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"The apocalyptic mindset continues to be pervasive in our cultural consciousness, prompting constant contemplation and discussion."

“The apocalyptic mindset continues to be pervasive in our cultural consciousness, prompting constant contemplation and discussion.”


On a sunny afternoon in Taormina, Sicily, two affluent couples on vacation enjoy Aperol spritz on a balcony with a view of the sea. Harper, who tends to be anxious and guilty, expresses difficulties with sleeping due to concerns about current events. Daphne, who prefers to focus on pleasure and ignore problems, asks for clarification. Harper responds that it’s a vague feeling about the end of the world. Daphne jokes and reassures Harper that the world is not ending and she no longer keeps up with the news. She also remarks that even if things were as bad as they say, there’s not much that can be done. Despite sitting on the same luxurious balcony and sipping on the same expensive drinks, only Harper is troubled by the sense of impending doom. Harper remarks that it feels like everyone is just entertaining each other while the world comes to an end.

In this scene from season two of the HBO series The White Lotus, Aubrey Plaza portrays Harper and Meghann Fahy portrays Daphne. The show raises the question of whether Harper’s actions are a responsible response to significant and dangerous issues or a cry of powerless hopelessness. Saul Bellow’s protagonist in his 1964 novel Herzog remarks, “It makes me sick to hear such convictions from privileged, comfortable individuals playing with notions of crisis, isolation, and despair… We need to stop believing that this is a doomed era and that we are just waiting for it to end… Things are already difficult enough without these dramatic games… We have become enamored with apocalypses.”

From left: Aubrey Plaza, Theo James, Meghann Fahy and Will Sharpe in The White Lotus: Season 2.: “View the image in fullscreen:”


What might Herzog’s reaction be in the current state of affairs? Both conservative and progressive beliefs present conflicting stories of decline and destruction. A number of climate activists describe an irreversible breakdown, even going as far as to suggest the end of humanity. New terms like “doomer,” “polycrisis,” and “Generation Dread” have emerged. According to a peer-reviewed survey in 2021, 56% of individuals aged 16-25 from around the world shared the sentiment that “humanity is doomed.” A YouGov poll from 2020 revealed that nearly one in three Americans anticipate an apocalyptic event during their lifetime, with concerns of a pandemic, climate change, and nuclear war surpassing Christian Judgment Day. Zombies and aliens were also mentioned as potential threats. While promoting his satirical film Don’t Look Up in 2021, director Adam McKay struggled to define the current era, using phrases like “the Great Awfulization,” “Gilded Rage,” and “collapse culture.” He emphasized the importance of staying aware and monitoring various issues.

This is not the apocalyptic end of time that has intrigued humankind for millennia, but rather a widespread feeling of the end of the world – a certain vibe. In his comedy special End Times Fun, Marc Maron remarks, “It’s pretty clear the world is ending…I don’t want to shock anyone. It just seems to be happening.” The audience laughs, not reacting as if this is an absurd statement. Similarly, no critic of Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You is surprised when one character declares, “There is no chance for the planet, and no chance for us. We are in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something.” In her quietly apocalyptic novel Pure Colour, Sheila Heti likens life in 2022 to “being in a plane that was slowly spiraling downwards.” In his satirical ballad That Funny Feeling, comedian Bo Burnham sings, “Hey, what can you say? We were overdue / But it’ll be over soon, you wait.” It is common to express dissatisfaction with the world by saying it is coming to an end.

In her novel Fake Accounts, published in 2021, Lauren Oyler satirizes the tendency to indulge in self-pity and powerlessness. She suggests that the popular embrace of fatalism may stem from a desire for attention and a lack of historical awareness, with people often declaring impending doom despite its consistent failure to materialize. This flawed thinking, also known as presentism or chronocentrism, involves believing that one’s own generation is experiencing unprecedented events that will never occur again. This sense of temporal narcissism has been ingrained in apocalyptic thought for centuries, with biblical figures like John of Patmos proclaiming “The time is at hand” in the Book of Revelation. As scholar Frank Kermode argued in his influential book The Sense of an Ending, we tend to reject the idea that we exist in the middle of history, unable to foresee its ultimate outcome or play a significant role in its unfolding. To give meaning to our lives, Kermode posits that we create stories of origins and endings, which connect the beginning and end and confer significance on the time in between.

Hence, regardless of our religious beliefs, we tend to view our current era as a pivotal and significant moment. The term “crisis” originates from a medical term in Latin, signifying the point in an illness where the outcome is determined – whether the patient will recover or perish. It seems ingrained in us to imagine that we are living in the end times or the culmination of an era. We enjoy discussing the decline of things and proudly claim to witness it. We have a desire to feel special. As DH Lawrence wrote before his passing in 1930, “We always crave a ‘conclusion’, an endpoint – a finality – to our mental processes. This provides us with a sense of satisfaction. Our mental awareness is constantly moving forward, evolving in stages, much like our sentences, and every period is a milestone signifying our ‘progress’ and reaching a certain destination.” Lawrence believed that this may be a false belief, but it still holds immense power. This is how we try to make sense of the unknown complexities and uncertainties of the future, which have always been intimidating. We strive to construct a narrative to organize and make sense of it all.

It is undeniable that we are currently living in dangerous times. In January 2023, the Doomsday Clock, a symbolic timepiece kept by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists since 1947, shows that we are now 90 seconds from midnight due to various factors such as the climate crisis, Covid-19, disruptive technologies, increasing authoritarianism, and the threat of nuclear war brought about by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. According to Martin Rees, the UK’s Astronomer Royal, the 21st century could be the one where we as a species bring about our own destruction. However, it is important to acknowledge that the issues we face today are no less significant than the worries of past generations. We tend to overlook the potential disasters we have managed to avoid in the past, such as conflicts, famines, and diseases, and fail to compare our fears to the trials of the past.

Throughout history, there have always been individuals with a pessimistic view on the state of the world. In 1974, during the time of my birth, French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing stated that the world was filled with unhappiness due to a lack of direction and the fear of impending disaster. During one week in September 1965, the most popular song in America was Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction”, a warning about the world’s fate. In 1945, HG Wells wrote in his final book that the world was reaching its breaking point and its ultimate demise was inevitable. In 1919, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga observed a trend of only focusing on the negative aspects of life and society, rather than acknowledging its positives. This perspective was prevalent during the late Middle Ages. Even in AD250, Cyprian of Carthage proclaimed that the world was already on a downward spiral with its strength and vitality greatly diminished. It was unnecessary to use biblical references as evidence; the world itself was a testament to its own decline.

What is significant currently is the constant presence of apocalyptic fear: there is no relief in sight. One may have assumed that the discussions about the end of the world in the 1990s would reach a peak with the new millennium, but instead they have only grown in intensity. In 1989, Susan Sontag proposed that the title of Francis Ford Coppola’s film “Apocalypse Now” was aspirational, and that what we are truly experiencing is “Apocalypse from Now On”. This could be attributed, in part, to the overwhelming amount of news (particularly bad news) that we consume, more than ever before in history. During World War II, long before the era of 24-hour news and the internet, poet Wallace Stevens argued that the “pressure of reality” crushes our sense of perspective. Looking back, it is impossible to see that the same could be said of the past. The concept of pressure is immeasurable and elusive to historians.

The pressure of reality is evident in popular culture like REM’s 1987 hit “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” and in the works of Don DeLillo. In DeLillo’s 1991 novel Mao II, the character Bill argues that news has replaced novels as a source of truth and meaning, providing a constant feeling of catastrophe. This emotional experience is not found elsewhere, making novels and catastrophes unnecessary. This idea is also expressed in the TV show The White Lotus when Daphne’s husband Cameron dismisses the news as “an apocalyptic soap opera.” This phenomenon is now often referred to as “doomscrolling” in the age of social media. Social media can amplify the perception that things are worse than they are, and also contribute to worsening the situation. In this environment, it is seen as a bold move to speak out about the terrible times we are living in. It almost seems foolish to believe that things are not irreversibly getting worse.

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Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey in The Last of Us.

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The volume of apocalyptic narratives is vast and continuously expanding. In recent years, there has been a variety of genre interpretations, including dramas (Melancholia), horror (It Comes at Night), war films (World War Z), comedies (This Is the End), and satire (Don’t Look Up); sitcoms (The Last Man on Earth), animations (The Mitchells vs the Machines), and songs (Phoebe Bridgers’ I Know the End); television series based on comics (The Walking Dead), video games (The Last of Us), and bestselling novels (Station Eleven; Leave the World Behind). These tales tend to have a gloomy outlook: a comet strike, zombie domination, or planetary destruction. The possibilities seem endless.

These narratives effectively transform fear into entertainment. According to Sontag’s 1965 essay titled “The Imagination of Disaster,” movies that portray catastrophic events as enjoyable allow viewers to immerse themselves in the fantasy of facing their own death and even the end of humanity. While contemplating annihilation can serve as a useful way to confront mortality, loss, and the unpredictable nature of the world, it can also reveal feelings of guilt and suspicion that such a fate may be justified. Typically, authors pass judgment on the doomed world that is depicted, making it easy to distinguish between those who are optimistic, pessimistic, activist, nihilistic, humanistic, or misanthropic. On occasion, a story will explicitly express a desire for the end, viewing the world as too exhausting and unsolvable. Characters such as Justine in Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia and those in the works of Kurt Vonnegut and musician Morrissey, who famously cries “Come, Armageddon!” in his song Everyday Is Like Sunday, embody a strong yearning for everything to just cease to exist. Since the subject matter is humanity itself, it is natural to hold conflicting thoughts and emotions. These conflicting ideas are what make this genre captivating: Do we anticipate the end of the world? Do we deserve it? Do we secretly crave it? What would we miss and what would we want to be erased from existence?

Many of my friends have asked me if immersing myself in this topic was disheartening. On the contrary, I discovered that it alleviated the pressure of facing reality and the self-centeredness of the present. The significant truth about the potential end of the world is that it has not yet occurred, despite numerous predictions. In Emily St John Mandel’s 2014 book Station Eleven, which portrays a pandemic, an actor who studied art history notes that even though there have been countless catastrophes and terrible events that made people believe the world was ending, they were all temporary. It always passes. However, in this novel, the world does not recover and almost everyone perishes. The world is filled with too many unpleasant surprises for us to remain complacent.

However, the past can also provide some solace as the unfounded worries from before can offer the reassurance that one’s current situation is not the worst. Kurt Vonnegut, known for his pessimistic views in literature, believed that the best way to cope with anxiety for the future was to acknowledge that the past was not perfect. He stated, “Despite the chaos of the present, it’s important to recognize that the past was never ideal. There were never any moments free of problems, just different sets of problems.”

Source: theguardian.com