“Just purchased 4 rolls of toilet paper, kinda feel like Indiana Jones.” My friend had just returned from shopping the bare shelves of a suburban Chicago supermarket like an action hero for the essentials to survive a plague.
“It’s eerie and quiet out there,” joked another, posting in social media from New York. “Maybe I should bring my trusty chainsaw when I go out. I mean, you never know.”
The Apocalypse has come to America, riding the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus like a white horse. The country has shut down. Citizens have been warned against human contact, schools and colleges closed their doors, Broadway went dark, workers were sent home for the duration. There is a ban on air travel from Europe. The mayor of sleepy Teaneck New Jersey has ordered a township-wide quarantine. Italy and Spain are locked down.
There is no word on when this will all end, and Americans face the suspension of all normal human interaction and commerce with a sublime sense of ecstasy and dread. “It’s all like a scene from a George Romero movie,” says one excited movie buff. The pestilence, plague, and disorder are all deeply frightening – and, for so many of us, it’s a whole lot of fun.
This is the ecstasy of the Apocalypse.
A defining characteristic of our current epidemiological crisis is the euphoria with which many of us have thrown ourselves into eschatological fantasies, embracing conspiracy theories, panic, and commenting breathlessly – and not a little excitedly – on the imminent breakdown of our social order. We produce ourselves as experts, heroes, and prophets of the End Times.
One friend reported that her neighbor stropped by, grinning and rubbing her hands together with glee at the prospect of the collapse of the Internet. (Why that might happen, she did not say.) Now, she said, people will have to “go back to reading books.” At a Trader Joe’s in the Boston suburbs, a professional in his late-30s determinedly pushed his shopping cart through the crowded aisles. He knocked over an elderly man with a walker in the frozen foods section to grab the last package of peas before – he informed his spouse over his mobile phone – “everything goes to shit.”
There is a distinct giddiness in social media, where users have shared sensational news reports from around the world, and excitedly speculated on the apocalyptic possibilities. One report said that Iran, a country particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, had dug “burial pits” so large that “you can see them from space.” This sounds alarming. The Great Wall of China is the only human-made structure that one can see from orbit with the naked eye, and the headline evoked an image out of The Stand.
Only, no naked eye saw the Iranian graves from space, they were photographed by super-high-resolution spy satellites capable of rendering an image of a golf ball in high grass. The graves are certainly there – in a cemetery, where you would expect to find them – with the capacity to accommodate fifty or sixty burials, and that is grim. But it is hardly the kind of apocalyptic devastation it is made out to be.
Social media abound with speculations and prophecies that the coronavirus portends a political End Times in America, when the “Orange Beast,” as one user called President Trump, would use the pandemic as a pretext to call-off or postpone the November election, consolidate dictatorial power, and usher in the Great Tribulation. Never mind that the president simply does not have the means to actually do this – federal elections are a state responsibility, and the date is already set by an act of Congress – and even if he did, the law is pretty clear that Nancy Pelosi would become president on Inauguration Day 2021. The proponents of this theory promote it with all the fiery passion of True Believers.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
Apocalyptic thinking has deep roots in the United States. Our culture owes a great debt to the religious extremists who settled Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay in the first half of the 17th century. Like so many of the other dissenting sects of the Church of England, the Puritan founders of our political culture had no doubt that the eschaton was around the corner; indeed, they crossed the Atlantic to prepare for it. They viewed the English Civil War through the lens of Armageddon and, Bernard Bailyn noted in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, these ideas deeply informed the American colonists’ expectations of a final confrontation between good and evil in the 1770s.
In American thought, the coming Millennium remained a looming presence at the end of history. You can hear its echoes in John Louis O’Sullivan’s nationalist tract “The Great Nation of Futurity,” and read it in the impassioned preaching of those Millenarianist Christian sects of the Second Great Awakening that Jon Butler says, in Awash in a Sea of Faith, are so characteristic of American religiosity.
The End Times have always been real and palpable in America; you only need to read the signs. William Miller, a Baptist minister with a gift for eschatological calculation, could read the signs, and he confidently announced that the world would end on October 22, 1844. Thousands of his followers eagerly anticipated the Second Coming, some even climbing to hilltops in white robes to await the Rapture. And then… Nothing. The world did not end, the Kingdom of Heaven did not descend. Miller called it a miscalculation; we remember it as “The Great Disappointment.”
The end of all things – a personal or communal eschaton, if not actually the end of the world itself – has been close at hand throughout human history, and this has been the source of apocalyptic myth. Most scholars agree that the Great Flood of Genesis 6-9, which is shared with the Epic of Gilgamesh, is a mythologized retelling of the cataclysmic flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This was evidently a common-enough catastrophe that similar myths appear in Hindu scripture, Plato’s dialogue Timaeus, and many other sources.
For most of human history, life has been nasty, brutal, short, and likely to be extinguished on a grand scale by environmental disaster or human violence at any moment. Until comparatively recently, virtually all of us have lived on the very margins of catastrophe, on the flood plains of the river, as it were. The Four Horsemen were no mere abstractions during the Black Death, the 40 Years War, or the Great Hungers in Ireland, India, Russia, Africa, and elsewhere.
Yet, despite the hardship that came in its wake, modernity transformed the Apocalypse into an abstraction. Misery became a personal affliction, to be borne by the poor and the disenfranchised, and not society; suffering was a judgment on the individual, not humanity, and although death was an everyday reality, there was little danger that all life would be snuffed out by an angry God.
In 1905, the economist Simon Patten proclaimed that, for the first time in its history, humanity was liberated from the tyranny of its environment and had become the master of nature. Starvation, hardship and “social strife” could be eliminated. “A higher civilization is a present possibility that may be realized by people living in this century. It is ready now to appear…”
The irony was that, 40 years later, in the wake of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, humanity itself not only had the means to usher in the End Times without divine intervention, but demomstrated the moral capacity to do it. Yet that somehow vacated the actuality of Apocalypse even further; the enormity was so unthinkable that, in the Euro-American world, at least, it passed from a quotidian reality into fantasy. Unimaginable horror, as Julia Kristeva observes, became an object of imagination and even desire.
Since 1945, all of our Apocalypses have been fun: the kind of thing you would see at a drive-in movie while eating a giant bucket of buttered popcorn washed down with a jumbo Pepsi. There was Panic in the Year Zero, and I Am Legend, The Last Man on Earth, and The Omega Man (which are basically the same movie). George Romero introduced zombies in Night of the Living Dead and revolutionized the End Times narrative with large dollops of brains, gore, and suspense, but the apocalyptic supernarrative remained largely unchanged. Sometimes it was thrilling, as in 28 Days Later, and sometimes funny, like Shaun of the Dead. Sometimes it was a plague of zombies, a plague from space (The Andromeda Strain), just a plague (No Blade of Grass), an asteroid (Deep Impact), nuclear war (A Boy and His Dog), or some other catastrophe.
Our popular culture has been suffused with eschatological cultural production at a level unseen since the first century CE. And all of these Apocalypses in film, television, comic books, and video games have these two things in common: they are entertaining, and they are survivable. The narratives inevitably conclude with the courageous hero and the plucky heroine (with tousled hair and wearing a tank top) standing on a mountain overlooking the devastated planet, and ready to walk into the future as humanity’s breeding pair. The end of the world has profound erotic implications.
Even when the zombies do get around to feeding on everyone’s brains and leave no survivors, the audience gets to walk out of the movie theater, grab a slice at Famous Ray’s, and have a good laugh. The Apocalypse is not only survivable, but it doesn’t hurt at all.
After centuries – indeed, millennia – of eagerly anticipating the End Times that did not come in 1649, 1776, 1844, or even 1945, the coronavirus pandemic offers us the gift of finally being protagonists in our own Apocalypse. And, just like in the movies, it doesn’t hurt. We comment on the prodigies and portents, narrate our (imagined) struggles for survival, horde food and, at the end of the day, enjoy a Netflix film festival featuring Contagion and Outbreak like the noble storytellers of The Decameron. Social distancing, what we call waiting out the plague in these times, might be a little inconvenient, but it can be a blast.
Yet, like Boccaccio’s fine lords and ladies, this euphoria is a function of privilege. Beyond the grounds of their great villa, Boccaccio reminds his readers, the “condition of the common people… was yet more pitiable to behold, for that these, for the most part retained by hope or poverty in their houses and abiding in their own quarters, sickened by the thousand daily and being altogether untended and unsuccoured, died well nigh all without recourse.”
For a vast swath of the “common people” of the 21st century, the pandemic is neither merely inconvenient, nor apocalyptic cosplay. Most don’t have the kinds of jobs that they can do from home, so they must either report for work and risk infection, or sit out an indeterminate layoff without income. Working families must find ways to arrange care and lunches for children sent home when their schools closed. Students attending college on financial aid whose “personal” computers are the systems in the library computer lab have to find ways to keep up with their now-online courses using three-year-old cell phones.
Ecstasy is a privilege in our viral Apocalypse; for so many outside our walls, this is not play.