… Put together, I’m convinced, these two conditions—finality and inevitability—make for the most ideal apocalypse stories. They mirror the way the universe really works, at least as far as secular, scientific people such as myself are concerned. Someday, for whatever reason—entropy, a meteor, that giant volcano under Yellowstone—life on earth will end, and when it ends, it will end for good. Eventually, the human world will simply vanish, leaving behind only the affectless emptiness of space, which will continue on, unconsciously, without us. It’s not just that we’ll die, but that our values, and value, will end. There will be no one left to admire the nebulae through the Hubble; no one left to look at human life and consider it beautiful. No one will care about the things we care about—not even us.
An apocalypse of this kind doesn’t even have to be an event. It can—will?—simply happen as part of the natural aging of the world. A movie like “Threads” is committed to the human reality of the end of the world, and, like the Bible, or, for that matter, like “Dawn of the Dead,” it offers us a moral vision of the apocalypse as a day of judgment: on some level, we deserve the terrible ending. But apocalypses just as readily emerge out of the naturalist tradition, which is basically modern; they can be vast, abstract, and scientific. In “The Time Machine,” H. G. Wells sends his time traveller far into the future to witness such an apocalypse. He parks his time machine on a beach, and, as he moves into the future, he sees the waves slow, then stop. A line of salt builds up on the shore. The sky grows dark; the sun grows large, red, and dim. The world, Wells writes, “was silent…. It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives—all that was over.” In its place, there is only an “awful twilight.” Softly, on the shadowy beach, some dark, tentacled thing flops about. The world itself has wound down and died of old age, probably long after some now-unknown, human-scale apocalypse. There is no stopping this kind of ending, Wells seems to say, and there is no life after it. It is final and inevitable, waiting there in the future, visible to anyone who wants to look for it.
These sorts of visions are thrilling to contemplate in a purely aesthetic way. And they aren’t, necessarily, despairing visions; in a way, they’re fortifying. They put me, at least, in a broadly existentialist frame of mind. If the things we care about—goodness, love, beauty, intelligence, friendship, humanity, and so forth—exist only for a little while, and only for us, then that’s a reason to take them even more seriously than usual. If our lives are islands of meaning amidst a rising ocean of meaninglessness, then we ought to mean as much as possible to ourselves, and to one another.
An ideal apocalypse, it seems to me, must acknowledge this geological point of view. And yet, this way of looking at things is also a temptation and, on some level, a lie. Taken too far, the abstracted, naturalist apocalypse starts to ring false in its detachment. If the universe is soulless, then shouldn’t the end of our ensouled world bother us more? Aren’t we living beings the best part of that universe; isn’t it a mistake to shift our focus to the rocks and dust, the fields and vibrations? If our world matters to us, then our own demise, and whatever suffering that demise entails, matters a lot, too. It may be that it matters more than anything else.
At any rate, you can’t, in the end, make yourself at home in the naturalist view of things. Heidegger thought that part of what it is to be a person is to care about things—about your own projects and commitments, but also about yourself and what you mean and are. You can’t escape the caring. (Even if you want to, that just means that, for some reason, you care about escaping it.) Thomas Metzinger, a philosopher who studies consciousness, explains the problem this way in his book “Being No One”: “The universe may be a good place for evolution, but not such a good place for individuals.” It is, in any case, a place for both sorts of thing. The ideal apocalypse has to balance those two facts. It must acknowledge the competing claims both of the universe and of the individuals it contains.
This is very hard to do, obviously. Beckett does it well, in “Waiting for Godot”; he even does it apocalyptically, in short stories like “The Lost Ones” and “Imagination Dead Imagine.” Still, I’ve come to feel that the best writer on the apocalypse is Cormac McCarthy. In part, that’s because he is realistic and historical in his apocalyptic visions.
One of the insights in McCarthy’s work is that, in a sense, there have been many apocalypses. Many cultures have perished from the earth, and, to a person alive within one of those cultures, those ends were final. (Today’s so-called “Mayan Apocalypse” is, for this reason, a strange idea: there already was a Mayan apocalypse, and it happened in the ninth century, and perhaps again in the sixteenth.) “Blood Meridian,” McCarthy’s novel about a gang of scalp hunters in the mid-nineteenth-century American West, is based, loosely on historical fact, and it understands the extermination of the Native Americans as an apocalypse, at least from the inside. The world as a whole didn’t end, of course, and there are still Native Americans today, just as there are still people of Mayan descent whose culture is influenced by their history. Even so: if your people were being hunted down and murdered in the Mexican desert in 1845, you couldn’t take that long view; the threads of your civilization, ravaged by disease and harried by invaders, had been unravelling for more than a century. (In “1491,” a history of the Americas and their contact with Columbus, Charles Mann offers a startling image from inside this apocalypse: in 1784, a Lakota winter count—a kind of pictorial history that memorialized the year—depicted “a pox-scarred man, alone in a tipi, shooting himself.” As soon as I read that, I thought of McCarthy.)