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The Comforts of the Apocalypse?

The Comforts of the Apocalypse?

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an extensive article in the provocatively entitled “The Comforts of the Apocalypse” by Rob Goodman. Goodman considers both the literary history of such writing, pointing towards our use of the ideas today. An excerpt:

All of this literature is the product of what the philosopher John Gray has described as “a culture transfixed by the spectacle of its own fragility.” Call it dystopian narcissism: the conviction that our anxieties are uniquely awful; that the crises of our age will be the ones that finally do civilization in; that we are privileged to witness the beginning of the end.

Of course, today’s dystopian writers didn’t invent the ills they decry: Our wounds are real. But there is also a neurotic way of picking at a wound, of catastrophizing, of visualizing the day the wounded limb turns gangrenous and falls off. It’s this hunger for crisis, the need to assign our problems world-transforming import, that separates dystopian narcissism from constructive polemic. And this hunger, too, has its origins in a religious impulse, in particular, the impulse called “typology.”

Typology was originally a method of reading the Old Testament in the light of the New. More broadly, typology speaks to the sense in which past events prefigure the present, or the present finds fulfillment in the future. Ordinary historical thinking tells us to look backward to understand the present; typological thinking tells us to make sense of the present in light of the promised future. The events of past and present are revealed in their true form only when our faith reverses the flow of history. As the saying goes, “in the Old Testament the New Testament is concealed; in the New Testament the Old Testament is revealed.” Against the dictates of common sense, the past is seen to be the future’s blurred, less-authentic “copy.” So Adam is a type of Christ, the Flood is a type of baptism, and the binding of Isaac prefigures the Crucifixion, as Israel prefigures the Church. This meaning lives on in “typing” and “typesetting”; the words you read on a printed page are the ghostly impressions of a real, three-dimensional piece of iron somewhere.

Typology would be a theological relic were it simply a means of reading Scriptures. But as the literary critic Northrop Frye wrote, it is a far-reaching “mode of thought,” built on the “assumption that there is some meaning and point to history, and that sooner or later some event or events will occur which will indicate what that meaning or point is … that despite apparent confusion, even chaos, in human events, nevertheless those events are going somewhere and indicating something.”

Needless to say, this mode of thought is deeply appealing and deeply consoling. The critic Erich Auerbach argued that typological thinking helped set the course of Western literature: The possibility that seemingly trivial events might represent or prefigure the divine invested the struggles of ordinary men and women with new dignity. Think of how a mundane walk down the street can be transformed into a scene of high drama with the addition of earbuds and the soundtrack of your choice. Typological thinking does much the same thing to history, bringing order and import out of randomness.


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Tom Sramek Jr

It’s this hunger for crisis, the need to assign our problems world-transforming import, that separates dystopian narcissism from constructive polemic. And this hunger, too, has its origins in a religious impulse, in particular, the impulse called “typology.”

I’m wondering if that hasn’t infected our politics as well. Given the 24/7/365 news cycle, everything ends up being a crisis. And you can’t compromise during a crisis–you have to act (or refuse to act) decisively. Perhaps in the wake of 9/11 we are on a constant wartime footing in which everything is portrayed as a crisis moment in which no compromise is permitted. Add the apocalyptic notions of the Religious Right to the picture and you have a political situation that is virtually untenable.

The only way out of such a situation, it seems to me, is for people with enough power to insist on being (to quote Friedman) a “non-anxious presence” and refuse to be co-opted by crisis mentality. The challenge with that is that we have too few of those folks and the electorate is unlikely to leave such people in office long enough to do much.

Can we start a “non-anxious voter” movement?

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