‘End of the world vibes’: why culture can’t stop thinking about apocalypse | Books

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It is a sunny afternoon in Taormina, Sicily, and two wealthy couples on holiday are drinking Aperol spritz on a balcony overlooking the sea. Harper, who runs on anxiety and guilt, says she has trouble sleeping because of “everything that’s going on in the world”. Daphne, who runs on pleasure and denial, asks what she means. “Oh, I don’t know,” says Harper. “Just, like, the end of the world.” Daphne laughs. “Oh no, Harper! The world’s not ending, it’s not that bad.” She doesn’t follow the news any more. “And even if it was as bad as they say it is, I mean what can you really do, you know?” Harper and Daphne are sitting on the same beautiful hotel balcony, drinking the same expensive drinks, but only one of them is tormented by the sense that we are all doomed. “It’s like we’re all entertaining each other while the world burns,” says Harper.

This is a scene from season two of the HBO series The White Lotus, starring Aubrey Plaza as Harper and Meghann Fahy as Daphne. The show leaves open the question of whether Harper’s position is a morally responsible reaction to vast and dangerous problems or a yelp of impotent despair. “Such convictions in the mouths of safe, comfortable people playing at crisis, alienation, apocalypse and desperation, make me sick,” complains the protagonist of Saul Bellow’s 1964 novel Herzog. “We must get it out of our heads that this is a doomed time, that we are waiting for the end, and the rest of it … Things are grim enough without these shivery games … We love apocalypses too much.”

From left: Aubrey Plaza, Theo James, Meghann Fahy and Will Sharpe in The White Lotus: Season 2. Photograph: Fabio Lovino/HBO

What would Herzog say now? Conservatives and progressives offer competing narratives of decline and doom. Many climate activists speak of irreparable breakdown and even human extinction. There are new terms such as doomer, polycrisis and Generation Dread. A peer-reviewed 2021 survey of people aged between 16 and 25 around the world found that 56% agreed with the statement “Humanity is doomed”. In a 2020 YouGov poll, nearly one in three Americans said they expected an apocalyptic event in their lifetimes, with the Christian Judgment Day relegated to fourth place by a pandemic, climate change and nuclear war; zombies and aliens brought up the rear. While promoting his doomsday satire Don’t Look Up in 2021, director Adam McKay awkwardly tried to define this era: “the Great Awfulization … or the Gilded Rage … You can just really call it collapse culture … There’s such a list of things to keep your eye on.”

This is not the religious end of time, or eschaton, that has fascinated humanity for thousands of years, but the end of the world as a pervasive mood – a vibe. “It’s pretty clear the world is ending,” Marc Maron says in his comedy special End Times Fun. “I don’t want to shock anybody. Seems to be happening though.” Everybody laughs. Nobody responds as if this were a preposterous claim, just as no reviewer of Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You seemed taken aback by one character’s insistence that there is “no chance for the planet, and no chance for us” and “we are standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something”. Sheila Heti compares life in 2022 to “being in a plane that was slowly twirling to the ground” in her quietly apocalyptic novel Pure Colour. “Hey, what can you say?” sings the comedian Bo Burnham in his satirical ballad That Funny Feeling. “We were overdue / But it’ll be over soon, you wait.” An entirely routine way to express dissatisfaction with the world is to say that it is ending.

In her 2021 novel Fake Accounts, Lauren Oyler pokes fun at what she sees as a propensity to wallow in self-loathing and impotence: “the popular turn to fatalism could be attributed to self-aggrandizement and an ignorance of history, history being characterized by the population’s quickness to declare apocalypse finally imminent despite its permanently delayed arrival”. This is a fallacy known as presentism, or chronocentrism: the delusion that one’s own generation is experiencing what has never been experienced before and will never be experienced again. Such temporal egotism has been baked into apocalyptic thought since John of Patmos promised “The time is at hand” in the Book of Revelation. As Frank Kermode argued in his classic 1967 book The Sense of an Ending, we resist the idea that we live in the middle of history, unable to know how it all ends or to be a part of the climactic drama. To make sense of life, Kermode wrote, “we need fictions of beginnings and fictions of ends, fictions which unite beginning and end and endow the interval between them with meaning”.

Therefore, even if we are not religious, we like to think that our own time is a unique and crucial turning point. The word crisis comes from a medical Latin term for the point in an illness that decides whether the patient will recover or die. We seem to be built to imagine that we live, if not at the end of the world, then at least at the end of an era. We love to talk about the death of this and the fall of that, and to boast that we are there to witness it. We do like to feel special. “We always want a ‘conclusion’, an end, we always want to come, in our mental processes, to a decision, a finality, a full stop,” DH Lawrence wrote not long before his death in 1930. “This gives us a sense of satisfaction. All our mental consciousness is a movement onwards, a movement in stages, like our sentences, and every full stop is a milestone that marks our ‘progress’ and our arrival somewhere.” The fact that this is an illusion, Lawrence thought, does not make it any less powerful. In this way we attempt to take the mess and mystery of the future, which has always been frightening because it is the ultimate unknown, and tidy it into a story.

It is hard to deny that we live in perilous times. As of January 2023, the hands of the Doomsday Clock – the symbolic timepiece maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since 1947 – point for the first time to 90 seconds to midnight on account of the climate crisis, Covid-19, disruptive technologies, rising authoritarianism and the revenant menace of nuclear war arising from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Martin Rees, the UK’s Astronomer Royal, believes the 21st century could be the one “where we as humans destroy ourselves”. But it should not diminish the importance of the problems we face now to say that the anxieties of earlier generations felt no less profound. We are not inclined to appreciate the bad things that have not happened to us – the conflicts and famines avoided, the diseases prevented, the lives saved – nor to measure our anxieties against the ordeals of the past.

There have always been doomers. In 1974, the year I was born, French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing declared: “The world is unhappy. It is unhappy because it does not know where it is going and because it senses that if it knew, it would discover that it was heading for disaster.” One week in September 1965, the most popular song in America was Barry McGuire’s warning that we were on “the eve of destruction”. In 1945, HG Wells wrote in his final book, “this world is at the end of its tether. The end of everything we call life is close at hand and cannot be evaded.” In 1919, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga wrote that it was “bad form to praise the world and life openly. It was fashionable to see only its suffering and misery, to discover everywhere signs of decadence and of the near end – in short, to condemn the times or to despise them.” He was ostensibly describing the late middle ages. In AD250, Cyprian of Carthage asked: “Who cannot see that the world is already in its decline, and no longer has the strength and vigour of former times? There is no need to invoke Scripture authority to prove it. The world tells its own tale and in its general decadence bears adequate witness that it is approaching its end.” You get the picture.

What is notable now is that apocalyptic angst has become a constant: all flow and no ebb. One might have assumed from the millions of words devoted to the end of the world during the 1990s that the noise about it would reach a millennial crescendo, but instead it has grown and grown. In 1989, Susan Sontag suggested the title of Francis Ford Coppola’s movie Apocalypse Now was wishful thinking and what we are living with instead is “Apocalypse from Now On”. This must come to some degree from the fact that we absorb more news, which is to say bad news, than at any time in history. Speaking during the second world war, long before 24-hour news or the internet, the poet Wallace Stevens argued that the “pressure of reality” overwhelms our sense of perspective: “It is not possible to look backward and to see that the same thing was true in the past. It is a question of pressure, and pressure is incalculable and eludes the historian.”

One can feel the pressure of reality in the frenzied overload of REM’s 1987 hit It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine) or the work of Don DeLillo. In DeLillo’s 1991 novel Mao II, the author Bill contends that the novel has been displaced as a source of truth and meaning by the news, which “provides an unremitting mood of catastrophe. This is where we find emotional experience not available elsewhere. We don’t need the novel … We don’t even need catastrophes, necessarily. We only need the reports and predictions and warnings.” When Daphne’s fatuous husband Cameron (Theo James) damns the news as “an apocalyptic soap opera” in The White Lotus he has a point. In the online era, we have a baleful new word for this experience: doomscrolling. Social media gives the impression that things are worse than they are while at the same time making things worse than they need to be. More than ever, the surest way to be praised for speaking to the times is to say that the times are awful. It can seem almost unserious to believe that things are not getting irreversibly worse.

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Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey in The Last of Us. Photograph: AP

The corpus of end-of-the-world stories is immense and ever-growing. In the past decade or so, we have seen dramas (Melancholia), horrors (It Comes at Night), war movies (World War Z), comedies (This Is the End) and satires (Don’t Look Up); sitcoms (The Last Man on Earth), animations (The Mitchells vs the Machines) and songs (Phoebe Bridgers’ I Know the End); TV shows based on comic books (The Walking Dead), computer games (The Last of Us) and bestselling novels (Station Eleven; Leave the World Behind). These stories are increasingly pessimistic: the comet hits, the zombies reign, the planet burns. There is simply no end of ends.

Most obviously, these stories turn fear into entertainment. Through movies that make the unthinkable enjoyable, wrote Sontag in her 1965 essay The Imagination of Disaster, “one can participate in the fantasy of living through one’s own death and more, the death of cities and the destruction of humanity itself”. Contemplating annihilation can certainly be a valuable means of reckoning with death, loss, abandonment and a capricious universe, but one can also detect the rumbling of a bad conscience – a dark suspicion that the end might be richly deserved. Usually, a writer will pass some kind of judgment on the world that is in peril. It is not hard to tell the optimists from the pessimists, the activists from the nihilists and the humanists from the misanthropes. Sometimes there is an explicit craving for the end, because the world is exhausting and insoluble. In the character of Justine in Lars von Trier’s movie Melancholia, or the novels of Kurt Vonnegut, or Morrissey crying “Come, Armageddon!” on Everyday Is Like Sunday, we find a vivid desire for it all to be over. Multiple impulses can coexist in the same story because when the subject is humanity itself it is reasonable to be ambivalent. These are the questions that make the genre fizz: do we expect the end of the world? Do we deserve it? Do we secretly long for it? What would we miss and what would we love to banish to oblivion?

Many friends asked me if submerging myself in this subject was depressing. On the contrary, I found that it relieved the “pressure of reality” and the narcissism of the present. The signal fact about the end of the world is that it has not happened yet, despite numerous predictions. In Emily St John Mandel’s 2014 pandemic novel Station Eleven, an actor who has been studying art history remarks that “you see catastrophe after catastrophe, terrible things, all these moments when everyone must have thought the world was ending, but all those moments, they were all temporary. It always passes.” Of course, in that novel it doesn’t pass and almost everybody dies. The world is too full of nasty surprises for us to be complacent.

But still, the unrealised fears of the past can be a comfort because the conviction that one is living in the worst of times is evergreen. For Kurt Vonnegut, one of literature’s most dedicated pessimists, the only way to manage a dread of the future was to remember that the past was no picnic. “Yes, this planet is a terrible mess,” he wrote. “But it has always been a mess. There have never been any ‘Good Old Days’, there have just been days.”

This is an extract from Everything Must Go: The Stories We Tell About the End of the World by Dorian Lynskey (Picador, £25), published on 11 April. To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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