By some fluke of my degree requirements, I’m taking two courses on the apocalypse this semester. I’ve never been particularly interested in the apocalypse, even when I was very religious as a child and teenager; the only time I can really remember thinking about it was when in church we read the verse that says “No one knows the day or the hour” the end will come. “Thief in the night,” all that stuff. I took this very literally. The end of the world is pretty scary when you think about it: everything ends. I didn’t want it all to end before I got a chance to be an adult.
So I used the verse and my own literalness to solve the very problem they’d created: if no one knows the day or the hour, then the apocalypse will come when literally no one expects. By this logic, if I expect the apocalypse will come, it won’t; if I just say to myself, “I bet the apocalypse will happen today,” it won’t. For the kind of child that I was, this is a very easy way to ease the worry of the end of the world: simply think about it and you can be assured it won’t happen. I used this like a magic spell for years.
Oddly, I find myself thinking about the end of the world more now. With the loss of literal belief, so goes the power of the magic spell. But even if you don’t believe, if you spend hours a week reading about apocalyptic cults of the Middle Ages, the whole apocalyptic mindset lodges itself in your brain.
An example: last week a friend and I drove to Waterbury, CT for a concert. A few days before, Connecticut had been hit by an unseasonable snowstorm, and more than million people lost power. Waterbury was hit pretty hard, and about 70% of the city was still without power, including most of the downtown. The whole drive from New Haven to Waterbury was dark: no streetlights, no lights in homes, barely any cars on the road. Waterbury too was dark except for the single block that the theatre was on. One or two streetlights and police sirens were the only thing illuminating the city.
Maybe this seems apocalyptic even to someone not immersed in the end of the world, but I kept expecting something: zombie apocalypse, rapture, anything. It felt like we were just on the edge of something, all that darkness just barely being held back.
The darkness felt unnatural, but thinking about it, it’s actually the opposite: artificial light at night is a relatively recent invention, and most humans who ever lived experienced a night as I did, though without headlights or police lights to hold it back.
Those old apocalypses make a bit more sense now. Imagine this storm without the modern conveniences. Imagine this complete darkness every night—a full half of your day that you’re powerless against. If you live with this kind of fear—not to mention terrible disease, backbreaking labor, and having to shit outside—then imagining the world blown up gives you a little bit of power, makes you feel better. Everything is judged, and you, of course, escape it. In this way, the apocalyptic stuff that seems so gory and senseless can, in some strange way, be touching and almost beautiful.
For a good example of this, check out the song in the YouTube link, the medieval hymn “Dies Irae.” That’s Latin for Day of Wrath. A gorgeous song that, once you look up a translation of that pretty Latin, becomes somewhat horrifying:
The day of wrath, that day
Will dissolve the world in ashes
As foretold by David and the sibyl!…
Once the cursed have been rebuked,
sentenced to acrid flames:
Call thou me with the blessed.