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  • The Slow Apocalypse: A Gradualistic Theory of The World’s Demise
  • Andrew McMurry

The startling calamity. What is the startling calamity? How will you comprehend what the startling calamity is?

Al-Qur’än

Were you expecting the sun to wink out, the heavens to open, the beast loose upon the earth? Or maybe you imagined a Ragnarok of more cosmopolitan origins: nuclear war, bioengineered plagues, alien invasion, supernova. In any case, it’s pretty clear the last days are upon us, but given the laggardly pace at which this doomtime is proceeding we simply haven’t yet grasped its contours. We adapt well to changes not sudden, swift and terrible, and just as we come to terms with the incremental decay of our own bodies and faculties, we learn to overlook the terminal events of our time as they unfold, gather, and concatenate in all their leisurely deadliness. We have wrongly expected the end of the world would provide the high drama we believe commensurate with our raging passions, our bold aspirations, and our central importance to the universe — we are worthy of a bang, not merely a whimper. And let me be blunt: by holding out for that noisy demise, we can pretend we haven’t been expiring by inches for decades.

Clearly, this accommodation to the ongoing apocalypse is in large measure the result of our limited temporal perspective. In terms of recorded human history, the span of a few progressive centuries since our medieval torpor is brief indeed. On the geological clock, the whole of Homo sapiens’ rise and spread over the earth is but a few ticks of the second hand. Yet how seldom is this belatedness to the cosmic scene granted any significance! How, in our ephemerality, is it even comprehensible? Does a mayfly grasp that its lifetime lasts a day? From our blinkered, homocentric perspective the decade of the eighties is already a bygone era, the fifty years since World War Two an eternity. Our neurological incapacity to hold in our minds with firmness and freshness anything but the near past and the now allows to us to file away history as rapidly as we make it. Thus, absent a hail of ICBM’s or seven angels with trumpets, the apocalypse can have been upon us for some time, may abide for another lifetime or more, and not until those final, tortured moments may it dawn on us at last that the wolf has long been at the door.

But how does one tell the tale of an apocalypse that was so long in coming and promises to be as long in going? Where to begin and, more importantly, where to end? Given its impalpability, its lubricity, can this protracted apocalypse be grasped, or only sensed faintly as we slip listlessly through it? Oh, and by the way, is this apocalypse real, or merely a rhetorical device to be activated by millenarians, debunked by critics, and ignored by everyone else? Is “Apocalypse” but a way to connect a vast constellation of other metaphors, whose referents are themselves finally just the vague grumblings and grim presentiments of a culture perennially fixated on the chances of its own demise?

Oddly, this apocalypse seems harder to deny even as its metaphoric dimension expands. Might it thus be real and constructed at the same time? That would be the most interesting possibility: an apocalypse so profoundly wrapped in its own apocrypha that it remains unrecognized even as its effects become massively known. A stealth apocalypse, then, plodding camouflaged among us, hiding in plain sight. Inured to its many signs and omens, the risk is that we can never be sure when the hard substance itself has heaved into view, and even as we peel away the rumors and lies that disguise it we fear our own voices may only be adding new tissues of obscurity. So before we speculate as to why some await so serenely the new millennium, while others hunker down bravely, smugly, or resignedly, let us gather together some of these discourses of doom, and then consider as best we can the indications that indeed we are already living in, and living out, the slow...

Additional Information

ISSN
1053-1920
Launched on MUSE
1996-01-05
Open Access
No
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