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Two new books to help you learn to stop worrying and love Y2K

By Robert David Sullivan

APRIL 5, 1999: 

APOCALYPSES: PROPHESIES, CULTS, AND MILLENNIAL BELIEFS THROUGH THE AGES, by Eugen Weber. Harvard University Press, 288 pages, $24.95.

THE PYROTECHNIC INSANITARIUM: AMERICAN CULTURE ON THE BRINK, by Mark Dery. Grove Press, 240 pages, $25.

Sometimes, dreaming about the apocalypse is the only way to make it through the night.

Many of us -- and I mean the rational, well-educated readers of this publication -- are already sick of hearing about the dawn of a new millennium. It's tempting to dismiss both the survivalists with underground stashes of canned goods (for when the Y2K computer bug destroys our food-distribution networks) and the religious fundamentalists giving away their meager possessions (which won't be needed when the Rapture whisks them into Heaven and leaves us sinners under the earthly rule of Antichrist Al Gore). But there's more here than technophobia or superstition. Now, as throughout history, most human beings lead unsatisfying lives, and a good chunk of them feel fine about the end of the world as we know it. Some are even willing to speed things up, carrying out bombings and nerve-gas attacks in observance of the biblical prophecy that things have to get a lot worse before they get better. Possibly the scariest aspect of Y2K is that it may be holding back potential terrorists now waiting to see whether the calendar will work in their favor. What happens if 2000, and then 2001, comes and goes without any great "leveling" of society (in either sense of the word -- destroyed cityscapes or a more equitable distribution of wealth)? Is that when we should really start worrying about panic in the streets?

"The only thing new is the history you don't know," went one of Harry Truman's favorite sayings, and it may have comforted the president in the late 1940s to think that the atomic age was governed by the same tides that have kept humanity afloat for innumerable centuries. Truman might have liked Eugen Weber's Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs Through the Ages, a compendium of greatest hits (or, more accurately, biggest flops) in the "end is near" genre of philosophizing. The gist of this book, parts of which are almost too tightly packed with proper names and dates to be readable, is that at any point in recorded history you could find a significant number of people in the Western world planning for the end. Weber, a professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles, uses a narrative rhythm that can grow wearying: one prophet after another erroneously announces the apocalypse, and many of them succeed in postponing the date once or twice before their followers give up on them or they're burned at the stake. Still, Weber undeniably drives home the point that apocalypticism is nothing new, and he provides a useful service in outing doomsday believers like Isaac Newton and Christopher Columbus (who "sailed in part to make Christ's Word heard," and thus help prepare mankind for Judgment Day).

Stressing that "the feeling that the world and time are coming to an end does not need a century's closure," Weber nevertheless admits that the year 2000 is a boon to apocalyptic thinking. "Suicides peak on Mondays and in springtime," he notes, reminding us that even the most routine "ends and beginnings" can prompt unbearable anxiety. Weber predicts that Y2K may be the grandest self-fulfilling prophecy of all time, explaining that "many assumptions provide a base for action before they are pronounced false; and many beliefs seem rational to believers -- enough to influence politics, diplomacy, legislation, and economic activities."

Although Apocalypses offers ample historical support for this view, Weber provides few contemporary examples. He points to Pat Robertson (a "Yale graduate" and one of many "able and well-situated men and women with apocalyptic views") and reminds us of former secretary of the interior James Watt's infamous disregard for environmental protection. ("I don't know how many generations we can count on until the Lord returns," Watt blithely explained to a congressional committee.) Weber also includes the startling revelation that, according to a 1992 survey, 53 percent of adult Americans "expected the imminent return of Jesus Christ and the fulfillment of Biblical prophecies about a cataclysmic destruction of evil."

One problem in measuring the strength of apocalyptic movements is that the desire for a final curtain seems strongest among the voiceless in our midst -- the politically disenfranchised and economically deprived whom we notice only in clumps, as victims of a hurricane or a shooting massacre at a McDonald's or some other micro-Armageddon. Weber does a nice job of articulating how such individuals might be comforted by the likes of cult leaders David Koresh and Jim Jones: "By defining human suffering in cosmic terms, as part of a cosmic order . . . catastrophe is dignified, endowed with meaning, and hence made bearable." The big question is whether the many strains of apocalypticism will ever unite as a force capable of directing social policy . . . assuming, of course, that Jesus doesn't actually show up for his return engagement next year.

If Weber suggests that Y2K will merely amplify beliefs that have been with us since the writing of the Old Testament, essayist Mark Dery is more favorably disposed to the idea that the end of this millennium has a personality all its own (at least in this country). In The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium, Dery, a contributor to Rolling Stone and the Village Voice, examines two trends that may cause Y2K hysteria to accelerate out of control. The first is the increasingly pervasive nature of the modern media and computer technology, both of which thrive on "ideas that infect a culture by leaping from one host brain to another, in much the same way that viruses travel from body to body."

Dery points to the rapid dissemination of rumors and conspiracy theories as a destabilizing force in society, and he decries the trivialization of violence in films and videos (" . . . there's no denying that tabloid news and Hollywood slaughterfests thrive on social pathologies") while trying to keep some distance between himself and right-wing scolds such as Bill Bennett. Dery also notes that heavy viewers of TV are more likely to own guns and fear the world beyond their driveways, and it is chilling to think of such paranoia percolating through fiber-optic wires and modems. Clearly, we are dealing with a different animal than the scattered doomsday cults of medieval times discussed in Weber's Apocalypses. But it's impossible to say how different. If we think back to those ancient maps with the legend "here there be dragons" scrawled across unexplored regions, it's hard to consider the 1990s as the peak of human fearfulness.

A more intriguing trend explored in The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium is what Dery describes as "the withdrawal from public life of an Information Age elite" -- or what former secretary of labor Robert Reich calls "the secession of the successful." Thanks to fax machines, teleconferencing, and other such technology, the elite can go about their business without brushing up against the "unwired masses." Dery casts a shrewd eye on gated communities ("gulags for the affluent") and planned cities such as Walt Disney's actual, live-in town of Celebration, Florida. He also questions the "what-me-worry futurism" of cyberprophets such as Being Digital author Nicholas Negroponte, who seem to wave away crime, poverty, and other old-fashioned problems with the assurance that new technology will solve everything. Dery himself can't ignore the "death of community and the dearth of civility" in 1990s America, and he implicitly equates "Darwinian cybercapitalists" such as Newt Gingrich and Alvin Toffler with unschooled fundamentalists waiting for the trumpets to sound their triumph over grubby nonbelievers. Explicitly, he links them to the Unabomber, in a passage typical of Dery's flair for spotting patterns in the cultural landscape: "Although they prefer deregulation to demolition and obviously reject the anti-technology and anti-corporate planks in his platform, the digerati share the Unabomber's libertarian contempt for politics with a capital 'P,' by definition statist." With both the top and bottom strata of American society excusing themselves from civic life, Dery suggests, there may be no one to tame "the titanic forces of post-industrialization and globalization."

Again, it's difficult to prove that such phenomena are unparalleled in history -- the cyber-elite, cocooned in their cable-ready homes, bring to mind the inhabitants of monasteries in the Middle Ages, messing around with movable type. And Dery is wise not to throw in the towel at the end of The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. He calls much of this end-of-the-millennium cultural chaos "cathartically deconstructive," crediting it with "washing away the foundations of monolithic orthodoxies about gender, race, class, and sexual preference, one grain at a time." While bemoaning "the eruption of freakery" in popular entertainment (TV shows like World's Scariest Police Chases, the mainstreaming of S&M sex, and Mike Tyson biting off an opponent's ear), Dery gives trash TV such as The Jerry Springer Show some credit for "countervailing the scientific 'objectivity' of the expert with the boisterous commonsense opinions of ordinary people." (He takes a delicious swipe at talking head and self-appointed taste arbiter George Will: "With his signature bowtie and his Eton collar, his airy disdain for pop culture and the popular will," he's the one who "looks positively freakish" to most Americans.) Even at his most alarmist, Dery is reminiscent of Dickens's Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come -- the one who showed Scrooge "the shadows of things that may be, only."

Dery's more theoretical essays are bookends for some wildly entertaining pieces on such phenomena as mad cow disease, toilet humor ("Anus Horribilus: Jim Carrey's Excremental Excess" is the best chapter heading in the book), cloned sheep, and the cult of the Nike logo among gullible consumers ("the swooshing of America"). Dery also deftly traces the evolution of the Edvard Munch painting The Scream into a kitsch emblem, and the transformation of clowns into symbols of horror (" . . . they horrify because they embalm a spontaneous expression of happiness; the only other time a human smile freezes is when the mortician fixes it in place, for display in an open casket").

The title Pyrotechnic Insanitarium refers to another writer's description, at the last turn of the century, of the brightly lit amusement parks at Coney Island. Dery calls these parks "a blend of infernal fun and mass madness, technology and pathology," but they were contained on a few miles of shoreline. Now, he argues, our entire media landscape is "a postmodern Coney Island where the real and the unreal, the sublime and the obscene, the horrific and the hilarious commingle freely. . . . "

Is this an apocalyptic vision? Dery notes that the phrase pyrotechnic insanitarium became a self-fulfilling prophecy for one of the Coney Island parks, Dreamland, which was destroyed by flames in 1911. (The fire apparently started on a ride called Hell Gate.) Perhaps our Internet-connected society will also consume itself -- the world ending not with a bang, but with the hiss and whistle of a high-speed modem.

Or perhaps the year 2000 will bring a different kind of Rapture than the one envisioned by Pat Robertson and company. Instead of sinners, maybe it will be the pop-culture junk catalogued by Dery that is finally sent to Hell. At the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, anything with a Nike logo will turn to dust, the Fox network's entire video library will disintegrate, and televangelists will vanish from the face of the earth. That's the kind of Apocalypse I can really look forward to.


Robert David Sullivan is a freelance writer living in Somerville. He can be reached at Robt555@aol.com.


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