I read an essay in the Chronicle about apocalyptic thinking that solidified some ideas that I have been unable to organize in my mind. The gist is that Apocalyptic thinking is really just egotism. For example, take when Harold Camping predicted the world would end. That was more narcissistic than anything else. I feel some tension when I make that judgment: although I laugh at his conceit, I still love dystopian fiction. That makes me a little narcissistic, too.
Dystopian fiction has a lot in common with apocalypse prediction. Apocalyptic thinking is self-flattery: it is imagining that the world is incapable of existing without us. It is the sense that our lives “sit at the center of time, that our age and no other is history’s fulcrum…” Just like Apocalyptic thinking, the dystopian premise is that “we live in the most interesting times in human history.”
Post apocalyptic literature imagines that “our anxieties are uniquely awful; that the crises of our age will be the ones that finally do civilization in; that we are privileged to witness the beginning of the end.” The crises of our age may be real, but they are probably not the beginning of much of anything. The Lottery of History suggests that (all else being equal) we are more likely to have been born somewhere in the middle than on the last page.
What if we start our imaginations on the frightening and less-familiar premise that history has no direction and no particular great cataclysm of any external significance? Maybe abandoning our faith that history has some great narrative can lead to a more honest engagement. What if we coldly evaluate even our dearest loves and the possible defeat of our world? Can we not take crises to have significance, even if only to ourselves? To me (and evidently this author) our short lives seem more urgent in this light.