Yesterday, I came across a news item that reported that, according to Norse mythology, the world was supposed to have ended on Saturday. Yes, Ragnarok, or the Twilight of the Gods, had been predicted but apparently not loudly or widely enough, and the waiting for the end came and went without my even being aware of it—without my even having the opportunity to wring my hands, furrow my brow, and crap my pants.
I don’t mean to imply that I think that the end of the world would be anything less than an absolutely terrible thing. But this obsession with predictions of apocalypse is just so wrong on so many levels that I can’t help but be a little snarky about it.
We obsessed over the Mayan apocalypse even more than we obsessed over Y2K. We engaged in endless discussions of what the Mayans might have meant, even though I doubt that there are more than 100 people in the entire United States who can read ancient Mayan script and thereby say with any degree of certainty what the Mayans might have been predicting and when. Even more than most “water-cooler” topics, the impending end of everything seems to provoke a rampant dilettantism that is as passionate as it is just barely literate. Why should it be that those who have such narrow awareness of the world should be the sorriest to see it go?
Some of this obsession is, of course, a kind of religious mania. My salient illustration is the fundamentalist preacher who convinced his small flock that they should sell all of their possessions in order to make ready for the end of the world that he was certain would occur as the clock struck midnight as the new millennium began. I am not sure why God should have timed the apocalypse to our current calendar or why he should be so seemingly fond of landmark dates. But when the first New Year of the New Millennium came and went, the preacher’s followers were naturally disappointed that they and the world were still here, and even he recognized that he needed to do some quick explaining. So, in a masterstroke of self-deprecating regret, he confessed that his math skills were not quite what they should have been for someone attempting to calculate the timing of the apocalypse. But, to demonstrate his commitment to getting it right, he gave it a second shot and further reassured his followers by letting them know that he had had someone else check his calculations. But, of course, the second date came and went without even any relatively inconsequential catastrophes, and I expect that his followers, who had sold everything they owned in order to cover the costs of sustaining themselves as they prepared for the end, were now more than half-wishing that had chosen to join another congregation or at least to focus on some other aspect of scripture—perhaps the phrases “Be not afraid” and “Go forth and prosper.”
Despite my fondness for this illustration, the obsession with apocalypse is more often than not a secular substitute for religious mania. It is a manifestation of cultural and political alienation all out of proportion to the shifts in the cultural and the political landscape that have provoked it. When President Obama was elected, and then re-elected, a chorus of voices on the Far Right responded to the news of his victory by declaring that there was now no choice but to emigrate to Canada—completely ignoring the fact that they would be as even less welcome in Canada than they would be in my home. But, instead, of following through on their threat to emigrate, some of them decided to buy property as close to the “middle of nowhere” as possible, which basically gave them unlimited options on where to establish their personal, self-sufficient fortresses against impending Armageddon.
When I watch Doomsday Preppers, and I admit that it has a peculiar hold on my psyche, I can’t help but think of Gilligan’s Island, which seems to be being shown more often on cable since the death of the actor who played “the Professor.” Or maybe it’s closer to The Swiss Family Robinson, a novel with a Disney-like view of the world long before there even was a Disney of any note. When I was a boy, it was one of my favorite books. I must have re-read it several dozen times. In case you don’t remember the story, after a shipwreck, a family finds themselves castaways on an isolated, deserted island, which they quickly convert into a rather nice place to live. The climax occurs when a ship full of pirates lands on the island and is driven off by the family’s ingenious defenses. When I was a boy, I loved that story, because like all children, including my own son several decades later, I believed that if I were shot at, I would be able to shift myself out of the path of the bullet, not just once but without fail.
And the Doomsday Preppers have every bit as juvenile, as naïve, an attitude about the apocalypse. I imagine that as bad as it was when the meteor that killed the dinosaurs struck the earth, that immense explosion, shock wave, and heat wave was probably as good as conditions were for the next several hundred thousand years. Because that’s the thing about real apocalypses: things only get worse in their aftermath until there is pretty much nothing left, and then the little creatures that stayed largely underground finally emerge to try to start everything over again. Having six months’ worth of canned goods in a bomb-proof room is, at most, going to buy you just a little more time to grasp how completely screwed you are.
Anyone with half a brain would rather be at ground zero.
But survivalism has become a big business, a profitable repurposing of military surplus, of which we have no shortage whatsoever. Of course, in order to get validation that your will to survive against all odds is a supremely admirable trait, you have to isolate yourself in places where no one but survivalists would choose to live. Because, if you lived in a suburban neighborhood and started turning your lot into a fortress, your neighbors would fairly quickly start treating you like you had a couple of bolts loose and then start filing complaints with the zoning board.
Al of which brings me back around to where this post started. It turned out that the Norse apocalypse was a marketing gimmick. In York, England, “the Jorvik Viking Center [was] holding its annual Viking Festival. And wouldn’t you know it, the world [was] going to end the last day of the festival.” That would be my choice in how to go out—with a beer in one hand and a sausage sandwich in the other and some band covering Bjork songs in the background.
By the way, my favorite apocalyptic cartoon ever was one contributed by Gahan Wilson to Playboy. (Unlike many who subscribed to the magazine for the articles, I subscribed for the cartoons.) In this particular cartoon, a very ordinary looking guy in a white chef’s hat, white t-shirt, white apron, and baggy Bermuda shorts is standing on his patio in front of a grill on which hot dogs and hamburgers are cooking. In the grass beside him, his young son is playing with a firetruck and a puppy. The man is looking up, looking over the privacy fence that separates his yard from the neighbor’s. Off in the far distance, a mushroom cloud is rising. The caption reads: “Uh oh.”