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.
THERE IS ONE PARTICULARLY NASTY APOCALYPTIC vision that somehow escaped Weber's notice, perhaps because it is so prevalent as to approach invisibility: that of capital triumphant. The Soviet Union's cadaver was still twitching when conservative pundits had begun gloating greedily over not only the death of communism, but the much-celebrated End of History. The crumbling of the Berlin Wall heralded the arrival of the millennial rule of money transcendent. Neither ideology nor class â conflict would ever again oppose the free flow of global capital.
This sweaty-palmed fantasy is the target of Juan Goytisolo's brilliant satirical novel The Marx Family Saga. Published in Spain in 1993 and vividly translated by Peter Bush three years later, it has at last been released in this country by City Lights Books. The novel opens with the promise of a conventional plot. A boat teeming with Albanian refugees runs ashore on an exclusive Italian beach, its bedraggled cargo entranced by "the resplendent vision of Eden, that remote, inaccessible Promised Land till then only glimpsed through cyclopean eyes, plethora, abundance, riches, arrayed on the smooth well-groomed beach, packed with beautiful, refined people." But, just as the Albanians are being escorted away from the horrified "paladins of well-being and free enterprise" by riot police, the scene shifts to Karl Marx's London apartment, where his daughters are watching it all on TV.
From there on in, linear narrative is abandoned almost entirely, and Goytisolo leaps from Berlin to Moscow to Paris in the space of a few pages, mingling the living with the dead and the fictional with the historical, indulging in lengthy theoretical digressions and occasional debates with the novel-within-the-novel's putative publisher, who furiously insists, "Readers of novels, like television-serial addicts, want to be gripped by a sustained and interesting plot, tense, human scenes, oodles of emotion!"
The publisher, fortunately, does not get his wish. The writer seeks to free his pen from service to "the empire of the image . . . to unmask the myths and circumstances mediating between Marx and the public at large, to integrate into the work the filters through which we perceive his elusive, contradictory personality." So instead of domestic drama, we see Mikhail Bakunin play anarchist pranks on the metro, dressing as a billionaire and asking commuters for donations. ("My wealth, ladies and gentlemen, increases by the day! . . . but it's not enough! . . . I'm voracious, I need more!") Marx is confronted by the inexplicable collapse of the governments founded under the guidance of his work; by television producers making a miniseries of his family life; by the patriarch Abraham, who upbraids him for his anti-Semitism; and not least by the author, who, in a series of conversations ("How's it going, Mr. novelist? Still sniffing around?"), asks him about everything from the seeds of totalitarianism lurking in his thought to his behavior as husband and father.
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Goytisolo does not let Marx off easy: A feminist character attacks Marx's chauvinism, an Indian scholar goes after his colonialism, a handful of anarchists condemn his authoritarianism, and a neoliberal intellectual dismisses him entirely. Goytisolo visits Marx's wife and daughters, the faithful servant who bore the "terroriser of the wealthy classes" a child, and, with great wit, passion and a deep sense of outrage, restores complexity to his much-abused subject. In the end, except to affirm the accuracy of his 150-year-old diagnosis of capitalism's evils, the author declines to judge Marx, admitting he is less troubled by his unwieldy legacy than by "the succession of disasters in a world condemned to the rule of rampant monetarism, whole continents sunk in unremitting poverty, the devastation of the planet, xenophobia, racism, Eurobanking mafia, ethnic cleansings, Orwellian world programming!"
Six years after the novel's original publication, the "new world disorder," as Goytisolo called it, is still ascendant, more disorderly than ever. And apocalypse looms as always.
APOCALYPSES: Prophecies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs Through the Ages | By EUGEN WEBER | Harvard University Press | 294 pages | $25 hardcover
THE MARX FAMILY SAGA | By JUAN GOYTISOLO City Lights | 184 pages | $11 paperback