Apocalypse now or never?

Apocalypse_vasnetsovThe only poem I managed to memorise as a child was The Thinker by Anthony Delius.

It features a depressed cricket who strolls gloomily around the rim of a toilet bowl, pondering the meaning of it all. Every so often vast and terrifying things happen in the toilet, featuring “a great roaring, an apocalypse of waters”, and then the cricket goes back to groping in vain for an explanation.

The poem appealed to me enormously. Perhaps it was the gentle comedy of an existential bug being flummoxed by plumbing. But I know I was also comforted by Delius’s vision of an apocalypse: a horrifying, long-foretold End of All Things rendered as banal as a flushing loo.

At the weekend, at one of Cape Town’s hip markets, the depressed crickets wandered around the toilet rim of existence, sipping coffee out of disposable paper cups. The snatches of conversation were the sort of thing you’d expect – whether the cupcakes were ethically sourced, why the flat-white looked suspiciously like a cappuccino – but in the shade of an oak tree two young women sat side by side, staring over the rim deep into the abyss that waits for us all at the bottom of the bowl. Ebola, they agreed, was “probably the apocalypse”.

I didn’t eavesdrop for long – that organic brownie wasn’t going to buy and eat itself – but I heard enough to recognise a curious tension in their conversation. In the one corner was medical science and geopolitics: a disease was spreading, and a real response was required. But in the same breath they revealed an extraordinary nihilism, a kind of millenarian belief that the world was wicked and awful and failed, and that the American-centric coverage of Ebola was almost as bad as the disease itself. In a few seconds they made it very clear that the planet was infected with not one but two incurable diseases – Ebola and humankind – and without saying as much they seemed to imply that the former was a kind of righteous punishment for the latter.

I don’t believe that we are a lost and rotten species but seeing the world’s response to Ebola has reminded me that we are an apocalypse-haunted lot. We might claim to be increasingly secular and privilege science over superstition, but underneath it we remain frightened believers, bracing ourselves for the deluge that will flush us away and leave the world clean, shiny and pine-fresh.

Perhaps those myths just run too deep to escape them entirely. The Abrahamic religions all feature a Big Flush that requires a lifetime of blowing up one’s spiritual water-wings, and these faiths are not alone. Many, perhaps even most, religious beliefs over the last few thousand years have featured an apocalypse, a giant settling of scores, in which sinful humanity was sent straight to the sewer for a while to learn its lesson, before rising like a floater back into the sunlight of a brave new world.

Secular sophisticates like to pretend that apocalyptic warnings are the stuff of loony prophets in the wilderness, but that is to deny how deeply rooted such yearnings are in us; how hard-wired we are to look forward to a gigantic destructive reboot. Even Isaac Newton, a titan of the Enlightenment, spent some of that priceless brain power finding hidden codes in the Bible that proved the world would end in 2060. Indeed, it is scientists and not priests who have been the keepers of our apocalyptic visions for almost a century now. When we stopped seeing angels in the sky and started seeing zeppelins and rockets and long-range nuclear bombers and acid rain, it was scientists we turned to for interpretation and dogma. It was scientists who warned that we would all be starving in the 1970s because of the “population bomb”. It was IT wizards who told us our computer-dependent world would implode as Y2K rolled around. It was scientists who told us to stock up on Tamiflu or be wiped out by bird flu. It is they who now warn us of the new apocalypse that climate change will bring.

I’m not trying to make light of Ebola. I’m also not qualified to judge whether it has the potential to be the apocalypse that the millenarians have been waiting for. But until we do know it might be worth acknowledging that we have a deep yearning to ascribe apocalyptic significance to bad things, and that perhaps we have a tendency, when things start getting scary, to contribute a lot of heat but very little light.

It’s possible that one day we will get flushed, and if that happens it will be a terrible pity because we’re really not as awful as some of us think. But until then, can we try a little harder to enjoy life on the rim?


First published in The Times and TimesLive


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