia, entropy and the rest can each be said to sap confidence and encourage despair. Equally, however, bland optimism may permit the false security of business-as-usual attitudes and eventual disaster. To understand what can go wrong is an essential part of working toward preferred ends. It is partly for this reason that the dichotomy of ‘end or rebirth?’ is unsustainable. The notion of apocalypse literally and metaphorically embraces a much richer tapestry of meanings. [1] Nevertheless, the tension between opposites can be fruitfully explored. Visions of Apocalypse does just that but it does not quite reach the point where opposites are transcended in a higher-order whole. Within these limitations it is a substantial, useful book.

Apocalyptic themes

Several contributors examine the history and pre-history of apocalyptic themes in culture and several correctly link it with secularised eschatology and the discontents thereof. A salutary paper by Kermode comes closest to evoking the underlying permanence of such themes, a kind of long-standing deja vu. He makes it very clear that the proclamation of new world orders, far from being a modern preoccupation, is very ancient. Many have stood on what felt like ‘the ridge of history from which the contours of the whole are visible’ (p 94). Other writers take up a variety of related issues with different measures of success: technology-related disasters, the ending of individuals, end-of-the-world imagery, the transition in literature from utopia to dystopia and so on. Overall, the quality is high with at least four of the twelve papers being particularly outstanding. The only real disappointment was the final piece by Morrison that attempts a summary of the past and future of evolution on planet earth. Apart from being a rather large subject to cover in a few pages, the underlying empiricism of the approach not only contradicted some of the best work elsewhere in the volume but also made for banal and sterile paper. In my view, this points to an editorial misjudgment, a poor way to end an otherwise worthy book.

I have two other reservations. First, the volume sits rather uncomfortably at the juncture of several fields of enquiry to which it could have productively referred on a number of occasions.[2] Second, neither the ambivalence nor the questions inherent in the title are satisfactorily dealt with. The nearest it came to resolving either for this reader was in a paper by Lifton which managed to break out of the academic straitjacket and to consider the levels of human experience, the wider aspects of space and time to which higher capacities (including the direct experience of transcendence) refer. Since most of the other writers have restricted their interest to matters falling under the remit of reason and rationality, I felt they missed a chance to make some useful points.

At one point Kermode comments ‘deconstructors write no gospels. But it is hard to believe there will never be another’ (p 103). Exactly. Visions of Apocalypse maps out aspects of the problematics of ending which are accessible to analytic approaches, to literary criticism and some of its tools. In so doing, it all but misses the qualitative leap to wholly ‘other’ futures based on other traditions and approaches.[3] Thus an implicit message woven through the book is that ending is, or seems to be, more imaginable, than rebirth. That’s not really surprising given Blake’s aphorism that reason alone leads to despair.[4] But it is a conclusion I’m unable to accept. It’s entirely possible to look right into the abyss and to find it unconvincing. The point is not merely to ‘imagine something close to nuclear extinction in order to prevent it’ (p 165) but also to transcend the worldview and mode of rationality which actively sustains pathologies.[5]

In summary, this substantial book is well worth reading for the areas it does cover. However, there is space on my shelf for a companion volume entitled Visions of Rebirth. Any takers?

Published in Futures 18, 1, 1986 pp. 93-5.

Notes and references

[1] See D. Ketterer, New World For Old. The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction and American Literature (New York, Anchor/Doubleday, 1974).

[2] For example criticism of 20th Century speculative writing, metafiction and other post-realist movements, the esoteric reinterpretation of religions, the ‘downbeat’ futures literature which deals with literal declines, endings, disruptions and physical exhaustion.

[3] The Perennial Tradition. See A. Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy (London, Chatto & Windus, 1946); also K. Wilber, Up From Eden (London, RKP, 1983).

[4] A point developed fully in T. Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends (New York, Doubleday, 1972).

[5] So I have recently argued in Future Vision in the Nuclear Age (Futures, Feb. 1987, pp 54-70); also see Kovel, Against the State of Nuclear Power (London, Pan, 1983).