Present at the Apocalypse

Yes, today is tax day. But it’s also a day to keep in mind the things that are not Caesar’s – as in Hadley Arkes’s analysis of Iowa yesterday, today’s comments, appropriately, on the end times. In coming days, you will read about populism with George Marlin, and Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey (yes, the one Thomas Merton made famous) with Brad Miner. Now do you remember why you ought to contribute to support The Catholic Thing?

The Apocalypse is by common consent the most enigmatic book in the whole of Sacred Scripture, and commentators descend upon it with a variety of motives. Paul Claudel, on whose desk throughout his diplomatic career was the Vulgate Bible, devoted his retirement years entirely to biblical studies; they make up almost a third of his Oeuvres complètes. Now they are being made available separately in Le poète et la Bible, the first volume of which runs to 1,915 large pages, so that reading it requires some of the skills of a sumo wrestler. Claudel devoted three works to the Apocalypse and could not resist the temptation to find twentieth-century counterparts to events in that final book of the Bible. Why else read a prophetic book if not to discern what it was foretelling?

Of the end times we are assured that we shall know neither the day nor the hour. Nor the year, for that matter. There was an assistant pastor in my home parish who became enamored of private revelations allegedly given to a woman in Chicago. The meat of the message was that the world would end in 1952. Who was I to quibble? Although it was years afterward, I remember sweating out New Year’s Eve on that supposedly fateful year.

Why such impatience for the end of the world? Rattled by that assistant pastor, I asked one of my grade school classmates what he thought of the end of the world. “Which end?” he asked. Not everyone can manage to be that blasé about it. If the prospect of one’s own death concentrates the mind, the end of the whole shebang surely can make claims on our attention. It has certainly attracted novelists.

There are futurist novels that are apocalyptic only in an extended sense of the term. They are not so much about the end of the world tout court, as about the end of our world. Sometimes they are eagerly looking forward to what they depict. H. G. Wells, for the most part, before World War I undermined his technocratic optimism, wrote lovingly of a future world that would entirely replace the present one. But most novels about the future make pretty grim reading. Aldous Huxley’s 1934 novel Brave New World was eerily prescient. The bio-engineering of which he wrote with fascinated dread is all around us now. George Orwell’s 1984 seemed dated when that eponymous year came round, perhaps because much of what he had foretold had come to pass. I have never read a bleaker book than Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It makes one actually long for the definitive end of it all that never comes.

Robert Hugh Benson is one of the few novelists who is closely guided by the Apocalypse. If Satan upstages everyone else in Paradise Lost, the Antichrist gets more than equal billing in novels based on the Apocalypse. In Lord of the World, Benson’s Felsenburg is a plausible depiction of the Antichrist. The novel drives right through to Armageddon and ends with a literal bang. And then the return of the luminous Christ to form a new heaven and a new earth.

Vladimir Soloviev’s Anti-Christ, referred to favorably by the then Cardinal Ratzinger, dramatizes the Russian’s dream of reuniting Christendom, and is short on shiver-inducing scenes. But then it is fairly undramatic.

We live now in what might be called the secularization of the end times. Nevil Shute’s On the Beach was a species of propaganda, but made an effective movie. Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck adopt a kind of “O love, let us be true to one another” attitude, while Fred Astaire gets killed driving a racing car of his fantasies. Get your fun while you can.

Some years ago – I think it no longer exists – there was the Doomsday Clock, ticking toward the ultimate nuclear incineration. It wasn’t a call to prayer. C. S. Lewis, in “Learning in War Time,” addressed the question as to why continue university studies when a war was raging. His answer was, there is always a war raging. We are always under sentence of death. Of course he, like Dr. Johnson, saw in that an invitation to reflect on the meaning of life.

If the apocalypse is merely mortality writ large, we are all present at the apocalypse.

Ralph McInerny (1929-2010) was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.