A friend of mine works as a psychologist specialising in ‘organisational development’; basically, what humans get up to when in groups. He describes his work, with typical brilliant simplicity, as ‘exploring what it is that we find ourselves doing’. So, with that approach in mind, what is it what we find ourselves doing as we approach another date packed by culture with a payload of apocalyptic pronouncements?
A while ago I found myself watching a film called 2012. The movie (for those who haven’t seen it) is rather like watching a filmic version of one of those awesome John Martin paintings. Huge fissures open in the earth, lightning punctures the clouds, the seas boil, stones fall from the heavens – you get the picture. Although there is a something approximating a narrative the movie is really all about watching a CGI-tastic version of Koyaanisqatsi. The world is turned upside-down, LA is sucked into the San-Andreas fault, a tsunami towers over the Himalayas.
So what do we find ourselves doing as 2012 approaches? We are watching the cataclysm, over and over again, in the news, in films, in literature. Endlessly rehearsing The End. Our eyes (for most of us mediated through the TV camera) are raised to heaven as glass and suited bodies rain down from the world trade centre. We look up, disrupted from the everyday reality of our lives, transfixed by the violence and ungraspable scale of what we are witnessing. We know well before the headlines of the next day that we are witnessing at least the beginning of the apocalypse.
A more recent catastrophe. The BP Deep Water Horizon leak. This time our gaze is directed downward, across the vast sheets of oil sliding through the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Over a kilometre beneath the ocean the ooze that feeds our machines spews out. There is a bloom of death in the sea. On the once white sands the mute figures of seabirds, limp with that same dead eyed stare typical of the inmates of refugee or prison camps.
And thanks to the wonder of information technology; film, TV and the internet, all our eyes are witness to these tragedies, again and again, reloading the content, buffering the video. We can watch these events many times over, indulge ourselves, fetishize those disasters. The plane plunging into the towers, again and again. The shouts from the hundreds of children inside Beslan school Number One. Computers allow us to place these events in our own narrative, harnessing their power to promote our own agenda. The truth about 9/11, 7/7 – the propaganda mash-up is viral.
Many of these events are awesome in their scale, filmic in their grandeur. They are like mountains where we might expect to find a sublime rapture but instead experience a vast horror. Scale is a major part of this and the 2012 complex of ideas is all about scale. There is no escaping that date. Unless we elect to depart the wheel of Samsara by suicide it cannot be avoided. It is an inexorable certainty which will sweep the world whether we like it or not. It’s much bigger than any of us. Unstoppable. Our puny bodies or individual selves, our choices (which western culture is so fixated on,) will mean absolutely nothing in the face of this inevitable something.
A volcano spews ash into the air. The prospect of planes falling from the sky has replaced the divine lightning strikes of vengeful deities. And in today’s hyper-connected, hyper-real world we know there is simply nowhere to run.
The revolution may not be televised but the apocalypse probably will be. Probably in glorious high definition 3D with special glasses designed to reduce the glare as we accidentally create a black hole in the large hadron collider.
Of course this desire to witness or imagine the end of times isn’t new. Ever since the first Zoroastrian mused over the eschatological possibilities contained in The Avestra. That holy book details how, at the end of the “third time”, there will be a battle between the forces of good and those of evil. Good will triumph and the dead will then experience an embodied resurrection. After this the forces of good will arrange a last judgment. The gods will melt the mountains so that a river of metal flows across the land. Both currently living and resurrected dead must walk through the fiery river. The righteous will experience it as a river of warm milk but the wicked will be burnt and be driven down to hell where the molten metal will destroy any lingering impurity in the world.
This basic format is being played out now in the suggestion that 2012 will mark some sort of great discontinuity. Whether history ends, the biosphere collapses and/or we become transmogrified into beings of pure energy, the storyline is much the same. A great event, way outside of human control, will re-form the world. Sifting the wheat from the chaff is part of the process, ushering in a new age.
The esoteric tradition in the west is also infused with this story. Here it is presented as the movement of aeons; periods of psycho-historic time that mark the transition between different mystical dispensations. As inevitable and unavoidable as the sweep of the sun across the surface of the earth.
For the arch-magus Aleister Crowley the 20th century marked the Equinox of the Gods. Horus, the child of Osiris and Isis, was in the ascendancy. Crowley writes in The Book of Thoth;
“He [Horus] rules the present period of 2,000 years, beginning in 1904. Everywhere his government is taking root. Observe for yourselves the decay of the sense of sin, the growth of innocence and irresponsibility, the strange modifications of the reproductive instinct with a tendency to become bi-sexual or epicene, the childlike confidence in progress combined with nightmare fear of catastrophe, against which we are yet half unwilling to take precautions.
Consider the outcrop of dictatorships, only possible when moral growth is in its earliest stages, and the prevalence of infantile cults like Communism, Fascism, Pacifism, Health Crazes, Occultism in nearly all its forms, religions sentimentalized to the point of practical extinction.
Consider the popularity of the cinema, the wireless, the football pools and guessing competitions, all devices for soothing fractious infants, no seed of purpose in them.
Consider sport, the babyish enthusiasms and rages which it excites, whole nations disturbed by disputes between boys.
Consider war, the atrocities which occur daily and leave us unmoved and hardly worried.
We are children.”
We are children indeed. Dwarfed by the awesome scale of the events that loom over us. More than Crowley’s ‘half unwilling to take precautions’ every day we live beneath a sky which holds more and more heat. The weather patterns are breaking down, the ice sheets melting. Yet still we type on our computers, drive to work, eat our food that relies for its production on oil, invisibly pushing carbon dioxide into the sky.
However Crowley, again in The Book of Thoth, remains optimistic.
“It is a thought far from comforting to the present generation that 500 years of dark ages are likely to be upon us…fortunately today we have brighter torches and more torch-bearers”
Of course like the Zoroastrians we get around the personal horror of the apocalypse by imaging that we (ourselves, our family, our tribe or perhaps at least all the Good People) will somehow be saved. There is the mass of people; those nameless, innumerable figures crowding into feeding centres and shanty towns, they are the cannon fodder for the end times. But perhaps some of us, those of us who have planted our own vegetables, or bought a gun, or simply lived honourable and spiritual lives – we shall be saved.
Thing is these days no one’s quite certain how to ensure that you end up in the chosen few. Of course for those people with a comforting literalist religion things are just as simple as they were a thousand years ago; all the Catholics, faggots, blacks and liberals will burn in hell fire leaving the world free to be re-populated by god-fearing upstanding folks. However even in such sealed worlds it’s painfully obvious that there are several mutually exclusive groups who claim that is they who shall inherit the earth. So best err on the side of caution. The Lord is bound to best protect those who protect themselves. Faith in providence is naturally tempered by a healthy dose of survivalist acumen.
Neopagans, who perhaps suggest that 2012 could be about a ‘shift in human consciousness’ where we might re-integrate our species with the Gaian supermind, are also coming to the same conclusions. The current vogue for forest schooling, Ray Mears style bushcraft, lighting fires with sticks and making your own fishing spears, has a shadow side. We learn to make fire from first principles in part because we are afraid. Afraid that one day all the matches will run out. That in the aftermath of some great upheaval we will need to flee to the woods. There, knowing the difference between dogs’ mercury and ground elder might mean the difference between life and death.
Of course running away into the wilderness, especially in the landscape of countries such as England is easier said than done. YouTube, the automatic number plate recognition system, Google Earth, GPS, infra-red helicopter cameras – it all adds up to a multi-layered panopticon. We fear, especially those of us who live in countries with high tech post-industrial cultures, that wherever we run, they will know.
Some people like to place the locus for the coming 2012 apocalypse in a natural event. The flipping of the magnetic poles, an alignment between our solar system and some mysterious force lurking in the core of our galaxy. But it’s not only the naturally occurring calamity that scares us. It’s what the other people, and especially the government, would do in such a situation. Internment camps, draconian edicts, martial law. We imagine that as the meteor hurting towards earth becomes visible to the naked eye the impact would be (pardon the pun) the last of our problems. Unhinged, people would go mad. Revert to some terrible every-man-for-himself violence. David Bowie sings of what the knowledge that we’ve got just five years left does to us;
“A girl my age went off her head, hit some tiny children
If the black hadn’t a-pulled her off, I think she would have killed them.”
Rather than a vision of facing the threat of natural disaster shoulder to shoulder we fear that viciousness will emerge. Violent anarchy and the rule of the gun would result. Such a fear infects most end time scenarios. Perhaps this sense is because true tragedy is a human artifice. More than that, since World War I, we have come to see how we humans can destroy our own species on an industrial scale. Machine guns, gas, the final solution, the atom bomb. The ‘banality of evil’ that political theorist Hannah Arendt described in the Third Reich has etched terrible echoes in our souls. In The Green Fields of France by Eric Bogle he addresses his song to a fallen soldier from WWI.
“And I can’t help but wonder now Willie MacBride
do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause?
Did you really believe them that this war would end wars?
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame –
the killing and dying – it was all done in vain.
Oh Willie MacBride, it’s all happened again
and again, and again, and again, and again.”
It’s this industrial, unforgiving repetition, the eternal return of human cruelty that runs beneath the surface of even the most love and light visions of 2012. Why? Because we modern people know it happens; the killing fields of Cambodia, the Bosnian genocide, the Rwanda horror – ‘and again, and again, and again, and again.’
Then there are those scenarios where the end comes not in a bang but with a quiet whimper. In the P.D. James’ novel Children of Men the world is in chaos because human fertility has dropped to zero. The gnawing madness of this situation is suggested as the reason that the world is in such turmoil. After all, without children what’s the point? In a dystopian Britain large numbers of people take part in government sanctioned mass drownings, the ‘Quietus’ ceremony. In the film adaptation of the novel Quietus becomes a suicide kit, advertised on billboards and bearing the slogan ‘you decide when’.
Children of Men is an exploration of the social effects of demographic changes. Our planet currently supports over 7 billion humans and although we’ve done a remarkably good job in ensuring that only a select few have access to medicine, decent food or clean water, we’re still breeding like, well, rats. Whatever End Time mechanism we imagine the main trouble is always the mass of humanity. For some of us this is the fear of vigilant groups and berserk military. In the lyrics of Boyd Rice, it’s about being drowned in the breeding avalanche of inane human flesh.
“Do you ever think about
What a lovely place the world would be
Without all the people
That make life so unpleasant?”
And rather than the rise of a totalitarian state being something to be feared, perhaps it’s about time we really got to grips with the Malthusian population crisis. Boyd Rice again;
“I say, bring back the Circus Maximus
Unless these weeds are dealt with
They’ll poison everything
They are poisoning everything
We need a gardener
A brutal gardener
A thorough, thoughtful gardener
An iron gardener
Whatever happened to Vlad the Impaler?
Where’s Genghis Kahn when you need him?
Or Roi d’Ys?
The last big apocalyptic date 2000 AD passed without much incident. For that date there was the predicted millennium meltdown of Y2K (which was only averted by some magickal work I and three colleagues did). We were told that this hidden trip switch was, quite probably, going to crash all the computers in the world. This was supposed to set in motion a chain of events that would lead to the accidental deployment of military systems, the breakdown of nuclear reactors and the possibility that you might not be able to use your debit card to buy beers on the run up towards midnight. With 2012 there is no obvious earthly connection to any terrestrial event. This has freed us up somewhat to start creating visions of this End Time that have a more cosmic bent.
Terrence McKenna, using a combination of brain melting drugs, FORTRAN running on an old CDC 6400 computer and the I Ching, famously plumped for 2012 as the historical moment of ‘maximum novelty’. His theory, although suitable packaged as something emerging from the techosphere of computing, is no different to that of Crowley. His interpretations of history are more interesting in what they tell us about the mythos of modern humans than any supposed objective reality of the model.
The ‘glittering object at the end of time’ (which could of course have been Terry’s perception of the tumour growing in his brain) is a moment when, in some interpretations, everything happens simultaneously. This is very similar to my own views on the nature of death (see Now That’s What I Call Chaos Magick and Magick Works). We enter a space where all memories are recalled at once. There is no ‘after’ the event in the case of physical death because the brain ceases to function. In cultural terms if the December solstice of 2012 were such a moment then it would indeed be a ‘death’.
The question arises about what comes next (in as far as it is meaningful to talk about a ‘next’ in this situation). A translation into some kind of non-material body is usually favoured at this point. McKenna was delightfully obscure (or playful) about what he thought would happen next. Perhaps we would become beings of information, without physical bodies. Maybe human history would end in its isolated form because we’d have first contact with true aliens – who knows?
The resurrection in some altered form takes us right back to that Zoroastrian story. Indeed resurrection is the mythic DNA that keeps much of our mythscape running. Central to all forms of monotheism (even to Buddhism in the form of the enlightenment discontinuity) the dying and resurrected god (or self) brings us back again to the core of the 2012 myth.
So what do we find ourselves doing? We are obsessively watching the signs, waiting for an event so huge that we can do nothing about it. We are fearful that as this event takes place society will break down. We fear we cannot escape but must put our faith in those things (beliefs, resources, rituals) that will help us through the crisis. Once the catastrophe is done with we shall rise again. The earth will be cleansed of all dross and we shall live forever in peace. Sound familiar?
2012 is nothing more than an echo of our own terror. It is modelled on the basic eschatological storyline roughed out in the Middle East many thousands of years ago. It is how we deal with the certainty of our own death. How we fantasise about surviving our End and rising again. The fact that we see this as a literal historic process tells us simply that we have failed to escape from the monotheist trap of linear time. Rather than appreciate the fact that whatever happens we live, die, are reabsorbed and live again. Failure to create myths that speak of this cycle leaves us with no alternative than to make sense of the world through these eschatological stories, to sit in the isolated darkness fretting over our own death.
If we need an eschatology, if we really can’t get along without filling this mythological niche in our psychic ecology how about this one? An End Times prediction I’m happy to stake my reputation on;
In about 5,000,000,000 years time the sun will go out.
This essay was contributed to the collection The Enduring Problems with Prophecy: from Early-Modern Times to 2012 and Beyond, edited by Dave Evans. Get you copy while the planet lasts…