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Representing the End of the World

18/10/2019 08:59

Tim Howles, Associate Research Fellow at the William Temple Foundation, explores ecological collapse, Extinction Rebellion and the impending apocalypse, finding both despair and hope at the end of the world.

On Friday 25th October, at the conclusion of their protests in London, Extinction Rebellion will be hosting what they are calling a post-apocalyptic rebellion after-party. You are invited to gather at 7.30pm on the South Bank: the secret location will be announced then! And have a think about your choice of fancy-dress. As the invitation says: “we’ll be visioning the post-apocalyptic future, societal collapse and the blasted Earth (that the Rebellion is striving to avoid)”.

It seems that human beings have always had a desire to represent to themselves “the end of the world”. But these imaginings have recently had a new lease of life as consciousness of the scale of the global environmental crisis has finally begun to sink in. Paintings, videogames, sculpture and music pieces, science-fiction writing and Hollywood blockbusters on this theme have proliferated. I guess it is not surprising. If the idea of imminent planetary destruction does not serve as a prompt for depictions of the apocalypse, then I do not know what would.

But what can we learn from representations of “the end of the world” in contemporary culture? In particular, how is the moment of “the end” actually depicted? And what does this tell us about the future that we are envisaging for ourselves right now?

I wish to address these questions with reference to two recent films, which offer contrasting depictions of “the end”.

The first is Béla Tarrr’s The Turin Horse (2011). Let me warn you; this is by no means an easy watch! The protagonists are an invalid old man, his adult daughter and the family’s draught horse. They live in a miniscule, decrepit farm in the middle of a windswept steppe. We are never told exactly what has happened to bring about the decaying world that these destitute peasants are forced to inhabit. But it is clear that their existence is constituted by a slow withering-away. This is represented by the dry, sterile wind that howls continuously across the landscape, by the endless piling-up of dust and dead leaves, by the light that goes out for want of fuel, and most of all by the deterioration of human contact between father and daughter, who little-by-little cease to talk or even look at each other, preferring to contemplate, silent and static, the parched world that surrounds them. The apocalypse that is represented here is one of atrophy and disintegration. As the Director himself has commented, “in my film, the end of the world is very silent, very weak; [it] comes about as I see it coming about in real life – slowly and quietly”.

For a contrasting depiction, we might turn to Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011). Rather than a slow withering-away, this film depicts “the end of the world” as a moment of singular cataclysm—represented by collision with the planet Melancholia, whose orbit unexpectedly emerges from the depths of the cosmos to cross that of the Earth’s. The torturous intensity of the film emerges, I think, as the inevitability of this collision becomes apparent. The household steadily lapses into inertia and lethargy. One person chooses to commit suicide when he realises the reality of what is to come. And the rest of the family can think of nothing more than to build a small wooden frame of dry boughs, in which they sit, holding hands, waiting for the end.

I agree with Peter Szendy in finding the climax of the film to be unbearably bleak and frightening. Of course, we have seen cinematic depictions of apocalypse before, whether in the form of a crisis that threatens an end (Armageddon, 1998), human beings waiting for an end (4:44 Last Day on Earth, 2011), humans continuing in diminished form after an end (The Road, 2009), or of a world that continues by itself after the end of humans (Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, 2007). But here in Melancholia is a cinematic representation of a real “end”. For the moment of impact is followed by fire, and then by darkness or, rather, a black screen; real time disappears, to the point that it is impossible even to imagine the verbal tense in which any form of ongoing plot or narration could be pursued. As Viveiros de Castro puts it, “the end of the world is the end of the film, and the end of the film is the end of the world” (p.36).

As we know, it is unlikely that a cosmic or even ecological catastrophe could come so abruptly and at such short notice to put an end to human existence. But von Trier’s cinematic representation highlights something important: prompted by the global environmental crisis, human beings are (reluctantly) being compelled to imagine what might constitute a total, singular and final “end”.

In the midst of this bleak cultural moment I believe that theology has a contribution to make. For, as many of the great political theologians of recent times have argued (Voegelin, Löwith, Taubes, Agamben and, more recently, Catherine Keller), religion can serve as a counter-acting force to this sense of apocalyptic resignation. Of course, the Christian religion has its own presentation of “an end” that will surely come. But this is always checked by the idea that “the end is at the end”. At the heart of the Christian religion, then, we find a future that is still to come. It is not here now. And so, where this is understood, the present can once again become a site of meaningful and responsible activity, where our intention-to-act does not become overwhelmed by a sense of “an end” that is brutally or inescapably closing in on our heads, and that we can do nothing to stop.

Perhaps representations of the apocalypse are necessary at a time like this. But public theology, at its best, can provide a useful corrective to the sense of resignation and despair that sometimes accompany these representations. Our sense of “the end” need not be a disabling or depoliticising force. Instead, we can find in the present reason to hope that an alternative future is possible.


More blogs on religion and public life…

Review of ‘#newpower’ by Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans by John Reader

Spaces of Hope in an Age of Division by Matthew Barber

What sort of society do we wish to become? – Borges’ forking pathways by Tina Hearn

Review of ‘Zucked: Waking up to the Facebook Catastrophe’ by Roger McNamee by Maria Power


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