Defining the apocalyptic

Anastasia asked in a recent comment whether I have a definition of the apocalyptic.

Well I suppose the answer is yes and no. Essential to my approach is the notion of myth as a broad, living, fluid cluster of ideas and emotional colors. So to “define” the apocalyptic myth is to tie it down in a way that is counter-intuitive. What I am working toward is a “typology” that points towards how this cluster of ideas and emotional colors is currently being expressed. In my proposal I write in part:

Berger (2000:388) has argued that the twentieth century has been “thoroughly marked, perhaps even defined by, apocalyptic impulses, fears representations and events.” He outlines four principle areas of post war apocalyptic representation: “The first is nuclear war, the second is the Holocaust, the third is the apocalypses of liberation (feminist, African American, postcolonial) and the fourth is what is loosely called ‘postmodernity’.” (390). To these could be added a fifth significant area: the ecological crisis (Buell 2003).

For Berger and for other theorists of the apocalypse, these events are not merely catastrophic they are in some way revelatory. In nuclear narratives “accident and telos are intertwined” (390). For many writers and artists the holocaust “has come to occupy a central place in late twentieth century European and American moral consciousness…[it] is portrayed as the revelatory, traumatic, apocalyptic fulcrum of the twentieth century” (391); and much postmodern fiction is driven by “some revelatory catastrophe whose traumatic force reshapes all that preceded it and all that follows” (392).

This notions that the apocalyptic includes “impulses, fears representations and events” and involves both catastrophe and revelation are key to the way I am currently trying to understand the apocalyptic.

In my article on “The Apocalypse of George Bush” I note three aspects of Bush’s religious rhetoric, which I argue highlight an underlying apocalyptic worldview and link them to three themes in Revelation.

Firstly and most obviously Bush has defined the current “war on terrorism” as a battle between “good” and “evil”.Secondly he believes we are living in unprecedented times that call for fundamentally new responses. Thirdly he believes he has been chosen by God to lead.

These three themes, which can be traced across many of Bush’s public statements, find symbolic resonance in key themes of the biblical book of Revelation. It narrates the calling of prophets and leaders, a cataclysmic battle between the good “Lamb” and the evil “beast” and the saving of a remnant after a time of cataclysm and tribulation. Much of this symbolic battle is expressed in sociopolitical language of empires at war.

One of my initial tasks for the thesis is to further develop this typology of the apocalypse. One of the starting points will definitely be a close reading of Revelation as the source book for much of our contemporary Western view of the apocalyptic.

However one idea that has been occurring to me lately is that the overarching topic for my thesis is perhaps not the apocalyptic so much as the eschatalogical. Although other elements of end times philosophy/theology – such as the utopic – is inherent in any consideration of the apocalyptic perhaps I need to foreground some of this through a broader general interpretive framework.

One thought on “Defining the apocalyptic

  1. This is helpful. I think the idea of a typology makes good sense. One of the reasons I asked is that I knew a woman who wrote a dissertation on Revelation, in light of other apocalyptic literature. She was fierce (to the point of being obnoxious) about her definition, which treated apocalyptic as a genre of literature, with particular tropes, the motif of the otherworld journey, the revelatory aspect, etc etc. Eschatological concerns were, for her, secondary.

    But, as you suggest, eschatology and apocalypse are intertwined. And, especially given that you’re working on a contemporary context, it makes better sense to treat apocalyptic as embedded in a larger system of cultural meaning. I think it will better represent the messiness of cultures to think in terms of myth and typology.

    Anyway, thanks for your reponse. It’s really an interesting project.

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