Tabula Rasa: The Apocalyptic Yearning

Even though I have been born and raised in the “East Bloc”, in the part of Germany that was occupied by the Red Army in 1945, I have fond memories of my childhood during the era of the “Cold War”. It was a time of stability, peace, and prosperity (for the Western nations more so than for their Eastern counterparts, of course) and despite the threat of nuclear annihilation due to the Cold War turning hot over so little as human error in assessing the enemies’ intentions and predicting his actions, there was an optimistic sense of progress in human history that ought to culminate in Utopia at some distant point. Needless to say, I was still a child and thus gullible to propaganda efforts to some extent. That was about to change in 1990, though. All of a sudden, so it seemed to me at least, the political system of the “East Bloc” fell apart and the way of life from the Western nations was adopted overnight. For a brief moment in human history, it looked as if antagonism and strife between the people, and their nations too, could be overcome according to the – as we know by now, fallacious – prophesy Francis Fukuyama made in 1992 („The End of History and the Last Man“): „What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.“

Almost a quarter of a century later, we know so much better. Ever since the end of the “Cold War”, our Western civilization has been in steady decline. Come to think of it, this race to the bottom started so much sooner – and there is reason to believe that the theory of evolution could never ever be applied to the history of mankind in the first place – and the “Cold War” did nothing but hibernate the decay process for a few decades. It is a profound and thorough decline that affects the political, religious, social, and cultural life all at once. Never has the future been less predictable as it is today, considering the enormous fallout of centuries of human intervention in the fragile eco-system as well as the widespread poverty and political instability that is slowly but surely encroaching on the periphery of the Western world and to which no solution within the frameworks of “capitalistic economy” as well as “democratic society” can be found.

Amidst all the upheaval, the bloodshed and tragedy, there remains the question if the writing was on the wall all along. Is the human species a doomed one? Was any Utopia, which humans dreamed of and were fighting and dying for, a folly right from the start, because mankind can’t ever escape the ceaselessly grinding force of entropy that ultimately tears down each and every Ivory Tower no matter how tall?

Cornelis Anthonisz:The Fall of the Tower of Babel

As far as we know, because science tells us so, the stellar evolution started with a “Big Bang” and will inevitably come to an end in a calamity of cosmic proportions. Our own sun is said to turn into a Red Star in 7, 59 billion years, but long before life on earth will be annihilated by solar activities. Even though mankind could survive by migrating to far away galaxies, the grand finale could only be delayed but not avoided. Death is certain. However abstract that notion is, considering the enormous time span beyond any human perception (as far as we know mankind, with its brief history as sentient species for less than 200.000 years, is nothing but a tiny ripple on the vast ocean of cosmic infinity), this sentiment was echoed by virtually every religion through human history. It is known as Apocalypticism, the belief the world is going to end according to various religious scriptures and esoteric teachings. An ending in blood, fire, death: Retribution for the every man-made violation of the divine order that will be our undoing ultimately. Apparently, this notion is deeply ingrained on the human mind: Nothing will last forever; we are building on sand and our hopes are all in vain. There comes the day when everything is about to end and nothing will remain as it was known hitherto.

A sentiment so strong it is reflected in popular culture too. During the last two decades, there was a rise in motion pictures, TV-series, music recordings, book publications and video games; all of which depict the final days of mankind when our civilization is falling apart all around us and everything boils down to a brutal fight for survival at all costs. As grim and hopeless as this prospect does appear, the popularity of this particular subject indicates there is more to it than what meets the eye. For the cataclysm – be it divine, or man-made, or a natural disaster – that will sweep the world does bring more than death and destruction in its wake. It wreaks havoc on mankind, making billions perish. For those who manage to survive, there comes a time after all things have come to an end, though. To some this is akin to hell on earth, a life not worth living when everyone and everything around have been lost. But to others, this prospect of life in a vastly depopulated world where all man-made “law and order” have broken down for good does equal liberation and ultimately, freedom.

We “in the West” are entangled in an increasingly complex society with numberless expectations and obligations ever since we are born in this world. As soon as we leave the blissful ignorance of childhood behind, we have to navigate carefully through a myriad of social rules and norms which were designed to control how we think, speak, feel, and behave. They make us obedient when we feel the urge to resist and revolt; they inflame our passions over a cause not ours to begin with; they inflict guilt and shame over transgressions we have not (yet) committed. More often than not, we feel we can’t be who we truly are but have to be like others want us to be. We learn how to function, and do that smoothly, until the day we burn out and get discarded. We neglect our wishes and forsake our dreams for becoming another cog in the wheel. In our day and age, we are told to be “individualists” while that means we shall submit to conformity. We are encouraged to “think for ourselves” while that means we shall parrot the slogans we learn from the mass media. We are set on a “pursuit of happiness” while that means we shall indulge in consumerism.

Many people know by heart that the life they do live, it’s not their own. It feels wrong; it makes them sick to the bone. They do look around and find no solace in this world. Once upon a time, there was the stubborn belief that life would eventually improve with every new generation. That our children and grandchildren are going to inherit a world much better than the one we know. Not anymore; we do know – unless we opt to be ignorant – that mankind keeps pillaging the natural resources and polluting the planet to the point when our own extinction becomes a certain reality rather than to be an academic mind game anymore. Yet we can’t stop living that fake and false life of ours, can we? Only a tiny minority ever manages to break out of the treadmill that keeps them confined in a vicious cycle of increasing self-destruction for the sake of bare survival; because that’s what it is all about, at the end of the day and in the society we live in. The vast economic wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few, whereas everyone else has to sell his or her labor force at a price that permits you to exist and even to indulge in consumerism, but that will never permit you to become independent and self-reliant like in the days of yore.

This doesn’t mean the vast majority of people are in accord with the status quo, and wish to comply with the ongoing destruction of the very same resources not only mankind, but all life on earth, requires to prosper. If you feel there is no way out, then you can either give up hope or riot in vain. Either way, you will not cease to yearn for that one dramatic day in your life that is going to change everything. When all is turned upside down and nothing will ever be the same once the dust has settled. You know you can’t accomplish any of that on your own, but you have the faint notion that it is about to happen regardless of your (lack of) efforts. History of mankind holds one certainty only: Nothing the human mind ever conceived in terms of social structures, religious doctrines, legal bindings, and state governance is meant to last forever. Our history is scarred by the dramatic turmoil of the rise and fall of great Empires; of cultures blossoming and prospering just to vanish overnight with nothing but empty ruins left behind. The 20th century has witnessed some of the gravest bloodshed ever, with two world wars engulfing the entire planet in a hailstorm of fire and steel that left millions dead and that devoured entire nations and political systems, all at once.

Can it thus be far-fetched to imagine another, even graver, cataclysm about to happen any day? Be it a regional war involving nuclear powers getting out of control; or a new lethal virus spread around the globe by travelers on airplanes; or a super volcano erupting and contributing to a drastic climate change? We have read about it in the books; we have heard about it in the tales; we have watched it in motion pictures; and even “played” it in modern-day videogames. It can start on any given day, anywhere in the world. Due to globalization, when there is not a single nation isolated and self-sufficient anymore, the Doomsday would be coming for all of us, all at once. Those who prepare for that day, by stockpiling food and building shelter, are widely dismissed as nutcases. But history proves them right, time and again.

The Black Plague decimated the population of Europe for more than one third; and the Thirty Years’ War left entire cities and neighboring regions all desolate and devastated. Mankind survived against all odds, and even though any global calamity would doubtlessly equal the death of billions, mankind would survive once again. There is hope in Dystopia.

Image for object TLMH Gr 0123/64 from Thüringer Landesmuseum Heidecksburg
Albrecht Dürer: Die vier apokalyptischen Reiter

I don’t subscribe to Nihilism; i.e. even though I do acknowledge that the human existence and events appear to be void of any meaning more often than not, I do believe there is a higher purpose behind everything and a sudden and immediate cataclysm laying waste the world is no exception to that. When mankind is beyond reform and redemption, as I do now believe is the case, then the Apocalypse is nothing to be dreaded. Even though it’s a largely unconscious and lingering sensation for many of those who feel alienated by society in our day and age, but I am positive that the growing interest in, and popularity of, anything that deals with the Last Days of mankind is caused by a powerful yearning for a tabula rasa of sorts. Many people want to throw off the shackles that chain them to a life that feels so wrong and out of sync with everything that would life make worth living in the first place. They would welcome any – may we call it so? – divine intervention that ends that lifelong agony and sets them free, even if it means they are alone in a desolated world.

It’s tempting to imagine a world with six billion less humans. Walking through deserted streets in cities reclaimed by nature; enjoying the tranquility once the incessant human chatter turned silent. Living off the grid in harmony with the seasons; turning the gaze upwards to the sky above while listening to the grass growing beneath. Becoming whole and becoming one; so much more of a human in a far less human world. When there will be creation through destruction and rebirth through death, tabula rasa promises to be a final solution just as much as a grand salvation.

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