Welcome to day 1 of 31 Days of Apocalypse, Now, a month of posts about apocalypse, revelation, uncovering what’s been hidden. Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may only peripherally seem related. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.
Here is a strange thing: The idea of apocalypse (literally, “an uncovering”) as the slow but inevitable disappearance of everything in our world. The Disappocalypse, as Alexandra Kleeman’s fascinating short story, “You, Disappearing,” in Guernica (Sept. 2014) puts it. The story’s tagline is: “The apocalypse was quiet. It had a way about it, a certain charm. It could be called graceful. It was taking a long time.” Read it. Here’s a little to get you started:
“People prepared for an apocalypse that they could take up arms against, bunker down with. People hoarded filtered water, canned corn, dry milk, batteries. They published books on how to get things done in the new post-world, a world that they always imagined as being much like our own, only missing one or two key things. … Nobody thought the apocalypse would be so polite and quirky. Things just popped out of existence, like they had forgotten all about themselves. Now when you misplaced your keys, you didn’t go looking for them. … It was cute the way this apocalypse zapped things out of existence, one by one. It was so clean and easy, like clicking on a little box to close an Internet browser window. It had a sense of humor: a fat man walking down the street lined with small abandoned shops would look down and find that his trousers had vanished, baring his out-of-season Halloween boxers to the public. That kind of humor. Videos of things like this used to show up all the time on the Internet, until the Internet went.”
Her concept, in as far as the apocalypse is a slow disappearance, accords with Quincy Saul’s, co-founder with Joel Kovel of New York-based group Ecosocialist Horizons (addressing “both the dire urgency of addressing climate change and … capitalism as its irredeemable cause”), though Kleeman envisions a slow, unpredictable disappearance, and Saul and Kovel a “long death-ridden slog through decades of withering ecologies and shrinking landmasses.” In an interview, also in Guernica (Dec. 2012), titled “Apocalypse and Revelation Are the Same Word,” Saul says this:
“We did an event recently called ‘Apocalypse and Revelation,’ which are both the same word in Ancient Greek. I think there are two sides to this: the disaster and the opportunity. One year ago, Joel and I were in Durban, South Africa at the climate change meeting of the United Nations, and I wrote a series of reports, which [included the assertion that] the real apocalypse is that there is no apocalypse. That they’re going to be having meetings like this one while islands disappear and while forests vanish. There’s no real End Times moment when there’s a flash and suddenly everything’s over. It’s actually much worse than that. Things are just going to keep grinding on. … It’s not like this is the big ecological crisis that’s going to deliver a transformation to us. There’s every possibility of this going in awful ways that we say we can’t imagine, but that we already see taking form. We have to reconcile with the apocalypse that’s happening. Then there’s the other sense of it, which is important to emphasize, the more revelatory way [of looking at it]: that there’s a reckoning that calls upon all of us. I think that this definitely gets us into a kind of metaphysical/spiritual territory, and it’s not a coincidence because that’s what you do when you’re about to die; [laughs] you start to think about the civilization and what’s next.”
I may have more to say in a later post about transformation that can attend revelation, and certainly more about metaphysics and civilisation, but for now I want to follow the idea of disappearance as a kind of uncovering.
Douglas Adams, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979), says that
“There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”
In that formulation, disappearance occurs after revelation, after (or perhaps concurrently with) uncovering the “meaning” of the Universe. In Kleeman’s story, there is no revelation that precedes or immediately accompanies the disappearing of keys, cats, spokes and seats on a ferris wheel, a bench, clouds, apples, people, drinking glasses, all the magazines, memories. People are surprised — this isn’t the apocalypse they imagined — and they adapt in different ways to their dawning understanding that things are disappearing, more and more all the time. Some keep their regular schedule, working and cooking and planning for the future, others “walk around all day getting to know the things that wouldn’t be there for much longer.” Later, people “either … tried to care more, or they tried caring less.”
Is there a kind of insight gained in the midst of the disappearing of all that makes a life, a world, an Earth? As everything familiar vanishes, does self-deception vanish, too? Is there, in the midst of this kind of apocalypse, a kind of subconscious reordering of priorities that might occur when faced with a life-threatening illness?
Kleeman suggests there is: “There had been times when I thought I might be with you indefinitely, something approaching an entire life. But then when there was only a finite amount of time, a thing we could see the limit of, I wasn’t so sure. I didn’t know how to use a unit of time like this, too long for a game of chess or a movie but so much shorter than we had imagined.” When you know you will vanish — and we all know this, but many of us hide the knowledge, bury it far from awareness — what’s revealed? Do we care more, or less?
Quincy Saul insinuates that there is a disappearance occurring now, but most of us aren’t allowing it to surface in our awareness yet (we are “having meetings like this one while islands disappear and while forests vanish”). He adds that our “big ecological crisis [isn’t] going to deliver a transformation to us,” it’s not going to give us insight or reveal anything that will change us, but on the other hand, we may be forced to reckon, to reevaluate, revalue, uncover what’s valuable in our lives, what’s valuable on this planet, what we care more or less about. As the fading world unthinks itself (Kleeman’s lovely phrase), perhaps humans will re-think, open our eyes or have them pried opened, see what we haven’t seen before. Saul leaves room for that possibility.
As everything disappears in this Disappocalypse — randomly, slowly, inevitably — it becomes hidden from us; it’s covered, or our eyes are covered, and we can’t see it or sense it or even perhaps remember it anymore. In a way, it’s the opposite of an apocalypse, when everything is uncovered. But as all that we know disappears, as things and animals and the land is hidden from us, perhaps there is something in some part of ourselves, or in the Universe itself, that’s uncovered, that’s revealed. Perhaps as all we know disappears, what’s uncovered is what remains when everything else is gone and buried.
Maybe it’s true, as the novelist Haruki Murakami said last month, that
“right next to the world we live in, the one we’re all familiar with, is a world we know nothing about, an unfamiliar world that exists concurrently with our own. The structure of that world, and its meaning, can’t be explained in words. But the fact is that it’s there, and sometimes we catch a glimpse of it, just by chance — like when a flash of lightning illuminates our surroundings for an instant.”
In Kleeman’s story, “an independent physicist” posits something similar to Murakami’s idea, but instead of a parallel (though unfamiliar) world next door that we catch glimpses of there’s a shared sort of hallucination, an “existential illusion” that alters our temporal vantage point and renders things “coexistent but obscured in time.” Sometimes, it’s rumoured, “recently disappeared things reappear [are uncovered?] … on “a particular beach in Normandy where the cliffs were chalky white, the color of doves,” where they look decades old.
“It is easy to temporarily forget in the age of social media and the electronic presence the importance of the sheer physicality of our bodies, and that amnesia is a micro-example of a macro-malaise: the drifting away of the nonhuman world of trees and animals, of complex habitats, the only world we have.” — Jeff VanderMeer, from “David Bunch’s Prophetic Dystopia,” NYR Daily, 12 Sept. 2018
Your writing always gives me pause…. to think and rethink and be in a new place within my thoughts.
Looking forward to reading this. Will you be including a favorite poem of mine, “The Art of Disappearing”, by Naomi Shihab Nye?