This article forms part of the series Rapture & Decay: The New Eschatological Cinema. Read the previous article here.
But the game's worth all the candles, since now they're burning at both ends, and that's fine: the chips are down.
Tens of millions of people worldwide practice theologies which contain an overt element of the eschatological. Such "Armageddon theologians" have even made it into the White House. It is not a requirement of such views that one is religious but fear not, I've quoted Zizek once in this series already, I'm not going to do it again. According to Norman Cohn, eschatological beliefs and mythologies are not exclusive to our time; such beliefs have reared their heads repeatedly throughout history, particularly in times of mass disorientation or anxiety. (Is there any other kind of time?) Across two volumes on the subject, Cohn poses the question as to how and where such expectations of annihilation and consummation developed. As his groundbreaking study unfolds, it dawns on him what a bunch of suckers we all are and have been for quite some time, since Zoroaster, in fact. What's more, the end (of this idea) is not nigh, for as he proclaims, "who can tell what fantasies, religious or secular, it [the eschatological tradition] may generate in the forseeable future?"
So let's rattle through the history lesson. Cohn argues that until around 1500 BC Egyptians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Indo-Iranians, Canaanites and pre-exilic Israelites were more or less united in their world view; that in the beginning the world had been organised and delivered from chaos by one or more gods. To displease a god would be to risk the divinely ordained order of things, for the opposite of order was primordial chaos, a dangerous force which seeped into the earthly realm under the guise of plague, famine and invasion. The Egyptians knew this divine principle of order as ma'at ('base'), the social and political embodiment of which was the Egyptian state, or rather, the Egyptian monarchy, which comprised human heirs to the throne previously believed to have been occupied by the sun-God Ra himself. Periodic regeneration and rejuvenation through upholding ma'at on the personal, social and political planes was key to understanding the Egyptian ideal. The best any pharaoh could do would be to restore the feted order of the past, re-establishing the ultimate conditions experienced under the rule of Ra, 'in the beginning'. This continual reaffirmation of ma'at, this endless return to 'the first occasion', the notion that order is always teetering on the brink of chaos, which must surely be reigned in and always is, leads Cohn to describe the Egyptian world view as "static yet anxious".
According to Cohn, sometime between 1500 and 1200 BC such ideas were turned inside out by the Iranian prophet Zarathustra, better known as Zoroaster, who espoused the controversial idea that all existence was "the gradual realisation of a divine plan". He proposed a dualistic cosmology of the spirit of good, Ohrmazd, and evil, Ahriman, between whom man is free to choose. Cohn argues that Zoroaster's prophesy was inspired by the Iranian version of traditional combat myths, whereby a young hero, blessed by the Gods, keeps chaos at bay by winning a great battle against an embodiment of evil, most likely a form of the feared 'chaos monster', and is rewarded by being appointed ruler of his kingdom. By adopting such a mythology, Zoroaster provided his followers with a view of the world which was forward-thinking and vitally comforting in its optimism. He foretold of a final battle, in which the supreme god and his supernatural allies would defeat the forces of chaos and their human allies and destroy them absolutely, leaving the divine order to reign without conflict or obstruction for all eternity. Mental and physical distress would be banished forever in a world which basks in total security and peace, unchallenged by chaos or evil. History would effectively cease. This was to be known as 'the making wonderful'. And for Zoroaster, it was going to happen very soon.
In the sixth century BC Zoroastrianism became the religion of the first Iranian empire.
Of course, in order to function as the primary religion of a successful, well-established empire, it was essential that Zoroastrian eschatology be modified to suit the needs of such an empire. Unsurprisingly, immediate and total transformation of the world was not necessarily an imperative when times were good, riches were abound and new temples were being erected. Therefore the 'making wonderful' was postponed, officially, to a remote future, thousands of years away.
Whilst numerous empires withered and collapsed, Zoroaster's proclamation lived on. In particular his notion of the great cosmic war to come had a deep influence on certain Jewish groups, particularly the Jesus sect. Whilst the particular political situations which prompted Zoroaster's proclamations faded into history, the ideas seeded in his prophesies lived, taking the form of a convenient social myth which had the ability to both console and fortify those with uncertain futures. Through its own malleability, Zoroaster's eschatology was reformed, regurgitated and adapted, surviving many attempts to kill it off for good.
Even when quashed or driven underground by the regimes of the time, the idea would rise once again, years later, in distant and disparate areas where overpopulation and social change, war, drought, plague and famine assured that the cosmic war, in the form of (in the case of Protestant millenarians, for example) the coming of the Antichrist , was tensely awaited. A great deal of fraternity was to be found in such beliefs throughout the centuries, from the early Jews and members of the Jesus sect, to Protestant millenarians and even today's evangelical Christians.
One Big Happy Apocalypse? I think not.
Whilst dreams of revelation and collapse foretold are doubtlessly comforting, Cohn reveals over the course of his study that they are ultimately nothing more than a social construct, an illusion. Whilst Cohn pursued his conclusion out of fear, fear of the extremities of action justified by such eschatological yearnings, his understanding of the readiness of people to adopt such social myths is great. But perhaps we would do better to free ourselves of such myths or at the very least, to consider a few exciting alternatives.
Richard Lester's absurdist comedy The Bed Sitting Room (1969), scripted by Spike Milligan and John Antrobus, goes beyond the apocalypse in search of meaning, envisioning life after the collapse of civilisation, post- the lifting of the veil. As in Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979), there's an awful lot of rubbish lying around. And nothing makes much sense. In fact not an awful lot has changed since the End Times were over, prompting the question, what if, as Evan Calder Williams claims, the apocalypse just wasn't apocalyptic enough? As Calder Williams explains, "you aren't post-apocalyptic because the apocalypse happened, the film stresses. You become post-apocalyptic when you learn to do something better, or at least more morbidly fun, with the apocalyptic remains of the day."
To be apocalyptic is to be in waiting. You might as well be one of the undead. To be post-apocalyptic is to be alive, by the skin of your teeth. Ok, so there's a lot of rubbish piling up everywhere but isn't it high time we stopped fantasising about pearly gates and great consummations due to take place on some date unknown but possibly long after we're dead, and started making the most of the remains of the day? There's a lot to be learned from decay, rubble, ruins, dirge and toil. Earlier in this series I linked the hyperreality thesis to the omnipresent fear of death ("those fantasies of death and apocalypse harboured in every bedroom across the world...) and the un-therapeutic unveiling of atrocities by filmmakers such as Noe and von Trier. Neither filmmaker is fearful of bombarding us with disease, decomposition and other images traditionally greeted by us with disgust. If disease is as inevitable as death then why shy away from it? Why turn from what you MOST NEED TO KNOW? To turn from death and disease is to shy away from life itself:
"Healthy people flee contact with the diseased. This rule applies to almost everyone...The words of the diseased, even those who can manage only a murmur, carry more weight than those of the healthy. Then, too, all healty people will in the future know disease. That sense of time, ah, the diseased man's sense of time, what treasure hidden in a desert cave. Then, too, the diseased truly bite, whereas the healthy pretend to bite but really only snap at the air". (Roberto Bolano, 2666)
To survive modern life is, to adopt Calder Williams' thesis, to become a "salvagepunk". Part of what we are salvaging is our right to death. As contemporary society grows ever more riddled with incurable diseases and cancers, Western life expectancy remains mystically high. On this planet, nobody is allowed to die. Our fear of death has contorted life itself, our contemporaries and elders rot in hospital corridors, their lives strung out by the latest life-saving technology. As in The Bed Sitting Room, there's a lot of junk lying around. Our bodies are no longer our own. And if we don't own our own bodies then we certainly can't lay claim to our own deaths. And if we don't own our deaths then how can we possibly assert the rights to our own lives? With the licensing of every new cutting-edge cure, death is pushed yet further away and our sicknesses and maladies only increase in their virulence. Meanwhile, Eugene Thacker points out that yet another zombie movie has stormed the box office...
Proximity to the ruins of our existence, then, can be the only prescription.
In August 2012 FoolishPeople performed John Harrigan's Virulent Experience, a thirty nine cycle ritual at Conway Hall in London which took fear of death as the basis for a work which also functioned on the levels of both contemporary political satire and gnostic exploration. On an even more personal level it was, for me as a performer, a means by which to transform personal experiences of cancer and loss into the form of a mythical narrative which would enable me to reach a new understanding of myself, my life and the world which I inhabit through repeated catharsis; three eschatons a night, for thirteen nights.
FoolishPeople's work in theatre and film runs parallel to the hyperreal projects of Noe and von Trier, drawing upon ideas inherent to both the cinema of attractions and the theoretical work of theatre practitioners such as Artaud. The purpose of such work is always to confront ourselves with ourselves, to reveal the ways in which reality can be as illusory and abstract as hyperreality. Or unreality. To question whether such a thing as the 'self' even exists. As a means by which to redefine freedom through a direct attack upon all oppressive structures, institutions, habits and chiefly thoughts, the work of FoolishPeople lies firmly and proudly in the surrealist tradition, of which Andre Breton wrote,
"Everything leads me to believe that there exists a certain point, a state of mind in which life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions. It would be useless to seek in Surrealist activity any impulse other than the hope of determining this point".
The 'certain point' which Breton refers to is the personal apocalypse, or eschaton, which can take place hourly, daily, over and over again, should you so wish. This is the work of life. Human beings are highly succeptible to mythologies, Cohn has revealed that much. The project of FoolishPeople is to explore such mythologies, to live them and to smash them, to build new ones, better ones, worse ones, real ones, fictitious ones. Life and death, past and future, fact and fiction. The manifestation of whatever is necessary, whenever it is necessary. Minute by minute. Nothing is certain except death. Once you've faced that, the rest is up for grabs.