My friend Adam Roberts has recently released a delightful and provocative little book called It’s the End of the World: But What Are We Really Afraid Of? It’s not about the end of the world, but about the stories we tell about the world’s end — and why we tell them.
The central idea of his interpretation is announced fairly early on, in a discussion of Ragnarök — and what comes after Ragnarök:
The end turns out not to be the end – Ragnarök turns the universe off and on again. We still can’t bring ourselves to come to terms with the total absence of life. Something must continue, something must exist. And so we are locked into a cycle – imagining an end to the story, but afraid to really bring it to an end once and for all. This, counter-intuitively, turns out to be one of the most reliable features of all the stories about the end of the world. A world ends. The world never does.
In fact sometimes it does, and in texts Adam cites: Byron’s terrifying poem “Darkness,” the unsurpassably bleak vision at the end of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, etc. But yes, it is true that far more often than not the end of the world is the portal to a renewed cosmos: the New Heaven and the New Earth of John the Revelator’s vision; the end of this kalpa leading to the eventual emergence of another.
Having laid out this general framework, Adam moves on to instances, brief sketches of what we might call the various genres of conclusion: endings brought about by the gods, by zombies, by plagues, by machines, by the heat death of the universe, by climate change. You can see that for some of these the relevant phrase is “the end of the world,” while for others it’s “as we know it.” Climate change won’t end the world, though it will certainly reshape it; and as Adam writes, “the secret core of the zombie story” may be that it describes “not so much the end of the world, but the end of the values that underpin that world – not the end of humans as a species but of our very humanity.” (There’s a very stimulating comment in that chapter on Huxley’s Brave New World as a kind of zombie story.)
There’s also a fabulous digression on the horror of a world that won’t end: I’m compelled by Adam’s description of Groundhog Day as “a masterpiece of supreme existential terror.”
In his final pages he writes, “We use the stories to make sense of it all, to impose order on an uncaring and chaotic universe, creating the fantasy that we have some measure of understanding and control.” That’s something close to the book’s conclusion, but I think it conflates several different experiences. The problem lies in the phrase “understanding and control.” Understanding and control are not the same thing, and I’m not even sure they arise from the same impulse. After all, one of the things that we might understand about the world, or about our lives in more specific ways, is that we don’t have any meaningful control over it or them.
I think it’s fair to say that Adam shares the view articulated by Wells at the the of The Time Machine and by Byron in his great poem:
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The moon, their mistress, had expir’d before;
The winds were wither’d in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them — She was the Universe.
If that vision is true, then to grasp that is certainly to understand something; but it is not to control anything, except perhaps — perhaps — our hopes for something better. The control of emotion that one achieves when one accepts what one cannot control: Stoicism in a phrase.
Which leads us back to one of Adam’s key points, that all of our stories about the end of the world are really, to some degree and often to a very great degree, refractions of our sense of our own ending, our own death. And Larkin, for one, didn’t think much of the Stoic answer:
Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.
One may control one’s fear, but that’s not the control that any of us wants. I think Larkin has understood something here.
For me, a Christian, everything about this, about what will happen to me when I die, about what will become of this sweet world, hinges on one question. As Auden put it: “Now did He really break the seal / And rise again?” The biggest of all Ifs, for me. But I’m staking my claim on “Yes.” And I think, along with the say-but-the-word centurion given voice by Les Murray,
If he is risen, all are children of a most real high God
or something even stranger called by that name
who knew to come and be punished for the world.