The end of the world as we know it

Having slept through Black Friday, the next big event on my calendar is the Mayan apocalypse, scheduled for December 21.

I had no intention of blogging about this until I received the Winter 2012 issue of the University of Oregon Quarterly, where an article by Alice Tallmadge, “Doomsday or Deliverance?” discusses this prophecy in the context of end-of-the-world folklore.

Associate professor Dan Wojcik, director of the UO folklore program, plans to travel to Chichen Itza, one of a huge number of visitors expected for the event, which for some heralds the shift to a higher world age, in the same spirit as the Harmonic Convergence of 1987.  The main organizer of that event, as well as the biggest publicist of 12/21/12, was Jose Arguelles (1939-2011).  In his obituary, the New York Times described his philosophy as “an eclectic amalgm of Mayan and Aztec cosmology, the I Ching, the Book of Revelation, ancient-astronaut narratives, and more.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Alice Tallmadge reports that sales of survivalist goods have spiked in recent months.  A recent Reuters poll found that 15% of people worldwide, and 22% of Americans believe the world will end during their lifetime.  The apocalypse has been a feature of Christian theology from the start, but professor Wojcik notes a recent uptick in secular end-time beliefs:  pandemics, overpopulation, and climate change are seen as threats to the planet without any hope of spiritual redemption.

Things that have a beginning have an end, from gnats, to humans, to stars, and all of creation in the western view of time as linear.  When the world survives a predicted ending date, the error is put down to miscalculation; the expectation persists.  What is it about end-time predictions that continue to fascinate most of us and motivate many believers?  The old saying, “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” doesn’t hold in this realm.

I wonder if it parallels our continuing love for disaster film?  Stories of terrible struggle and danger where we get to imagine ourselves among the survivors or among the happily raptured, coming through the ordeal to enjoy “a new heaven and earth.”  The ultimate do-over.

They don’t get any better than one of my all time favorite “disaster films,” made decades before the phrase was coined:  San Francisco (1936), with Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Jeanette MacDonald surviving the 1906 earthquake.

Here’s hoping all our December disasters turn out as well!

And finally, for extra credit, here’s a different kind of celebration, with REM performing “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine).  Enjoy!

4 thoughts on “The end of the world as we know it

  1. This brings to mind a book I read recently. I don’t, as a habit, read post-apocalyptic novels, but had occasion to read The Road by Cormac McCarthy. If you have not read it and are in the mood as you prepare for the end of the world, I recommend it. It is bleak, but fascinating.


    • Thanks for the rec, but I’m not in the mood for bleak these days. I was trying to remember the details of a book I read as an undergrad, The Sense of an Ending by Frank Kermode. Not the recent novel of the same name, but a book of literary criticism. Much of it hinged on the linear model of time in the west as opposed to the cyclical way of imagining it in the east.

      Kermode made a lot of the image of the apocalypse in places where you might not really think of it until pointed out. All the “signs and portents” and nature out of whack at the start of some of Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories. I think he talked of Yeats’ “Second Coming” and some of Eliot as well, but I cannot remember the details.


  2. Most cultures throughout history seem to believe that we’re closing in on the apocalypse (at least western cultures). This also ties into the thought of many people that the past was a simpler and better time. When you add in the idea that after the apocalypse the world will be re-created as a Utopia, it always seems like we’re living in the worst of all possible times to be alive.

    Too much of this comes from the whitewash that we tend to give history. “Of course everything worked out well in the past, we’re still around to talk about it aren’t we?” History is written by the victors, and since we’re still around we have a history of success, but no one stops to think about the histories of the people who lost out (albeit we’re starting to a little more now that we have more access to information).

    The Road is an interesting book, definitely a bleak outlook on a possible future. I have a review of it on my blog from quite a while ago, I actually think it was one of the first books that I reviewed after I started my blog.


    • My wife took several courses in Egyptology as an undergrad and showed me a suicide note written (or etched in a cuniform tablet – I can’t remember) several centuries BC.

      I remember some of the the reasons the man listed included youth disrespecting their elders, temple attendance dwindling, dishonest politicians, famine and hard economic times. Very familiar themes, in other words – the more things change…


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