Apocalypticism: The Lure of the Abyss

11/24/2014 11:04 am ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

"....When you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes long into you." - Nietzsche

For some, the end of the world would be a great convenience. No more bills to pay! No more debt to bother about! No more bad news to read or hear. No more news, period.

In apocalyptic times -- and our time surely is one -- it's easy to succumb to hopelessness, but few have discussed why hopelessness can be so magically attractive.

To encourage discussion I offer a preliminary sketch of a psychological syndrome that seems to display recurrent and predictable features: apocalypticism, which we might more formally designate the Rapture Complex.

Those of us who grew up in a fundamentalist church know about the Rapture, a literalization of ancient end-of-days literature composed by haters of the oppressive Roman Empire. I recall Lutheran church counselors showing us wide-eyed boys a movie featuring Believers flying upward into Heaven (we thought Heaven was skyward, where the kites vanish when you let go of the string) while Nonbelievers with "666" on their foreheads remained below to swarm and curse like shoppers on Black Friday. The film Melancholia captures some of this emotional mix of ennui, surrender and liberation from care, with three resigned women holding hands as a giant planet bears down on the doomed blue marble.

People enamored of the ending of everything share similar attitudes and values even across the Right/Left political divide whatever their other differences:

  • Frequent fantasies of widespread destruction and death.

  • Deep distrust of institutional authority in any form. If it's official, it's out to trick us, shaft us, kill us or eat us. Exceptions to this don't count.
  • Misanthropy expressed as contempt for "the masses," "the herd," or humanity as a whole.
  • The chronic martyr's complaint of being attacked or misunderstood by those who disagree--and who are then ridiculed as stupid or delusional.
  • Pooling of this hostility with that of the similarly disgruntled.
  • Unwillingness to believe in signs of hope; suspicion of them wherever they appear.
  • Lack of seriousness about long-term obligations (who cares about them if everyone's going to die soon anyhow).
  • Notice that the issue, psychologically, is not one of whether things are bad and getting worse, but of possessing a desire, whether or not expressed, for them to be so. Why would someone partake of apocalypticism?

    Not everyone is a Dante or John of Patmos who from exile can express great hatred in unsurpassed imagery and narrative. Many injured by empire, industry and tyranny harbor an understandable desire to see it all fall down. (Remember what Langston Hughes wrote about "A Dream Deferred.") I sympathize to some extent. There are days when my inner Guy Fawkes would chortle to see the US Congress sink into the earth, especially after yet another nauseating debate about petroleum subsidies or the Ten Commandments while people go hungry and jobless. But if it actually happened my first reaction would be horror. An apocalypticist would laugh, or shrug.

    In his book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, psychoanalyst Erich Fromm observes that when societies maintain widespread bureaucratization and injustice, the sufferers, thwarted in their intrinsic urge toward fuller lives, turn destructive. The curious do not line up to watch corpses hauled from crashed cars or films packed with gory violence because of a purportedly "natural" morbidity: they do it because they are unhappy, their world has lost its magic and their sense of enchantment is DOA. To the extent we fail to realize possibilities for richer, deeper and more spacious kinds of consciousness than that of the spellbound consumer, our inbuilt drive for vital life degenerates into fascination with death.

    Back to convenience. If the world ended, we would never have to apologize to those whom we have wronged, work to polish our imperfections into strengths, face the inner monsters and saboteurs we inadvertently strengthen by ignoring them.

    We could ignore existential questions like, "Why am I here? What sort of person do I want to become? What should I do with my life? How should I mourn the decades of unlived life now irretrievably behind me?" You'd be off the hook for what you did and for what you didn't do.

    No future means no obligation to feel like part of the world: you may go it alone or ally with other cranky malcontents. Those of us who grew up feeling like outsiders face a lot of work to acquire a sense of belonging. No need to if it's all going to drop.

    No need either to risk feeling hurt or betrayed by the loss of hope if it's already gone. We can see a similar defense at work in the abandonment of love: if we don't believe in its value or genuineness, its departure can't hurt us. So we tell ourselves, forgetting that hopelessness and denial are two sides of one counterfeit coin.

    No need to get culturally, civically or politically active. What's the point?

    No need to care for sick Mother Earth. She'll be better off without us.

    Behold apocalypticism, then, a syndrome with definite emotional advantages. Nietzsche would have identified it as resentment. For some it even serves as a dark theology complete with vocal leaders, admiring followers and revered texts. Sometimes when we exit the church the church doesn't fully exit us....

    Some of us possess (to say it mythologically) an added characterological measure of Persephone, Hades, Yama, Hel or other dark archetypes active in the psyche. Most so born are not apocalypticists, and the inner balance they hold can teach us a crucial psychological truth unavailable to the doomers: It is necessary for wholeness for us to maintain a conscious connection to the Underworld without turning into one of its denizens. To ponder the reality of destruction, hostility, decay and death, lest they reach out and possess us unawares. To look into the abyss now and then without locking one's gaze onto its alluring darkness. When that happens for too long, the roiling mess ends up outside, where it converts the verdant Earth into Hell.

    Perhaps the deeper issue in all this, at least psychologically, is not the end of the world, but the end of a soullessly mechanical worldview; not our imminent demise, but that of our posture of detachment; not the fall of humanity, but the wearing down of whatever egotism strangles our ailing kinship with our fellow beings. Something indeed needs to die, but that something -- an abandonment of our life's path, an entrenched sourness, a lack of personal fulfillment, a lingering feeling of betrayal -- awaits its death, burial and mourning within us.