11/13/2012 11:46 am ET Updated Jan 13, 2013

From Apocalyptic Tapestries to Apocalyptic Conferences: Watching and Waiting for the End of the World

A colleague of mine remarked snidely as I was preparing to go to a conference on Eschatology at Lancaster University in the U.K., "Now, if it had been a conference on scatology I might have come with you." Yes, eschatology, the study of the end of the world, can seem a little heavy duty but these days as we pick up the pieces after Hurricane Sandy not to mention try to shake off the many world-ending pronouncements of the recent election, it seems to me that discussions of apocalypse can be pretty significant if not actually sexy.

Lancaster was beautiful and historic albeit with typical North England rain and chill weather. But the conference itself was amazing although it may have helped that I'm a nerdy professor-type. The papers ranged over a very broad array of topics, from a strange and beautiful Bengali story about a servant in a house whose unknown master never comes (shades of Waiting for Godot to more contemporary concerns including financial apocalypse -- whether the possible end of free market capitalism might be considered an apocalyptic proposition (it might depend on whether you ask an Occupy Wall Streeter or a hedge fund manager) -- and cinematic apocalypse discussing Lars Von Trier's apocalyptic movie Melancholia in which the heroine's depression is cured by the joyous knowledge that a rogue planet will shortly collide with the Earth and trigger the extinction of life as we know it.

And speaking of what we eschatology mavens like to call "eschatological jouissance" (a grim pleasure in contemplating catastrophe), the conference ended with an "apocalyptic banquet" at a colleague's house. There, we feasted on ashes (actually blackened leeks) and haunches of roast meat while wearing suitably bizarre and eerie masks. My mask kept falling into the food before me in a most eerie fashion, but it was still a convivial evening.

My own contribution to the conference was a paper on the globally popular Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, whose many beautiful, family-oriented fantasy films revolve to a remarkable extent around end-of-the-world scenarios. These scenarios range from what I call "intimate apocalypse" in which pollution and greed threaten both the natural landscapes of Japan and the spirits that embody them (Spirited Away,) to what I describe as "full throttle apocalypse" as in his 2008, unfortunately prescient work Ponyo where a half-fish half- human little girl provokes a gigantic tsunami that destroys a tranquil Japanese fishing village. The studio released Ponyo three years before the actual tsunami that leveled several cities in Japan and created the Fukushima disaster. My paper and the one on the Bengali story were the only non-Western presentations but they served to show that apocalyptic disquiet is not an exclusively Western preoccupation.

But are we all just fooling ourselves? By an interesting coincidence, the month before the conference, Wired magazine featured a cover story with the rather deflating title of "Apocalypse Not." In the article, the writer enumerated a number of potential apocalyptic disasters such as "climate collapse," "deadly pandemics" and "mass starvation" only to suggest that anyone who worried about such things was simply silly since these problems have been around forever and the human race has always coped. The article ultimately suggested that us "apocaholics" should get a grip.

I liked the term "apocaholics" and plan to use it when I next teach my course on "The Cinema of Apocalypse" in which we discuss apocalyptic films that range across time and space, from Ingmar Bergman's Seventh Seal to James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgement Day. I believe you could describe Bergman and Cameron, and certainly Miyazaki, as refined versions of "apocaholics" since they process and express apocalyptic unease in memorable art forms that help the rest of us work through our own fears.

However, I found the article itself quite disturbing. Most troubling was the fact that the writer, Matt Ridley, cherry-picks his potential disasters. Almost no mention is made of the threat of nuclear weapons, a world-ending danger that has most definitely not been around forever. Almost equally worrying is his tendency to gloss over the very real science behind concerns about climate change, asserting that there should be a "middle ground" between skeptics and rabid prophesiers of global doom. The idea of a "middle ground" sounds nice in the abstract, but Mother Nature does not seem to be guaranteeing us an easy "middle ground" solution for climate change that would actually work. Gritty reality is starting to look very messy indeed. When even a pragmatic politician like New York's Mayor Bloomberg announces his support for Barack Obama because of the president's policies on climate change, I can't help thinking that Hurricane Sandy's retreating floodwaters are effectively washing away the illusion of a "middle ground."

In this regard, perhaps the most interesting paper at the conference, at least for me, was a paper on "Global Warming and Apocalypse" in which the presenter, Sergio Fava, suggested that climate change was imposing a new and frighteningly democratic "geography of violence" on the world. Calling this an "apocalypse of diversity," Fava discussed how the gradual distribution of climate change events around the world may ultimately create a language of catastrophe that will bring us all together. His vision reminds me of movie from Japan from 1957, The Mysterians, in which world peace is finally achieved as all countries must unite to combat hostile aliens from outer space.

Whether he is right or not, it seems to me that "apocaholics," like the professors at the conference and film directors like Cameron and Miyazaki, are doing something both thoughtful and therapeutic: they are trying to understand and help process an event or events that are almost by definition un-understandable. During the conference my mind went back to another rainy day, one in May about fifteen years ago. I had gone to visit the French city of Angers. My reason? To see for myself the city's famous "Apocalypse Tapestry" which I had heard about in my research. The Apocalypse Tapestry is the oldest and largest French tapestry and was created in the fourteenth century, not uncoincidentally when the Black Death was swarming over Europe.

I paid my ticket and walked in out of the rain to enter an enormous underground bunker-like room. All around me surged scenes of mayhem and magnificence, all taken from the Book of Revelation, and woven in silk, wool, gold and silver. There was Death, the Fourth Horseman, grinning benignly as he rode between flowering trees. There was the woman clothed with the sun and moon. There was the seven-headed serpent. And finally, there was the vision of the New Jerusalem, the symbol of hope and redemption. I felt as if I were in an animated world of end-time images. It was both an aesthetic rush but also an emotional surge as I realized that these visions were created to try to interpret and maybe even ward off what must have felt like an apocalyptic moment in history.

Back in Lancaster, as I listened to my fellow professors industriously presenting their thoughts about the end times, it occurred to me that this is perhaps one of our most profound human actions -- not to run away from but to try to understand, and if at all possible, ward off the oncoming darkness. The Apocalypse tapestry was both a kind of prayer and a kind of therapy that tried to make sense of the terrible plague swirling around it. And it was also an attempt at a warning. Our own attempts, be they movies, books, conferences, articles or learned papers, shine a watchful radiance that may serve as both a beacon and a searchlight as the floodwaters rise around us.