False prophets, false promises

‘And I heard a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder: and I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps.’ That’s the Book of Revelation, but the words might as well have been spoken by an American anytime between the religious revivals of the 18th century and the chiliastic chat threads of today. Many terrible endings have come and gone in the United States: civil war, slavery, two world wars, assassinations, dirty wars, a Capitol stormed by hooligans. Yet the reality is otherwise: the world as we know it, in all its beauty and horror, mystery and terror, is still here. People continue to think otherwise, however—that, as the literary critic Frank Kermode once suggested, the apocalypse might be true, or cannot but be true, in a different sense.

In the spirit of Kermode, it would be rash not to acknowledge that if our virtual communications networks are glutted with lakes of fire and talking heads who speak in devilish tongues, it is because the sense of promise offered by political systems and new technologies has soured. And not only that: hot wars, a warming climate, and resurgent fascism are no longer uncommon. Nor is an ancient, ugly trope recently poured into a new, environment-friendly bottle: that people themselves are the problem. In 2018, the philosopher Todd May published an op-ed in The New York Times that asked ‘whether it would be a tragedy if the planet no longer contained human beings. And the answer I am going to give might seem puzzling at first. I want to suggest, at least tentatively, both that it would be a tragedy and that it might just be a good thing.’ To escape an apocalypse, in other words, we must pass not through the eye of a needle but another apocalypse. For May, an apocalypse is a morally desirable solution to problems like global warming. Call it the higher misanthropy. If anything, the circularity of May’s thinking reinforces his sense of humanity being trapped by its own thoughts and devices, virtual or real.

A second strain of contemporary antihumanism is promoted by tech tycoons like Elon Musk and Peter Thiel. They dream of new forms of human intelligence that will no longer be human, such as artificial general intelligence or an embodied internet. Why privilege the human brain, they ask, if computing power can always leapfrog it, so much so that computers threaten to make thinking by mere humans superfluous. But the misanthropic appeal to ‘transhumanism’ – reason untethered from the brain, and therefore pure – is itself a form of evangelism, not ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ but rather ‘Ideas in the Service of Oligarchs’. The Silicon Valley gurus are promising enchantment of a perverse kind: digital paradises of untrammeled thinking and the cultivation of ecotopias no longer spoiled by human beings. Musk and Thiel, too, are harpers harping with their harps.

*

Forty-five years ago – hardly a blink of the eye in the long history of apocalyptic thinking – the novelist and philosopher Maurice Blanchot asserted in The Writing of Disaster that ‘We are on the edge of disaster without being able to situate it in the future.’ The reason, he said, is that disaster ‘is rather always already past’. What Blanchot meant is that disaster is recognized only after it has happened. In this sense, an apocalypse is never a revelation of something new; instead, it reveals the unsettling dimensions of a world that we already know.

I was reminded of this during the COVID-19 pandemic. As it happened, although there was no snow on the ground at the time I was thinking about icebergs. ‘We’d rather have the iceberg than the ship’, begins the first stanza of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem The Imaginary Iceberg, which continues,

although it meant the end of travel.

Although it stood stock-still like cloudy rock

and all the sea were moving marble.

During that time these lines came to me in all kinds of weather. The Imaginary Iceberg is a poem that I love, although at the time I could not remember when I had last read it. Yet there it was, its first four lines on repeat in my mind’s ear, a phantom verse.

It was March and I was in a small city in eastern Germany. The nearest icebergs were at least 2,000 miles to the northwest. Soon it became difficult to see much of anything because COVID-19 restrictions shrank my daily ramble to the short walk between my apartment and office. There was polite grumbling about the restrictions. That changed in April, when anti-vaxxers began to organize weekly protests in Germany’s big cities. No matter how clamorous those gatherings became, they were subdued compared to a common response to the pandemic in the United States. The pastor David Jeremiah, who was one of President Trump’s evangelical advisers, wondered if the virus was biblical prophecy, and called the pandemic ‘the most apocalyptic thing that has ever happened to us’. Many Americans agreed: by the middle of March, publishers in the United States were reporting strong sales for books about apocalypse.

As the weeks in lockdown passed and an apocalyptic fervour showed no signs of fading, I came to understand what The Imaginary Iceberg was nudging me to hear. The poem has three 11-line stanzas, and as they unfold the tight rhyme and rhythmical schemes established in the first stanza are gradually relaxed, the only exception being the rhyming couplets that end each stanza. Bishop takes the poem’s metaphors in the opposite direction, stressing self-containment and the loss of sight: ‘The iceberg cuts its facets from within’. Beginning innocently enough with an unambiguous statement, the poem becomes a parable about the dangers of valuing the imaginary over the imagined, of treasuring an iceberg that is ‘Like jewelry from a grave’, that ‘saves itself perpetually and adorns / only itself’.

Bishop is cautioning against surrendering the necessary work of perception and comprehension for the seduction of apocalyptic revelation, no matter how enticing that may be. ‘We’d rather have the iceberg than the ship, / although it meant the end of travel.’ Be wary of ways of thinking that hinge on a catastrophic break between the present and the past, I heard the poem saying. Bishop’s wise caution comes with a gift: the dimensions of an imaginary iceberg can be explored with her as your guide, even if you put an end to travel.

Scene from the Book of Apocalypse, France, c.15th century. Image via Wikimedia Commons

 

This article first appeared in IWM Post (Spring/Summer 2024). It is published in collaboration with the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).

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