Not so long ago, it was only right-wingers and old crackpots making decline-and-fall-of-Rome claims about America. But Niall Ferguson is a young superstar Harvard professor, and he argues that we—undisciplined, overstretched, unable to pay our bills or enforce our imperial claims, giving ourselves over to decadent spectacle (NASCAR, pornography), and overwhelmed by immigrants—do indeed look very ancient Roman. He suggests, in fact, that Gibbon’s definitive vision—the “most awful scene in the history of mankind”—is about to be topped.
Jared Diamond made his name back in the fat and happy nineties with Guns, Germs, and Steel, explaining why the West ruled. His second best seller was last year’s Collapse, about how irrational religion and environmental recklessness destroyed previous societies and how America looks to be on the same suicidal path. Meanwhile, the unambiguous trend lines of everyday economic life—China’s rise, the dying-off of Detroit and old media—become the reinforcing background beat that makes the new declinism feel instinctively plausible.
There is something of the appeal of pornography here: sensational, shocking, simultaneously appalling and riveting, brutally frank and fantastically stylized. As with porn, it was mainly a fringe taste that has lately gone mainstream. And as with real porn, too, apocalypse porn comes hard-core (Krauthammer) and soft (Diamond), in fiction ranging from the hideous (The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion) to the absurd (the “Left Behind” series) to the merely dopey (The Day After Tomorrow).
And now, with McCarthy’s The Road, something else again. I resisted. A nameless father wandering across a dead, denuded, anarchic America with his son, hiding from roving packs of monstrous killers? Not my usual cups of tea.
But the novel is awesome, a kind of reality-based Beckett, moving and unbelievably believable in its portrayal of horror and dread and hopelessness in the next Dark Age … with an announced first printing of 250,000, a gigantic number for any work of literary fiction, let alone one that barely has a plot. McCarthy is a high-end brand name, but The Road will be a best seller propelled by an end-times Zeitgeist that has smart people as well as fools and freaks in its thrall. As fine a book as it is, I still felt a little ashamed to enjoy its grisly what-if jolts; the pornographic aspect is there.
From a commercial point of view, The Road’s lack of any detailed backstory will be a boon: Because we never learn anything about the precipitating cataclysm, every reader can fill in the blank—nuclear war, meteor collision, attacks by extraterrestrials, or Gog and Magog. It accommodates an apocalypse of your choice.
Even the young people will find things to like in The Road. There are zombies, more or less—lots of cannibals, anyway, and “bloodcults.” “We’re not survivors,” the hero’s late wife said before she died. “We’re the walking dead in a horror film.” (The booming zombie genre is, of course, a pulpy subcategory of apocalypse porn.) And The Road also has marauding “roadagents” and a small army of slaveholders with spears made of repurposed auto parts—Mad Max touches.
Apocalypticism is one of those realms where the ideological spectrum bends into a circle and the extremes meet.
It was in those movies, as a lone ranger in post-nuclear-apocalypse Australia, that Mel Gibson became a star. Then he won an Oscar for glorifying a Scot leading his people to a kind of Armageddon, then became the Evangelicals’ favorite movie star with The Passion of the Christ. And now the very eagerly awaited Apocalypto. “The parallels,” his co-writer told Time, “between the environmental imbalance and corruption of values that doomed the Maya and what’s happening to our own civilization are eerie.” Mel himself goes further: “The fearmongering we depict in this film reminds me a little of President Bush and his guys.” Mel Gibson, meet Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—runty, Bush-bashing, anti-Semitic, 50-year-old fundamentalist religious mystics with an abiding visionary interest in apocalypse.
Apocalypticism is one of those realms where the ideological spectrum bends into a circle and the extremes meet. The nuttiest Islamists and Christians agree that the present hell in the Middle East is a hopeful sign of the end-times, that an Antichrist will temporarily take control of the world. Muslims expect him to be a Western Jew; in many Christian versions, he comes to power through the European Union—although on his “Bring It On: End Times” Web page, Pat Robertson says Islam itself is an “antichrist system.”
For both sects as well as the New Age psychedeloids, apocalypse still has its original meaning—revelation, the appearance of God following destruction. The subtitle of Pinchbeck’s book is The Return of Quetzalcoatl, referring to the Mesoamerican Über-god. After the awful existential reboot in 2012, people will develop psychic superpowers to solve global warming and achieve communistic bliss. Not all people, alas, because just as the Rapture is strictly for Christians, and Allah will know his own exclusively, Pinchbeck apparently believes that only people like him—“those who have reached a kind of supramental consciousness,” according to a Rolling Stone profile—will achieve paradise. Speaking of 2012: That’s also the target year, according to the influential Saudi theologian Sheik Safar Al-Hawali, for Allah’s “day of wrath,” meaning the destruction of Israel and the Muslim reconquest of Jerusalem. Which could jibe with the timeline on the Christian-porn-mongering site ApocalypseSoon .org, which envisions Israel nuking Syria in order that Isaiah 17:1 (“Behold, Damascus is taken away”) be fulfilled.