This week in The New Inquiry William Osterweil explores the recently prevalent “Ancient Apocalypse” film and TV genre. From Gladiator to Apocalypto to Noah to an endless shambling parade of zombie films, an Ancient Apocalypse doesn’t depict the literal end of the world, but situates its heroes at the end of an age, the downfall of a quasi-historical civilization. Osterweil explains:
There is a subnational social group: a tribe, city-state or family, living, if not happily, at least in stability and relative peace. That group receives a prophecy of a coming apocalypse. The prophecy proves true almost immediately, though it refers to the end of the world only insofar as it is the end of the group as currently constituted, the end of the group’s forms of life, the group’s world. This end is violent, sudden, and comes from the outside, in the form of natural disaster, foreign hordes, or rival groups with better technology—although its effects are exacerbated by internal decadence, corruption, weakness, willful ignorance, and/or betrayal.
At first blush, these apocalyptic fantasies may seem to promote conservative values. They feature strong heroic individuals who win survival or glory against all odds in the burning debris of a collapsed civilization. Conservatives are of course elitists, and apocalyptic fantasies have a uniformly dismal view of “the people.”
In all these films, perhaps the most consistent trait is horror at being in society, the nightmare of the social in general. In any scene in which people are in “the public sphere”—from drinking in a tavern to mass political decision-making—the crowd is pictured as disgusting, weak, violent, bloodthirsty, ignorant and cowardly.
Of course, these are not actually conservative values. Conservatism exists to preserve civilization for the benefit of the masses, even if they don’t appreciate it, and conservatism is not a philosophy that worships the individual—better say liberalism or Objectivism.
Another problem with viewing this genre as conservative is that obviously after a cultural apocalypse there remains nothing left to conserve. Conservatism (not to be confused with right-wing revolutionism) dedicates itself to the specific task of preventing the apocalypse. Nothing survives the Ancient Apocalypse—or does it?
Certainly, as Osterweil in fact charges, this is a genre with “right-revolutionary” characteristics. He writes, “They imagine a fundamentally overturned world in which the political and economic structures are destroyed but current forms of social organization (the anti-black racial order, patriarchy, militarism) are strengthened in the process of their ending.” The protagonist himself may even die as a necessary sacrifice in establishing these values. The film, as a dramatization of the hero’s struggle against the moribund old order, then serves as his vindication to the audience and to “history.” Keep in mind that the Ancient Apocalypse is not actual history, but an anachronistic morality tale in historical costume.
The Ancient Apocalypse is in fact one more fantasy belonging to the anticulture, one more deathwork in which the ugly vices of modern culture take off their masks for a moment in the supposedly neutral space of art. The genre even romanticizes the Hobbesian “war of all against all” which supposedly underlies the modern social contract. It dramatizes a kind of “survival of the fittest” a la Herbert Spencer or Malthus, in which the human race is violently purified.
A cultural apocalypse isn’t the literal end of the world, of course—”it’s just the end of you.” Civilization can survive a collapse. The Roman Empire fell to the barbarians, but it wasn’t long before the barbarians succumbed to Christendom and rebuilt the civilized world. But cultural resurrection doesn’t interest the creators of apocalyptic fantasy, who tend to set their stories in a pre- or post-Christian society.
The creators of “Ancient Apocalypse” films and, more broadly, those who create and consume what has been referred to as “disaster porn” get thrills from what are ultimately fantasies about their own destruction. It is a form of vicarious suicide. Osterweil writes:
” . . . the films reveal what yearning for apocalyptic survival as comeuppance actually is: a celebration of hate, prejudice, and a desire for death. . . . [A]ll the apocalypse cult has to look forward to is its self-immolation in the cleansing and murderous distribution of ‘justice’.”
Apocalyptic fantasies exclude hope, the Christian virtue that typifies conservatism. Hope is not limited only to the afterlife, the Second Coming, or the individual. It also necessitates hopeful action, protection, and charity toward the people and elements of our culture that are weak and sick. It seeks to preserve, renew, and save even those things that are most at risk and weighed down by ideology.
In this respect, I think in one of his asides Osterweil perhaps misunderstands or misinterprets the Apocalypse of St. John, relying more on the convoluted interpretations imposed on it by 20th-century fundamentalists than an actual reading of the text in the context of its writing and the rest of the canon of Scripture. John’s Apocalypse was written to Christians who were already experiencing what felt like the end of the world, as Jerusalem was wiped out and Rome plunged into moral depravity and sadistic entertainments. John comforts persecuted Christians with the assurance that they have not been abandoned by Christ, and that he will be faithful to judge evil and restore the world.
The Ancient Apocalypse and more broadly speaking the disaster film in general sees nothing good in civilization. Its view of society and culture bears a resemblance to radical Islamist, Marxist, or totalitarian approaches: the past must be utterly destroyed to usher in a supposedly better order.
On a side note, these critiques do not necessarily apply to the “post-apocalyptic” genre, which at its best does seek to imagine how a humane culture might be rebuilt in the wake of destruction.
So where does this leave us? It is necessary to oppose and condemn apocalyptic fantasies as one of the means by which our society continues to destroy itself. We must let Osterweil have the last word:
An apocalypse produced by collapse, by god or climate change, internal contradiction or nuclear bomb, will never provide heaven on earth.