Gloomy thoughts have been on my mind lately. While pulling down links for a MetaFilter post on the Civil Defense Museum (which you should read, as the links other people posted are golden), I came across a page on nuclear holocausts in popular culture and, from the same professor, a fascinating compendium of plot summaries for atomic war fiction. It’s a popular story. The end of the world has always been with us. Around 1000 AD, a number of horrible and frightening events struck Europe. There was a plague and famine. There were assasinations and pirate raids. Vesuvius erupted. Haley’s coment flew overhead. Clearly these were the end times; pilgrims journeyed en masse to Jerusalem. In the late tenth century, feudal warfare wracked France, and the Council of Chrroux limited private wars to certain times of the year and enforced, through excommunication, stipulations to protect noncombatants. Unruly knights were thus channeled into other activities, and new mass social movement with broad religious implications, the Peace of God, was born. The Pax Dei travelled Europe holding councils that must have been similar to the revival meetings of the Second Great Awakening.
Typically, these councils were held in large open fields around exceptional gatherings of saints’ relics, brought from the surrounding regions. Each relic brought with it a throng of faithful, enthused both by their novel proximity to the sacred, and the miracles that these relics “performed.” In the presence of the large crowds of commoners attracted by these relics, the elders of the council (dukes, counts, bishops, abbots) would proclaim Peace legislation designed to protect civilians (unarmed churchmen, peasants, merchants, pilgrims) and control the behavior of warriors. Often the warriors would swear an oath on the relics in the presence of all assembled.
In 1033, one thousand years after the Passion, peace councils attempted to impose absolute worldly peace, an end to war to presage Christ’s eminent return. Chalk it up to just one of the hundreds of failed predictions about the end of the world that litter history. Eschatology is the religious study of the end days, and it’s never gone out of style. Most religious sects avoid predicting actual dates (the failed prophecies of the Millerites and early Jehovah’s Witnesses in the 19th and early 20th centuries didn’t put an end to those denomonations, but they certainly couldn’t have been good for the faithful’s confidence), but thoughts of the end times are certainly common. The popular image of the apocalypse (in urban legends, say, or the God-hating New World Order depicted in Jack Chick’s classic The Last Generation, a staple of punk rock poster art when I was going to college in Rhode Island) is a relatively recent Protestant invention. Much of the imagery — the Mark of the Beast, the one-person Antichrist — is simply the literal realization of the Revelation of St. John, but the idea of a pre-tribulation Rapture is due to a 19th century religious leader, John Nelson Darby of the Plymouth Brethren sect.
The incredibly popular Left Behind series, which features a band of strong-jawed Brits and Americans fighting Satan’s works after the Rapture, attracts critical attention, both musings on religion’s place in culture from the hoity-toity Atlantic set and suspicions from some Christians. And they sell a ton of books. Why? I could blame it on a long-standing American tradition of Protestant millenialism, but I think it’s more to do with the notion that we are special, that we will be spared. The Left Behind books offer a trifecta — readers get a world in which the Rapture is a proven fact, unbelievers suffer as the Antichrist (and his pawn, the U.N. takes over), and witness the post-Rapturian redemption of the protagonists.
When I was in high school, I read a lot of back issues of Backwoods Home. A lot of the letters to the editor were written by harmless hippie back-to-the-land types (or harmless right-wing back-to-the-land types), but some of the letters had disturbing undertones: "When It happens, we’ll be right. We’ll be ready. We’ll be fine. And won’t you be sorry!" That’s the essential appeal of apocalyptic imagery in popular fiction; after it all goes to hell, we’ll be proved right. In religious beliefs, this usually involves looking down on the tribulations from Heaven (before the thousand-year rule of saints, the "millennia" of millenialist religious beliefs). For more secular ends of the world, like nuclear war, it means an end to a decadent and effete social order, a chance to really show one’s mettle. That’s almost always how those stories go — Real Men (and occasionally Women) romping through the savage lands after WWIII. But I think of John Varley‘s "The Manhattan Phone Book (Abridged)", a simple story with a paragraph about the lives of a few New Yorkers, listed A to Z (with several million characters skipped; it’s the abridged version):
Edward Zzzzyniewski is crazy. He’s been in and out of Bellvue. He spends most of his time thinking about that bastard Zzyzzmjac, who two years ago knocked him out of last place, his only claim to fame…. Then one day seventeen thermonuclear bombs exploded in the air over Manhattan, The Bronx, and Staten Island, too. They had a yield of between five and twenty megatons each. This was more than enough to kill everyone in this story. Most of them died instantly. A few lingered for minutes or hours, but they all died, just like that. I died. So did you.
Varley calls it "the only true after-the-bomb story you will ever read." It features no mutants, no chainsaw-wielding motorcycle gangs, no struggle to preserve the American way of life. In the end, it’s not much of a story.