It’s the end of the World (how do you feel?)

Written on May 16, 2008 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies, Video

Rolf Strom-Olsen

Uh oh. Been watching the news? It starts with an earthquake. Or at least that’s what we were told by R.E.M., the  alternative band that helped rock out the 80s and provided an important counterweight to the cultural atrocities of Boy George and Madonna (then still feeling qua virgo intacta). Yes, it was the end of the world as we knew it (cool video below). But that was okay for R.E.M. because they felt fine – they just needed some time alone, presumably to help them figure out what on earth those ridiculous stream-of-consciousness lyrics meant.

Last week, I quoted a brief passage from Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In it, Gibbons observes that early Christian defended their pacifist views with obscurantism and ambiguity, since they believed "war, government, the Roman empire, and the world itself, would be no more." That is a rather fanciful passage, of course; typical of the easy denigration of Christian sectarians that suffuse Gibbons’ work. But the sentiment that the world (as they knew it) was coming to an end is probably a fairly accurate observation. The third century witnessed dramatic and profound changes across the Roman world. The Pax Romana – centuries of relative peace and stability that reigned across much of the Mediterranean world – foundered. And rather quickly too. For a sense of this, one need only visit the city of Lugo. The remarkable Roman-era walls that tLugooday survive and serve as that city’s principal tourist attraction are a powerful reminder of how quickly the peace and (relative) prosperity was displaced when civil order collapsed. Walking those walls today is an oddly serene experience; but when they were hastily erected the walls were a symbol of nervousness and disquiet – the system breaking down as the defences went up. The social upheaval that followed was significant. The stuff of daily existence changed dramatically: travel, drinking water, food supplies, and trade all suffered disruption. Aqueducts fell into disrepair, roads became dangerous and goods simply ceased to be available as long-distance trading routes shrivelled. That rift produced a great deal of  popular response and the sentiment that the "Roman Empire and the world itself would be no more" was almost certainly part of that response. No wonder Christianity, with its built in millenarian message, gained traction. For most people, I suspect, they didn’t feel fine at all.

Beatus I was recently in the British Library admiring their copy of the "illuminated Beatus," so named after the 8th century monk who in the relative quiet of a monastery in Northern Spain compiled a great number of exegetical texts relating to the Apocalypse. The resulting manuscript was hundreds of pages explaining in great detail the Book of Revelation. For Beatus, it probably seemed as if the prophesy were coming true: most of the Iberian peninsula was engulfed in chaos, war and deprivation, provoked by the violent Muslim invasion of 713. Hordes of murderous infidels rampaging across the countryside? That’s got to be in Revelations somewhere. As with the collapse of Roman order in the 3rd century, so too the collapse of Visigothic, Suevi, Alanic and Byzantine Iberia in the 8th century presaged an end, promoting with it an enthusiastic renewal of Christian millenarianism (judging, at least, by the popularity of Beatus’ work, of which numerous copies still exist).

Academics and theologians call this eschatology or millenarianism or simply Crap!-the-world-is-bloody-ending- ism. Whatever your preferred term, it has proven an endemic and consistent popular belief. In the aftermath of plague and famine, itinerant preachers throughout the medieval period and beyond found a lucrative and popular calling preaching the end of times. We know this in part because such unauthorised preaching attracted the attention of the Church’s inquisitors – it was the Church, after all, that had a monopoly on millenarianism. Do-it-yourself apocalyptic doomsaying was definitely not staying on message. The Cathars, for example, learned this the hard way: their brand of gnostic eschatology eventually attracted a vicious and unforgiving military response. The juicy details and other fun stories can be found in Norman Cohn’s masterful and groundbreaking study "The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages," originally published in 1957.

Even today, I learn with a mixture of dismay and sheer astonishment, one of the most popular titles available in the United States is the "Left Behind" series of novels (available it seems in a box set). These detail the Rapture – basically your standard-issue millenarianist codswallop for Christian fundamentalists. Kooky it may be, but this stuff sells. Any why not? Peruse the headlines and there are any number of reasons to get freaked out. Not to mention the fact that (shhh…) idolatrous unbelievers are everywhere and You Know Who is getting pretty miffed about it.

For those of us afflicted with reason and common sense and thus not yet ready to be raptured, we are facing a rather different eschatological moment, not the end of the world, but like the man said: the end of the world as we know it.  With billions of people poised to enter the consumer economy, the change to our existing economic system will surely be vast. We are already seeing the first glimmers of this transformation: soaring demand for oil and food; and this as hundreds and hundreds of millions of people in the East only approximate the consumption habits of the west. The West developed a consumer society based on a reality that placed an abundance of resources at the disposal of a small minority of the world’s people. Now that the door is opening to huge numbers of people to share in that wealth – even if marginally, by our standards – the results will surely be epochal. Like the denizens of the Roman world in the third century, we appear to be at the threshold of a major shift – not necessarily a crisis, but certainly a significant evolutionary leap for the modern homo economicus. What will be the changes as national income shifts to pay more for basic foodstuffs and energy? What will happen as competition intensifies for basic resources? I’ll consider some of these trends in a later post. But in the meantime, it is a question worth considering: how do you feel?

Ok, as promised: time to kick it old school with R.E.M.’s classic in a curious video remix.


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