This is an edited version of The Nora Niland Lecture 2020, given by Dr Kevin Power of Trinity College Dublin on Yeats Day (June 13th).
A few aphorisms, to start with. There is no such thing as the apocalypse. It is always the age of the apocalypse. If the apocalypse didn’t exist, we would have to invent it.
Of course, the apocalypse doesn’t exist, so we do have to invent it. We’re forever inventing the apocalypse. Some people deplore this, on grounds of political pragmatism. A catchphrase of the contemporary left, adapted from Fredric Jameson by way of Mark Fisher, holds that “It is easier for us to imagine the end of the world than it is for us to imagine the end of capitalism.” But since it is, in fact, very easy for us to imagine the end of the world, I wonder how much this apercu really tells us about capitalism’s obduracy. Doesn’t it tell us more about the pleasure we take in imagining the end of the world?
Especially the end of the American world. As the New Zealander, in Gustave Doré’s 1872 illustration, is witnessing the ruins of British power, so we like to witness the ruins of American power. The apocalyptic mise en scène, American-style, tends towards the operatic, the globe-encompassing and the Manichean. There are good historical reasons for this. Speaking to his Puritan flock aboard the Arbella in April 1630 as they sailed towards the New World, John Winthrop imagined America as the place where the City of God might at last be built. The American imagination thus grows out of teleological Christianity, with its promise of the Messiah’s return (though, as one minor prophet reminds us, “He may tarry”). The stakes for the American project are high, and getting higher all the time.
It remains a shaping paradox of American culture that the New World should also think of itself as the country of Last Things. In America, the title bout between good and evil always looms. In 1949, for example, when Harry Truman revealed that the Soviets had just tested a nuclear weapon, a young Billy Graham told a revival meeting that this was a sure sign of the imminence of the end times: “I am persuaded that time is desperately short!”
Time was short then. Time is short now. According to a YouGov poll conducted in March of this year, 17 per cent of Americans have an “apocalypse survival plan” for their families. 29 per cent of Americans say they believe “an apocalyptic disaster” will occur in their lifetimes. American politicians invoke the apocalypse routinely. “Into the hands of America, God has placed the destiny of an afflicted mankind.” That’s Ronald Reagan, in 1974. “We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the Earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow.” That’s Donald Trump, in 2017.
Destiny. Millennium. That’s apocalypse talk. Both Reagan and Trump depended, for their electoral success, on white Christian evangelicals, who expect the politicians they vote for to address themselves to eschatological business as a matter of day-to-day policy. If America enjoys imagining the apocalypse, evangelical America is where the apocalypse gets real.
Much of Trump’s presidency has traded on evangelical symbology. Mike Pence, twice-born since his college days, was carefully chosen to reassure evangelical voters made nervous by Trump’s complete failure to act like even a once-born Christian. In May 2018, when Trump moved the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, this was understood by grateful evangelicals as a fulfilment of end-times prophecy. One told The Washington Post (November 26th, 2019):
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I heard about Jerusalem ‑ where the king of kings, where our soon coming king is coming back to Jerusalem ‑ it is because President Trump declared Jerusalem to be [the] capital of Israel.
Thus Republican state senator Doug Broxson of Florida, demonstrating that he thinks the US president has the power to confer capital city status on what was already a capital city.
At moments of crisis, Trump has tended desperately to signal evangelical voters. On June 2nd this year, when, in response to the Black Lives Matter protests, Trump had himself filmed walking from the White House across Lafayette Square to St John’s Church – where he then posed holding a Bible upside down – many people were baffled by the apparent oddity of the gesture. But, as an article in The Guardian published two days later made clear, this was a message intended specifically for evangelicals. According to that article, Benjamin Horbowy, a thirty-seven-year-old evangelical from Tallahassee, Florida (what is it about Florida?), watched Trump’s stroll to the church live on TV with his mother. “My whole family was flabbergasted,” said Horbowy. “My mother just shouted out, ‘God give him strength! He’s doing a Jericho walk!’”
As The Guardian noted, “A Jericho walk, in some evangelical circles, refers to the biblical book of Joshua, where God commanded the Israelites to walk seven times around the opposing city of Jericho, whose walls then came crashing down.” Trump’s Jericho walk was Ivanka’s idea. Left to his own devices, the president might have replaced the Bible with a copy of his own (ghostwritten) How to Get Rich: something he used to do in the bedrooms of hotels he owned.
Benjamin Horbowy and his mother represent a large group of evangelical Christians who interpret not just Trump’s presidency, but American history in general, in terms derived from dispensationalist theology. As Matthew Avery Sutton notes in his history of modern evangelicism (American Apocalypse, 2014), evangelical audiences continue to “devour the most daring and radical expressions of apocalypticism”.
The YouGov poll tells us that 13 per cent of Americans believe that the “apocalyptic event” that will take place in their lifetime will be “Judgement Day”, or an aspect of Judgement Day known as “the Rapture”. The Rapture is a concept from dispensationalist Christianity. To simplify, dispensationalism holds that God has divided history up into seven stages or dispensations. The last dispensation ends with a series of events that fulfil Biblical prophecy. Once these events have taken place, a climactic miracle called the Rapture will occur. This will be followed (or, according to some believers, perhaps preceded) by the Tribulation, a period of worldwide disaster, war, famine, suffering, and general calamity, presided over by the Antichrist. After which interlude, God arrives to tidy everything up.
The words “Rapture” and “Tribulation,” used thusly, appear nowhere in the Bible. Their popularity among American evangelical Christians derives from a biblical commentary published in 1909 by a Christian minister named Cyrus Ingerson Scofield. Scofield, born in Michigan in 1843, was a former lawyer, ex-alcoholic, and (once he had hit rock-bottom and been born again) a general doer of good works. Scofield spent seven years annotating the Bible – drawing on extant Biblical scholarship and on the teachings of an Anglo-Irish divine named John Nelson Darby – and published the results as The Scofield Reference Bible with Oxford University Press. Within twenty years of its first publication, the Scofield Bible had sold over a million copies. As Todd Mangum and Mark Sweetnam write in their history of the Scofield phenomenon, “The Scofield Reference Bible permeates evangelical culture and thought.” It is no exaggeration to say that when evangelicals refer to the Bible, they mean, more often than not, the Scofield Bible.
It was Scofield’s dispensationalism that the evangelical writer Hal Lindsey popularised in his multimillion-copy bestseller The Late Great Planet Earth (1970). Lindsey mapped recent history onto certain prophecies from Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation, and concluded that the Second Coming of Christ was due any day now. Here he is on the Rapture:
It will happen! Some day, a day that only God knows, Jesus Christ is coming to take away all those who believe in Him. He is coming to meet true believers in the air. Without benefit of science, space suits, or interplanetary rockets, there will be those who will be transported into a glorious place more beautiful, more awesome, than we can possibly comprehend. Earth and all its thrills, excitement, and pleasures will be nothing in contrast to this great event. It will be the living end. The ultimate trip!
More recently, the extremely popular Left Behind novels (1995-2007), by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B Jenkins, translated Scofield and Lindsey’s apocalypticism into the idioms of the airport blockbuster. Prose-wise, the Left Behind books are remedial stuff. (Sample sentence: “Irene was attractive and vivacious enough, even at forty.”) Collectively, the series has so far sold 80 million copies. A 2014 film, starring Nicolas Cage, grossed €27 million worldwide. Left Behind follows various good-but-not-sufficiently-Christian Americans, like rugged airline pilot Rayford Steele, through the post-Rapture Tribulation period: war, famine, Antichrist, et cetera. The books are at once narratively compelling and morally purblind. At one point a baby is raptured from its mother’s womb in the instant before birth. The mother’s stomach becomes immediately “flat”, demonstrating, if nothing else, the authors’ firm grasp of obstetrics. The message is clear: the unrighteous do not deserve to raise their own children. We are deep in the land of moral derangement here. For LaHaye and Jenkins, the Rapture is an authoritarian’s ecstatic dream of the final ordering of the world.
It’s difficult to exaggerate the power and appeal that this story possesses for American evangelical Christians. From a certain perspective, the Rapture is a promise that history is a story, and a story that will end happily, especially for evangelical Christians. (As Miss Prism noted in The Importance of Being Earnest, “The good end happily, the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”)
But from another perspective, the Rapture is also a secret dream of revenge – as all apocalyptic thinking is a secret dream of revenge. (The doomsday prepper, for instance, with his canned food and his semi-automatic rifle, is just waiting for the chance to avenge himself on a world that spotlights unbearably his emotional inadequacies. And Mark O’Connell, in Notes from an Apocalypse , observes that if you’re preparing for the end of civilisation, you have already, in an important sense, given up on the idea of having a civilisation at all.) When doomsday supervenes, good guys (evangelical Christians) are Raptured heavenwards. Bad guys (everyone else, but especially Jews and atheists) will be tossed into the lake of fire.
There’s more than a suggestion here, I think, that the secret inner life of evangelical Christianity is to some degree built on fantasies of dominance and submission, of punishment and reward. A film like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) shows us another facet of this retributive pathology. The film’s prurient focus on the flensing, beating, whipping, and crucifixion of Jesus – its relentless, obsessive interest in persecution, bodily damage and debasement – says less about Christianity’s redemptive promise than it does about the evangelical interest in pain, in the ecstasy of submission, and in the intoxication of eventual dominance (when Trump told the state governors to “dominate” the Black Lives Matter protesters he was channelling the secret heart of white Christian America).
It’s also worth noting that the suffering undergone by Christ in Mel Gibson’s film doesn’t come close to representing the white American experience, but it does precisely represent the black American experience. White evangelicals have not, historically, suffered in this way. But black Americans have. Looked at in a certain light, The Passion of the Christ is actually a recension of the historical experience of African-Americans, dehumanised by violence, reduced to tormented bodies. Thus white evangelicals co-opt actual suffering for their mythographical purposes, and the suffering of the black body – the great repressed truth of white American history – is, as usual, visible mainly by its absence.
But American evangelical Christians are not the only people living in the end times. Nor are they the only people constructing apocalyptic narratives about Donald Trump. Secular liberals are living in the end times, too. And secular liberals have also tended to see Trump’s presidency as an omen of doom. The narratives are isomorphic. The difference is one of style. Not the Bible but Yeats’s “The Second Coming” provides the sacred text.
In the century since its first publication (in the American magazine The Dial, in November 1920), “The Second Coming” has come to occupy the top textual spot in that strange zone where the secular imagination overlaps with apocalyptic politics. The poem is always returning to public consciousness. According to The Wall Street Journal (August 23rd, 2016), analysis from the media database Factiva reveals that “The Second Coming” was “more quoted [in American media] in the first seven months of 2016 than in any other year of the past three decades.” Fintan O’Toole, addressing the Yeats International Summer School in 2018, formulated a law in response to this statistic: “the more quotable Yeats seems to commentators and politicians, the worse things are”.
By this metric, America is currently in serious trouble. Media references to “The Second Coming” have spiked all through Trump’s presidency. Two recent instances. First, The Boston Globe (March 30th, 2020):
“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,” wrote W.B. Yeats in 1919. A century later, it’s clear: The epicenter cannot hold. Catastrophic decisions in the White House have doomed the world’s richest country to a season of untold suffering.
And here’s the foreign policy news website Modern Diplomacy, observing, in April 2020:
The poet Yeats’ “rough beast” portends a monster, and monster is the only correct term of judgment for an American president who encourages manifold egregious crimes against the United States and other nations.
Both of these articles were written before the filmed death of George Floyd and the protests it ignited. It seems that a certain end-times mood was already in the air.
But of course it was. It always is. And, like the apocalypse, “The Second Coming” is always with us. Joan Didion’s 1968 collection of reportage, Slouching towards Bethlehem, prints the poem in its entirety as an epigraph. In the introduction to that book, Didion writes:
This book is called Slouching towards Bethlehem because for several years now certain lines from the Yeats poem which appears two pages back have reverberated in my inner ear as if they were surgically implanted there. The widening gyre, the falcon which does not hear the falconer, the gaze blank and pitiless as the sun; those have been my points of reference, the only images against which much of what I was seeing and hearing and thinking seemed to make any pattern. “Slouching towards Bethlehem” is also the title of one piece in the book, and that piece […] was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomisation, the proof that things fall apart.
The piece Didion is describing here is her classic account of the hippies and dropouts of the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, a piece that ends, unforgettably, with a description of a five-year-old girl wearing white lipstick, reading a comic book and tripping on LSD. This description climaxes a piece that begins “The centre was not holding” and that goes on to describe a country of “commonplace reports of casual killings”, “misplaced children” and “abandoned homes”. Apocalypse 1968?
Not everyone was persuaded. Taking Didion to task for the London Review of Books in 1980, Martin Amis wrote: “Probably all writers are briefly under the impression that they are in the forefront of disintegration and chaos, that they are among the first to live and work after things fell apart.” His point isn’t that the centre did, in fact, hold, in 1968. His point is that there is no centre. To Amis, Didion is succumbing to the lure of a distorting apocalypticism, and finding her objective correlative in “The Second Coming”. The signs of the end are all around us: discord, alienation, acid in the kindergarten. Surely some revelation is at hand?
There is, of course, a big difference between how secular commentators use “The Second Coming” and how evangelical Christians use the Bible. For one thing, Yeats’s poem is generally not understood, by its readers, as a literal forecast of coming attractions. Yeats himself equivocated about how literally the poem was meant to be taken. “They give me metaphors for poetry,” he said, of the intricate symbolic systems outlined in A Vision (1925). And if “The Second Coming” is constantly being invoked as a powerful description of our present moment, this might tell us just as much about Yeats’s genius for the lapidary phrase (and for the generally-applicable metaphor) as it does about the state of our politics, or our culture.
The poem was composed in a moment of crisis. 1919: the Armistice was less than a year old. A global pandemic prospered. (In November 1918, Yeats’s wife, Georgie, caught the Spanish Flu while pregnant with the couple’s first child.) Yeats, as he wrote his great poem, might have approved of the sentiment expressed by the protagonist of Saul Bellow’s Mr Sammler’s Planet (1970): “Like many people who had seen the world collapse once, Mr. Sammler entertained the possibility it might collapse twice.”
In common with all apocalyptic works of art, “The Second Coming” evokes a shiver of mingled foreboding and pleasure that we might call the chiliastic frisson. Experiencing the frisson is inarguably pleasurable. Not just American evangelicals, but our entire culture is addicted to the chiliastic frisson. “Of course, we have it now, the sense of an ending,” Frank Kermode writes, in his 1966 book of that name. But: “There is nothing at all distinguishing about eschatological anxiety.” It is common to almost every culture and to almost every historical epoch. As the year 1000 approached, people throughout Europe abandoned their homes to follow lunatics who declared themselves the Messiah, or the reincarnation of Frederick Barbarossa, or who interpreted current events as the fulfilment of Sybilline prophecy. And that was just one calendrical crux of many.
The star cliché of prose about the apocalypse is the observation that people have always believed that the end of the world was nigh. It’s also then customary to note that, while every previous generation of human beings has obviously been wrong about this, our generation stands a much better chance of being right. For one thing, we’re much further along in history now. And look at the gathering signs: fire, flood, earthquakes, plagues, rioting in the streets, monsters in power! A universal feeling of end-times dread! Surely this, our time now, at long, long last, is really it!
But this is the wrong inference to take from the fact that people have been expecting the end of the world to occur any day now for at least the last two thousand years. The correct inference is the statement I began with: there is no such thing as the apocalypse. It is easy for us to say that the evangelical Rapture will not take place. Less easy, perhaps, for us to say that climate change – scheduled to inflict lasting damage on the surface of the earth sometime in the next half-century – will not mean the end of the world either. (It will mean crisis, and change. But crisis and change are the rules of history, not the exceptions.) We would struggle, perhaps, to admit that the apocalypse is one of our hardiest fictions – one of the stories that we tell ourselves, as Joan Didion put it in The White Album (1980), in order to live – or, perhaps, in this case, in order to die.
Let’s go back, one last time, to that YouGov poll. It tells us that 29 per ceent of Americans say they believe “an apocalyptic disaster” will occur in their lifetimes. And of course, the people who say this are correct: an apocalyptic disaster will occur in their lifetimes. They themselves will die. Things will fall apart. The centre will not hold. The world ends for each of us. Matthew 24:35, 36: “Heaven and earth shall pass away … But of that day an hour knoweth no man …”
The world ends for each. But not for all at once. In The Sense of an Ending, Frank Kermode (quoting Spenser) writes:
Men, like poets, rush “into the middest”, in medias res, when they are born; they also die in mediis rebus, and to make sense of their span they need fictive concords with origins and ends, such as give meaning to lives and to poems.
It is scarcely a coincidence that predictions of apocalypse tend to situate the ultimate hour within the lifetime of the person doing the predicting. The apocalypse is the individual death, rendered generally inclusive. Our lives have beginnings, middles, and ends. But the flux of the world does not – or at least, none that we are privileged to witness. In the mirror of apocalypse, we see the image of our death. And since we always die, it is always the age of the apocalypse.
There are implications to this fact that go beyond aesthetics or philosophy. Narratives of apocalypse may give solace to individual lives. But they have powerful distorting effects on politics. The idea that we are close to the end is politically demoralising. Why bother to change things when the end of the world is near? A politics of last things is also a politics of discord and defeat. Politicians know this. They manipulate apocalyptic imagery to rouse the faithful, and to sow confusion among their enemies. Trump and Pence are masters of this game. But their opponents among the liberal commentariat have fallen for the romance of their own Rapture: Trump as the “rough beast”, the centre failing to hold, mere anarchy loosed upon the world. This vision too is disabling. A functioning politics begins by eschewing the chiliastic frisson. And it knows that the world will keep on ending until we remind ourselves that the only real ending is ours, and ours alone.
This piece was presented as the fifth Nora Niland lecture, part of the Yeats Day Festival, organised by Yeats Society Sligo. Yeats Day marks the birthday on June 13th of Nobel poet William Butler Yeats. The Nora Niland lecture honours the memory of former Sligo county librarian Nora Niland, who was hugely supportive of cultural life in Sligo during her term of office. She gathered an outstanding collection of twentieth century contemporary Irish art, which is housed at The Model, Sligo and she was also a founder, in 1960, of Yeats Society Sligo.
Image: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer (1498)