In the mid-sixth century AD a North African writer named Verecundus sat down to compose a Latin poem. Verecundus was a good Christian, indeed a bishop. And his poem was on a good Christian subject, repentance. In its two hundred or so lines he denounces his own sinfulness, describes his sorrow and remorse, appeals to God for forgiveness, and regrets that he was ever born. Toward the close of the piece his thoughts turn to the day of judgment and the end of the world, a vast conflagration in which all things will be consumed:
Then the sea’s expanse will provide fuel for blazing pyres…
Seas, earth, and sky all become a single furnace,
mountains crumble, a burning brand sets fire to steep ridges
with immense charring; beasts, men, birds,
and whatever the collapsing sky can boast
the fiery summit of the sky enfolds in an instant.
Verecundus’s other surviving work is a commentary on Scripture, and one might naturally assume that he was thinking of the final book of the New Testament, the Apocalypse of John. The Greek apocalypsis literally means an “unhiding” or “unveiling”—hence the book’s English title, Revelation. Since what was “unveiled” to John was the end of the world, “apocalypse” has acquired a secondary sense that has long trumped its primary one. We now use it to mean a cataclysmic destruction, one that wipes out most or all life.
Perhaps surprisingly, Revelation has little to say about fire. Verecundus’s description looks instead to a verse from the Second Epistle of Peter: “The day of the Lord will come…and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.” But the New Testament is not the only inspiration here. For although Verecundus was a bishop, he was also a classically educated littérateur. His poem is written in hexameters, the same meter as Vergil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. And his vision of the end also reflects a long tradition of apocalyptic writing in classical thought and poetry. That tradition is the subject of Christopher Star’s new book, Apocalypse and Golden Age.
The most expansive theories of apocalypse go back to the two great philosophies of the Hellenistic period. Epicurus, active in the early third century BC, saw our world as a conglomeration of atoms, randomly assembled, that will eventually disengage and go their separate ways. Stoicism, which arose around the same time, taught that after endless eons the universe will be absorbed by fire, a process the Stoics called ekpyrosis. By some accounts it will then be reborn and repeat itself in every detail.
The Epicurean dissolution and the Stoic ekpyrosis are both total. Nothing of the world we know will survive them, even if the Stoic model allows for a rebirth and the Epicurean atoms will go on to form new worlds. But ancient thinkers also recognized periodic lesser catastrophes—fire, flood, drought, earthquake, or disease—in which human life as we know it is set back but not wiped out altogether. The survivors regroup on higher ground and set about repopulating the world.
Two of these episodes were identified with mythical stories, now best known from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. One is the great flood of which Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha were the sole survivors, reconstituting humanity from stones. The other is the fiery cataclysm caused when the youthful Phaethon tried to drive the chariot of his father, the Sun. Veering too close to the Earth he scorches its surface, drying up rivers and turning the Ethiopians black. Eventually Jupiter, the supreme god, has to step in and destroy him with a thunderbolt.
Destruction provoked by human misbehavior is a common mythical motif. The gods of Mesopotamia tried to drown human beings when they became too numerous and noisy. The God of the Hebrew Bible punishes mankind’s wickedness (Noah and his family excepted) with the Flood, and the Cities of the Plain with fire and brimstone. Ovid’s Jupiter is moved to flood the earth by the evil deeds of Lycaon, who sacrificed a prisoner and served him up for dinner. The cannibalistic feast Atreus sets before his unknowing brother Thyestes makes the sun turn back in its course and threatens eternal night.
The theory of lesser apocalypses seems to have held a special fascination for Plato. In the Timaeus and its unfinished companion dialogue, the Critias, he invented the story of Atlantis and its destruction (though its elaboration is largely the work of modern fantasists). In the third book of the Laws, perhaps his final work, he offers a more prosaic account of these periodic cataclysms, which crops up again in the historian Polybius and in Cicero’s work On the Republic.
The strangest and most complex version, though, is found in one of Plato’s less familiar dialogues, the Statesman. Here a stranger from the city of Elis gives a mythical account in which a controlling deity (the “helmsman”) guides the universe. At intervals, however, he releases his grip on the wheel, and it reverses its motion. Such a reversal inevitably causes destruction, but time then begins to run backward, and human life reverts to a more primitive and happier form.
The myth in the Statesman includes an early example of the motif known as the golden age, which as Star shows is intimately bound up with the apocalypse theme. The metallic term, and its connection to periodic destruction, can already be found in the early Greek poet Hesiod, thought to be a contemporary of Homer. Hesiod had told of a succession of human races, the best and earliest of whom was the golden race. Further metallic generations followed, each destroyed in turn by the gods or their leader, Zeus. In due course Zeus will destroy the present race as well, though Hesiod is stingy with details.
The Statesman already shows us the characteristics of the golden age as they appear in later writers. Spring is eternal, crops grow by themselves, the weather is always balmy. Often the description heaps up negatives. Gonzalo’s description of his ideal commonwealth in The Tempest is a late example of the form:
No kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
But of course the golden age does not last forever. Eventually humans degenerate and the helmsman is forced to step in once more, beginning a new cycle.
From philosophy the apocalypse theme made its way into literature. Not surprisingly, it crops up most often in authors who straddle the line between the two. One of these is Lucretius, who expounded the teachings of Epicurus in his majestic poem On Nature. Another is Seneca, a Stoic who also wrote eight surviving tragedies. Despite their philosophical commitments, these writers use the theme opportunistically: not as a doctrine but as an idea to play with. Lucretius suggests at one point that the end is far off, at another that it might be quite close. In one passage it is painted as gradual decline, in another as sudden. One would expect the Stoic Seneca to endorse ekpyrosis, but his most powerful depiction of a cataclysm, in the third book of his Natural Questions, imagines destruction by flooding. In his tragedy Thyestes, Star notes, the chorus envisions the end of the world, provoked by Atreus’s crimes, not as a “big burn” but as “a big crunch that will crush the world and return it to dark and formless chaos.”
Apocalyptic thinking seems to flourish at particular periods. In a culture where comets and eclipses foretold the death of kings, it was natural to posit an analogy between cosmic cataclysm and political disorder: as above, so below. In the dying years of the Roman Republic, it is easy to see why Lucretius or Cicero might have been attracted to the theme. For them, however, the relationship is one of contrast, not analogy. Contemplating the apocalypse ought to teach us a sense of proportion. Dire as our troubles seem to us, they are minute in the vaster symphony of creation and destruction. (Come on, it’s not the end of the world!)
To see the analogy in full force, we have to go to Lucan’s unfinished epic On the Civil War, written a hundred years later, under Nero. Lucan invokes the apocalypse not to minimize but to heighten the importance of his subject—part of his aesthetic of excess. When Caesar’s army in Spain has to endure torrential rains, Lucan paints it as a second flood. When Caesar himself tries to sail from Greece to Italy in a small boat, the storm that prevents him is described in cosmic terms. The outbreak of hostilities produces a lengthy catalog of portents suggesting that the end is, or might be, nigh.
Catastrophism is also a theme for the poets of the Augustan period, and here the golden age comes in once more. It is characteristic of the golden age that it is not here and now. Most often it is placed in the past, before some catastrophe ended it. Adam and Eve enjoyed it in Eden, before the Fall. For the Greeks it took place in the days of Kronos, before his son Zeus overthrew him and ushered in the world we know. It may linger, perhaps, in distant regions, among far-off peoples, at the edges of the earth. But not here.
If history is cyclical, though, then catastrophe may be but prologue to a new golden age. This is a logic appropriate to panegyric, and is most famously employed in Vergil’s Fourth Eclogue, a poem he wrote around 40 BC. In this composition Vergil proclaims the advent of a miraculous boy-child who will bring about a return of the age of gold with all its conventional trappings. Vergil does not mention apocalypse, but he didn’t need to. When he wrote, his readers had experienced nearly a decade of civil war. They knew well enough what the end of the world looked like.
Medieval readers assumed the child was Christ, of whose birth Vergil had been granted advance knowledge. (Perhaps he had learned of it from the Cumaean Sibyl, the mythical prophetess who is invoked in the poem’s fourth line and who guides Aeneas through the underworld in the Aeneid.) Modern historians have preferred to look for Roman babies. Perhaps the most plausible candidate is the hoped-for male offspring of a dynastic marriage between Mark Antony and Octavia, the sister of Antony’s rival, Octavian (the future Augustus).
Alas, Octavia’s baby turned out to be a girl, known to history as Antonia the Elder. But why waste a good poem? Vergil hung on to the piece and included it in his collection of Eclogues, where it still sits, somewhat uneasily, amid the pastoral songs that make up most of the volume. As for Antonia, she grew to adolescence and was married off, becoming in due course the grandmother of the emperor Nero.
Nero’s reign proved another focal point for apocalyptic thinking. It is his name that seems to be concealed (via numerology) in the “Beast” of Revelation. He figures frequently in the surviving Sibylline Oracles (later Greek texts, mostly of Jewish and Christian origin), sometimes coming to life again to lead a Parthian army against Rome. Seneca and Lucan, both masters of apocalyptic imagery, wrote at his court.
Seneca’s own fascination with the apocalypse theme seems to have pulled other examples of it into his orbit. He appears as a character in the tragedy Octavia, written by an unknown author after Nero’s death, where he gives a speech predicting the end of the world. A collection of epigrams ascribed to him (wrongly, most scholars think) opens with a meditation on the end times:
All things devouring time consumes, all things
shifts from their place, lets nothing last for long.
Rivers will fail, the ocean’s shores stand dry,
mountains collapse, and lofty ridges fall.
Yet what of these? The heaven’s brilliant vault
Itself will blaze up suddenly in flame.
Death comes for all—no punishment, but law.
A time shall come when this world is no more.
Even Nero himself got in on the act. An anecdote in Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars has someone quote a line of Euripides in Nero’s hearing: “When I am dead, let earth be mixed with fire.” “While I am living, rather!” interjects the emperor. (It was easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of Nero.)
For Star, we live in “a time that has largely moved beyond prophecy, visions, poetry, and philosophy about the future and has replaced them with forecasts, scenarios, and risk management.” This seems a false dichotomy even on its own terms: end-times prophecy is alive and well at your local megachurch. And if we are willing to expand the field to novels and films, apocalypse narrative has been among the most productive of modern forms.
The cause of the apocalypse can vary. Twentieth-century novelists were understandably preoccupied with nuclear war (On the Beach, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Riddley Walker). Other possibilities include a comet or asteroid strike or an electromagnetic pulse. The cause can even be supernatural: the Left Behind series quarries the sequence of events in Revelation for a mixture of political thriller and scriptural exegesis. In still other cases (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for example), there is a recognition that no explanation is really needed. The apocalypse has arrived, and here we are.
Like the detective story, apocalypse fiction is a product of the early nineteenth century. Having already invented science fiction with Frankenstein (1818), Mary Shelley helped create the apocalypse novel with The Last Man (1826). A baggy three-decker roman à clef, it ends with its twenty-first-century hero in Rome, apparently the sole survivor of a plague that has swept Europe. In a nod to Vergil, the novel purports to be drawn from prophecies discovered in the Sibyl’s cave.
Shelley’s was not the first “last man” novel. Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville had published his Miltonic fantasy Le Dernier Homme in 1805. Shelley may have known its 1806 English version, The Last Man, or Omegarus and Syderia, A Romance in Futurity. The idea had also appeared in poetry, notably Byron’s “Darkness.” Shelley’s real innovation was to combine this “sole survivor” motif with a detailed pandemic narrative of the sort found in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. Shelley invokes “De Foe” twice by name, and the Journal introduces many elements that become standard in the genre: the first warnings, the unsuccessful attempts to contain the outbreak, the flight from the city to the countryside, survivors thrown together by chance, the victim who tries to conceal his infection. Defoe’s dispassionate narrative voice owes something to a still older model, Thucydides’ account of the plague that struck Athens during the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides was also a major source for Lucretius, whose poem closes, rather unexpectedly, with a description of that same outbreak.
Pandemics have remained a staple of apocalypse narrative, as in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014). And the device is integral to what is surely the genre’s most successful offshoot: the zombie apocalypse. First identifiable in George Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, the form shambles unstoppably on. Notable recent entrants are Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s graphic novel series The Walking Dead and Max Brooks’s World War Z (“an oral history of the Zombie War”), with their television and film adaptations.
The zombie narrative by now is conventional enough to attract parody (as in the 2004 film Shaun of the Dead) or to serve as a vehicle for other concerns. Candace Chen, the narrator of Ling Ma’s 2018 novel Severance, is living in New York when an airborne fungal infection called “Shen Fever” leaves most of humanity in a zombie-like state. She heads for imagined sanctuary in Illinois with a small group of other survivors, led by a controlling former IT guy named Bob. But much of the novel is told in flashback; the zombie frame masks an exploration of millennial ennui, globalization, and Asian American identity.
This should not surprise us. The apocalypse and its aftermath have always been a way of thinking about our own society, both as it is and as we can imagine it becoming. Plato’s antediluvian Atlantis is suspiciously reminiscent of the fifth-century Athenian empire. Shelley’s The Last Man is, among other things, a fantasia of radical politics in which England has become a republic. The would-be survivors in Night of the Living Dead are a microcosm of late-Sixties America; its African American hero outlasts the zombies only to be shot by a white sheriff’s deputy mopping up the undead dead-enders.
As we saw, the ancient apocalypse is sometimes provoked by human wickedness—the cannibal feasts of Lycaon or Thyestes. But in modern treatments the more relevant figure is Phaethon: the marvelous boy who aspires to power he cannot properly control. The contemporary cataclysm is often brought on by science, medicine, or technology gone awry. The zombie plague in the film I Am Legend (2007) started out as a cure for cancer. In 28 Days Later (2002) animal rights activists release infected chimps from a lab, with unfortunate results. There is a kind of equilibrium at work here. In its quest for knowledge, humanity has moved too far from its own physicality. It must be brought back to earth, not by Jove’s thunderbolt but by walking corpses whose only use for brains is eating them.
The apocalypse can be a vehicle for hopes as well as fears. Life after it will be difficult and primitive, yet also, somehow, better. The science-fiction novelist Brian Aldiss coined the mocking label “cosy catastrophe” for such imaginings. As with the golden age, the benefits can be enumerated in what is absent. No HR trainings, no student debt payments, no digital panopticon. There will be no copays or deductibles after the apocalypse; “medical billing specialist” will not be a career track. Instead, renewable energy and community gardening—a future out of E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful (1973). The survivors of The Walking Dead manage to create such a society, at least for a time—ironically, inside an abandoned prison.
This fantasy has its conservative counterpart. When the end times come, society will revert to traditional values. Husbands will be providers and wives will know their place. White men who now feel disrespected or unvalued by their fellow citizens will suddenly find themselves important and their skills much in demand. After the world ends, the people in charge will be the people with the guns, free to dispatch fearsome, subhuman Others without consequences.
Apocalypse narratives frequently dramatize the conflict between these visions. In The Last Man the noble Adrian (modeled on Shelley’s dead husband) is challenged for leadership of the survivors by a “self-erected prophet.” Station Eleven pits a troupe of Shakespearean actors against a sinister young cult leader. The Walking Dead gestures toward the conservative scenario; its central character, Rick Grimes, was a small-town police officer in the before times. Yet its primary group of survivors is diverse to an almost implausible degree, its women characters as tough as its men: when the zombies arrive, there will be no room for racism or sexism.
Wherever they fall ideologically, apocalypse narratives tend to share certain common features. Virtually all assume that the apocalypse will be a sudden event, unfolding over days or weeks, not years. This holds true even for many fictional pandemics. Station Eleven’s “Georgia Flu” combines nearly immediate onset with a 100 percent fatality rate, an unlikely conjunction in real life.
The high fatality rate is essential. For apocalypse narrative also assumes vast depopulation. This is the source of some of its most haunting images: Will Smith and his dog traversing an unpeopled Manhattan in I Am Legend, the extreme long shot of a lone London taxi driving up an empty motorway at dawn in 28 Days Later. Survivors subsist alone or in small groups, up to the size of a television show’s recurring cast. And they must be constantly on the move: to find supplies, to stay ahead of the zombies, to encounter new characters and new perils. At heart, every apocalypse movie is a road movie.
The appeal of the zombie apocalypse is so strong that the Centers for Disease Control used it as the basis of a 2011 disaster preparedness guide. And the fictional world of The Walking Dead both mirrors and influences the modern “prepper” movement. Aided by a helpful survivalist industry, the prepper aims to stockpile enough supplies to sustain and defend a small, select group: his immediate family, perhaps a few like-minded friends. The group will need food and medicine, of course. Since government-issued currency will be worthless, they must stock up on gold or bitcoin. Above all, they will need plenty of guns and ammo. For the biggest threat will not be hunger, disease, or zombies. It will be other survivors.
But is this really how things will play out? Chris Begley thinks not. Begley is an anthropologist with a sideline in underwater archaeology. He has done extensive fieldwork in the jungles of Honduras; based on that experience he now teaches classes in wilderness survival alongside his academic work. His book The Next Apocalypse draws on all these interests.
To read Begley after Star is a study in contrasts. Star’s book is cautious, dense, thoroughly researched, and (it must be confessed) rather dull, in the way that only an American academic monograph can be. Begley’s volume is lively and personal—a book for the airport lounge, not the faculty lounge. A review quoted on the back cover compares Begley to Indiana Jones, and while The Next Apocalypse contains no Nazis or Old Testament artifacts, its first-person interludes are among its best parts. “Water was up to my knees,” begins one chapter, “which was disconcerting because I was sitting in the passenger seat of a truck.”
The book is divided into three parts: past, present, and future. The first section looks at the collapses (or supposed collapses) of three societies: the Maya, the late Roman Empire in the West, and the indigenous peoples of eastern North America after 1492.
Begley writes partly in reaction to Jared Diamond’s best-selling Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005). This comes out particularly in his discussion of the Classic Maya collapse of the ninth century AD. In Begley’s summary, Diamond “attributed the decline to the elites, the divine kings of the Maya, who created and ignored social problems with their endless demands for warfare and sumptuary goods.” Begley finds this too simplistic, preferring to envision “a multicausal cascade of events.” This, he suggests, is typical: “Regardless of the cause or causes that [set] the whole thing in motion, the collapse of complex human systems [is] always complex as well.” Begley is not, I think, altogether fair to Diamond, whose analysis actually posits various factors, out-of-touch elites being only one of them. What Begley really seems to object to, however, is Diamond’s use of the word “collapse.” He would put the emphasis instead on transformation and resiliency.
Begley does not pretend to be a historian, and his historical analysis is thin indeed. The fall of Rome, conventionally placed in AD 476, is a subject with a lot of textual evidence and an enormous scholarly literature. Begley’s discussion consists of “conversations” with three other archaeologists, two of whom have no particular expertise in this area. (One is a specialist in Pharaonic Egypt, the other in the Greek island of Delos at an earlier period.)
This is not to quarrel with Begley’s conclusions, however. Few scholars of late antiquity would now argue for the kind of monolithic explanations that once jockeyed for acceptance. (It was Christianity, it was the barbarians, it was elite corruption, or ecological collapse, or lead poisoning…) The problem is not so much that no single factor can explain the fall, but that there was no single fall that needs explaining. When the line of western emperors came to an end in the 470s, the role had long been a figurehead. The empire had evolved significantly in the political and military crisis of the third century; it changed again under the Christian emperor Constantine in the fourth. The seventh century is in some ways a clearer watershed than the fifth. But culture that is recognizably Roman can be traced into the ninth century and beyond. Many things altered over these six hundred years, but where we should locate a “fall” or “collapse” is by no means obvious.
If we are looking for a sudden, monocausal collapse, the best candidate among Begley’s trio is the native experience in North America. Within a century of Europeans’ arrival, the indigenous population was reduced by roughly 90 percent, thanks to a wave of European-borne illnesses and the increasingly energetic efforts of Europeans themselves. Yet even this grim process was a matter of many decades, not weeks or months.
For Begley it is case studies like these, not apocalypse fiction, that should guide us in imagining the next apocalypse. Otherwise we will find ourselves preparing not for the last war, but for a war that has never happened and never will—because it is fictional. Prepper survivalism, like the books and movies that it reflects and informs, is not grounded in the past, nor is it likely to be very helpful in the future.
But if not The Walking Dead, what will the next apocalypse look like? “The End begins before you are ever aware of it,” says the narrator of Ling Ma’s Severance. Since cataclysm is a complex process, it may be recognizable only in hindsight. Begley is surely right about the biggest threat: climate change, interacting with economic inequality and political dysfunction. The coming decades will involve more and larger wildfires, longer droughts, more frequent and dangerous flooding. These will afflict some more than others, and government’s responses will be equally uneven. This is the imaginative world of J.G. Ballard or (more optimistically) of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future (2020).
For some of the world the process is just beginning; elsewhere it is well underway. (The apocalypse is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.) As a worsening climate intersects with an ongoing pandemic and a major European war, Americans are already experiencing what we have quickly learned to call supply chain failures. Some of these are trivial, like scarcities of bucatini or sriracha. Others are more troublesome: shortages of infant formula or tampons. The electricity grid has failed disastrously in Texas. Drought and fire in the west are at unprecedented levels. Future historians may echo Begley’s summary of the Mayan collapse: “In the end, there was a whole slew of things that went wrong.”
Yet Begley has comfort to offer. Past apocalypses have not been a case of everything, everywhere, all at once. Roman government withered in the West but persisted in the East as the Byzantine Empire. The cities in the southern part of the Maya area may have collapsed, but the population in the northern lowlands increased. Native Americans died off in huge numbers, yet there are still Native American communities in the twenty-first century US.
Something similar is likely to hold true, on a larger scale, for the next apocalypse. Eight billion (the approximate population of the world) is a very large number; even a small portion of it would still be a large number. Those of us who survive will encounter the postapocalyptic world as large communities, not small bands of nomads. Certainly there will be displacement, and there may be value in basic short-term survival skills: knowing how to find water, start a fire, determine where north is. Begley offers tips in passing, most of them reassuringly simple. Survival knives are fine, but a sturdy kitchen knife will do in a pinch. Eating plants is risky, but dandelions and their lookalikes are safe and edible. Yes, it’s possible to make a fire by rubbing two sticks together, but you’re better off carrying cotton balls and a cigarette lighter.
For the most part, though, survival won’t mean living off the grid but helping to put some sort of grid back together. Some kinds of knowledge will be especially helpful: it would be good if more Americans had firsthand experience of farming, for example. But the most valuable skills will be intangible: the ability to work in a team and maintain group morale, to assess information, and to recognize competence in others.
Begley’s tone is generally upbeat, but our collective performance during Covid does not inspire vast optimism here. The US is not unique in the climate threats it faces, but it does confront particular political challenges: a federal government now dysfunctional beyond any likely prospect of repair, corrupt and predatory police, a significant minority of citizens armed with mind-boggling amounts of weaponry. The vicious official hostility to refugees we saw during the first Trump administration has receded only incrementally under Trump’s successor. When disaster strikes, most people’s instinct is to help. Yet as Begley looks ahead to larger waves of climate refugees, even his optimism is challenged. “I am not sure,” he concedes, “if our better nature will always prevail over a longer period.”
Among fictional scenarios, perhaps the most plausible is not The Walking Dead but something like Christopher Brown’s novel Tropic of Kansas (2017). In Brown’s vision, a fascist president rules over a rump United States through a mix of secret service agents, military contractors, right-wing militias, and drones. Large portions of the heartland (the “tropic” of the title) are under no one’s effective control. The timeline of Brown’s America diverged from ours around 1979 but is still within hailing distance of our own reality; his President Mack is reminiscent of both George W. Bush and Donald Trump.
It’s a bleak picture, and for those with the means, it is tempting to imagine an opt-out. Boccaccio’s young aristocrats holed up from the plague in a secluded country villa. Poe’s Prince Prospero hid from the Red Death in a castle, complete with buffoons and improvisatori. Today’s ultrarich busy themselves buying Hawaiian estates or refuges in New Zealand, acquiring second passports from helpful Caribbean nations, or funding libertarian experiments with “seasteading”—artificial structures in international waters. The world’s richest man, Elon Musk, bids us slip the surly bonds of Earth itself and colonize Mars. (“Listen:” said E.E. Cummings, “there’s a hell/of a good universe next door; let’s go.”)
Escapist fantasy of this sort goes back a long way. In the 30s BC, around the time Vergil composed his Fourth Eclogue, his colleague Horace was writing his seventeen Epodes. In the penultimate poem Horace paints a dark picture of the near future and urges contemporary Romans (or at least “the better sort”) to set sail with him for the islands of the blessed, far out in the Atlantic. There the golden age lingers and they can enjoy its traditional delights, which Horace lovingly describes.
Scholars have debated how seriously to take this invitation au voyage. Presumably Horace has not actually chartered a vessel for his projected trip. But should we take his poem at face value, as a real cry of anguish? Or is it a sly satire? This is the same Horace, after all, who later wrote, in his Epistles, that “the man who hastens across the sea changes his scenery, not his soul.”
There is perhaps a clue in the poem’s final line. Horace urges his listeners to embark me vate, “with me as your vates.” The word vates can mean an inspired prophet, the sort of person who seems to speak in the poem’s opening lines. (We still speak in English of a “vatic” utterance.) But by Horace’s day vates had come to mean merely “poet.” The islands of the blessed lie open to us, the poem suggests—but only in Horace’s verse.
We are left, then, to confront the apocalypse, which is perhaps already in progress. But we need not confront it alone. As Begley stresses, “Communities—groups beyond our families—will always be how we survive.” Rather than apocalypse fiction, we might look to Czesław Miłosz’s “A Song on the End of the World” as our model. Miłosz wrote in Warsaw in 1944, as good a candidate for the end times as any. Yet his apocalypse is grounded in the homely and familiar:
On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island….
His vision ends with an old man (“not a prophet, for he’s much too busy”) tying up his tomato plants as he repeats to himself the poem’s famous last line: “There will be no other end of the world.”
There will be no other end of the world.