The Long View: We All Fall Down

The best paragraph in this fascinating book review by John J. Reilly is this:

As an aside, we may note that this solidifying of the self into an entity that acts without regard to desire is also the goal of certain esotericists. The adamantine self becomes a "body of light" divorced from time, and so immortal. The preservation of the self through the rejection of the rest of reality might, in another view, be thought to be nothing more than the construction of a personal Hell. The author of We All Fall Down may well have intended to make just this point.

As a modern, it is actually kind of hard for me to find fault with the lead character’s stubbornness. The power to be able to say “No” is rather appealing. But as the ashes of Notre Dame cool in Paris, it is worth reflecting that the woman who is honored above all other people in our culture, except for her Son, said “Yes”.

Pierre Téqui‏  @Pierretequi   Photo de l’intérieur de  #NotreDame  La voûte du transept s’est effondrée

Pierre Téqui‏ @Pierretequi

Photo de l’intérieur de #NotreDame La voûte du transept s’est effondrée

We All Fall Down
By Brian Caldwell
2000, Infinity
(2006, Reissue by Alphar Publishing)
253 Pages, US$15.95
ISBN 0-7414-0499-0

Yes, the Antichrist is evil and his agents are vivisecting nightmares from splatterpunk fiction. Anyone who understood that would never accept his mark; certainly not now, when the visible fulfillment of the prophecies of the Book of Revelation proves that the Second Coming of Christ is less than seven years distant. But wouldn’t making a decision for Christ be, well, inauthentic? That’s the existential decision that the remarkably foul-mouthed Jimmy Lordan has to make during the Tribulation period in this equally remarkable riff on the now-familiar themes of the apocalyptic novel.

The theme song for this book should probably be The Day the Ravens Left the Tower by the Alarm, a Welsh evangelical rock-band that used to open for U2 25 years ago. The song is about the legend that England would end when the ravens leave the Tower of London; the song ends with the rhyme, "Ring around the Rosie," which is also recited in the course of the book. The connection of the song to the book is speculative, but the Generation-X edginess is obvious enough. The protagonist is a member of that generation, a teacher of English at a high school in Michigan but a native of Boston, a city to which he returns twice in the course of the story. (The book is in three acts, rather like a screenplay, and they are presented nonsequentially.) We see Jimmy sliding into early middle age in the early 21st century after his devout wife disappears in the Rapture and the world begins to come apart at the seams.

The pre-tribulation millenarianism that the story assumes is explained only in briefest outline. This is quite unlike the custom in apocalyptic novels, whose primary point is usually to inform the reader of the details of that eschatology. We get just a glimpse of the Antichrist (one Sir Richard Grant Morrison) and that only on television, when he welcomes the sadly depopulated United States into the One World Community. The story is not about world history, but the choices that cosmic catastrophe bring to Jimmy. Readers accustomed to the air-brushed atrocities of the Left Behind series may well be shocked by what they read in this book. As Jimmy explains to the penitent homosexual who tries to help him perform at least one good deed before the Second Coming:

"George, do you have any idea how many times in the last few years I’ve woken up without the slightest fucking clue where I was and what was happening? My wife disappeared from my bed, I watched my father get shot in the face, I thought I was going to die in a nuclear attack, I spent a month getting tortured, a building I was in collapsed, killing everyone but me. I’ve wandered insane through the Israeli desert, spent two years surrounded by Christ-freaks in a camp protected by God, a month on a prison ship watching kids get raped. I’ve been beaten by an ex-student who worked in a death camp and got attacked by a swarm of locusts."

Actually, Jimmy’s adventures are even worse than that, because here Jimmy is telling only what happened to him, not what he himself did. There is quite a lot of graphic sex in this book. It’s not gratuitous, since it serves to establish character, but it is often vindictive.

The Rapture in this book serves to set us a philosophical puzzle by removing metaphysical doubt. Suppose we knew for a fact that theism is true, as we well might surmise in the face of the clockwork fulfillment of the pre-tribulation Endtime scenario. Obviously, the worship of God would then be advisable on utilitarian grounds. However, does the power of God make it morally imperative that we love Him?

This is not a new question. The Book of Job is the text to which all other treatments of the matter are commentaries. In this connection, Immanuel Kant laid down the principle that a command, even the sort of command that God seems to spend so much of His time issuing in the Bible, cannot be the basis of a moral duty. Perhaps the most entertaining relatively recent treatment of the issue in fiction is Robert Heinlein’s Answer to Job. That book, too, is set during the Endtime, indeed during the Endtime in several parallel universes. Theodicy fails to justify the arbitrary salvation and damnation of the characters; in the end, God Himself is ultimately convicted of tyranny. The problem with that conclusion, though, is that it rather incoherently appeals to a justice that transcends God. We All Fall Down takes the issue in a more radical direction. We see it stated here by Jimmy’s highly amputated cellmate, Stan, as he explains why he once refused to inform on a prison gang that had abused him:

"You wanna keep saying no, then ya better find your Inch, boy. Find it and protect it. Ya can cry and scream and beg and curse. Ya can do any damn thing ya gotta do to get through it, but as long as you don’t say yes, you win. Long as ya keep yer Inch for yerself, long as ya don’t pussy out and give it to Morrison or God, you win. You win and they lose."

The power not to say “yes” seems even more intolerable to Antichrist’s government than mere Christianity. As is usual in apocalyptic fiction, people who refuse to receive the mark of the Beast are arrested. Receiving the mark is called “tagging” here; as has also become a literary commonplace, it means you need an implanted microchip in your hand to buy or sell. The authorities quickly execute the Christians, once it is clear they are sincere. In contrast, the authorities take infinite pains with the small number of people who have not converted to Christianity but who refuse to be tagged as a matter of personal integrity. They beat the recusants in ingenious ways over a period of weeks; by and by they snip off ever more noticeable bits of them, all the while engaging in the sort of thoughtful dialogue familiar to us from O’Brien’s exchanges with Winston in 1984. Jimmy’s rudeness during these sessions is stunning, but then, as we slowly come to realize, Jimmy is a genuinely bad man.

Jimmy’s refusal to give an Inch, in fact, raises the question whether the evil in this book comes in two distinct varieties. There is the garden-variety evil of those who willingly follow Antichrist. They worship an object unworthy of worship, and therefore suffer a fitting decline in their sanity and physical condition. Then there are the elite of the damned, people like Jimmy and his father and Stan. Their whole motivation shrinks to the defense of their personal integrity, which is defined in an amoral, even ahedonic way. In normal times, perhaps, one might take this supernal stubbornness for ordinary existentialism: the existentialist defines as real what he would be willing to die for. As an aside, we may note that this solidifying of the self into an entity that acts without regard to desire is also the goal of certain esotericists. The adamantine self becomes a "body of light" divorced from time, and so immortal. The preservation of the self through the rejection of the rest of reality might, in another view, be thought to be nothing more than the construction of a personal Hell. The author of We All Fall Down may well have intended to make just this point.

There is another perspective that the book does not consider, however. Though Jimmy’s recusal from the demands of both God and the Devil is not presented as admirable, it is presented as unanswerable. The final defense of the self is made to seem as self-evident a choice as the acceptance of salvation, even if the final outcome of that defense is completely horrible. This equation is not just ill-advised, however; it may also be merely mistaken.

We should note that the discernment of the absolute self has not always been thought to lead to an inescapable spiritual black hole. The method of contemplative prayer described in The Cloud of Unknowing is based on the premise that, when the contemplative strips away all desires, fears, and distractions, all that remains is the naked desire for God. Furthermore, only someone who has already become virtuous in conventional ways can hope to clarify his basic nature for this purpose.

If that example seems too esoteric for Stan’s Inch, then consider that it is precisely in those extreme situations of danger, when recourse to moral theory is impractical, that many people first encounter the moral life. This is the truth of which existentialism is a caricature. There are circumstances in which moral imperatives are experienced as both commands and discoveries. Kant had a point when he said that a command from one human being to another cannot create a moral duty, but he was wrong when he assumed that experience cannot be commanding. In this sense, the moral life can be said to be a direct experience of the substance of God.

At the risk of taxing the concept behind the book with more analysis than it should be required to bear, let me also suggest that the choice for salvation and the defense of the Inch may not be so incompatible as We All Fall Down takes for granted. Readers may be familiar with the C.S. Lewis novel, That Hideous Strength. It involves an occult conspiracy that could well have been the beginning of the Endtime, if it had been permitted to get off the ground. The story includes another interview between an interrogator and a victim whom the interrogator is trying to convince to make a decision very like the one the forces of Antichrist were trying to foist on Jimmy Lordan. The victim in the Lewis novel refuses, too. He does not refuse because of theological scruples, but because he sees that what he is being asked to do would be the end of him in some more fundamental way than merely dying. However, far from being the event horizon of a spiritual black hole, the victim’s refusal is his first discovery of the moral life, and then of the transcendent. In deciding to resist, he had decided, all unknowing, to fight on the side of the angels in whom he did not believe. In other words, by defending his Inch, he had also accepted the grace of salvation.

This book uses eschatology to simplify certain questions, which is fair enough. Still, I could not help wondering as I read what would happen to the logic of the story if complications had been introduced. Suppose anonymous Christians had been raptured. Well, that’s another story.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Translator

John J. Reilly’s book review of John Crowley’s The Translator comes up at an apropos time: I am digesting a history of science fiction in the twentieth century, and The Translator seems to be a good example of science fiction as a kind of secular scripture.

There is one definition I want to post from 1973, because it is very revealing as to the type of people who made this separation such an obsessive goal to begin with. This is by Bulgarian writer Elka Konstantiova:

"Even though the origins of science fiction go back to the mid-19th century, nonetheless as a new literary genre, charged with special social functions, science fiction is the undoubted product of the nuclear age. The more meaningful the scientific and technological breakthroughs and their impact on modern life, the greater the role of science fiction, stimulating our vision for things to come, especially in the aspect of the changes wrought in man's mentality by the scientific and technological revolution. Science fiction brings home the awareness that the future will continue to bring radical changes in all areas of man's life; science fiction is there to prepare him for this eventuality."

In other words, it's secular scripture. Science fiction is a way to guide the populace by informing them on what path they should take to build a better tomorrow. Which better tomorrow, you might ask? Well, the one that will advance humanity as a whole.

This novel is a metaphorical [or metahistorical] interpretation of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and thus very much fits the mold described above.

The Translator
By John Crowley
HarperCollins, 2002
295 Pages, US$24.95
ISBN 0-380-97862-8

Remember the Great Atomic War of 1963? It's odd that you shouldn't, or so it seemed in later years to Christa Malone, the protagonist in this metahistorical interpretation of the Cuban Missile Crisis:

"The final logic of this [20th] century, this century that believed in logic and history and necessity, the final spasm so long and well prepared: it didn't happen, and now seemed likely never to happen."

The Translator explains why the inevitable did not happen, as well as something of the conflict in a higher world that the historical incidents of those days darkly reflected. This novel is not the long-awaited fourth volume of John Crowley's great work, the Aegypt series, but it does treat of many of the same themes: the end of the world, the hermetic subtext of everyday life, and the multiplicity of histories. The book is not precisely fantasy or science fiction, though readers may be reminded of Ursula LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven. Rather, the author tries to use just the suggestion of magic in order to rise above history and show that it is not what it seems. As a technique, that works well enough. However, the exercise also presents an example of the fallacy of "beyondism." Though affecting to view a historical conflict from the point of view of eternity, the author is really picking a side, and the stupid side at that.

A love story holds the novel together. Christa "Kit" Malone, a Catholic girl with a recently acquired dark past, comes to a Midwestern university in 1962. She makes many discoveries, some of them specific to her era. She is, for instance, slightly surprised to find that there really are Communists in America; she had begun to suspect that the nuns at school had make them up as minatory figures. Her chief discovery, though, is a Russian poet-in-exile, the mysterious Innokenti Isayevich Falin.

Falin is an uncanny fellow. He is one of those people, for instance, who seem able to appear and disappear without being seen to come and go. More concretely, there is the persistent question of why the Soviet government chose to exile him, when they did not exile, say, Pasternak. He also tells of a kind of life in the Soviet Union that has nothing to do with either the official world of the "gray gods," to use his phrase, or with the anticommunist polemics Kit heard from her nuns. Falin spent part of his childhood as a homeless vagabond in a Dickensian world of youth gangs and train stations, but "with no Dickens to make things right." Even in later life, Russia for him was a place where people just got lost, or were arrested for no reason even the jailors could name.

Kit becomes Falin's student, and later his translator. A fair amount of this book is about the difficulties of translation from one language to another, about whether a poem in translation is really the same poem. This being a John Crowley novel, however, we soon learn that translation is only a metaphor for the interface of worlds:

"Events in the world can perhaps be like rhyming words in poems: they can only, what would you say, pay off in one world, one translation, not in others. In one world people are cheering and weeping with joy, for best conclusion has been reached, heroes have come home safe. In another world, say this world, same events are events of no significance."

Falin's presence turns out to be of great significance in all worlds, however, because he is the way through which the apocalyptic logic of the 20th century can be confounded. Explaining it to her father long afterwards, Kit puts the reality of the Cold War this way:

"I think that back then, when he came to this country, there was a struggle going on between the angels of the nations, his and ours; and that in their anger and their fear, those angels came to destroy the world..."

Crowley's angels generally have more to do with the angels of the schoolmen than with those of popular comfort. Often they are like mathematical objects, insectile intelligences, both omniscient and stupid. There is more to be said about them, however. The great angels of the nations are attended by lesser angels, almost shadows, which complement their greater brethren's strengths and weaknesses. Falin describes the relationship in a poem written just before his disappearance, on the very night the danger of nuclear war crests and recedes. (There is a fair amount of original poetry in The Translator, and it's pretty good.):

"If a nation's angel is proud, then the other is shy
Brilliant if the nation's angel is dull
Full of pity if the angel shows none
Laughing if it always weeps, weeping if it cannot weep."

In a mysterious way, Falin embodies the lesser angel of Russia. In a wrap-around story set in a conference at St. Petersburg after the end of the Cold War, really a sort of Judgment Day in an afterlife, one of Falin's old friends expresses the real significance of Falin's exile:

"[The] worst thing such a corrupted great angel could do would be to send away into exile the lesser angel who is paired with him."

In some way that is not clearly explained, Falin intrudes himself into the attention of the idiot angels at just the right time to distract them from their work of mutual destruction. He dies, or returns to Russia, or otherwise vanishes, with only a car sunk ambiguously in a river to hint at his fate. The balance of the world begins to right itself, and we are given to understand that John Kennedy's assassination a year later was a compensating sacrifice.

The Translator reworks a notion that Crowley has been using for years. It is clearly set out in his famous story, The Great Work of Time, in which a disconcerted time traveler has this to say about an early 21st century world whose past has been unduly tinkered with:

"It was not simply a world inhabited by intelligent races of different kinds: it was a harder thing to grasp than that. The lives of the races constituted different universes of meaning, different constructions of reality; it was as though four or five different novels, novels of different kinds by different and differently limited writers, were to become interpenetrated and conflated: inside a gigantic Russian thing a stark and violent policier, inside that something Dickensian, full of plots, humor, and eccentricity. Such an interlacing of mutually exclusive universes might be comical, like a sketch in Punch; it might be tragic, too. And it might be neither: it might simply be what is the given against which all airy imaginings might finally be measured: reality."

This is not a bad way to put a story together, though we usually find it only in very long novels. The conceit of alternative realities lets us see the box-in-a-box structure. However, The Translator shows that this kind of structure is not necessarily a good way to think about history, or at any rate to write about it. If we can see the alternative worlds, we are outside them and can judge between them. The problem is that, in Crowley's telling, the view from eternity is awfully parochial. We get the first hint of this when Falin the Lesser Angel expresses reservations about a commencement speech that called on the graduates to simply "stick to your dream":

"Some dreams we do not wish that people stick to: we hope that they are weak, and do not cling to these dreams, that they fail to hold on. A dream that one day this world will be free of Jews. That Soviet Union will be destroyed. That all enemies of the state will be crushed. That only one God prevail everywhere."

One might plausibly object that these four aspirations do not belong on the same list. Indeed, it could be that anyone who thinks them morally equivalent is not unusually broadminded, but suffers from blinkered vision. In fact, as the story moves through the climax of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we see that the view from eternity is essentially that of the early New Left. Kit learns that the sepia undergraduate world of the Kennedy years is a front for cruel and secret powers, as if the Land of Oz were really ruled by the East German Stasi. She even meets America's own lesser angel, in the person of an "intelligence agent" who could have walked out of an episode of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone. (He could not have come from The X-Files: Crowley does get the period right.) This discovery changes her life, even causing her to leave the country for a while. Eventually, though, she comes to grips with the powers that be:

"It was only when others who were braver than she was stood up to it - to them, to the secret power - gave a name to it, spoke truth to it; only when they came out in thousands and then tens of thousands singing Dona nobis pacem, that she found she could too."

It is perhaps some evidence that people really do live in different realities that I found this transformation so shocking. Could it really be the case that, even today, there are people who think that conversion to the New Left was a kind of enlightenment? Evidently, there is a world in which the victory of the West in the Cold War was an event without a rhyme.

Even so, it would be a mistake to miss this book because you might not find the political subtext congenial. The Translator succeeds in portraying the days of "The New Frontier" as the haunted time it actually was, as full of premonition in its way as the years before 1914. One need not be metaphysically inclined to accept that there may be more to history than meets the eye. For those who are so inclined, this book has good and bad angels for all.

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: War in Heaven/Heaven on Earth

If I could find a reasonably-priced copy of this book, something like the proceedings of the annual meeting of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, I might pick it up. I’m sufficiently intrigued by John’s précis that I want to read all the contributions. I’m also curious whether the Damian Thompson listed is the current editor-in-chief of The Catholic Herald. I suspect so, but a quick internet search didn’t turn up the article in question.

John provides links to his contributions to the Center for Millennial Studies conference.

Soft Landings

The World After Modernity

After the Third Age

Each one is well worth a read, and they can function as a useful summary of John’s thinking on the subject of millennialism at the close of modernity.

War in Heaven/Heaven on Earth
Theories of the Apocalyptic
Edited by Stephen O’Leary and Glen S. McGhee
Equinox Publishing, 2005
290 Pages, US$26.95
ISBN 1-90476-888-1

Millennialism is not a new subject. Casual readers are likely to have encountered the topic in such books as Norman Cohn’s classic (if dated) study of early modern millennial “revolutions,” The Pursuit of the Millennium, or Leon Festinger’s application of Gestalt theory to the evolution and breakup of a flying-saucer cult, When Prophecy Fails. Considered most broadly as the expectation of an imminent, collective, terrestrial, and total transformation of the world for the better, millennialism has long interested not just theologians and anthropologists, but also social scientists, experimental psychologists, literary theorists, and political scientists. In the 1990s, scholars in various disciplines prepared to observe what was expected to be an outbreak of millennialist activity in and around the year 2000. One of the chief venues for discussing the results of this activity was the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, which held international conferences from 1996-2002. War in Heaven/Heaven on Earth is one of three anthologies in the Center’s “Millennialism and Society” series, which contains papers by the Center’s members.

The writer of this review was also a member of the Center. None of the papers I presented at the annual conferences appears in this volume. One is here; another is here; the last is here.

The Center and its conferences provided unexampled opportunities for scholars who otherwise would have had little occasion to encounter each other professionally to discuss their own findings and theoretical models. The result was not quite a general theory of millennialism, but the definition of a set of important methodological and substantive issues. One thing the Center did not provide, however, was a forum for discussing contemporary millennialist outbreaks, since, for the most part, they did not occur. In the 1990s, of course, there were some mass suicides by apocalyptic cults, and attendant to the year 2000 itself there was an extraordinary (and expensive) wave of anxiety about the ability of the world’s computer systems to handle the date change. However, the social reaction to the millennium was not what the members of the Center had anticipated.

In this anthology, Damian Thompson suggests in his contribution, “The Retreat of the Millennium,” that classic revolutionary millennialism may no longer be possible in the developed world. Millennial and apocalyptic idea systems are if anything more easily available than they have ever been, but as entertainment. The “structures of plausibility,” which is to say, the social networks that turn ideas into movements, are so transparent to modern mass communication that self-reinforcing communities of the elect cannot form. To me this seems improbable. Modern communications are quite capable of facilitating the organization of new movements. Often these are movements with apocalyptic premises, though in the West itself these ideas are more likely to have a scientific or pseudoscientific basis. In this anthology, David Redles’s contribution, “‘The time is not far off…’: The Millennial Reich and the Induced Apocalypse,” we see that the Nazi movement in Germany was in many ways a millennialist movement, one that seemed quite consistent with modern conditions, indeed with modern conditions when the only media were the mass media, which one would think would favor consensus rather than cultic views.

One of the dangers of millennial studies is the temptation to expand the concept excessively. Still, one of the great merits of this book is the range of phenomena that the authors usefully treat as millennial. Marc Fonda, for instance, in “Postmodernity and the Imagination of the Apocalypse,” suggests that postmdernism is implicitly an apocalyptic mindset. It does exactly what millennial ideologies do: it “sees through” consensus reality and unmasks it as a fraud; it is at war with the recent past; and it makes its adherents profoundly uneasy. Implicit in every work of deconstruction is the desire for a new synthesis. Postmodernism is a transitional frame of mind that hopes for its own supercession by a new age. That insight chimes very neatly with Joel Martin’s “Before and Beyond the Sioux Ghost Dance,” which develops the idea that millennial movements resemble “rites of passage,” but for collectivities rather than individuals.

The anthology does not neglect millennial movements in the narrow sense. There is Rosalind Hackett’s assessment of the relatively recent Maitasine uprising in northern Nigeria. The movement in question was of doubtful Islamic provenance, (its founder called Mohammed “just another Arab”), but it set the pattern for Christian-Muslim confessional strife unto this day. A real surprise for many readers will be David Cook’s “The Beginnings of Islam as an Apocalyptic Movement,” which looks back to a time when it was not clear that Islam was not just another exotic Christian sect. In any case, the piece argues that early Islam was able to expand as quickly as it did because of its ability to harmonize with the millennial expectations of the Christian communities in the regions it conquered.

A recurrent issue in the study of any millennial movement is how it reacts when events seem to cast its historical scenario in doubt, or even plainly refutes it. This issue goes to the fate of modernity, or so says John Turner in “The Deflating power of Progress,” which argues from a Nietzschean perspective that even the faith in modern science is a millennial ideology that cannot be sustained indefinitely. As Cathy Gutierrez explains in “The Millennium and Narrative Closure,” millennial movements construct history in a novelistic fashion, so that the end gives meaning to all the preceding events. The millennial models are different, however, in that they must always defer closure, or risk disconfirmation. Glen McGhee’s critical piece, “A Cultural History of Dissonance Theory,” observes that Leon Festinger’s concept of “cognitive dissonance” has held up rather well to empirical study, but not his claim that millennial groups commonly react to evidence contrary to their beliefs by proselytizing. (That piece also does an almost perfect back flip by showing how the development of dissonance theory actually resembled the evolution and dissolution of many of the millennial groups it was designed to explain.)

Albert Baumgarten’s “Four Stages in the Life of a Millennial Movement” shows how millennialist groups often survive their earlier histories as active apocalyptic movements to be come stable social institutions. They may maintain their millennialist ideas in some form, but interpret and background them in a way that makes ordinary life possible again. This is also a key point in “Roosters Crow, Owls Hoot,” the contribution by the Center for Millennial Studies cofounder, Richard Landes. Millennial ideas are often a part of the social environment; their influence depends on the success or failure of the proponents and opponents of an apocalyptic interpretation of current events. Ted Daniels actually begins this anthology with a discussion of the role of prophets and the conversion experience in sparking millennialist movements. “A Cups Catastrophe Model of Cult Conversions,” by Leslie Downing, applies a Gestalt model to the process of sudden conversion.

The end of the world disappointed many of the participants in millennial studies in the year 2000. In retrospect, that seems to have occurred not because the subject lacked value, but because of a failure to imagine the ways in which millennially motivated behavior would manifest itself in the 21st century. I would argue that the final contribution to the book, Charles Strozier’s “From Ground Zero: Thoughts on Apocalyptic Violence and the New Terrorism,” errs on the side of being too metaphorical. The War on Terror and the Clash of Civilizations have more than incidental apocalyptic elements. We ignore them at our peril.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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Skysworn Book Review

Skysworn: Cradle Book 4
by Will Wight
Kindle Edition, 257 pages
Published by Hidden Gnome Publishing (September 30, 2017)

And so we come to the end. For now. Will Wight's website says work on the next installment in the Cradle series will start after the summer of 2018. Thus, it is appropriate that a number of plot threads from the first three volumes get wrapped up here. 

Lindon finally faces Jai Long, his nemesis. Yerin achieves a final solution with her unwelcome guest. Someone finally catches up with Eithan. It is a time of endings.

I'm not sure what it is, exactly, that reminds me of the four last things in Skysworn, but it does. There has been an apocalyptic element in the background all along, but this is the first time it comes to the forefront. Maybe it is Lindon's first real brush with death, with his own mortality. Or the Naru clan, with their angelic wings. Or maybe it is just the eldritch horrors that we finally meet face-to-face.

The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell  By Hans Memling -, Public Domain,

The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell

By Hans Memling -, Public Domain,

This fifteenth century triptych of the Last Judgment is oddly evocative of Skysworn for me, given that it in general the Cradle series has an Eastern vibe to it. Perhaps it is St. Michael in the middle, weighing souls, reminiscent of Suriel and Ozriel saving people from chaos. Or the glowing sword behind Christ's head. Or the fact that Christ is sitting on a rainbow. I could see a high level sacred artist doing something like that.

For all of the pan-Asian flair of the Cradle series, it has some of the aesthetics of Christian apocalyptic art. Of course, the apocalypse is not unique to Christianity. It is something like a human universal. Probably for the reason that the world does occasionally look like it is going to end.

But this is not the end for Lindon and his friends. Not yet anyway. He still has a long way to go before he meets his destiny.

My other book reviews

Unsouled: Cradle Book 1 Review

Soulsmith: Cradle Book 2 Review

Blackflame: Cradle Book 3 Review

The Long View 2006-04-28: The Fermi Paradox; Atlas Shrugged; Oil Spike

Why are we alone?

Why are we alone?

Since John points to his 1996 essay on Noospheres here, I went and updated that essay with a table of contents and hyperlinks.

I've always found the Drake equation to be something of a category mistake, but I at least appreciate people attempting to think things through.

The Fermi Paradox; Atlas Shrugged; Oil Spike


The Fermi Paradox has become more paradoxical if this report is to be believed:

A new study finds that the chances of a gamma ray burst going off in our galaxy and destroying life on Earth are comfortingly close to zero.

Gamma ray bursts, or GRBs, are focused beams of gamma radiation emitted from the magnetic poles of black holes formed during the collapse of ancient, behemoth stars. They can also form when dead neutron stars merge with each other or with black holes.

It's been speculated that if a GRB went off near our solar system, and one of the beams hit Earth, it could set off a global mass extinction.

But in a new study to be published in the Astrophysical Journal, researchers found that GRBs tend to occur in small, metal-poor galaxies and estimated that the likelihood of one occurring in our own metal-rich Milky Way is less than 0.15 percent....But in their study, Stanek and colleagues found that GRBs tend to occur in small, deformed galaxies that are poor in elements heavier than hydrogen and helium...Planets need metals to form, so a low-metal galaxy—while more likely to have GRBs—will have fewer planets and fewer chances for life.

Readers will recall that the gamma-ray hypothesis had become the leading explanation for why intelligent life did not long ago overrun the observable universe. (To paraphrase Enrico Fermi: "If extraterrestrials exist, then where are they?") The answer to the paradox was thought to be that Earth is the one-in-a-million biologically active world that escaped gamma-ray sterilization: Simon Conway Morris himself seemed satisfied with this logic. Now we are back to square one. I have my own explanation, of course.

* * *

Speaking of alien life forms, I note this news about Ayn Rand's novel, Atlas Shrugged:

Lionsgate shrugging--'Atlas' pic mapped: As for stars, the book provides an ideal role for an actress in lead character Dagny Taggart, so it's not a stretch to assume Rand enthusiast Angelina Jolie. Jolie's name has been brought up. Brad Pitt, also a fan, is rumored to be among the names suggested for lead male character John Galt.

Though I was never a Randian, I always thought that The Fountainhead was charming. Atlas Shrugged is not charming, but it does have a certain appalling fascination. For the life of me, though, I cannot imagine the mainline film industry making a movie about the evils of high marginal tax rates and the intrinsic turpitude of affirmative-action programs. (Rand was prescient in foreseeing those, though in her book they are designed to mitigate disparities of wealth rather than the effects of race and gender discrimination.) In any case, the interesting thing will be how a film handles the religion question: John Galt's Speech, remember, is the most sustained attack on religious belief in 20th-century popular literature. A sufficiently malicious screenwriter could divert the film from economics to the menace of the Religious Right.

* * *

Ayn Rand would have loved the current run up in gas prices; which is to say, she would have been vastly amused by the futile pandering reflected in headlines like G.O.P. Senators Hurry to Quell Furor Over Gas:

Senate Republicans tried on Thursday to get the upper hand in the escalating political battle over high gasoline prices by proposing a $100 rebate for taxpayers and by suggesting that they might increase taxes on oil-industry profits.

Rand is no longer with us. We do have Ann Coulter, however. Though more conventionally partisan than Rand, she is also sometimes right:

When the free market does the exact thing liberals have been itching to do through taxation, they pretend to be appalled by high gas prices, hoping the public will forget that high gas prices are part of their agenda.

There are proximate causes for the current price spikes. One is a regulation (just relaxed) that required refineries to use a new gasoline additive; the refiners handled the transition badly. Another is the increase in petroleum price futures occasioned by geopolitical fears. The remote causes, however, are that demand for oil is up worldwide and there are no cheap ways to increase supply. No doubt the current spike will decline again, but we will get more of these events, some of them much more serious, which will move us away from a petroleum economy. This is the reality of which "Peak Oil" is a parody.

* * *

Many of you have asked yourselves, whatever happened to Bertie Wooster, the slow-normal young gentleman whose life was made possible only by the perpetual intervention of the omnicompetent Jeeves? Well, he went to medical school, moved to Princeton, acquired some post-vocalic "R"s, and now he's Dr. House

The penny dropped about this just yesterday and I still find it hard to believe.

* * *

Meanwhile, in the May issue of First Things, Fr. Neuhaus has this ominous reflection:

I've never seen anybody remark on this American habit of calling the children of the baby boomers Generation X, while those who are now under age 25 or so are called Generation Y. There is only one letter left. The assumption is that the next generation will be the last? Just asking.

Of course, we are still not quite sure about those gamma rays.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-03-21: Eschatology: Personal, Universal, and Musical

In a remarkable coincidence, I happen to be fairly close to Point Pleasant, NJ today. I have noticed a lack of apocalyptic activity.

I also note that anagnorisis, or recognition of a newborn society rising in triumph around a still somewhat mysterious hero and his bride, can be used to describe the plot of Last Call.

Eschatology: Personal, Universal, and Musical


In the Star Trek movies, there are references to occasions (never shown on screen) in which people who were beamed up by the transporter were seriously garbled in transmission. Something like that could be what will happen in the Terry Schiavo case. If this matter is subsumed into the federal system, there is no way to predict what it will look like when it appears at the district-court level, and on the various levels of appeal. This is not a good test case, if for no other reason than that the facts, even the biology, are unclear. It is particularly not a good case for the right-to-life position: we know from experience that the federal courts do not adopt a position of "first, do no harm" in the face of uncertainty.

I have not yet seen the phrase, "bill of attainder," appear in this debate, but I await it hourly.

* * *

Something else I note with dread is the possibility of a fashion for television series with a biblical-doomsday premise. Doomsday in one form or another is always with us, but the public's long love affair with asteroids and viruses has faded. In these latter days, the strong delusion has gripped the nation's network television executives that there is a huge religion-market that they have been missing, and that they can access it by adapting the Book of Revelation. Yesterday, the New York Times reported on one of these efforts: Apocalypse Now, and for the Next Five Weeks:

With a premiere set for April 13, NBC's "Revelations" follows the efforts of Sister Josepha Montifiore, a globe-trotting nun played by Natascha McElhone, and Dr. Richard Massey, a Harvard astrophysicist (and religious skeptic, of course) played by Bill Pullman, to determine whether the end of the world is indeed near...Most notably, the entire series rests on the premise that the two lead characters can somehow forestall the final clash between God and Satan - an interpretation anathema to most end-times literalists.

Though of course the series has not yet premiered, and NBC has not offered me review disks, it is hard to avoid the prediction that this series will have about as much to do with any recognizable form of Christian eschatology as orange-flavor drink does with orange juice. Even the characters are wrongly constructed. Astrophysicists are often quite metaphysically minded: if the screenwriters wanted a skeptic, they should have used a psychologist, or perhaps an evolutionary biologist.

The really interesting point about the the NBC series is that it is already derivative, of the appalling FOX series, Point Pleasant. This is yet another series with 30-year-old high school students, with the twist that one of them is a potential teenage Antichrist. A bare-midriffed girl Antichrist. Some of the creators of the old Buffy the Vampire Slayer franchise were involved in this fiasco, thus providing yet more evidence for the proposition that the worst mistakes can be made only by the smartest people.

Aside from the general cluelessness of the premise, I noted the series chiefly because the title blackens the name of an unoffending town on the Jersey Shore. Just the other day, I heard someone refer to New Jersey as "the Hell State." I thought that excessive, but maybe I have not been paying attention.

* * *

One can only repeat that every film with an apocalyptic premise need not be a horror movie. To appreciate the artistic potential of the apocalyptic texts, however, one must first understand what sort of thing they are. Stephen O'Leary addressed the question at length in his book, Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric. I summarized his observations in a review:

Arguing the Apocalypse amplifies the long-standing thesis that apocalyptic is essentially a form of drama. (This is particularly the case with the Book of Revelation, which looks for all the world like a classical Greek play; it even has a chorus.) Now drama, according to Aristotle, comes in two flavors. There is tragedy, which features good and evil characters who proceed to an inevitable catastrophe. Dramatic plots tend to be about how sin is met with revenge. Comedy, on the other hand, is about foolish or mistaken characters who stumble into a happy ending. Error is cured by enlightenment, eventuating in reconciliation.

There are, of course, both tragic and comedic elements in Biblical eschatology. The wicked are really and irredeemably wicked. On the other hand, even the best of the good are more than a little confused, so much so that they are not saved by their own efforts. Thus, in Anatomy of Criticism, the great Northrop Frye could go so far as to characterize the literary form of the Bible as comedy. As he explained:

The four mythoi that we are dealing with, comedy, romance, tragedy, and irony, may now be seen as four aspects of a central unifying myth. Agon or conflict is the basis or archetypical theme of romance, the radical of romance being a sequence of marvelous adventures. Pathos or catastrophe, whether in triumph or in defeat, is the archetypal theme of tragedy. Sparagmos, or the sense that heroism and effective action are absent, disorganized or foredoomed to defeat, and that confusion and anarchy reign over the world, is the archetypal theme of irony and satire. Anagnorisis, or recognition of a newborn society rising in triumph around a still somewhat mysterious hero and his bride, is the archetypal theme of comedy.

The matrimonial metaphors of comedy, of course, are among those that characterize the parousia in Revelation.

As I have noted before, and probably will note again whenever the subject comes up, the progressive-rock group Genesis made good use of these insights many years ago in the song-cycle Supper's Ready, which appeared in the album Foxtrot.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Plot Against America

A good apocalyptic novel never gets old.

The Plot Against America
By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004
391 Pages, US$26.00
ISBN 0-618-50928-3


It's always interesting when a major novelist turns his hand to genre fiction, and especially when he does it well. Philip Roth has done just that: with The Plot Against America, he has made a significant contribution to the canon of the apocalyptic novel. Since they first began to appear about 70 years ago, novels of this type have usually been painfully didactic (and often, as in the case the Left Behind series, just painful). Roth's book is almost unique in the genre in combining a believable human story with the creeping menace of a disguised dystopia. He succeeds while following the conventions of the genre almost step by step.

Before we get to the latter days, however, we must note that The Plot Against America has attracted attention chiefly as an exercise in “counterfactual” or “alternate” history. (I prefer “alternative history”; “alternate” implies just two possibilities.) The divergence from our timeline is made with conceptual economy; Charles Lindbergh accepts the invitations to run for president in 1940 on the Republican ticket that he rejected in our world. He wins. Though he does not then set about establishing a fascist state, he does conclude nonagression pacts with Germany and Japan. His government also launches programs to promote the assimilation of ethnic minorities. The programs are neutral in their terms, but obviously directed at the Jews.

Rather less economically, Walter Winchell, the radio commentator, determines to run for president after his opposition to Lindbergh's policies gets him thrown off the air. He begins his campaign in 1942 with a nationwide speaking tour that sparks antisemitic riots. In some places, the police keep order, but in others hostile local authorities let the disturbances turn into pogroms. After a belated attempt to reassure the nation, President Lindbergh disappears. His vice president, Burton K. Wheeler (an actual figure in Montana politics, by the way) then does attempt to stage a fascist coup. He declares martial law, arrests prominent figures from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Fiorella LaGuardia, and apparently moves toward war with Canada. Thanks to the leadership of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the missing president's presumptive widow, the coup collapses. Congress authorizes a special presidential election for 1942, and Roosevelt becomes president again. Next month, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. History as we know it returns, just one year late.

I know from experience not to argue too strenuously with someone else's counterfactual, so I will raise just two points. It seems unlikely to me that Charles Lindbergh could have translated his celebrity into votes, though Roth's description of Lindbergh's unconventional campaign, consisting of flights in "The Spirit of St. Louis" from city to city, does have a certain dramatic appeal. (Whether by accident or design, Lindbergh's campaign resembles the airborne "Hitler Over Germany" tour that the Nazis conducted in their unsuccessful electoral challenge to President Hindenberg.) Also, if America had withdrawn from the North Atlantic and avoided engagement with Japan in 1941, then Great Britain and the Soviet Union might well have been forced to seek terms. This is the kind of thing that alternative history buffs love to talk about, but it's usually not worth discussing at greater length than I have done here.

What makes it possible to spin this premise to novel length is that Roth has translated these events into the terms of his own childhood. In this book, Roth reconstructs the working-class Jewish neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, where he was born and raised. There is too much projection from later experience here to say that he describes these events from the perspective of his eight-year-old self, but he tells us pretty much what a child would see as the darkening of the times affects his own family.

Young Roth's parents are ferociously patriotic, but so culturally timid that Roth's father turns down a promotion that would have required the family to move to a neighboring Gentile town. Not long afterward, these same people have to decide whether to accept a virtual relocation order under the federal "Homestead 42" program, under which the elder Roth's company would transfer him to a small town in Kentucky. A foolish aunt marries a windbag of a collaborationist rabbi and gets to dance with visiting German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop at the White House, only to see the rabbi arrested during the attempted coup. There is a cousin who goes to Canada to fight in Europe; he comes home with one leg and joins Jewish organized crime, of whose existence the author never ceases to remind us. A brother is a Lindbergh supporter, because he enjoyed a summer on a farm under another federal program. The experience does him little harm, except that the guileless farm family feeds him pig's meat, breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

This domestication of uncannily trying times is one of the marks of the apocalyptic novel. Such tales usually start with the daily life of a few ordinary families. They live in more or less the world we know, but through their eyes we see how an extra budget of bad news brings society as a whole to crisis. The trouble appears to be resolved through the unexpected intervention of a charismatic public figure. However, some of the ordinary people are suspicious of the new order from the start. Their fears seem groundless, but evidence accumulates that the great mass of people is being deceived. Those who understand the reality of the situation become a spiritual elite (apocalyptic novels take care to reveal ordinary people as heroes). In the final stage of the time of tribulation, the mask comes off the new regime, and those who sought to collaborate with it are destroyed. Very soon, though, the nightmare comes to an end, through events as unexpected as those with which it began.

There are no openly supernatural elements in this story. As for organized religion, the Roths and their neighbors are only minimally observant, while the term “church-going Christian” is merely a term of dread. However, the course of history in the alternative world has the character of a malign providence. Lindbergh's early-morning nomination by the Republican National Convention in 1940, which really starts the story, is experienced by the Roths' neighborhood as a cosmic disaster: "Entire families known to me previously only fully dressed in daytime clothing were wearing pajamas and nightdresses under their bathrobes and milling around in their slippers at dawn as if driven from their homes by an earthquake." The Lindbergh Administration is experienced, not as an unfortunate political situation, but like a delusion projected by some dark archon. As the father of the family puts it after a not altogether happy trip to Washington: "They live in a dream, and we live in a nightmare."

The author has insisted that his tale of the Lindbergh Administration is not an allegory of the Bush Administration, though one can't help but suspect that Roth's description of the bug-eyed hostility toward Lindbergh is informed, at least in part, by Roth's own observation of so-called "Bush Derangement Syndrome." Be that as it may, The Plot Against America surely reflects its times by recalling another generation when tribulation had begun and further crises loomed.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: A Doomsday Reader: Prophets, Predictors, and Hucksters of Salvation

Order of the Solar Temple imitating Catholic ritual

Order of the Solar Temple imitating Catholic ritual

I've said before that Freud was a Fraud. One concept of Freud's that may have predictive validity, projection, is featured in this book review.

A Doomsday Reader: 
Prophets, Predictors, and Hucksters of Salvation
by Ted Daniels
New York University Press, 1999
253 Pages, $15.16
ISBN: 0-8147-1909-0


"Doomsday" can suggest a variety of things. Literally, the term means "Judgment Day," and in that sense it is familiar from Christian eschatology. However, without much stretching, the term is also an apt characterization for the role "the revolution" plays in the Marxist model of history. The fact that the present order of things is judged by "historical necessity," rather than by God, is inessential. In fact, this basic pattern of belief is familiar around the world and throughout history, though the mechanism that is supposed to bring about doomsday varies according to the local sense of the possible. The world we know is flawed, it will presently be destroyed, and it will be followed by a better one. This is the faith and the patience of the Saints, of Deep Ecologists, and of social revolutionaries alike.

"A Doomsday Reader" does not purport to cover the whole world, though it includes an overview of the role millennialism plays in the major world religions. Its stated goals are ambitious enough: to illustrate the modern role of "apocalypse in the West and its effects on our politics and our lives." The author is Ted Daniels, a folklorist at the University of Pennsylvania and the Director of the Millennium Watch Institute. The Institute is part of a network of organizations that have been monitoring what is loosely called "millennial fever" in the run-up to the year 2000. For instance, Dr. Daniels contemporaneously collected the popular rumors that began growing up about the Hale-Bopp Comet in late 1996. At the time, I wondered why he bothered. Then, in 1997, the Heaven's Gate cult committed mass suicide, motivated in part by these beliefs. Shows you what I know. (Nevertheless, I am mentioned in the Acknowledgments.)

The book consists of 11 brief "apocalyptic" texts of relatively recent vintage (none is earlier than the excerpt from "The Communist Manifesto"), prefaced by longer analytical essays that provide historical context. Many readers will find the final five chapters particularly useful. These deal with the major violent or suicidal groups of recent years whose beliefs incorporated a large apocalyptic element. Daniels does not attempt to devise a unified theory to explain the Branch Davidians, the Order of the Solar Temple, Aum Shinri Kyo, Heavens Gate and the Montana Freeman. Nevertheless, he does make what may turn out to be very useful observations about the dynamics of such groups. For instance, he suggests that the reason the Freeman eventually surrendered to the authorities, while the other groups either killed themselves or tried to kill everybody else, was simply that the Freeman lacked a charismatic leader.

Daniels offers a general Freudian interpretation of the leaders of destructive apocalyptic groups that may persuade even non-Freudians. In this view, such leaders are narcissistic personalities who understand, at some level, that they are deficient. However, rather than locating the deficiency in themselves, they project it onto the world. Thus, rather than trying to heal themselves, they seek to heal the world. In extreme cases, rather than try to kill themselves, they will try to kill the world. When many people come to share such a person's projections, then you have an apocalyptic movement. (Usage varies in the terminology, but a movement is often said to be specifically "millenarian" if it seeks to help create a future age quite different from the world we know, and "millennial" if it seeks a future that is better than but continuous with the past. An "apocalyptic movement" might be any drive for fundamental change based on a "revelation" of some sort.)

"A Doomsday Reader" is of far more than historical interest. Though the number of readings is small, they and the groups that produced them are nevertheless typical of quite durable apocalyptic traditions. This is particularly the case with the global conspiracy theories that the media have released from the subcultural subcellar in recent years. One version of them, the Jewish international conspiracy, runs through both "The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion" and "The Turner Diaries," which were written 80 years apart and excerpted for this collection. It is particularly illuminating to read this material in conjunction with the history of the Order of the Solar Temple, which really was a secret society that aspired to exert its influence internationally. The fact that the Order was not a rousing success did nothing to dampen the conviction among conspiracy buffs of the potency of such groups. Some bad ideas just don't go away.

This is not to say that all the characteristics of apocalyptic thinking are without value. Daniels notes that apocalyptic is often an expression of the desire for vengeance, a forum where the high and mighty are brought to answer for their malefactions. For my money, at least, he does a bit of it himself, by naming some smug secular organizations as apocalyptic actors. He caps his discussion of the anti-human wing of the ecology movement with the text of the "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity," issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists in 1992. As Daniels observes, this document does not request, but requires, dramatic changes in every area of life, everywhere, if total ecological calamity is to be avoided. Indeed, this Warning has the distinction of being the bossiest text in an anthology that also includes an excerpt from "Mein Kampf." We need more of this willingness to tell the educated that, when they are looking for millenarians, they can often forget about looking in trailer-parks and just look in the mirror.

"A Doomsday Reader" does have bloopers which should have been picked up by the editor. To pick a few nits, "chiliasm" is not a Greek cognate of "millenarism," but merely its equivalent in meaning. The pyramids of Egypt were not "rediscovered" by Napoleon's armies "at the beginning of the eighteenth century," or indeed at any other time. Hegel was far more likely to have been a major influence on Comte than the other way around, since Hegel was 28 years older. More seriously, while the statement, "Augustine surrendered the world to evil," might be defended, the defense would need to engage the widely held belief that Augustine is the father of the idea of progress. Finally, though I recognize the point is really beyond the scope of the book, the fact that Chinese cultural history is little concerned with "eschatology," in the sense of the final end of history, does not mean that it lacks a conspicuous millenarian element.

Still, these are minor blemishes. "A Doomsday Reader" is a groundbreaking book. Dr. Daniel's special forte has been the mastery of the Internet as a medium for research into popular culture. The references in this book do not simply tell you about what is happening in various apocalyptic subcultures, they give you the tools to go online and watch it happening yourself. Additionally, this book could have important implications for public policy. Its close analysis of the successes and failures that the authorities have had in dealing with apocalyptic groups may help to prevent more disasters like those we have seen in the 1990s. While we may not always find other people's ideas about the imminence of the new age plausible, the fact that they think this world is about to end usually means they have some real complaints against it. We should pay more attention in the 21st century.

Copyright © 1999 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Son of Rosemary

I like the late 90s idea that devotees of Ayn Rand might prove to be unusually resistant to the false religion of the Antichrist, because of how sweetly naive it is. Rand built up a formidable cult of personality around herself that is probably only limited by intentional eschewing of religious elements. Thank God.

I have some inkling of this, because I too felt the siren call of Rand's individualist philosophy as a teenager. The scholarship programs aimed at high school students that encourage them to read The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged are persuasive genius. Intelligent high school students are the perfect targets for this kind of thing. Some small percentage are probably hooked forever.

As a teenager, I read everything I could find by and about Rand. And then I discovered how weird she really was. The best story [recounted by Greg Cochran in his recent interview] is how her adulterous lover Nathaniel Branden decided to end the affair they had been carrying on and marry a normal woman. In response, Rand required all remaining members of her inner circle [including future Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan] to denounce Branden, and forsake all future association with him.

That incident, above all else, helped me see how batty it all was. I also fondly remember my parents, sweetly pooh-poohing this bosh.

Which is just as well. I think the Objectivists are about as likely to end the world as anyone.

Son of Rosemary
by Ira Levin
Penguin Books, 1997
255 pages, $22.95
ISBN: 0-525-94374-9


Bloodfest at Tiffany's


One of the rules of supernatural fiction seems to be that the devil gets the best lines but the Antichrist sounds like an unpersuasive used-car salesman. This pattern holds in "Son of Rosemary," Ira Levin's long-delayed sequel to his well-known 1967 novel, "Rosemary's Baby." ("Son of Rosemary" is dedicated to Mia Farrow, who starred in the film version of the earlier book) Mr. Levin at least has an excuse. He is perhaps best known as the author of the play "Deathtrap," the longest-running thriller in Broadway history, so it is not surprising that "Son of Rosemary" is really a murder mystery that runs on the dialogue. (The title of this review is taken from a tabloid headline in the story.) Though of course there is some action and other descriptive writing to illuminate the situation, still most of the burden of arousing our suspicions falls on the Antichrist himself. As much as his mother loves him, she thinks he sounds just too good to be true. The only problem with this technique is that an intimate family drama is not really the appropriate setting for a murder mystery whose victim is the entire human race.

As doubtless the whole world knows, "Rosemary's Baby" dealt with the birth of the Antichrist in a noted New York City apartment house that bore a more than passing resemblance to the Dakota. This building darkly and famously overlooks Central Park in Manhattan, and its reputation has grown still darker since the assassination of resident John Lennon in its lobby in 1980. In the sequel, we learn that Rosemary Reilly divorced her loathsome husband Guy, who had sold her body to the building's coven for insemination by Satan. The coven put her into a coma when the resulting child was six years old and she was secretly planning to flee with him. (The fact she stayed in the building six years is another illustration of how hard it is to find a decent apartment in the city.) Rosemary comes out of the coma 27 years later, just as the last member of the coven, a retired dentist, is run over by a taxi. She then goes about discovering what her little demon-eyed tike has been up to in the interim.

By 1999, of course, Andy is 33 years old, the same as Jesus at the time of the crucifixion. The difference is that, unlike Jesus at that age, he is the most popular man in the world. It is hard to say why this is the case, exactly. He goes around negotiating international peace agreements and encouraging people to be nice to each other, apparently to some effect, but he lives the life of the sort of media mogul whose natural environment is Manhattan Island south of 90th Street. Still, for whatever reason, most of the people in the world wear lapel buttons that say "I Love Andy" ("Love" is represented by a heart-shaped symbol). Soon they start wearing "I Love Rosemary" buttons, too. He does not ask much of his admirers. All that he requests is that everyone in the world light a candle at midnight, Greenwich Mean Time, on New Year's Eve, 1999. Exactly at 12:00 a.m. A harmless gesture. Surely.

When Rosemary comes out of coma, she is not-unreasonably dubbed "Rip Van Rosie" by the media. The interesting thing, though, is how little explanation the 1990s seem to require. Aside from personal computers and the end of the Cold War, there is not much that is really new. (One cannot help but reflect that, had this novel been written 10 or 15 years ago, it would have dealt at length with how much New York had worsened.) Certainly Rosemary's politics seem well-preserved from the late 1960s. Andy the Antichrist is in cahoots with certain easily recognizable conservative Republicans and members of the Religious Right ("Rob Patterson," for one), who want him to endorse a slightly goofy millionaire publisher for president in the presidential race of 2000. (Ah, if only they knew!) Even more remarkable than the Antichrist's friends are his enemies, who seem to consist mostly of the followers of Ayn Rand. Known generically as "P.A."s (Paranoid Atheists), they are the only people in the world who do not buy Andy's talkshow piety. The main problem they pose, however, is not that they threaten his personality cult, but that they might not light their candles with everyone else.

"Rosemary's Baby," or at any rate its popular success, is often cited as evidence for an anti-natalist streak in popular culture that is supposed to have appeared at about the time of its publication. Certainly in the United States those were the years when the Baby Boom ended, so it is not unreasonable to suggest that people might have been more open to a story that did not view the birth of a baby as an unalloyed blessed event. (Levin's 1976 novel, "The Boys from Brazil," was a high-tech version of the same theme.) Be this as it may, there are certainly none of the conventional anti-natalist motifs in "Son of Rosemary." There is no huffing and puffing about overpopulation, for one thing, though that theme is hardly unknown in eschatological fiction. There is no occasion to mention kids as a career drag, and certainly there are none of the gruesome descriptions of morning sickness that figured so prominently in "Rosemary's Baby." Of course, the whole human race is exterminated, so you could say the book illustrates the effect of a really strict population control program, but somehow I don't think that is the point.

Something else that is not the point is universal eschatology. Although the Antichrist (and of course the Anti-Mary) are the central characters, "Son of Rosemary" really has nothing to do with late 20th century beliefs about the Last Days, or for that matter the endtime beliefs of any time or place that I am aware of. In both this novel and the earlier one, we are dealing not with apocalyptic, but with the world of ritual magic. Though this sort of thing does have its demotic side, the Levin books follow the literary tradition that places it among the educated and well-to-do. Its ceremonies must fit into private apartments (however high-ceilinged), and its conspiracies are little vendettas. You cannot profitably fit an apocalypse onto a stage so small. We see the world end on television and in that spectacular view of the Park.

Still, "Son of Rosemary" is a genial book, considering the subject, and it will please people who remember the earlier novel when it was new. My memory played tricks with me as I read "Son of Rosemary." At first, I did not recall having read "Rosemary's Baby" at all; I thought that I remembered the story just from the movie. Gradually, though, I realized that I recalled information that could not have been on film, so I probably did read it while I was in grammar school. The little details are lovingly recalled in the new book. The tannis root. The scrabble. And then, of course, there is the wicked anagram, ROAST MULES. One word. No, I won't tell you.

Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly


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The Long View: The Coming Age of Cathedrals

Times Square in 1978

Times Square in 1978

In 2014 I speculated that John Reilly probably knew Richard Landes, because of their common interests. I managed to miss this essay of John's where he talked about meeting with Landes in New York City. I'm not sure how, since I referenced the ideas here in a couple of talks I gave at my local Catholic parish on millennialism

This essay is also an interesting point of contact with my unreleased review of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. By 2004, New York City had begun to decisively move away from the archetype of Gotham City that it had been embodying ever since the 1970s[popularly referred to as the Sixties, this trend really started about 1968 and peaked in 1973]. The fate of Times Square is a synedoche for the city as a whole. The only time I have been to Times Square was in 1998, on a school trip, and it was less seedy than in 1978, but far less clean than John saw it in 2004, or the sanitized version we have now.

The story of how that happened is a fascinating one, and it illuminates the curious nature of American politics at present. But that is a story for another post.

I really like Richard Landes' theory that millennialism is embarrassing to most educated Westerners, while also being absolutely fascinating to almost everyone, even the people who find it embarrassing. John takes that idea here, and links it up with a great many other ideas that he often featured on his blog, and produces a truly great essay on how the idea of historical progress fits in to the broader cultural trends of the West.

Written in 1997, this essay is more optimistic than it would have been in 2017. In 1997, the United States was in the middle of an economic boom, had no serious rivals, and had not yet been humbled by 9/11. An interesting twist to 2017 is that the optimism of 1997 really did manage to leave out a number of Americans from the increasing prosperity, but since they were largely concentrated in the declining industrial heartland, the hidden losers of the dotcom boom, the coastal elites largely ignored them. This was likely helped by a very robust late 90s stock market. Pensions were generally pretty strong then.

For all that, John had enough historical depth to know that good times don't last forever.

The Coming Age of Cathedrals


by John J. Reilly


I rarely have occasion to walk through Times Square in Manhattan. My visits to the city usually have to do with business to the east or south. That was why, when I walked through the area one morning in the summer of 1996 on one of my even rarer visits to Lincoln Center, I was taken aback by how much the place had improved since the last time I saw it. It was still noisy and crowded (it is hard to imagine that location in the city being otherwise), but the area was clean. The facades and many of the buildings were new. If any of the stores specialized in pornography, they were discrete about it. Shabby persons did not wait under the eaves of storefronts to offer goods and services to passersby. There was a cop or security guard on every other corner.

If the dark, dystopic film "Bladerunner" is the popular image of the future American city, then here was a city that was evolving in a different direction. It was not just Times Square, of course. The reason you see few politicians trekking to the South Bronx these days is that the burned-out neighborhoods that provided such dramatic photo opportunities for several election cycles have been substantially torn down and rebuilt. Actually, good news like this seems to crop up more and more these days, in areas ranging from medicine to crime statistics. Like many of the people who pass through Times Square each day, I generally just note the improvement and continue on my way. That morning, however, I was going to a meeting that gave me reason to consider such things in a broader context.

I was in Manhattan to speak to one Richard Landes, a medievalist from Boston University and an authority on the year 1000. With each year's calendar getting closer to the double-millennium figure, this previously obscure subject is becoming increasingly topical. It is already fashionable to attribute this or that event to "millennial fever." (In a way, that is what I am going to do here.) Anyway, we were meeting to talk about several of the academic projects that are in the works in connection with the upcoming turn of the millennium.

Landes is something of a revisionist. Like many revisionists who seek to overturn the accepted wisdom on a subject, his new interpretation is a dialectical synthesis that strongly resembles the view of the matter which preceded the accepted wisdom he is revising. For reasons which I trust I will be able to make clear, his ideas about the 11th century may have a great deal to do with the once and future Times Square.

It was perhaps the nineteenth[-century] historian, Jules Michelet, who was most responsible for popularizing the idea of the "terrors of the year 1000." You can find contemporary, or nearly contemporary, chronicles of the period which describe the people of Western Europe as living in a agony of apocalyptic expectation. There are accounts of civil disturbances, of grotesque acts of mass public repentance, of popular prophets and their crazed followers. All in all, Michelet made the turn of the millennium sound like the sixteenth century on particularly bad day. By the beginning of the twentieth century, historians realized there was something fishy about this picture. For one thing, while these accounts turn up in some historical literature from the period, they do not dominate it. More generally, Western Europe in the decades following the year 1000 really did not act like a society that was paralyzed by fear of the imminent end of the world, or that was disappointed by the failure of its eschatological schedule.

The 11th century was the time when the great cathedrals began to go up and the crusades were launched, following decades of increasing contact with Byzantium and the Levant. Western Christendom in those decades was an expanding, curious, inventive society. To that extent, it did resemble the Western Europe of the sixteenth century. However, this earlier age of discovery and change was not characterized by the dark disasters of the century that followed Columbus and Luther. This perhaps is the chief reason why for nearly a hundred years historians have generally believed that the "terrors of the year 1000" existed largely in the minds of the nineteenth century Romantics.

Well, maybe not. Landes and other medievalists are taking a third look at the primary sources, and finding both more and less in them than did their predecessors. It is true that nothing happened around the beginning of the second millennium on the order of the Peasants' Revolt in sixteenth Germany. (For purposes of eschatological anxiety, by the way, the millennium did not turn in an instant. The year 1033, for instance, was at least as good a year for the Second Coming in the minds of apocalyptic literalists as was the year 1000.) On the other hand, it is not hard to find discussion about questions of universal eschatology in the writings of the period. Evidence of popular interest in these questions is fragmentary, but it is there. More accessible is the scholarly debate which arose about when the age might be expected to end.

Landes believes he detects a degree of censorship among the writers of the period in favor Augustine's model of history. Whatever else might be said of Augustine's ideas about the end of the world, certainly they tended to downplay the catastrophic and revolutionary. (Violent, popular endtime belief is sometimes characterized as "millenarian," to be distinguished from the less dramatic "millennialism" with which Augustine is often associated.) Augustine, in most interpretations of him, preserved the events of the Endtime depicted in Revelation and the Prophets as literal expectations for the indefinite future. However, his system (to the extent he had one) was very wary of any attempts to discern eschatological significance in the events of secular history.

The medieval Latin Church, in its eschatology as in so much else, was at least nominally Augustinian. The Church around the year 1000, however, dealt in two ways with what probably was perceived to be a crisis of apocalyptic expectation. The immediate response was to deal with millenarianism on its own terms. The more long-term and more important response, however, was to transform apocalyptic into theodicy.

The proper Augustinian reaction to millenarian enthusiasm, particularly to enthusiasm sparked by calendrical considerations, is to declare the time of the end to be unknowable. What many of the authorities around the year 1000 did, however, was to quibble about chronology. Thus, accepting for the sake of argument the old thesis that the world would last 6,000 years, they answered doom-mongers with estimates for the age of the world that put the beginning of the seventh millennium a comfortable distance into the future. Such arguments were not always wholly convincing on their merits, and they did have the disadvantage of leaving time bombs for later Augustinians. (The excitement about the year 1000 was perhaps a time bomb planted by Augustine himself.) Be that as it may, such arguments sufficed for the immediate occasion, and they probably did contribute to the pacification of millenarian sentiment, especially among the lower clergy.

On the other hand, there is a great deal more to Augustinian eschatology than the suppression of other people's enthusiasms. Augustine is sometimes called "the father of progress." This view can be exaggerated, as it was perhaps in Robert Nisbet's "History of the Idea of Progress." Certainly St. Augustine's ideas about the future bore little resemblance to those of, say, the Fabian socialists. Nevertheless, there is a great deal to be said for the proposition that his model of time is the basic template on which more specific ideas about history can form, of which progress is simply one instance.

Augustine freed time from the constriction of an imminent eschaton, thereby making history a theater of grace and will. Augustinian history need not be progressive, but it can be. In fact, it has a predilection to be under certain circumstances. The Augustinian view of time is not unique in being linear or in its suspicion of revolutionary enthusiasm. Neo-Confucianism, for instance, has these characteristics. For that matter, Neo-Confucian historiographers, like Landes's turn-of-the-millennium ecclesiastics, did indeed tend to de-emphasize or mischaracterize popular millenarian movements. What makes Augustinianism different is its ability to impart meaning to favorable historical trends.

Although the idea of historical progress has received more than its share of derision in recent years, the fact is that many facets of history, and even whole historical eras, really are progressive. The statistics on population growth and economic output in certain parts of the world often rise steadily for a long time. New arts and sciences appear and are perfected over the course of a few centuries. These things were almost as true of the Hellenistic Age as they were of the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Yet notoriously the ancients were without an idea of progress, despite the fact that at least part of their history was progressive by any measure. Other fortunate times and places have suffered from a similar lack of imagination.

Was Western Christendom at the turn of the first millennium the first society to take steps toward giving historical meaning to "progress," to great social enterprises terminating only at a horizon of unguessable distance? Naturally, the classical nineteenth-century idea of progress is no more medieval than it is Hellenistic or Neo-Confucian. However, the cathedrals and the crusades may stand as symbols for a wider cultural assumption that social development can be a moral enterprise, perhaps even a morally necessary enterprise. Such a conviction would be far less deterministic than, for instance, the theology of the Social Gospel. Socially progressive Christianity in this century has demanded progress from history. Augustine merely hoped for it. Perhaps he did not hope for very much, just that the Vandals would go away and that future emperors would be more edifying. Nevertheless, he hoped with good reason.

Whatever the validity of these reflections with respect to the 11th century, certainly this interpretation of Augustine is alive and well and being expounded from the Throne of St. Peter. John Paul II's 1994 encyclical on the celebration of the coming turn of the millennium, "Tertio Millennio Adveniente," can hardly be described as a millenarian document. Nevertheless, it looks forward to the turn of the century as far more than a peculiarly obvious occasion for historical commemoration. For reasons which are perhaps intuitive, the Pope anticipates that the beginning of the next millennium will be a time of novel significance in the history of salvation. The encyclical puts the Second Vatican Council into perspective as a providential event whose true significance was to prepare for this new era. The specifics of the document are concerned with how the Church should ready herself to take advantage of these coming opportunities.

If in fact the next century is another time of constructive hope, future historians who attend to such things will probably see this transformation as in part a reaction to the dark images of the future that have prevailed since the 1960s. While the `60s were a time of exhilaration for the young, we should not forget that one of the tenets of the Counter Culture of that era was the coming collapse of civilization. William Irwin Thompson perhaps best captured the mood of the period in his still-interesting book, "At the Edge of History" (1971). Visiting the Esalen Institute retreat center in the summer of 1967, he learned that the end of civilization was not only expected by hippies of nearby San Francisco, it was devoutly hoped for. Many of the people attending Esalen with him that summer, who like himself would soon become prominent figures in the nascent New Age movement, were of similar if subtler mind. They were less likely than the hippies to put their faith in predictions of world-changing earthquakes or in the public arrival of the flying saucers. Instead, they anticipated salutary effects from the breakdown of American society from more conventional causes. After an era of "broken-back" technocracy, they expected a new spiritual age to emerge. The immediate future did not turn out the way that the budding opinion-makers of those years anticipated, but as with so much else about the Counter Culture, their view of the future became a popular orthodoxy.

The hope for a new spiritual age has waxed and waned, but the expectation of a future with a broken back has shown a quarter century of resilience. Examples of it can be found from before the 1970s, of course. It is related to "post apocalypse" stories, tales built around the idea of a new barbarism that arises after some great catastrophe, usually a world war. H.G. Wells's novel "The Shape of Things to Come" (1933) may be the classic of the genre, despite the fact it antedates the invention of nuclear weapons (which were another one of Wells's ideas, but that is another story). However, while many of these stories, including Wells's, are about the rebuilding of civilization, the broken-back future is about civilization's progressive darkening. It depicts a society in which social chaos often continues to exist with high technology. Among its prominent literary exponents is Doris Lessing, in such novels as "Memoirs of a Survivor" and "Shikasta." It achieved a somewhat cultish respectability in the work of J.G. Ballard. It appeared in the short novels by John Crowley, notably "Engine Summer." As for cinema, we find it in films from "Soylent Green" to the appallingly-influential "Blade Runner." The influence of the "Mad Max" series has, of course, long been inescapable. In fact, in recent years it has become difficult to find fictional presentations of the near future that do not feature decaying cities, a ruthless ruling class, economic collapse and impending ecological catastrophe.

These images have effects beyond the arts. They informed, though of course they did not determine, a great deal of the social and economic thought of the last twenty years. The "declinist" school of geopolitics, most notably associated with Paul Kennedy's provocative book "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers," sometimes seemed to depict a future for America more than a little like the shabby International Style cities of the "Max Headroom" television series. On a more serious level of ethical reflection, John Lukacs' "The End of the Twentieth Century" anticipated a new dark age, in which ethnic nationalisms clash in the twilight like street gangs with national anthems. This image of the geopolitical future is not original with Lukacs. It is close to being the consensus view of the post-Cold War world.

One might be tempted to see these motifs as simply reflections of America as it changed during the Reagan Administration, but they antedate the Reagan years. It is, indeed, quite likely that they affected the way those years were reported. Certainly they affect the way America is perceived by its public officials at this writing. Charles Lane, writing recently in "The New Republic," describes how a group of staffers from the Clinton White House met for a briefing by a German economist to get some international perspective on U.S. economic policy. They had come expecting a lecture on the comparative disadvantages of slovenly American work habits and the lack of coherent U.S. industrial policy. They quickly became highly disoriented. The economist lamented the way things are done in his own country. He came close to depicting the United States as a Shangri-La of job growth and technological innovation. The staffers were at a loss to know what to say.

America is not Shangri-La, nor likely to become such a place anytime soon. However, it is also no longer the country in desperate need of restructuring that it was in 1976. At various levels, the realization that this is the case is gradually seeping into elite opinion. It is, perhaps, even affecting public administration, as projects like the renovation of Times Square illustrate. If you expect Mad Max to rule the future, then you are unsurprised by the decay of public places and disinclined to do much about it. What is perhaps most interesting about America culture today is the revulsion, sometimes inarticulate but with increasing clarity, against the assumption of a dark future.

Regarding the material side of things, the case for a merry beginning to the next millennium was recently put by the economist (and senator's nephew) Michael Moynihan in "The Coming American Renaissance." Even if the title is over-optimistic, nevertheless it is useful to have a handy compendium of good news that is only gradually becoming reportable.

Economics is not everything, of course. If you want a positive image for American society as a whole in the next century, you could do much worse than to consult William Strauss and Neil Howe's "Generations." It appeared in 1991, and it apparently has something of cult. It stays in print for good reason, since its anachronistic forecasts of declining crime rates and rising academic performance have proven remarkably accurate.

The book is another attempt to interpret American history as a recurring sequence of generational psychologies. The elder and younger Arthur Schlesingers tried this with a model using two types of generation, whereas Strauss and Howe use four. The latters' thesis owes its popularity in large part to its description of Generation X as a set of demographic cohorts fated to be misfits and tragic heroes. They are like the Lost Generation of the 1920s, and thus more noble than the be-ringed and be-whiskered zombies they appear to be at first sight. The Xers, it seems, are destined to be the parents of a new "civic" generation, one that could accomplish works of daring and organization in the next century as great as those accomplished by the "civic" generation that began to come of age about 1940. They will be the sort of people who could colonize Mars, create universal peace and end poverty. They will have their faults, just as the World War II generation did. Still, any future they would create would be more in the spirit of the 11th century than in that of "Bladerunner." One hopes that at least the lighting will be brighter than in the film.

Attempts to predict the future are best kept to the briefest of outlines, unless you want to afford amusement to people who live in the future you attempt to describe. Certainly these reflections have been at a sufficiently high level of abstraction to protect them from disconfirmation by grubby facts. All I am suggesting, really, is that if the turn of second millennium is significantly similar to the turn of the first, then we should look for a dynamic century of hope and progress on many levels. On the other hand, these reflections have also been too specific, since they referred mostly to the United States. A millennial future would involve the whole West as well, since all our civilization runs to some degree on the same historical clock.

Many people make a point of ignoring the current pope, including some who work in the same building as he does. In this case, however, I wonder whether he may not have sniffed a change in the eschatological wind. We live at the end of a chaotic interlude. That it was going to end should not have surprised us: few conditions are so ephemeral as chaos. Order always reasserts itself, whether in international politics or in personal mores. This insight is likely to be a commonplace of the other side of what John Paul II calls the "Holy Door" of the year 2000.


Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric

William Miller

William Miller

In case anyone needs help with the terminology of millennial studies, I have a glossary in my lecture notes.

Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric
by Stephen D. O'Leary
Oxford University Press, 1994
314 Pages, US$19.95
ISBN 0-19-512125-2


The study of millennialism did not begin with the build up to the year 2000. Theologians, sociologists and anthropologists had been writing for decades (in the case of the theologians, for centuries) about the end of the world and about the ways that people react to that prospect. After a long period of subcultural obscurity, the subject again came to the notice of the general public in the 1980s, and a flurry of academic and journalistic treatments appeared in the 1990s. Among the most theoretically ambitious was this book by Stephen O'Leary, Associate Professor in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.

"Arguing the Apocalypse" attempts nothing less than a "general theory" for millennial studies, one that could help relate the many disciplines that have dealt with one aspect or other of the Last Things. The book develops the theory through a detailed examination of two familiar episodes of apocalyptic thinking in American history, the Millerite Movement that culminated in the "Great Disappointment of 1844," and the return of date-setting premillennialism that began, very approximately, with the publication of Hal Lindsay's "Late Great Planet Earth" in 1973.

The theory is useful, though the book does share some of the defects of late 20th-century literary studies. (I hope never to see the words "rhetor" and "topoi" again.) The historical exposition is gripping, and the author's insights are essential to anyone interested in the field.

"Apocalyptic" is really a term for a genre of biblical and apocryphal literature that flourished in the Near East around the beginning of the Christian era. It deals with a class of ideas that are part of the broader category of eschatology, the study of the final or ultimate things. The latter also includes questions addressed by philosophy, cosmology, anthropology and other disciplines. The aspect of eschatology that usually attracts the most interest, however, is the study of what societies do with apocalyptic literature, particularly with the prophetic books of Daniel and Ezekiel in the Old Testament, and the Book of Revelation in the New.

The most conspicuous social manifestations of apocalyptic ideas are often called "millenarian" or "millennial," with reference to the thousand-year reign of the Saints, or "Millennium," mentioned in Chapter 20 of the Book of Revelation. (To put an extraordinarily complicated matter quickly, "millenarian" usually refers to violent or even revolutionary expectations for the future, while "millennial," a more general term, can also refer to hopes for gradual improvement as history nears its end.) Though not all eschatological systems, not even all models of history, necessarily have a moral dimension, O'Leary deals with apocalypse as a solution to the problem of theodicy, of how God can permit evil to exist in the world. Essentially, the apocalyptic solution is that God will not permit evil indefinitely, and in the final accounting, all the suffering in history will have been justified.

There is a considerable literature that attempts to explain all or most millennial activity in terms of some single sociological or psychological cause. Class conflict was an early contender, but equally plausible cases have been put for millennial activity as a delayed reaction to disaster, or as a reaction to modernization, or as a manifestation of one kind of mass psychological pathology or another. "Arguing the Apocalypse" starts with the sensible observation that there is no obvious single cause underlying all the millennial activity in the world, but that there is quite a lot of similarity in the way that people talk about it. The beginning of wisdom in the understanding of millennial behavior, in fact, is the appreciation of the fact that apocalyptic rhetoric is persuasive. By examining millennial activity from the perspective of rhetoric, O'Leary is able to look at texts, the "rhetor" who expounds the text and the rhetor's audience as an interactive system.

"Arguing the Apocalypse" amplifies the long-standing thesis that apocalyptic is essentially a form of drama. (This is particularly the case with the Book of Revelation, which looks for all the world like a classical Greek play; it even has a chorus.) Now drama, according to Aristotle, comes in two flavors. There is tragedy, which features good and evil characters who proceed to an inevitable catastrophe. Dramatic plots tend to be about how sin is met with revenge. Comedy, on the other hand, is about foolish or mistaken characters who stumble into a happy ending. Error is cured by enlightenment, eventuating in reconciliation.

The Book of Revelation has both tragic and comedic strands: the Beast and his followers prosper mightily in this profane age but meet with everlasting punishment on the last day, while the sufferings that the Saints endure in this age are all set right at the end. These tragic and comedic strands also appear in the history of millennial movements, often as pure types.

According to O'Leary, the topics (that's "topoi" to you, partner) on which apocalyptic rhetors engage audiences are "evil," "time" and "authority." There is some reason to suppose that, for the earliest Christians, the evil that faced them was the malice of the devil working through the powers of the Roman Empire. The time when the evil would be amended was very near, and the authority for these propositions was the direct prophecy of the apostolic generation and then of texts ascribed to them. This type of apocalyptic is often associated with "premillennialism," the belief that the Second Coming will occur before the Millennium. Premillennialists are often profoundly pessimistic about the future, which scripture says will be filled with disaster and persecution in the days prior to the Second Coming. Postmillennialism, in contrast, is the belief that the time of the Second Coming will not occur until the end of the Millennium, during which period the church will have gradually rid the world of natural evil. The "authority" invoked by postmillennialists tends to be a metaphorical interpretation of scripture at the service of pragmatism. This distinction between pre- and postmillennialism roughly corresponds to the tragic and comedic "frames" that Aristotle proposed. (St. Augustine was a comedian? Wonders never cease.)

The Second Great Awakening, a generation of reform and revival that characterized the first few decades of the nineteenth century in the United States, produced just about every possible form of millennial activity. It's earlier phase, however, was predominantly postmillennial in theology. This Awakening was associated with a variety of reform movements, from the abolition of slavery to the prohibition of alcohol. These movements were attended by acute religious fervor. When some of the reform movements made little or no progress even after years of mass rallies and evangelism, however, some members of the generation of the Awakening began to doubt whether real reform was possible in the current world. The result was a turn toward premillennialism, manifested most spectacularly in the Millerite Movement and the Great Disappointment of 1844.

William Miller was a respectable farmer in Upstate New York who came to believe, probably about 1830, that the Second Coming would occur around 1843. A diligent amateur student of scripture, his authority was arithmetic, as applied to the complex prophetic number system of the Old Testament prophets and the Book of Revelation. The transparency and reasonable tone of his argument seized the imagination of a large fraction of the public.

Respectable and learned ministers from many denominations either embraced Millerite ideas wholeheartedly or expressed sympathy for them. (Miller himself was an influential voice rather than a prophet in the movement. Indeed, the date of the Great Disappointment, October 22, 1844, was not set by Miller, but welled up out of the movement.) Publications with large circulations sprang up to spread the doctrine, and the mass meetings used to promote the reform movements of the earlier phase of the Awakening were put to new uses. As O'Leary notes, all this activity was not intended solely to persuade people. Proselytism was supposed to be one of the features of the latter days. By proselytizing, the Millerites were not just telling people about the apocalypse; they were enacting it.

The Disappointment itself was dealt with in various ways. The kernel of the Millerite movement decided that the event actually foretold by Miller's computations was an event in Heaven that prepared for the earthly Second Coming at some imprecise point in the future. Many went on to found the Adventist movement. Other Millerites threw themselves into the Abolitionist movement. O'Leary reports that the fiasco of 1844 ensured that, for a long time to come, only the most marginal rhetors would dare set a specific, near-term apocalyptic date. However, we should also note that the turn to premillennialism evidenced by Millerism survived the Great Disappointment, at least in evangelical circles. After the end of the Civil War, the historical pessimism associated with premillennialism was one of the factors that induced evangelicals to recuse themselves as much as possible from public life and practical politics.

There are many reasons why evangelical Christianity returned as a public force in the last quarter of the 20th century. One of the chief reasons, as O'Leary notes, was that history was making their worldview more plausible. The Jews really had returned to Israel, something that evangelical eschatologists had been talking about for over a century. Furthermore, the invention of the atomic bomb made the apocalypse something that everyone could believe in, one way or another. Indeed, not only did premillennialism again challenge the implicitly postmillennial "civic religion" of the United States, but apocalyptic date-setting came back, too.

O'Leary is at pains to emphasize the differences between Millerism and the brand of apocalypticism that Hal Lindsey promoted in his fantastically popular books that began with "The Late, Great Planet Earth." Their scenarios were different, for one thing. Although the doctrine of the pretribulation rapture of the Saints existed in the 1830s, it was not incorporated into Millerism, and did not really become important until after the Civil War. Lindsey's future, in contrast, contains both the prospect of another world war and a pretribulation rapture of the Saints to Heaven that would save believers the trouble of living through the final struggle. The difference that chiefly impresses O'Leary is that, granted their premises, the logic of "The Late Great Planet Earth" is much shakier than that of William Miller and his followers.

Lindsey's warrant for starting the countdown to the end is the assurance given by Jesus in the Olivet Discourse that "this generation" would see the fulfillment of all apocalyptic prophecy. In Lindsey's model of history, the machinery of salvation paused when the Jews failed to accept Jesus as the Messiah. Salvation history started up again only when Israel was founded in 1948. (This approach is called "dispensationalism," as opposed to the Millerite "historicism.") "This generation," therefore, refers to the people who were alive in 1948. In his earlier work, Lindsey made bold to wax more specific. Alleging that a biblical generation is about 40 years, he speculated that 1988 would be a reasonable date for the rapture to occur, followed by seven years of tribulation, and then the Second Coming.

Even granting the greatest deference to scripture, these interpretations are not obvious. That was not the case with the Millerite computations: they may not have been correct, but were reasonably clear. Furthermore, Miller and his colleagues invited criticism and answered their critics in print, something that Hal Lindsey never did. Nonetheless, while Millerism was extinguished in a bit over a decade, the apocalyptic revival of which Lindsey was so conspicuous a part is not completely extinct, even after 30 years. This is partly because Lindsey's system was tentative enough to avoid outright disconfirmation, even after the end of the 20th century. A factor that was at least as important, perhaps, was that evangelicalism has gained a measure of cultural acceptance, and even political power.

O'Leary devotes an interesting chapter to the conservative revival of the 1980s, and particularly to the eschatological aspects of the Reagan Administration. This period posed a problem for apocalypse-minded conservatives. Not only was the clock running out on the best-known estimate for the rapture, but evangelicals now needed a theory that would justify them in helping to reform a society that was doomed in several senses of the word. In O'Leary's nomenclature, they needed to move from the tragic frame to the comic frame. To a limited degree, this is what they did.

In his later books, Hal Lindsey held out the hope that conservatives could keep America out of the hands of the Antichrist right up to the rapture, if they all pitched in to aid the process of conservative reform. This was an exhortation to his readers to become tragic heroes, united in the last stand against the forces of darkness. Ronald Reagan became, in effect, "President of the Last Days" for some of his supporters. Like his medieval type, the mythical Emperor of the Last Days, his reign ensured present safety, while in no way compromising the inevitability of apocalypse in the more distant future.

Televangelist Pat Robertson went even further in his serious though failed bid for the White House. He stopped making premillennialist predictions of doom entirely, and began to speak about the future with the sunny optimism of a postmillennial preacher of the early Second Great Awakening. The strategy did not lessen the suspicion in which the press held him, though it did cause his erstwhile supporters to suspect him of backsliding on doomsday. Still, what did not work for Pat Robertson may work in other contexts.

"Arguing the Apocalypse" ends with a meditation on just what we are supposed to do with the apocalypse. There is obviously no getting rid of it. O'Leary suggests that the best course would be to seek to keep it in the comic frame. The idea seems to be that the apocalypse can be permanently tamed by turning it into the ever-receding horizon on the road of progress. People might still dread impending disaster, but they would not think some final disaster to be inevitable, and so would not be tempted to historical fatalism.

While there is something to be said for this strategy, we should keep in mind that the comic frame is not coextensive with postmillennialism, or St. Augustine's amillennialism. Even if the images of disaster and judgment in the Book of Revelation are taken as metaphors whose application is never exhausted by any particular event in history, that does not mean that ultimate questions are not posed by historical events. To take the most obvious example, even if all persecutions are types of an ultimate persecution by Antichrist that never arrives, martyrs throughout history have nevertheless been killed just as dead as the hypothetical Tribulation Saints are supposed to be. To make the apocalypse immanent or episodic does not lower the stakes. The opposite, rather. This is the real meaning of the saying of Franz Kafka that O'Leary quotes: "Only our concept of Time makes it possible to speak of the Day of Judgment by that name. In reality it is a summary court in perpetual session."

Copyright © 2001 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View: The Great Disappointment of 1844

John maintained the HTML for his website by hand. I also starting making webpages in the late nineties, and that was just how you did it. As such, he had indexes by topic for his major interests, for example eschatology. I debated recreating these for a long time, but I finally decided to do it because a few items slipped though the cracks of the blog-centric chronological method I had been using to repost John's writings.

This also gives me an opportunity to escape the tedium of John's topical political blog posts from twelve years ago. While nothing looks more dated than old scifi movies, old political controversy is an especial trial to read.

Thus, let us move on to this short book review of a book that never existed, combining John's interests in eschatology and alternative history into one!

The Great Disappointment of 1844
by John de Patmos
Misketonic University Press, 2001
567 Pages, US$30
ISBN: 0-7388-2356-2

This item is Alternative History.

The Second Coming did not actually occur in 1844.

The Great Disappointment is a real hisrorical term, however.

Look under Eschatology for the review of Arguing the Apocalypse.


The Millerite Movement and its sequel are, for obvious reasons, the most studied manifestations of mass millennialism since the New Testament period itself. Indeed, so carefully has this grand finale of America's "Second Great Awakening" been examined that one may wonder whether there is anything new for historians to say. Certainly the author of the present study does not aspire to novelty. Rather, "The Great Disappointment of 1844" performs the invaluable service of sifting through the last generation of scholarship on the subject to provide a narrative that is both readable and current.

The optimism of America in the early decades of the 19th century was reflected in the "postmillennial" view of history that underlay the great outbreak of religious revival and social reform that we know as the Second Great Awakening. Postmillennialism, as all students of eschatology know, was the doctrine that the Second Coming of Christ would occur at the end of the thousand year reign of the Saints, the Millennium foretold by Chapter 20 of the Book of Revelation. The implication was that the Saints would themselves put the world in order in preparation for the great event.

The Second Great Awakening was in fact characterized by a high level of political and cultural engagement by Christians. The reform movements of the time, from Abolitionism to Women's Suffrage to the Prohibition of Alcohol, began as aspects of postmillennial religious revival. While some progress was made on these fronts, the failure of the reform movements to remake society as a whole caused many persons to despair of the possibility that the world could be perfected purely by human efforts. The time was ripe for a return of premillennialism, the doctrine that the Second Coming would inaugurate rather than conclude the Millennial kingdom, which would then develop under divine guidance.

The name that became inextricably linked with the triumph of premillennialism was William Miller, a respectable farmer and keen amateur student of scripture living in northern New York State. His reexamination of the dating of people and events in the Bible, set alongside certain familiar interpretations of the complex prophetic number systems of Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelation, convinced him that the Second Coming would occur around the year 1843. Though his analysis was multi-layered, a key feature of his logic was a demonstration that a proper calculation of the generations mentioned in the Old Testament showed that Bishop Ussher, who had famously announced that the world had been created in 4004 BC, had in fact underestimated the age of the world by a good 150 years. Thus, the six-thousandth year of the world would occur in the first half of the 19th century. Then would begin the "Seventh Day of Creation," a concept long associated with the Millennium.

William Miller was not the first student of scripture to set a near-term date for the Parousia. Still, he was a little unusual in the transparency of his argument and his willingness to engage critics. Miller was never the "prophet" of Millerism; his authority was arithmetic, not personal revelation. It was possible to disagree with his calculations, and many people did. Still, the argument was of such a nature that it could not be merely dismissed; it had to be refuted.

William Miller reached his conclusions about the dating of the Second Coming about 1830. He soon began to disseminate them in print and, more diffidently, on speaking tours. His message took on a life of its own, becoming the template for an interdenominational network of evangelists and publications. People abandoned their ordinary affairs to propagate the gospel of the last days, often giving away their property or neglecting to plant their fields. The precise date for the great event, October 22, 1844, did not come from Miller, or indeed from any of the leading figures of the movement. Rather, it appeared among the mass of believers, who overwhelmingly gave it immediate acceptance.

Of course, as we now know, the prediction was correct. The study of the Parousia Event of 1844 naturally overshadows the Millerite Movement (as it does the contemporary Taiping and Babist movements). However, the Days of the Presence required the creation of a new historiographical discipline, which the present study only briefly outlines. The Millerite story picks up when coherent documentation again begins to become available in January of 1845.

Against the unsettled economic and cultural landscape of the early Millennial world, Millerism presents the not unfamiliar spectacle of a movement destroyed by its own success. The ironic details are well known. Even historical survey courses devote some attention to accounts of the attempts by exasperated Millerites to regain control of property that they had given away, sometimes by arguing in court that they had been temporarily insane during the months leading up to the Advent. Far more important, however, was the fact that Millerism, and premillennial Christianity in general, had nothing to say to the Millennium.

The movement had come into existence as a reaction to the theory that Christians, as Christians, had a duty to leaven the world. Premillennialists had consciously recoiled from the labor of formulating a social philosophy, or even a coherent political program. The Millerite Movement had been entirely about chronology. Though the train left at the expected time, the premillennialists found that they had no idea where they were going.

This vacuum at the heart of post-Millerite evangelicalism had profound implications for the role of religion in the English-speaking world during the 19th and 20th centuries. It is a commonplace among historians that the great events of those years, the US Civil War and the First and Second World Wars, were to a greater or lesser extent "Wars of Armageddon," fought by societies for reasons that were essentially millenarian. All the great social movements of the period were also informed by the millennialist "Social Gospel." However, though evangelicals took part as individuals in the general historical process, they did not engage the great issues on a soteriological level. It was only in the last quarter of the 20th century that they began to emerge from the isolation of the denominational subcultures into which they had retreated. The end of the long alienation of a large a fraction of Christianity can only be applauded.

We will never cease to experience the influence of the events of 1844. Even the completion of the current Sabbatical Millennium will not nullify the process that began with the Parousia of that year. However, there are stories within that greater story, some of the saddest of which deal with the disappointment occasioned by the fulfillment of prophecy. Those stories can have an ending. Thus, though the historical debates may go on, we may hope that the long afterlife of Millerism is at last drawing to a close.

Copyright © 2001 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-09-08: Death Cult

Here, on the grounds of millenarian movements and apocalyptic expectations, I think John was at his best when describing what Islamic terrorism is. There is a link to esoteric fascism too, the ideology of Tradition. Pray that men such as these don't have their day in the sun.

Death Cult


Peter Preston wrote a piece for The Guardian that appeared on September 6, entitled Writing the script for terror. He is incredulous of the idea that the Beslan Massacre was the work of international terrorism. He is also patronizing toward Tom Clancy, which is easy to do, but ill-informed: Clancy's novel, Rainbow Six, described a school hostage taking and the sort of force needed to deal with it, a point worthy of attention. Chiefly, though, he implies that the best way to deal with incidents like Beslan is not to report them, or at least not to report them so prominently:

For the difficult, inescapable thing, watching those pictures, is an eery feeling of manipulation. Somebody planned this and reckoned the cameras would be there....Two bleak things follow. One is that - whether or not it exists on any organised level - we shall gradually come to identify a force called international terrorism, a force defined not by the coordination of its strikes or creeds but by the orchestration of its inhuman propaganda. I manipulate, therefore I exist...The other thing is self-knowledge for media-makers and media-watchers.

Certainly the Islamofascist strategy is based on creating spectacles. However, I don't think that "we shall gradually come to identify a force" behind this propaganda. I think the force has done a pretty good job of identifying itself.

* * *

The strangely ubiquitous David Brooks writes in The New York Times (September 7) about this force:

We should by now have become used to the death cult that is thriving at the fringes of the Muslim world. This is the cult of people who are proud to declare, "You love life, but we love death." This is the cult that sent waves of defenseless children to be mowed down on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war, that trains kindergartners to become bombs, that fetishizes death, that sends people off joyfully to commit mass murder.

This cult attaches itself to a political cause but parasitically strangles it. The death cult has strangled the dream of a Palestinian state. The suicide bombers have not brought peace to Palestine; they've brought reprisals. The car bombers are not pushing the U.S. out of Iraq; they're forcing us to stay longer. The death cult is now strangling the Chechen cause, and will bring not independence but blood.

This new phenomenon is just as nightmarish as Brooks suggests. However, if it's a cult, it's a cult without an essential theology. The massacres are apocalyptic, both in the popular sense of indiscriminately destructive, and in the scholarly sense of revealing the insubstantiality of the ordinary world. However, the death cult seems to be only incidentally related to eschatological belief systems. It's a mime, a ritual.

Nonetheless, I think I have some notion of what's going on here. In an e-book, I suggested that the final phase in the life of a great culture is a tendency toward pure destructiveness. I called that "The Terminal Apocalypse," to distinguish it from earlier versions of millenarianism, which are revolutionary and often creative. Of course, this tells us nothing about the subjective state of the people who experience this terminal mood. Brooks suggests this:

It's about massacring people while in a state of spiritual loftiness. It's about experiencing the total freedom of barbarism - freedom even from human nature, which says, Love children, and Love life. It's about the joy of sadism and suicide.

Maybe, but I would remind readers that people do the worst things for what they imagine to be the best reasons. The terminal apocalypse seems to have something to do with the spiritual autonomy sought by esoteric fascists: neither life nor death, nor the failure of all one's historical hopes, can deflect the adept from his course. He can be killed, but not defeated.

This brings us to the question of how to manage these people. Brooks says:

This death cult has no reason and is beyond negotiation. This is what makes it so frightening. This is what causes so many to engage in a sort of mental diversion. They don't want to confront this horror. So they rush off in search of more comprehensible things to hate.

It is not true that the followers of the death cult make no demands and cannot be negotiated with. As Anonymous tells us, al-Qaeda fundamentally wants the United States out of the Arabian Peninsula. That could be negotiated. The people who did Beslan want the Russians out of Chechnya. That could be negotiated, too. The problem is that the death cult is what its followers do, not what they want or believe.

Surrender doesn't help. The Russians actually tried that, after Yeltsin's first attempt to subdue Chechnya by force failed. They withdrew, in the expectation that a provisional government would form with which they could do business. What actually happened was that the state in Chechnya disappeared, and the chaos began to spill over into the neighboring areas of the Russian Federation. The state similarly disintegrated in Afghanistan, in Lebanon, in Somalia. The same would be true in Palestine, were it not for subventions from Europe.

The rubble produced by the death cult is contagious. Perhaps it, too, cannot be defeated, but only killed.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Red King Book Review

It's the end of the world as we know it

It's the end of the world as we know it

The Red King
by Nick Cole
Amazon Digital 2005
$0.00; 285 pages

I don't usually read ebooks. I have an irrational love of physical books, with their scent of slowly oxidizing paper. I find that I will do almost anything to avoid reading ebooks. Thus despite having over 700 physical books in my house, I only have a dozen or so ebooks.

I picked this up because it was free. And because I liked Soda Pop Soldier. In a free moment, I pulled the book up on my phone to pass the time. I found that I could not put it down. That was a pleasant surprise. No other ebook has yet done that to me, although I don't make a habit of buying electronic versions of the books of my favorite authors. Nick Cole may just break me of that habit.

I like The Red King because it is a pastiche. I hope Cole won't hold that against me. I like pastiche. Especially when it is done well. And this is done very, very well. I feel like Cole and I probably read and watched the same things growing up, because I really enjoyed all those sly references to other books, movies, and videogames.

However, just because your book is a pastiche, doesn't mean you lack imagination or skill as a writer. I usually judge authors by their characters, and the ultimate test is whether I feel like a character isn't a character at all, but a person. Holiday, the hard-drinking screw-up who finds that he has survived the end of the world because he was sleeping off a bender, seems like a person to me. I am inclined to cut him some slack, because I kind of like him, even though he knows his way around a bottle.

Much of the supporting cast meets my other criterion for good characters: they seem like someone I've met. A character created to fill a role, or a slot, or a stereotype just doesn't seem like a real person. However, most real people really are pretty stereotypical, and you have to observe them to be able to represent that faithfully. Reading about people who seem like I could run into them on the street makes a book a pleasure to read, and this book was indeed a pleasure to read.

Finally, I just like the end of the world. I've been reading both fiction and non-fiction on this subject for 15 years, and it is perennially interesting. The apocalypse is about us: who we are, and who we'd like to be. Every end of the world has it's own story to tell, and I'd like to see where Cole is going with this. Oh, and look, I can got get the other books right now....

My other book reviews

The Long View: The Apocalypse Kit

All these years later, the Heaven's Gate webpage is still up and running. That is an apt metaphor for John's point here: millennialism is a permanent [well, really really stable] feature of the human mind. You see the same pattern over and over again, in widely separated times and places. It is an idea that manages to survive the death of its adherents, over and over again.

I haven't got a theoretical explanation for that, but I also think you don't need one to acknowledge the fact.

The Apocalypse Kit

“The avatars of the New Age, as the Irish mystic A. E. realized in a vision fifty years ago, will not be the solitary male, but the male and the female together.”

--From “The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light” (1981) by William Irwin Thompson, Page 254


Do and Ti. Bo and Peep. Guinea and Pig. Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Nettles. These two variously-named founders of the Heaven’s Gate cult first achieved the eminence of a New York Times Magazine feature story in February of 1976. Then they were just a couple of eccentric people on the West Coast who came to public attention because they had begun to recruit people to fly away with them in a flying saucer. They had some success with the recruiting. As time went on, they no doubt believed they had some success in communicating with the flying saucer people, too. They then disappeared from public view for twenty years, invisible to all but a few cult-watchers.

While in obscurity, they practiced meditation techniques, lived in rural encampments and learned the Internet. They took on a few new recruits, but the bulk of the membership seems to have remained the people who joined in the ‘70s. Many of the men had themselves castrated in order to escape the temptations of the flesh and the peril of reproduction in an evil world. Some of the people who joined were lonely losers, but the most striking thing about the membership was how many of them were somewhat superior people, with degrees and careers and happy families. In any event, the world next learned of them at the end of March, 1997, when we heard that 39 members of the group had killed themselves neatly, antiseptically, without so much as a library fine left unpaid. The contrast with the bloody mess left by the suicides of the Order of the Solar Temple, the Camp Davidians and Jonestown could not have been greater. This terrifying tidiness was the only unique thing about them.

To me, at least, the significance of Heaven’s Gate is the way it adhered so closely to ancient patterns. It was as if the whole thing had been constructed from a kit, a collection of ready-made parts that the principals did not invent. You cannot call on psychology or sociology to explain what happened to Heaven’s Gate. The small personal crises of Applewhite and Nettles in the early 1970s perhaps provided occasions for what was to come, but these accidents did not determine the content or trajectory of the cult. Neither does the cultural crisis of those years have much explanatory power. People in entirely different societies under entirely different pressures have done very much what Heaven’s Gate did, in whole or in part. In Heaven’s Gate, you had something close to the Platonic ideal of a passive millenarian movement. You will learn little about America or late modernity from studying it. You will, however, learn a great deal about one of the more dreadful capacities of the human condition.

What is a millenarian movement? Basically, it is a group that believes that the world, or an age of the world, is about to end. The end they conceive need not be catastrophic, but it often is. The group is usually concerned with surviving the transition, or preparing to escape the catastrophe, or quite often with engineering the catastrophe themselves. Millenarianism is not an attribute only of cults or small sects. Whole societies can become millenarian for decades at a time. When that happens, some version of apocalypse is often enacted in literal fact. The short explanation for the rapid Spanish conquest of Mexico, for instance, is that the arrival of the Spanish occurred at a time when the belief was already widespread in Mexico that the “Fifth Sun,” the final age of the world, was about to end. Similarly, the catastrophes of the first half of the European 20th century were preceded at both the popular and the elite level by a growing sense of a “trembling of the veil,” of impending wonder and disaster.

In Christianity, millenarians usually look forward to the Second Coming of Christ after a period of tribulation. As a rule, Christian millenarians also look forward to a literal “millennium” on the other side of that event, an age in which they themselves will help to rule. Christian millenarians in the United States have traditionally been politically passive, though this is changing with the increasing political mobilization of the evangelical vote. Some millenarians, on the other hand, form revolutionary armies, like the Fifth Monarchy Men of the English Civil War. These reactions are really matters of degree. The passive millenarians seek to retreat into an end-time community, while the aggressive ones seek to make that community coextensive with the world.

It must be emphasized that millenarianism is not confined to Christianity or the West. The nineteenth century was particularly rich in millenarian activity of every description. The Plains Indians “Ghost Dance” cult was a millenarian phenomenon; the Indians danced in hope of the end of European settlement and the return of the Buffalo. A generation earlier, the Millerites of western New York State bravely announced a date certain for the Second Coming (two, in fact), thereby producing the Great Disappointment of 1844. By far the bloodiest war of the nineteenth century was the “Tai Ping” rebellion in China in the 1850s and 60s, which sought to install the Age of Highest Peace on Earth. One of the curiosities of colonial history was the career of Charles Stuart Gordon, the British general who made his reputation helping the Manchu government of China put down the Tai Ping. So great was his fame that 20 year later he got the assignment to hold Khartoum in the Sudan against the Mahdi Rebellion, another millenarian uprising, this time inspired by Muslim eschatology. This posting was less successful, since it terminated with the fall of the city and the loss of Gordon’s head. The Mahdi’s Jihad was only one of a number of similar uprisings in Africa, Asia and Polynesia.

Actually, the 20th century has, if anything, been even more affected by millenarian patterns of political behavior. The Marxist theory of history, many observers have long noted, retains the shape of the Judeo-Christian model. For the Tribulation of the Last Days read Late Capitalist Immiseration, for the Second Coming read the Revolution, and for the Millennium read the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. On the other side of the political spectrum, the expression “Third Reich” is an old term for the Millennium. (It refers to the Third Age of the world, the Age of the Holy Spirit, which the 12th century Abbot Joachim of Fiore suggested might begin in 1260 AD.) For that matter, there is good reason to believe that such 20th century institutions as annihilation bombing of civilian populations were inspired rather directly by H.G. Wells’s secularization of the Book of Revelation in many of his stories. In a way, then, the return of self-consciously religious millenarianism at the end of the 20th century is simply a return to normal.

Of all the exotic things about Heaven’s Gate, perhaps the group’s surgical approach to androgyny attracted the most media interest. This is not the sort of thing they tell you about in journalism school, probably for good reason. Nevertheless, the notion of sacramental castration is nothing new, even within Christianity. The “proof text” for this practice is Matthew 19:11-12, which reads: “Not all can accept this teaching, but those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born so from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs that were made so by men; and there are eunuchs who have made themselves so for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” This passage, of course, comes at the end of a discussion of divorce, and it may be taken in various senses. However, in apostolic times it does not seem to have occurred to anyone to interpret it as an injunction to literal castration. For that, we have to wait for the third century writer Origen, who probably, though not certainly, castrated himself as a young man.

The most systematic recent practice of sacramental castration that I am aware of occurred in the sect of the Skoptsi, the “Castrated Ones” of Russia. The group began as an outgrowth of Russian flagellant sects in the middle of the 18th century. The police attempted to suppress it as soon as they became aware of it. However, under their leader Kondratji Selivanov, the Skoptsi not only survived but enjoyed a measure of patronage by Czar Alexander I in the early 19th century. Even when the political climate turned against them again, they continued to find converts at all levels of society, not only in Russia but in the Balkans. Remnants of the sect may have survived in Romania as late as the Second World War.

Deliberate communal suicide is a rare phenomenon in any context, millenarian groups included. Of course, millenarian societies often have beliefs that are suicidal if put into practice. The Xhosa of what is now South Africa, for instance, destroyed their cattle in an act of mass sacrifice in the 1840s, in the belief that this would spark a new age in which they would be free of the British, the Boers and the Zulus. The result was mass starvation, and only a remnant of the people survived. More generally, it was widely held among insurgent millenarians fighting European armies in the 19th century that certain prayers or amulets would turn their enemies’ bullets to water. How this bad idea spread is one of history’s minor mysteries, but it had a great deal to do with turning what might otherwise have been merely lost battles for native insurgents into massacres.

The chief instance of mass suicide before Jonestown in 1978 was probably represented by the early stages of the Raskol, the “Great Schism” in Russian history. The event is perhaps an extreme example of what can happen when you do a liturgical reform badly. By the mid-17th century, Russia was coming out of a long time of troubles, and so it sought to put its house in order in many areas. Among these was a reform of the Orthodox Church. There were a number of reasons why a reform was a good idea. Corruptions had crept into the texts of the old Slavonic liturgy and Bible over the centuries, as the Greeks often pointed out. Additionally, the system of ecclesiastical discipline and administration had to be rationalized in response to the Jesuit-lead Catholicism of the Polish Empire, which the Russians were in the process of beating back militarily as well. The Synod that decided on the reforms was held in the ill-omened year 1666. The opponents of the reforms became known as the “Raskolniki” or “Schismatics.” They christened the Synod itself “The Synod of Antichrist.”

To an outside observer, the changes implemented by the Synod do not seem very great. Certainly there were no major theological changes. However, many of the reforms were needlessly intrusive into traditional practices, down to “correcting” the Russian pronunciation of the name of Jesus. Aggravating the situation was the personality of the Patriarch Nikon, who was not much interested in diplomacy or compromise. The result was that, while almost all the higher clergy reluctantly conformed, in the provinces all hell broke loose. Particularly in the north of the country, peasants became convinced that the age of Antichrist and the end of the world were upon them. To save their souls, the populations of whole villages killed themselves. In some cases the people gathered into a large building and set it afire. In others, the people starved themselves to death. In later years, the Raskolniki, who called themselves the “Old Believers,” were objects of perennial persecution by the Czarist authorities. In turn, the Raskolniki were ever after an important element in popular revolts and general unrest. Dostoyevsky did not choose the name “Raskolnikov” for the subversive protagonist of “Crime and Punishment” by accident.

This brings us to what many imagine to be the more strictly modern elements of the Heaven’s Gate story. Folklorists love flying saucers, or at any rate they love the people who believe in them and have reorganized their lives to take account of their existence. Partly, this is because beliefs about flying saucers so closely reproduce story patterns that are familiar from folktales. (A very good book on the subject is Keith Thompson’s “Angels and Aliens: UFOs and the Mythic Imagination” (1991)). Quite suddenly, in the 1950s, supposedly deracinated Americans began telling tales about encounters with fantastic beings, tales that followed the ancient patterns. Stories of meetings with diminutive people from the sky who paralyze their human acquaintances with light and sound are not very different from Celtic traditions about encounters with the Good People. Stories about the deplorable sexual proclivities of the aliens are often indistinguishable from medieval accounts of visitations of incubi and succubi. (In the 12th century, by the way, penitential manuals for parish priests took the sensible position that these things were hallucinatory, but that confessors should not make fun of people who confess to them.) As with the rumors that began to circulate in the 1980s about a witch-underground that sacrificed thousands of children every year, the flying saucer stories were often not just similar to those of 500 years ago; they were the same stories.

Flying saucers began to be incorporated into millenarian beliefs almost as soon as they were first reported, in a prosaic account by an experienced pilot in 1947. Little knots of less prosaic people collected to establish contact with the aliens. They soon formed a subculture that contrived to facilitate communications among its members quite without the benefit of the Internet. David Spangler’s memoir, “Emergence” (1984), is a reasonably lucid account of that milieu by someone who was raised in it and went on to be become a noted channeler and teacher in the 1970s. The popular side of the New Age was in fact little more than the popularization of this subculture for a mass audience.

In later years, the aliens tended to be taken in a more metaphysical sense by many New Agers, Spangler included. However, in the beginning, the motives attributed to the aliens were not thought to be hard to understand. Sometimes the aliens came to warn people that the human race was doomed unless it changed its ways. Sometimes they came to offer enlightenment. Curiously, there were few if any groups formed around the idea that the aliens were dangerous invaders who needed to be resisted, despite the popularity of that motif in contemporary fiction.

Occasionally the aliens came to offer personal rescue from apocalyptic catastrophe. Heaven’s Gate falls into this category. One of the most interesting books in the literature remains Leon Festinger’s “When Prophecy Fails,” which deals with a cult in the 1950s that was informed of impending natural calamities through a medium and promised rescue. The chief finding of the book was the fact that the failure of the saucer prophecies to come true actually strengthened the cultists’ faith. Their explanations for why the saucers did not come for them were often quite ingenious. Considering the book now in light of the Heaven’s Gate episode, one is struck by the fact that not only did both groups pack little traveling bags for the trip, they both even prepared “documentation” for the aliens to certify. The difference was that, after a string of failed prophecies, the beliefs of the 1950s cult just snapped. The cult quickly disintegrated in a shower of spin-off groups and disillusionment. The members of Heaven’s Gate, in contrast, took steps to prevent a change of heart.

What lessons can we learn from Heaven’s Gate?

Perhaps one thing we should do is stop blaming the proximate causes. There is, for instance, no special power in old Star Trek episodes or the Hale-Bopp comet to lead people to mass suicide. Neither is the Internet to blame. Anyone who has looked at the cult’s websites can see that they were hardly a menace to human life. (Actually, anyone who has talked to a marketer can tell you it is almost impossible to sell anything on the Internet anyway, cult membership included.) For that matter, neither can religion in general nor Christianity in particular be held liable. As we have seen, millenarianism is not specifically Christian. It is not even specifically religious. It is a way of making sense out of history, which really is episodically catastrophic. As Paul Boyer noted in “When Time Shall Be No More” (1992), millenarians at the beginning of the 20th century had a better intuition of the coming decades than did Wilsonian liberals.

I can come up with any number of social, moral and economic explanations for why just those 39 people killed themselves in San Diego in 1997, but I do not really believe them. Sociology I now believe to be merely a species of rhetoric, and there is no longer any school of psychology that I find persuasive at all. What we are left with is history, and the ancient patterns.


This article originally appeared in the May 1997 issue of Culture Wars magazine. Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: A Culture of Conspiracy

The world of conspiracy theories is a strange one. If anything, a lack of proof, or even disproof, only makes them more popular. There are a lot of durable memes that came out of the 1990s, things like the New World Order, or the Men in Black. Hollywood helped, and so did videogames. [in case you forgot, videogames are a bigger industry than movies]

This book is a scholarly investigation of this phenomenon, how mass media propagates, and even encourages ideas that lots of people, especially well-educated journalists, think are stupid and wrong. This was of course written before the rise of clickbait, but perhaps a new edition could be issued.

There is probably a hook here for the alt-right too, but that in itself is clickbait. Conspiracy theories and apocalyptic beliefs are just as common on the left as the right, because they are human nature. Hell, sometimes the specific ideas are the same on both fringes of the American political spectrum. For example, opposition to GMOs and vaccination have homes on both left and right. 

The real story here is that we aren't smart enough to do conspiracy properly. The people in charge don't really know what they are doing much better than anyone else. Sometimes, much worse.

 A Culture of Conspiracy:
Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America
By Michael Barkun
University of California Press, 2003
243 Pages, US$17.47
ISBN 0-520-23805-2


Why did Timothy McVeigh visit Area 51, the alleged flying-saucer test range, and view the film "Contact" on death row? Why did the harmless-looking phrase, "New World Order," take on a sinister connotation as soon as the first President Bush uttered it? Why does the acronym FEMA send chills down the spines of a substantial number of Americans? We cannot dismiss these facts as unrelated coincidences. No: they are all evidences of a strange mutation that occurred in American popular culture in the 1990s, when formerly obscure forms of esotericism and conspiracy theory fused with traditional millennialism and popular pseudo-science. The result was not a movement, but a worldview that threatens to undermine trust in public institutions, and maybe even consensus reality.

Such is the argument of this useful book by political scientist Michael Barkun of Syracuse University, one of the leading authorities on the political implications of contemporary millennialism. The literature of conspiracy theory is vast and rarely a pleasure to read, so there is something to be said for any survey that shrinks the Illuminati, the Men in Black, and the Hollow Earth itself to manageable dimensions. The chief merit of this book, though, is the description of a dynamic in contemporary conspiracy theory, one that turns ordinary popular culture into a venue for the propagation of ideas that the consensus culture has not just dismissed, but condemned. This model may exaggerate certain features of the popular mind, but it clearly does have some applications.

The chief sources of the culture of conspiracy are the tradition of conspiracy theory, conventional millennialism, and what must be called “ufology,” or the belief in the existence and importance of Unidentified Flying Objects and other extraterrestrial influences. The place where these sources meet is the realm of "stigmatized knowledge."

Some stigmatized knowledge is just obsolete knowledge, like alchemy or astrology, that the academic establishment no longer takes seriously on its own terms. Some of it is folklore and urban legends. Some of it is political ideas that have lost their bid for dominance in the wide world, but survive in niches and sects. The stigmatization of knowledge does not necessarily mean it is worthless: acupuncture, for instance, has risen from subcultural disrepute to the status of a recognized treatment. Whatever the merits of stigmatized ideas, people who accept stigmatized knowledge about one subject are likely to be more open to entertaining it in others. This leads to an attitude that views esoteric and unpopular ideas favorably, simply because they are stigmatized. Any official or consensus explanation is viewed with suspicion.

If you think that what most people believe about important aspects of the world is consistently wrong, the most economical hypothesis is that those people are being systematically deceived. This implies a deceiver, who must have confederates. The larger the conspiracy, the more a theory about it can explain: hence the attractiveness of conspiracy theories. "A Culture of Conspiracy" does not address the question of whether there is a perennial Western tradition of conspiracy theories, one that might include the legends about Rosicrucians, witches, Brethren of the Free Spirit, and similar shady characters. Rather, the book focuses on the well-known tradition of secular conspiracy theories, whose best-known originator is the Abbé Barruel. This tradition began in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Barruel's account sought to explain the Revolution as the work of groups of a generally Masonic character, of whom the most famous were the Illuminati of late 18th-century Bavaria.

There were indeed Illuminati, and the revolutionary phase of the Enlightenment was often organized through lodges and secret societies. However, conspiracy theorists tend to view secret and underground societies, not as vehicles for political activity, but as its cause. They see the public acts of statesmen and political groups as a mere smokescreen. For conspiracists, is it not necessary that the puppet-masters be altogether secret. Financial institutions and private associations will do nicely, as they did in conspiratorial accounts of politics that appeared as the 19th century progressed. (Barkun mentions Ignatius Donnelly for his popularization of Atlantis, by the way, but Donnelly also had the Jewish-Corporate Government connection down pat as early as the 1880s.) Around 1900, the Czarist secret police produced the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," which ascribed a plot for world domination to the early Zionist movement. By about 1920, there was a standard superconspiracy model. The model linked international bankers, the central banks, the Masons, the Jews, and other groups in a long-running project, always almost complete, to establish a worldwide atheist tyranny.

In one form or another, this model has been remarkably durable. People with all kinds of perspectives can adapt it to fit any historical circumstance and any set of characters. Theorists with little interest in Jewish conspiracies, for instance, might read "Illuminist" in the “Protocols” wherever the text reads "Jew." So great is the explanatory power of superconspiracies, however, that they threaten to engulf in despair those who believe in them. Conspiracy theorists often think that little stands between them and an intolerable future, brought about by forces that are invisible to the general public and yet nearly omnipotent.

The forces of evil are happily less omnipotent in millennialism, which is the general term that “A Culture of Conspiracy” uses for endtime belief. One of the chief factors in conspiracy thinking in the early 21st century comes from the revival of premillennialism in the first half of the 19th century. Premillennialists generally often believe the advent of the Millennium to be near, but expect it to be preceded by “apocalypse” proper, the period when God's wrath will be poured out on the world. During this time, the world will be ruled by Antichrist. Identifying the Antichrist, and more important, his future collaborators, is an activity very close to what secular conspiracy theorists do. Premillennialists with an interest in current events borrowed the Illuminati and the cabal of international bankers, often adding their own traditional villains, such as the Vatican. Versions of eschatological conspiracy became widespread during the 20th century, but did not begin to join the general popular culture until the 1970s.

The bridge between the land of stigmatized knowledge and the world at large was the UFO phenomenon. UFOs made their way into millennialism as part of the great deception of the endtime; the aliens became demons who pretended to be angels of light. There was also some tendency for premillennialists to reinterpret their eschatology in physicalist terms, so that the pretribulation rapture sometimes becomes a rescue by spaceship. Michael Barkun has coined the term "improvisational millennialism" to describe this syncretism of motifs. Secular superconspiracists, for their part, had no trouble adding UFOs to their list of things that the powers-that-be were covering up. In some versions, the Great Conspiracy is in league with the aliens. In others, there were no aliens, but UFOs were being faked to cow the public.

In the 1980s, some quite new motifs appeared. There were the black helicopters, which served the conspiracy in a way that varied from theorist to theorist. There were the concentration camps that were said to be being prepared for dissident citizens for when the Day came. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was supposed to lead the effort to impose martial law. When disaster struck, either real or staged, FEMA would become the government. Then there was mind control, which government agencies were alleged to have perfected in the 1950s and '60s.

As is often the way with urban legends, there were sometimes thin threads of fact in these Persian carpets of fantasy. Yes, police tactical helicopters sometimes are black. The CIA really did experiment with mind-altering drugs. For that matter, there were even contingency plans around 1970 to create temporary camps if civil disorders got out of hand. However, the structures that placed these fragments in a greater whole could never be verified, or even tested.

There were also fascinating adaptations of older ideas. For instance, the notion that the Earth might be hollow, and the seat of one or more advanced civilizations, has an old pedigree. In the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, it sometimes figured in fiction. When UFOs entered the popular consciousness, these subterranean realms became alternative or supplementary points of origin for these vessels. Admirers of H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith will be interested to learn that many of their story devices reappeared as bald assertions of fact in later conspiracist literature. (I might mention H.P. Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness," not specifically cited in the book. That novella has as many subterranean aliens as a reasonable man could ask for, as well as an Antarctic locale, which is also important in many conspiracy theories.) The malevolent reptile-people who play such a key role in the conspiracy theories of David Icke seem to have slithered right out of the stories of Robert Howard, the creator of "Conan the Barbarian."

Much of 19th-century theosophy came straight from popular fiction, so the 20th-century adaptations simply continue the tradition. A tongue-in-cheek British documentary broadcast in 1977, "Alternative 3," described a conspiracy of elites to flee Earth before ecological catastrophe struck the planet. As happened in other contexts, some people immediately interpreted the fiction as an encoded account of the facts. And, of course, conspiracy theories form the basis for later fiction, such as the once fashionable "X-Files" television series. I would also note John Carpenter's film from 1988, They Live. In that story, certain people are enabled to see our reptile overlords as they really are, consorting with ordinary upper-class humans who know the aliens' identity. ("They Live" should not be confused with "Them," an older and much better film about giant ants.)

The culture of stigmatized knowledge has facilitated other revivals. The channeling of extraterrestrials by New Agers looks like nothing so much as communication with the Ascended Masters whom Madame Blavatsky used to consult. Similarly, the allegations that the conspiracy sometimes captures people for sexual slavery bear more than a few points of resemblance to the 19th century stories that purported to expose what really goes on in Catholic nunneries.

Historical and technological developments gave a boost to the culture of conspiracy. Conspiracy theory had been an activity conducted through small newsletters and pamphlets before the assassination of John F. Kennedy; within a decade, it was an industry. Just as important was the growth of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, which made even the most obscure materials available to virtually anyone, virtually anywhere. Accessibility was not the only important factor; so was the lack of authoritative criticism. For that matter, "authority" was increasingly in short supply offline, too. The academy, during the postmodernist episode, undermined the assumption that consensus reality was more than a mere construct. The distinction between stigmatized and consensus knowledge did not quite collapse, but it became far more porous.

Michael Barkun is not happy about these developments. He notes that antisemitic motifs had formerly been wholly excluded from popular culture. Now they are reemerging, often in scarcely altered form, as elements of widely disseminated superconspiracies. He also points out that the culture of conspiracy responds badly to emergencies. Conspiracists reacted to 911 by demonstrating how it fit into their preexisting explanation for what is wrong with the world. The same might also be said of other people, perhaps, but the conspiracists' explanations made them suspicious of collective efforts to deal with the situation.

For my part, I think that any discussion of conspiracism should acknowledge those contexts where the conspiracists are onto something. When evangelical Christians perceive a New Age conspiracy to extirpate Christianity, they often are quite right about the biases of some elements of the academy and the media. When opponents of the New World Order say that international organizations are plotting to subvert the sovereignty of the United States, they are sometimes just citing the law journals. About the gay agenda we need not speak. Conspiracists are not delusional when they say that important people often collaborate to bring about appalling results. The Great Conspiracy has two weaknesses, however. First: no cabal small enough to be hidden could have the leverage to control the world, or even to guide the public life of a single nation. Second: no cabal at all could survive with its agenda unchanged for generation after generation. Real conspirators are people just like you and me. They don't have a clue, either.   

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-12-22: Some Readings from Revelation

Doré Bible

Doré Bible

The DHS scrapped the color code warning system in 2011. Which is a good thing, I never really gave it much heed.

Some Readings from Revelation

Here is one way to look at the uptick of the security level to Orange:

Therefore rejoice, you heavens
and you who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
because the devil has gone down to you!
He is filled with fury,
because he knows that his time is short.

---Revelation 12:12

Yes. Rejoice. Whoopee. I have great respect for Tom Ridge, but his press conferences remind me of the scene in Airplane! when the stewardess says: "Ladies and gentlemen, everything is under control. By the way, does anyone here know how to fly a plane?" Nonetheless, it is possible to distill a drop of comfort out of the latest miasma of all-enveloping dread. The Belmont Club of Sunday, December 21, does this very well:

Stepping back, is reasonable to suppose that with the capture of Saddam, the gathering collapse of the Ba'athist insurgency and the Libyan capitulation the AQ leadership feels it must risk all in a counterattack. If it does not stem the American tide now its funding sources will dry up, it supporters may defect and the resulting weaknesses will be exploited ruthlessly.

The Coalition command in Iraq seems to be of much the same mind: it speaks of "last ditch" strikes against Coalition forces in the next few days. Any terrorist actions in the US or Britain must have been in the pipeline for some time, but one suspects another round of major assaults in Iraq at this time would have to be hurriedly improvised. The Ramadan Offensive did manage to replicate the Tet Offensive of 1968 in that it was an operational defeat for the insurgents; unlike Tet, it was also seen to be a defeat. If the Ba'athists don't do something, they are in danger of becoming just a police problem.

There is more than a little danger of wishful thinking in this kind of analysis. When the prospect of burning buildings and dead bodies becomes good news, you could be on your way to a state of mind in which no event in the objective world can puncture your optimism. Nonetheless, though the Terror War will continue for several years, I cannot stop my attention from straying to what the world and America will be like when it is over.

* * *

The current security warnings are too broad to provide much information: bridges, tunnels, nuclear power plants, chemical factories; and don't forget hijacking passenger planes and using them as cruise missiles again. This is misdirection by inclusion, and I suppose it is the correct thing to do now. We should recall that there are just three terrorists tactics that don't depend on luck or exotic technology: shoulder-launched ground-to-air missiles, truck bombs, and suicide bombers. We should also recall that Al Qaeda favors simultaneity. So.

* * *

By the way, far stranger things can fall out of a clear blue sky than are known to Al Qaeda's philosophy. You can find some of them in Rev. 16:21.

* * *

Here are some figures on the box-office success of The Return of the King, which opened everywhere in the world last Wednesday, except for Australia and Japan. US domestic receipts have reached to $125.1 million, with $73.6 million coming in over the weekend. Believe or not, that's not a record, but the film did set a record worldwide: $246.1 million in total. According to The New York Times today, you pretty much have to do global premiers for a film like this, since pirated versions will appear around the world within a day or two in any case.

The Fellowship of the Ring grossed $861 million; The Two Towers $921 million. The Return of the King should reach a billion. Still, the record of $1.8 billion for Titanic seems safe for a while.

In any case, since I saw the Return, I have been boring everyone I know with a prediction of "every rec-room a Bayreuth Festival." Once the DVDs are available, watching them back-to-back will become an annual ritual for groups of true believers. I know this because I have every intention of doing so myself.

* * *

Speaking of liturgies, here's a poster [no longer online] for Christmas Eve. It's for a Tridentine Mass, but the organizers asked me to remove the word "Latin" from the text. Some things you just don't argue about.      

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The Long View: Far Futures

Last and First Men

Last and First Men

John J. Reilly never really cared for Steve Sailer, even though they had some ideas in common. Even fifteen years ago, Steve traveled in intellectual circles that were considered gauche. However, the very first line of this review is an idea John and Steve share: science fiction usually tells you more about the author's present than the actual future. In part, this is because science fiction tends to be set within the author's or reader's expected lifetime. However, some notable counter-examples can be found.

John lists Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men, Arthur C. Clarke's Against the Fall of Night, and H. G. Well's The Time Machine as examples of serious attempts to imagine a future very distant, and very different, from the present. I might add Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, although I only know it by reputation. Also Orson Scott Card's Xenocide sequels to Ender's Game, although theis series is not usually considered classic.

There is another thing these books have in common besides being set very far in the future. All of them deal with the end of the world, in some fashion. John wrote a whole book on this subject; there is something in the Western literary tradition that tends to the eschatological when the remote future is considered.

After reading this book review, I think I will add this book to my list for when I trawl used book stores. I have come to love short sci-fi because of Jerry Pournelle's There Will Be War series, as well as C. M. Kornbluth's collected works. This set is novellas instead of short stories, but the basic idea is the same. Take a great idea and run with it, but you don't need to flesh out a novel's worth of dialogue and plot.

Far Futures

Edited by Gregory Benford
Tor Paperbacks (Tom Doherty Associates), 1995
$15.95, 348 pages
ISBN 0-312-86379-9


The problem with most futures in science fiction is that they are usually pretty much like the present, but louder. They are also rarely more than a generation or two away. The count of classic science fiction stories that are set in a really distant future is surprisingly small. There are Olaf Stapledon's "Last Men" books and Arthur C. Clarke's "Against the Fall of Night." At the very beginning of modern science fiction, there was H.G. Wells's "The Time Machine." Other examples can be adduced, but they very fact they stand out in memory shows how rare they are.

The editor of this set of five original novellas decided to alleviate this situation by requiring that the authors place their stories at least a thousand years in the future. Since the writers in question, Poul Anderson, Charles Sheffield, Joe Haldeman, Greg Bear and Donald Kingsbury, are among the hardest of hard-science fiction writers, he also ensured that all this time would be put to good didactic purpose. The format, in fact, is precisely right: each of the pieces is just long enough for the contributors to take an idea for a spin around the block, without the need for padding into a full-length novel. This practice should be encouraged.

Stories about the far future need not logically be eschatological, which is to say, they don't have to be about the end of the world or the end of an age. However, all of these stories deal with end-of-everything themes to one degree or another. The universe as a whole ends twice in this book, and the sun blows up at least once. The least eschatological story is "Genesis" by Poul Anderson, but even that one really just addresses the flipside of the same question. Perhaps any sufficiently distant point in time looks like the end of the world temporally for the same reason that the visual horizon looks like the end of the world spacially: at the limit of observation, there is no detail.

The distinctive feature of the most recent futures has been their relentless cybernetization. Many of these futures are temporally parochial, not to say myopically trendy. According to the transhumanist movement, for instance, computer evolution is accelerating towards an asymptotic limit in the next century. At that point, the world either disappears into a sort of black hole, or enters into a new phase-state, like water turning into steam. To my considerable surprise, another class of future that has become popular is founded on what might be called "The Physics of Immortality," as set out by the relativity physicist Frank Tipler in his book of that name. To put an extraordinarily long story very briefly, Dr. Tipler demonstrates that (1) the universe must be fated to collapse in on itself ("closed," in physics-speak), (2) everything in the universe will eventually be incorporated into a single great computer, and (3) this computer, essentially a universal mind, will be able to prolong its subjective experience to infinity as the final singularity is approached. Despite superficial differences, both types of cyber-apocalypse share a certain family similarity, since they are both about the dissolution of the world in the approach to a limit. (In Kabbalistic terms, the ontological limit was called the `en-sof, but that's another story.)

The two stories in "Far Futures" that reach the end of the universe share some plot similarities, too, even though they have different theoretical premises. "Judgment Engine," by Greg Bear, assumes not a closed universe, but an open one that will die the heat-death at some very distant point. In fact, it will not just disperse into an ever-finer vacuum, it will dissolve back into the quantum foam from which, presumably, it emerged. The final computer intelligences are therefore chiefly preoccupied with creating an ultimate entity that can affect the state of the foam, so that the foam will give birth to another universe that is an improvement on this one. "At the Eschaton" by Charles Sheffield, on the other hand, sticks much more closely to the Tipler scenario, though inexplicably he makes the opening of a naturally closed universe the final task of his characters.

In any case, both these stories involve a 21st century man, whose brain and body had been uploaded as a computer file, being reconstituted in some cosmologically distant future in order to solve a problem beyond the wit of the post-organic intelligences that superseded mankind. Both protagonists also attempt to contact or revive their long-dead wives. Indeed, the eons-long quest by the protagonist to revive his wife is what "At the Eschaton" is all about. Again, this is a little inexplicable in terms of the story's Tiplerite premises. Since, according to Tipler, everyone is supposed to be resurrected as a virtual reality emulation at the eschaton (meaning simply "the end"), the protagonist need not have spent so many centuries lugging his wife's cryogenically-preserved corpse from star system to star system. On the other hand, that story does offer two pieces of good advice for people who plan to achieve immortality by having their bodies frozen. The first is, pay the extra $5 and go for liquid helium rather than liquid nitrogen. The second is, make sure, before you go in the deep-freeze, that someone in the future will have a good reason to thaw you out.

Poul Anderson's "Genesis" is also more or less on Tipler's track, but since the story happens a paltry 1.5 billion years in the future we don't get to see whether the universe is open or not. What we do get to see is a galaxy dominated by machine intelligences ultimately derived from Earth, many of whose programs are the minds of human beings uploaded in the geologically distant past. However, most of the story takes place on Earth, which is experiencing desertification as the sun slowly expands. The story centers on the fact the collective computer mind of Earth, called "Gaia" for obvious reasons, has reconstituted human beings and set history going again in the narrow range of high latitudes that remain habitable. All this was done without telling the galactic mind, which would probably have had ethical objections, and which in any case became suspicious and sent an inspector. Much of the interest of the story is provided not by the flesh-and-blood humans, but by the computer simulations that Gaia runs of possible human histories in order to find the best way to guide Earth's latter-day inhabitants. These simulations, which are so complete that the "actor" programs in them are fully conscious people, illustrate a basic flaw with Tipler's philosophy (which is what it is, as distinguished from the hypothesis he imagines it to be). You might call this flaw "The Icebreaker Paradox."

Many years ago, members of the Monty Python troupe did a series of television parodies called "Ripping Yarns," one of which took care of every British public school story ever written. In one scene, a master is inspecting the school's hobby room, where most students are building model boats. One of the students, however, has built an actual 110-foot- long icebreaker. When challenged, the boy says that it's a full-scale model. "If it's full-scale then it's not a model!" the master replies reproachfully.

I think that much the same would have to be said for any absolutely perfect virtual reality emulation. You could not emulate a universe on any coarser medium than a universe, in which case the emulation is not an emulation, it's a universe. It may even be that this line of argument could lead to a final refutation of the idea of computer-hosted consciousness. If you make a computer that is more and more like a brain, which apparently is what artificial consciousness is going to require, then eventually you will no longer be dealing with a computer, but with a brain. Another way of putting it is that not everything can be reduced to information, since not everything can be expressed in every medium. Just as long carbon chains are the only really practical medium for biology, so matter itself is a privileged medium, the only really suitable one for life and mind. If this is so, then cybernetic devises might amplify and supplement conscious life, but they could never subsume it.

This is more or less the state of things in Donald Kingsbury's "Historical Crisis," the only really cheerful piece in the book. This novella's apocalypse is the most modest, since it treats merely of the end of the Second Galactic Empire, the one all those slightly Stalinist psychohistorical planners in Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" trilogy were trying to establish. The story is set 40,000 years in the future, when the Second Empire has been so long established that its comfortable citizens have begun to find it wanting. Kingsbury took the liberty of updating Asimov's premises to rectify the two major problems that readers today have with the original Foundation books: the lack of computers and the fact that the kind of linear extrapolation that "psychohistory" seems to require flies in the face of chaos theory.

The computer problem is dealt with neatly. People are mated for life to small chip-devices, called "fams" for "familiars," that are in effect extensions of their brains. Fams enormously expand people's memory capacity and save them from most of life's mental drudge-work. The problem, which the young genius-level protagonist discovers when his fam is executed, is that without one he cannot do simple arithmetic or find his way around city streets. As for the chaos theory, the focus of social control strategies just shifts from minding events to minding strange attractors. The Imperial Police police trends, not people. In fact, the psychohistorians who run the Empire first become aware of an effective insurgency when they notice sporadic outbreaks of astrology at various points in the galaxy.

Most 1990s cyberculture buzzwords are here. You have your topozones and your memes and your smart drugs, all for the most part put to good use. Indeed, the Second Empire falls not in an interstellar battle, but in a sort of apocalyptic seminar in which the insurgents prove to the powers that be that historical stasis is neither possible nor desirable. The author also has a gift for ironic turns of phrase. There is something to be said for any story which makes it perfectly plausible that a polite form of address should be "Excellent Frightfulperson."

Joe Haldman's novella, "For White Hill," is also a sequel to an earlier work, in this case of his own Nebula Award winner "The Forever War." (The novella does posit some minor changes in background, apparently to make the story even more depressing.) Readers will recall Haldeman's earlier novel as a very convincing infantryman's account of a seemingly interminable interstellar war. Its well-merited popularity was based on the way it caught both the cynicism and the apparent shapelessness of the Vietnam War, of which Haldeman is a veteran. "For White Hill," set about 400 years after the action of the novel, adds yet another Vietnam parallel, since in it the human race finally, unexpectedly, loses the war.

"For White Hill" is by far the most apocalyptic in feel of these novellas (it is also, by the way, quite erotic). Before he learns of the war's last stratagem, the narrator visits an Earth that had been sterilized by the enemy's nanomachines centuries before, in the first few years of the war. The infection essentially melted the human population within a week, and then turned on all other forms of life. The planet was later lightly resettled by natives who had been in space at the time of the disaster. Earth had many colonies and so the war continued, but not, it would seem, forever. The end of the human race, it fact, barely makes it beyond the editor's thousand year minimum. That will teach him to set deadlines.

This book probably does not have a lot to tell us about apocalyptic anxiety at the end of the 20th century. The constraints under which the novellas were composed puts the action at a distance too remote to interest popular culture. This is the sort of science fiction in which the science is more important than the fiction. Half the fun is looking for possible mistakes and anachronisms. For instance, since these stories were written, new estimates suggest that the Earth will not be consumed by the sun when it enters its red giant phase: the sun will outgass much of its mass, its gravitational attraction will fall and the Earth's orbit will expand. This particular fact does not affect any of the stories here, though it does touch on their sketches of solar evolution. However, one may hope for more collections like this one, in which this kind of projection could make a differenc.

Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

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Far Futures
Tor Books

The Long View 2003-11-17: Arnold's Apocalypse

Unfortunately, the planned Governator series was canceled following [another] revelation of martial infidelity by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Which is a pity, because I thought the whole idea was quite funny. 

Schwarzenegger's career, and the Terminator movies, represent largely ignored parts of American culture and political history. Absurd! you say. Yes, it is absurd if you only look at the popularity of the movies or media attention Schwarzenegger gained as Governor of California. What is interesting here is how Arnold's rise to stardom and political power has a lot to do with the largely unexamined role of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs.

Since steroids have played a big role, but we haven't really admitted they have played a big role, so we don't really want to talk about it. When I was a kid, I heard a lot about how any day now, women's records for the 100M dash were going to be the same as men's. Then drug-testing came to the Olympics, and the trend lines stopped converging. No one every talked about it again.

If you look, you can see this same pattern elsewhere. And Arnold Schwarzenegger is a prime example of how it works.

Arnold's Apocalypse

It's unlikely that I would have rented the video of Terminator 3 - Rise of the Machines if the star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had not been about to be sworn in as governor of California. The film was short on political subtext. Arnold the Good Robot does say, "We need a new vehicle," when the roof of the stolen hearse is swiped off in a chase scene, but it would probably be over-interpreting the text to read that as an allusion to Candidate Schwarzenegger's promise to repeal the vehicle-tax increase.

Nonetheless, the movie was strangely charming. At one point, the Arnoldbot remarks that he is an obsolete model, and the film does not flinch from showing that the actor and the franchise are too old for this kind of thing. There are moments of genuine wit, as when Arnold reaches into the pocket of his newly stolen leather jacket in search of sunglasses, and extracts a pair that Elton John might favor. The multivehicle collisions were too complicated for me to follow, but no doubt they were good of their kind. The major fight scenes are between Arnold and an evil dominatrix robot (played by Kristanna Loken), who is also from the future. They rip up whole floors of office buildings, and they are as funny (and non-threatening) as Punch-and-Judy puppets.

The story, however, continues to be about John Connor (Nick Stahl), the future savior of the human race who is now a young man, and his future wife, Kate (Claire Danes). In any other plot summary, Kate would be called a love interest, but in this film Arnold simply arrives from the future and announces that these almost-perfect strangers are destined to have children. The voice-over commentaries by the Connor character express his visceral repulsion at the thought that the future might be predetermined, even as he acknowledges that in fact it seems to be so.

This is the film in which the future actually arrives. Skynet takes over the world's interlinked computer systems and launches its nuclear extermination campaign against the human race. The plot is facilitated by the fact that, today, we easily imagine AI software with no physical location; in contrast, when the first Terminator movie premiered in 1984, the Web did not yet exist. John Connor and Kate are misdirected to a deserted defense center by Kate's dying father, who tells them Skynet is based on a supercomputer there. In reality, Skynet is everywhere, and he just wants to put them out of harm's way. At the very end of the film, pleas for help start to come into the center from civil defense offices across the country. Connor starts to coordinate them. Arthur grasps Excalibur and draws it from the stone, somewhat to his own consternation.

This is a Strauss & Howe moment. Indeed, at the risk of sounding like the folks at Metaphilm, one could expand on the allegorical significance of T3 for the relationship between the generations today. John Connor was raised by his mother, and he points out that Arnold the Robot (or the incarnation of him in the second movie) was closest thing to a father he ever had. That's a parody of a certain kind of Babyboomer father for you: largely absent, even when he has visitation rights, but liable to visions about the future, and driven by inner certainties that scarcely take note of the people around him.

One might also note the timing of the film. The development of T3 was halted by 911, in part because the producers wondered whether there would ever be a market for this kind of mechanical carnage again. There still is, apparently, but it's not what it was; in any case, Mr. Schwarzenegger has taken up another line of work. Nonetheless, T3 could be said to represent the historical moment when the film was conceived. Even as the script was being finalized, a long-foreseen catastrophe arrived, after a decade of neglect and denial.

The people who have to handle it are of an age with the characters in the movie; and there are few John Connors. No one told them the world could be like this. At any rate, their teachers didn't. Films, sometimes, offer a more reliable sense of the possible.  

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-10-28: The AntiChrist meets Halloween

This is your regular reminder that just because the world is ending doesn't mean life can't go on.

The Antichrist Meets Halloween

Many strange reports are circulating about the upcoming CBS miniseries on Ronald Reagan, but I suspect we will see few stranger than this alleged piece of script that appeared on The Drudge Report yesterday, under the headline CBS REAGAN: 'I AM THE ANTI-CHRIST':

REAGAN: It's Armageddon... that's what it is. Armageddon. The Leader from the West will be revealed as the anti-Christ, and then God will strike him down. That's me. I am the anti-Christ.

I gather that this scene is depicted as taking place between Ronald and Nancy; the president was distraught about the truck bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut, in which more than 200 personnel were killed.

Actually, speculation that Ronald Reagan might be the Antichrist does date from the 1980s. More recently, some people have tried to save this bracing speculation by suggesting that he may have been the first of a series of antichrists, the one who started the countdown to doomsday.

That said, though, it is difficult to believe that Reagan suspected this about himself, even on his bad days. In the popular pre-tribulation dispensationalism that Ronald Reagan was so widely reported to entertain, the Antichrist who comes from the West is the leader of the European Union. The Rapture of the Saints occurs long before (by most accounts, seven years before) the beginning of Armageddon. Perhaps President Reagan embraced a garbled version of this demotic eschatology, and the screenwriters were reporting the fact. If this material really is in the script, though, the odds are that they just did not know what they were talking about.

Incidentally, the best recent survey of the evolution of the figure of Antichrist is Bernard McGinn's Antichrist: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination With Evil, which was published in 1994. If you are interested, there is also a review on my site of Archetype of the Apocalypse, a Jungian take on the Last Days. It's not so much that a Jungian approach is particularly fruitful in this area as that somebody had to do it.

* * *

Here's a query for readers: have any of you ever been to a Halloween party where someone came dressed as the Antichrist? There is no modern iconography for this figure, of course, but that is remarkable in itself. Here we have an agent of supernatural terror who is real to many people in a way that vampires and werewolves are not, but no way has been devised to represent him.

One might argue that Antichrist and Halloween are apples and oranges. The Antichrist is a biblical figure, or at least derived from the Bible. The name does not occur in the Book of Revelation, of course, and Luther rejected the idea of a personal Antichrist, but that's not relevant here. No matter the origin of the notion, Antichrist is a creature of history, of a universal scenario. Halloween, in contrast, is the high holy day of perennial folkmagic. It is antihistorical; its uncanniness has nothing in common with the cunning of history.

I suggest that this need not be the case. Halloween is the old Celtic New Year. (By the way, a Celtic day runs from sundown to sundown; those of you who are really into the spirit of the thing are in no way off the hook at midnight.) Every New Year celebration is about the destruction and re-creation of the world in an annual cycle. That is why they often feature rowdy parties; chaos is briefly triumphant.

In many New Year celebrations even today, the old year is represented by a Lord of Misrule. He is a person of mean station who, as a joke, is treated like the king or the head of the household. At least, now it's a joke. In ancient societies, the mock-king was sometimes a criminal who was executed at the end of the celebration.

There's your Antichrist for you: the Lord of Misrule on a universal scale. The Tribulation can even be thought of as a Halloween Party that really got out of hand. Why the Halloween card-and-costume complex has not exploited these connections is a real mystery.

* * *

As readers familiar with my website know, I have no problem with the end of the world, provided you don't expect too much from it. The apocalypse does appear in secular history from time to time, however, and it's just unrealistic not to acknowledge the fact. Even the otherwise commendably realistic Victor Davis Hanson can stumble in this regard, as we see in his recent essay, Why History Has No End

Hanson summarizes the thesis of Francis Fukuyama's famous book, The End of History and the Last Man. To put it briefly, Fukuyama argued that liberal democracy had permanently defeated all its rivals because it best accorded with human nature. To this Hanson replies:

How naive all this sounds today. Islamist hijackers crashing planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the looming threat of worse terror outrages, have shown that a global embrace of the values of modern democracy is a distant hope, and anything but predetermined. Equally striking, it's not just the West and the non-democratic world that are not converging; the West itself is pulling apart. Real differences between America and Europe about what kind of lives citizens can and should live not only persist but are growing wider.

To this I would say that you have to distinguish development from corruption. Islamism is traditional Islam in a state of combustion. If not suppressed, it will consume its putative base of support. (That seems to be the effect that the suicide-jihad in Iraq is having.) Similarly, the post-democratic transnationalism of the EU is skating on ever-thinner ice. It creates consumers of public goods rather than citizens. Come the crisis, it will have no defenders.

Hanson's assertion that France or Germany is going to try to behave like a 19th-century Great Power is a delusion, though one might say in his defense that the delusion is not original with him. In any case, it is strange that someone who writes so often of “the West” and its splendid ways should have so little care for its common institutions. No doubt Hanson is correct that NATO is not of much account as a military alliance. It is, however, one of the constitutional organs of the West. Understood in that sense, it should be the apple of his eye.

* * *

Speaking of refusal to learn from history, some prime examples can be found in the article, The Stealth Bush Boom by John Berlau, which recently appeared in Insight Magazine. The hook for the piece is unexceptionable: it really is true that a large part of the media is refusing to report good economic news during the Bush Administration, and putting the worst possible spin on all the news it does report. The problem is that the author then tries to argue that Bush's fiscal policies are a universal truth. Citing one Brian Wesbury, chief economist for a Chicago broker, Berlau reports:

While Wesbury blames the recession in part on Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's panicky tightening of the money supply, he says Clinton's 1993 tax increases ended up hitting the economy at the end of the decade when productivity pushed more and more into the upper brackets through a phenomenon called real-income bracket creep.

This is breathtaking. A decade of economic expansion does not require a special explanation for its end; it needs an explanation for why it lasted so long. Part of the answer surely has to be that there was enough fiscal restraint to prevent the economy from overheating. But then this article also puts the word "bubble" in parentheses when speaking of the '90s. In reality, when we see billion-dollar companies that are based on artists' conceptions of the services they might be able to deliver someday, we know that there are excesses that are going to be corrected.

There has always been a kind of capitalist who is willing to disable the state and trash the financial system to keep a speculative boom going. When the crisis comes, they have no defenders. 

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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