By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Art by Edem EleshPEOPLE ARE DISQUIETINGLY RELAXED OF LATE. YOU'D think they'd be a little edgier, what with Balkan blunders promising catastrophe on a scale the planet hasn't seen for 60 years; Pakistanis and Indians facing off over a largely uninhabitable patch of mountainside real estate, their gun belts aglow with plutonium; the towering global economy repeatedly revealed to be resting on rotten pilings; the uncertain monster of Y2Kraziness lurking quietly at the end of the hall. Even in L.A., reputedly mile zero for the restless apocalyptic imagination, folks just keep on with their workaday freeway business, apparently unalarmed that Nostradamus, that old whore of a prophet, scheduled the final battle for the seventh month of 1999. Where are the mass suicides, armed insurrections, ecumenical prayer breakfasts and other symptoms of millennial hysteria?
Nine scant decades ago, people still knew how to panic. Little more than the passage of Halley's comet in 1910 spurred thousands to gather in streets and parks, praying in unison that the Earth might be spared. This was not the last time a celestial event would inspire such a reaction (remember how the Nike-clad Heaven's Gaters greeted comet Hale-Bopp?), and it was far from the first. In his new book, Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs Through the Ages, UCLA professor emeritus Eugen Weber indexes countless other such outbreaks in an admirable attempt to give eschatology, the theorizing of the End, its due place in the history of Western culture.
Beginning in the 17th century, calculating the date of the Antichrist's arrival and speculating on his identity (which for over a millennium had been a run-of-the-mill scholarly endeavor) fell out of favor among educated elites. Though it continues to hold a tight grip on the Western imagination, Weber writes, "To the extent that traditional eschatology no longer fits world views we now consider rational, it has been marginalized or swept under the carpet." To right the record, he embarks on a selective journey through Western history, exhibiting the prominence of millennialism all along the way. Weber accurately characterizes his work as more of a "travel book" than a comprehensive account, offering "more narrative than interpretation, more description than explanation." And though it at times feels too much like an account of one of those weeklong, 60-city, marathon bus tours of Europe, Apocalypses does make many fascinating, if overbrief, stops throughout the centuries.
Weber reveals that the Crusades, not just a pushy land grab, "were about preparing Jerusalem for the return of Christ"; that Columbus saw his voyage in much the same light; that Newton wrote a tract entitled Thoughts on the Apocalypse; that John Napier, who invented logarithms, "valued them chiefly because they speeded up his calculations of the number of the Beast"; that participants in the French and English revolutions saw their struggles in the context of the Final Confrontation; that liberal social-reform movements in Britain and America found their roots in the attempts of millennially minded Christians to hasten the Parousia by tidying the savior's home to be; that the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine was eased by the centuries-old conviction among gentiles that Christ would not return until a Jewish kingdom ruled again in Jerusalem; that Ronald Reagan and his cabinet didn't trouble themselves over protecting the environment because they were convinced that "the world would end long before its resources were exhausted"; that Pat Robertson worries about what lighting would be best suited for televising the Rapture.
All very interesting, but despite his introductory disclaimers, it's hard to let Weber off the hook for offering so little by way of analysis. "Every era produces apocalyptic visions appropriate to its circumstances," he allows in the beginning, but after 200 pages of variegated Doomsday dreaming, he concludes only that "It is not the siècle, but the fin that matters," a rather unhistorical observation for a historian to make. And if it is the fin that matters, Weber has still less of interest to say about why we tend to wish so feverishly for the end. "One is inclined to offer a banal answer," he writes, and then proceeds to do so, explaining that fantasies of a redeeming catastrophe help us through rough times. Without any detailed dissection of how eschatology functions in specific historical and ideological situations, all the fun facts he's compiled are no more sating than a smoothee.
Which is not to say that smoothees can't be tasty -- Weber writes in an occasionally elegant and witty, always accessible style unusual for an academic. The evenness of his prose, though, often conflicts oddly with the violence of his subjects' passions. For Weber seems to share none of the radical dissatisfaction with the existing world that inspired many of them to dream so hungrily of its destruction and re-creation in a holier guise. He appears far fonder of the staid postmillennarians who sought to prepare the world for Christ's homecoming by combating drunkenness and establishing schools for wayward boys than for the revolutionaries whose (often irreligious) visions of the end involved shaking things up a little bit more. And while he disdains the bloodiness of these revolutionary passions -- and the actions they often inspired -- he fails to rain similar scorn on the bloodiness and cruelty of the world they sought to forcibly renew.