Some days it feels like the more I consume of the news, the more I must be living in the staff writers’ room at The Onion. But no, this nonsense really is happening. The extraordinary lack of leadership and overall ineptitude of our federal and (here in Texas) state officials have gone beyond usual politics and launched us straight into The Twilight Zone. I’ll refrain from getting too far in the weeds with that right now, but suffice it to say we had a national strategy for pandemics and an expert team in place to navigate them back in 2015, but when the White House changed hands, all that stuff got disappeared, and the experts who participated in pandemic exercises were fired for “disloyalty.” (I’m reminded of Dolores Umbrage taking over Hogwarts.) Anyway, other writers have tackled that subject very well already. I want to write here, instead, about apocalypse. (And in this post you’ll notice that I’m practicing a type of mindfulness, in general and of my topic, as I begin to veer outward toward the grand and continually reel things back in to the personal.)
So, apocalypse. Not The Apocalypse (in whatever mythology is currently in your mind when you read that word), but the idea of apocalypses, which actually happen pretty often as part of the human experience. Say or write that word enough and it will start to become bizarre, start to lose its terrifying power. Now say or write it again: apocalypse. It becomes commonplace. Deconstructed from its connotation and transformed into a simple artifact of language. Comforting in its banality. Let me explain.
The word “apocalypse” has Greek roots. “Apo-” is the prefix meaning “un-,” and “kalyptos” means “covered.” The Latinized form of Greek “kalyptein” means “to cover or conceal.” Thus it follows, when you put those word parts together, that “apokalyptein” means “to uncover or reveal.” The word “apokalypsis” migrated into Latin and Old French as “apocalypse.” An apocalypse, as my friend and colleague Christa Forster often says, is an unhiding.
Sometimes when things are revealed – when they are uncovered, when what has been hiding them is stripped away – we feel as if the ground beneath our feet has shifted so irrevocably that we will no longer feel stable again. That can be the emotional effect of apocalypse. We feel unsteady, as if we’re treading unevenly over broken ground amidst the rabble ruin of our preconceived ideas. This feeling is brought forth in – and by – the literature of profound disruption and destruction.
But apocalypse myths have another feature in common as well: they lead to rebirth.
We find this not only in the destruction myths of multiple major and minor religions, but even in popular culture. Battlestar Galactica, Titan A.E., Lord of the Rings, Good Omens – these are perhaps obvious examples. And forgive me for quoting a rock song, but even the Red Hot Chili Peppers sing in “Californication” that “destruction leads to a very rough road but it also breeds creation.” I mean, even the Mayan calendar starts (that is, it started) over.
And speculative fiction (including both literature and film) tends to lend itself to the epic scale of what we think of when we imagine destruction myths. When was the last time you picked up a science fiction or fantasy novel where the entire world (or some perhaps personal version of it) was not at stake? We live in a culture of extremes. Our discourse is extreme, our adherence to ideologies and technologies is extreme, our reaction to everything around us is extreme. Doxxing, cancel culture, and hate speech are all part of this. So are the movies which are successful at the box office. You can read my review of the absolutely excellent Winona Ryder/Keanu Reeves film Destination Wedding here. It talks about some of this stuff, too.
That movie is hilarious and worthwhile, and I highly recommend it. But it wasn’t a commercial success probably because it is “thoughtful” and “quiet.” It’s a story in which the stakes are only personal. As I note in my post about that film, our culture seems to have evolved – at least in some ways – to a moment when stakes which don’t involve something epic or grand or societally- or globally-scaled must not be important, necessary, or even entertaining. And again, as I noted, if I were wrong, social media wouldn’t be “a hellscape rage-osphere of shitty opinions and offensive shares.”
Is Destination Wedding an apocalypse story? No, because the whole world isn’t hanging in the flashy balance of violence. And also, yes, because what these two characters reveal to each other about themselves uncovers what’s at the heart of who they are as people, and there is transformation as they are unhidden from themselves. This resonates with me in part because I’m a writer who doesn’t usually tackle world-hanging-in-the-balance stakes. The personal ones, based in character, matter more to me, and those are the stories I usually write, even though my fiction is mostly in the speculative arena. (That makes it hard, sometimes, to get some of those literary fantasy stories traditionally published.)
So what about our current little apocalypse right now? How is this pandemic changing us? I think we have to broaden that question and consider how we as a society have been changing. What is revealed?
Some say the election of Trump in 2016 was an apocalypse. Sure, it’s not the end of the world (perhaps / let’s hope), but it did reveal a whole lot of what was hiding in the woodwork of our nation. His election has unhidden the most grotesque parts of human nature in so many people. That stuff was always there, but now it’s in the light. Well, if we think of those terrible ideologies as mold or fungus, remember that sunlight is like bleach.
This pandemic has exposed so much of what is fragile and broken in our country. It made us take a pause, and even that revealed our further weaknesses, intellectual and moral and financial. Shakespeare wrote, “How poor are they that have not patience.” We are in an anxious morass of all of that right now. (I’ll take boneheaded decisions and pronouncements coming out of the Texas capitol for $400, Alex.)
But within a pause, we have the opportunity to fix some things. In a positive and necessary turn of events, socially conscious businesses and justice-minded people all over the place are waking up to ways in which they have been complicit in societal ills such as racism, inequity, and oppression. Even our private school is finally, meaningfully, focused on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Tackling these issues is a much bigger blog post, so I’m going to step away from this grand-scale apocalypse for a moment and return to the personal: the lower but still important stakes.
One thing the pandemic has uncovered for me is how very unhealthy my previous lifestyle was. Working too hard for too many hours with nothing but stress to bolster me awake is no way to live – nor even any way to work effectively. Running around for most of the day every Saturday and Sunday, running errands with no downtime, is not just unhealthy, it’s for the birds. I never want to go back to that. This pandemic has unhidden from me, among other things, what I no longer want or need in my life.
I won’t lie. This hasn’t been easy the entire time. Despite my family’s extraordinarily fortunate circumstances at the moment, I have had a few meltdowns here and there. I had an unexpectedly challenging transition to working from home, which has been a slow burn of annoyance and intellectual feeling more than anything else. I miss my aunts – whom I don’t feel safe going to see lest I unwittingly expose them to any germs at all – so much. I haven’t finished some of the things I wanted to do this summer, and every day that list grows longer, compounded by the stress of the school year getting ready to start again. Even just this weekend, I’m trying to proofread a galley for Homecoming, trying to restart daily writing on the new novel, trying to clean my house, and trying to do about ten hours of school prep for classes which start next week. I might be out of my mind as well as out of options and backup plans.
But I’m trying to be patient with myself and others. No matter your level of privilege or lack of it, none of this (*gesticulates wildly at the current landscape of our lives*) is easy.
It is instead the hard – but important – work of rebuilding, rebirth, re-creation. Hwaet. Time to get back to it.
5 thoughts on “Apokalyptein”
My brother and I have been watching a YouTube show called Trope Talk, and one of the episodes is specifically about apocalypse/Save-the-World stories. The host’s point was actually that these kinds of stories are so common now that readers have stopped feeling the stakes — because of COURSE the heroes are going to find a way to keep the *whole* world from ending (or to undo a finger snap that does follow through). What really keeps readers in suspense now are the personal stakes — the romance, the family, etc.
Maybe that’s why some people are so resistant to taking the pandemic seriously — because until it hurts them personally, they can’t (and don’t want to) wrap their heads around a global-scale disaster. Doesn’t make the ignorance any more palatable, of course…
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Oh, what an astute idea! I think you’re onto something. I’ve always thought that the phenomenon of not taking something seriously until it affects one personally to be a lack of empathy, but I can see how the desensitization of high-stakes stories would significantly contribute to that. And yes, I agree, it doesn’t make it actually easier to forgive when one has a theory for it…
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Right? There’s a huge difference between avoiding the news for the sake of one’s mental health while still ultimately following pandemic protocol vs. defiantly going to crowded parties sans mask and yelling at barber shops for not being open.
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I couldn’t agree more.
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