The Brighter Side of Eschatology

On Saturday the world might end.

It always might end, but an unusually large number of people believe that on Saturday, in particular, it really will. I think they’re wrong. But whatever. The important thing is Frank Kermode.

Frank Kermode’s best-known book is The Sense of an Ending, a slim volume of literary criticism about the apocalypse. Specifically, it’s about the stories we tell ourselves about the end of the world—why we tell them, and what purpose they serve.

Kermode describes humanity as standing “in the middest”—that is, we can never escape the present moment. So in order to understand where we’ve been, and where we’re going, we look far back, into the presumed past, and far ahead, into an imagined future. We tell ourselves stories in which the past and present are reconciled, and somehow redeemed, by a future that we can only imagine. And we have to keep revising this imagined future so it aligns nicely with the past and present as we currently understand them.

Here’s how Frank puts it.

[People] in the middest make considerable imaginative investments in coherent patterns which, by the provision of an end, make possible a satisfying consonance with the origins and with the middle. That is why the image of the end can never be permanently falsified. But they also, when awake and sane, feel the need to show marked respect for things as they are; so that there is a recurring need for adjustments in the interest of reality as well as of control.

Seen this way, stories about the apocalypse can be useful and empowering. During the Cold War we told ourselves the world would end in nuclear destruction. That was a subject that preoccupied us at the time, and this was a useful ending to our story because it encouraged us to focus on the present task of nuclear disarmament and global stability. Today we’re more likely to tell ourselves that the world will be destroyed by climate change, overpopulation, and bad management of our natural resources—a useful story that matches our present concerns.

Harold Camping and the people who say the world will end on Saturday are telling a useless story. It’s useless because they ignore, or misunderstand, what Frank Kermode described as the difference between myth and fiction.

We have to distinguish between myths and fictions. Fictions can degenerate into myths whenever they are not consciously held to be fictive. In this sense anti-Semitism is a degenerate fiction, a myth; and Lear is a fiction. Myth operates within the diagrams of ritual, which presupposes total and adequate explanations of things as they are and were; it is a sequence of radically unchangeable gestures. Fictions are for finding things out, and they change as the needs of sense-making change. Myths are the agents of stability, fictions are the agents of change. Myths call for absolute, fictions call for conditional assent. Myths make sense in terms of a lost order of time, illud tempus as Eliade calls it; fictions, if successful, make sense of the here and now, hoc tempus. It may be that treating literary fictions as myths sounds good just now, but as Marianne Moore so rightly said of poems, ‘these things are important not because a / high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are / useful.’

So thanks, Frank, for showing us the brighter side of eschatology.

And fuck you, apocalypse cult people. You’re idiots.

(Frank Kermode died last year. For him the world has already ended. I wish he could tell us a thing or two about endings now.)

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2 Comments

Filed under how fiction explains the world

2 Responses to The Brighter Side of Eschatology

  1. Matt

    Brian, I’m sorry, I didn’t read this one. I’ve seen it too many times before. Please stop boring us with your poop fetish. That’s what eschatology means, right?

  2. Pingback: They’ll Get Theirs |

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