As Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” and its source material should remind us, the idea of apocalypse is nothing new in human history. We were fascinated with it thousands of years ago, when the villain of the story was an angry God who had decided, for unclear reasons, that the species he had created in his own image was a huge mistake. We remain fascinated with it today, when every Marvel Comics movie, every cable-news broadcast, every nature documentary and every tween fantasy bestseller retails its own version of the coming technological and/or ecological catastrophe. But the nature of the apocalyptic narrative has changed, in ways we’ve only partly noticed. God has receded from the picture over the past century or two, leaving us in his place as both the authors and victims of disaster, the only possible heroes and villains of the story. It’s not clear which we want to be.
In “Noah” we see a contemporary spin on one of the oldest instances of the apocalyptic imagination, but it can be found at work everywhere around us. In Errol Morris’ documentary “The Unknown Known” we see it put to use as a devastating political instrument. Throughout Donald Rumsfeld’s career in public service (definitely a term of art, in his case), he relied on alluring and terrifying apocalyptic fantasies to advance a neoconservative foreign policy agenda, not to mention the economic interests of the military-industrial complex. In the ‘80s, he helped craft elaborate fictions about the looming Soviet threat, which justified the enormous defense buildup of the Reagan years. In the 2000s, the absence of any evidence linking Saddam Hussein to al-Qaida or to nuclear weapons was of course not evidence of absence, leading to a dozen years of pointless war that has poisoned America’s international reputation (even more) and torpedoed any hope of progressive economic policies into the indefinite future.
While Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky’s spectacular and upsetting documentary “Watermark” is not a work of the imagination in the usual sense, its portrait of real-life apocalypse in the making has a mythic and visionary power. Burtynsky makes beautiful, large-format photographs of what humans have done to the planet, and in this often breathtaking film about the most precious of all natural resources – water -- he and co-director Baichwal travel from the poisoned tanneries of Bangladesh to the construction of a Chinese dam six times larger than Hoover Dam to the desiccated delta of the Colorado River to the half-drained Ogallala aquifer in the central U.S., which has driven an agricultural boom that will sooner or later go bust. There are no moralistic lectures or forecasts of doom in “Watermark”; the film has no voice-over narration, and on-screen info is kept to a minimum. The tragedy and yearning are all in the images, and the biblical judgment is in our heads.
We can find versions of the flood myth and associated legends of apocalyptic cleansing many centuries before the Hebrew Bible, in Mesopotamian, Greek, Hindu and even Native American mythology. As long as we’ve had human civilization, it would seem, we have yearned to imagine its destruction. If Yahweh’s rationale for destroying the world in the Genesis account seems pretty murky to the modern reader, the central premise of the whole story is the supposedly reassuring notion that one guy is in charge who knows what he’s doing. There’s an amusing and almost contemporary quality to the chaotic story told in the epic of Gilgamesh, where the disastrous flood results from infighting among a bunch of gods who behave like spoiled children and spend the storm “cowering like dogs” against the walls of heaven. We like these stories for all kinds of reasons, not bad in themselves: We like being as scared as those quarrelsome Mesopotamian gods, we like explanations for unexplained phenomena (whether or not they are true) and we like stern cautionary fables about how we should behave or else.
These yarns about God’s judgment and the end of days also contain a powerful current of wishful thinking, of the urge toward destruction that Freud called the “death-drive.” Every fear hides a wish, as David Mamet observed in a play about a racist homophobe who ends up as the cellmate and lover of an African-American man. In Paul Schrader’s screenplay for “Taxi Driver,” a central text of the postmodern age, Travis Bickle longs for the day when “a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets,” and he’s not excluding himself from the category of scum. Of course Noah and his family survive the Genesis flood, but in Aronofsky’s version (spoiler alert!) Noah is at first convinced that God has chosen him because he has the strength to follow through with the divine task of total extermination.
On a cultural level, in other words, we are strongly tempted to agree with Yahweh’s judgment that the human race has done a pretty bad job and has got to go. We feel conflicted about it, alternately seduced and repelled by it, drawn inexorably toward it like an addict going back for a deadly fix or matter sliding into the infinite nothingness of a black hole. Indeed, we can rise above the idiocy of contemporary partisan politics here: This is a unifying left-right issue and almost everybody feels this way, at least some of the time. Maybe we’re being punished for gay marriage and political correctness and the Kenyan Muslim commie in the White House; or maybe it’s greed and the oil companies and the Koch brothers. (Both sides get to claim Justin Bieber.) Whatever the details of your theology may be, we’re a stupid species and we’ve got it coming.
Since the beginning of the Industrial Age, and especially since 1945, we have played chicken with Armageddon like reckless teenagers, daring ourselves to go past the point of no return. It’s a cliché to say that the Cuban missile crisis brought us within days of a devastating nuclear war, but that doesn’t make it untrue. If either Kennedy or Khrushchev had been a little bit more of a hothead, we’d have an unimaginably different world today (quite likely without you or me living in it). I grew up during the persistent and almost erotic apocalypse-angst of the Cold War: I kissed some girl in a basement after the broadcast of “The Day After,” vowing to seize the day; I sat in a lovely Manhattan apartment listening to some poli-sci professor go on about Soviet expansionism. (I may have believed that I preferred the Soviet Union at the time, but whatever; it was all quite thrilling.) We managed not to blow up the world despite spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about it, but other versions of the apocalypse were waiting for us. Now it turns out we were poisoning the planet and slow-cooking it with toxic gases the whole time.
These stories of doom and judgment seem hard-wired into us, or at least deeply culturally embedded. I think the big global question of the 21st century may be whether we love these seductive disaster myths so much that finally we cannot resist acting them out in reality, like a slow-motion parody of “Dr. Strangelove.” Arguably that’s exactly what we’re doing now, especially in the energy-hogging eco-catastrophe that is the United States, governed jointly by a political party that claims climate change is a Communist plot and another that promises to get around to doing something about it either this decade, the next one or the one after that. It might be more honest, not to mention less painful, to blow up the place when the water runs out and the air-conditioning fails. According to Fox News, global warming is a hoax, but the missing Malaysian airplane is in Pakistan, being loaded with nukes by Osama bin Laden’s zombie clone army. This is how the world ends.