FDL Book Salon Welcomes Mathew Barrett Gross, The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us About America
“As the dream of infinite progress collides with the limits of the real world, an apocalyptic trance of global proportions is emerging, a trance in which we turn to the Last Myth– the myth that a coming cataclysm, whatever it is, will inevitably reveal our new place in the world.” (p. 198)
How is the world going to end? The Last Myth starts out by examining the American fascination with the end of the world, and ends by explaining the consequences for maintaining this worldview. From the website The Last Myth:
…it’s not just the Christian Right that is obsessed with the end of the world; secular readers hungry for catastrophe have propelled fiction and nonfiction books about peak oil, global warming, and the end of civilization into best-sellers, while Doomsday Preppers has become one of the most talked-about new reality TV shows on television. How did we come to live in a culture obsessed by the belief that the end is nearly here?
The Last Myth is quite an interesting foray into showing how apocalyptic thinking got going, and there’s not a lot of sacred cows in the book, so secular near-term doomsday opinions found in environmentalism, or New Age crop circle messages about 12/21/12, are given the same scrutiny as religious notions that the end of the world and rapture are near. From the present, we move to the past to uncover the roots of the apocalyptic worldview, and this results in a deep look at the occasion in Judaic history when Christianity arose, and the aftermath in the following centuries as it became the dominant religion of western culture.
The crux of apocalyptic worldview criticism though, is that it leads to a shallow life:
“…apocalyptic rhetoric assures us that our place in history is not just significant but that we are at the most significant point in history. This historical narcissism allows us to look back on the Mayans and believe that they were obsessed with our time and to look forward and imagine that future generations will consider our time to have been pivotal in the history of the world.”(p. 199)
“The rhetoric of the apocalypse gets it backward: this is not the most important time to be alive–being alive is the most important time.” (p. 206)
The book posits that we are living in a time, from Y2K to 12/21/12, that is going to be reflected on as ‘the Apocalyptic Era or Decade.” But the real thrust of the book is to look beneath this cultural worldview, to focus the reader on a deeper takeaway. A reviewer on Amazon laid out a succinct reading of the turn to the underlying concept of The Last Myth:
The Last Myth enriches and expands our understanding of the times we live in. It goes far beyond what we might expect of a book about the end of times. Through a fascinating historical narrative buoyed by strong empirical evidence, this exemplary work of nonfiction sets forth a case for transforming America’s hegemonic and flawed concept of ‘infinite progress’ as we hurtle toward an unsustainable and collectively ugly resource-depleted future… far beyond driven into the red, the authors point to chunks of the American Dream as they crumble off, and warn us of the next pieces to fracture, only this time perhaps more violently. All the while, a pragmatic optimism persists, and the authors are strictly professional when it comes to the presentation of the facts.
You’d have to be living under a rock to not see the changes taking place, and yet this is the very argument put forward. Our rock is our cultural identity, which we cling desperately to during the onset of what feels like the end to us…. Gross and Gilles smack the existentialism out of the reader’s head to get to the facts: the time to do something is now. Not because the whole world is going to end, but because the illusion of infinite prosperity via technology is giving way to the reality of a finite natural world.
I want to put down a few more quotes from the chapter ‘Beyond the Last Myth’ before we discuss the book in the comments:
“If our idea of progress is on the verge of collapse, then our apocalyptic anxiety is easily accounted for– for the worldview to which we turn for meaning is growing increasingly meaningless. Yet the further we retreat into that apocalyptic fantasy, the more likely we are to bring about the very apocalypse that we fear. Just as each of us must accept, at some point, our own personal mortality, letting go of the apocalyptic storyline will require us to accept a level of cultural mortality and to let the dream of runs die… The “new mode of being” that we must create is not going to be based on avoidance, or denial or despair, or longing for a future cataclysm to sort us all out and prove our beliefs correct. It’s going to be based on coming to terms with the physical world and it’s restrictions…
are fundamentally different… than the world in which most of us grew up. That world was made magical by an abundance of cheap energy… a historical rise in material wealth for america… the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency… the American Dream… American exceptionalism… and… for nearly three centuries, the belief that continued and uninterrupted progress was our birthright.” (p. 203)
“It is, of course, much simpler to imagine the Last Myth as merely the obsession of evangelical Christians or cultish freaks and to therefore dismiss apocalyptic thinking as a fringe idea, unworthy of serious empirical examination. It takes a bit more time in the mirror to recognize that the Last Myth is the place where the secular idea of progress has found itself as we enter the second decade of the twenty-first decade. And yet here we are.” (p. 198).
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]