The bad news: A billion years till the end of the world

In his Rapture dispatch from New York, Alexander Genis offers some perspective: A world-ending cataclysm is a bit too easy – after all, it will solve all our problems.

Click to enlarge the image. Drawing by Niyaz Karim

It was in the low-growing Yucatan jungle that I first heard about the end of the world, the apocalypse that fools from all over the world are clamorously anticipating on December 21. It happened like this: I had just mounted the pyramid steps with some difficulty and took in the monotonous landscape around me. The most picturesque view was a group of Californian new-agers perched further up at the top. With the charming affability typical of madmen, they explained that the 13th Baktun – which began on August 11, 3114 B.C. – is soon coming to an end. The world will be destroyed and we won’t even get to celebrate Christmas. Their Mexican guide lightheartedly confirmed the calculations.

“It’s not the first time,” the guide exclaimed bitterly. “After the Great Flood, people became fish; after the hurricane, they became apes; after the fire, they became turkeys; and now the earth will be destroyed in a rain of blood.”

“Who will we turn into this time?”

“There’s no one left to turn into,” he said, shrugging and turning away.

I couldn’t take the Mayan calendar seriously, because they took less interest in it themselves than they did in football. Plus, I’d always thought that a world-ending cataclysm was a bit too easy – after all, it will solve all our problems.

In the United States, however, there are many who don’t share my pessimism, and the righteous, in the thousands, impatiently, even eagerly, await the end of days. In the Deep South, where folk have stronger beliefs, you can even see it on bumper stickers: “In the event of the Second Coming, this vehicle may be left without a driver.”

Here in New York, we’ve expected the end of the world since Rebbe Schneerson died. His life briefly intertwined with mine when some Hasidim hired me to edit the Russian translation of Schneerson’s memoirs. While digging through the manuscript, I discovered that the Rebbe had studied in the Leningrad shipbuilding college, was imprisoned in the Bolshevik jail, and chatted with Sartre in Paris. Many in Brooklyn believed he was the Messiah and that his death was only temporary.

My friend, dissident Yuri Gendler, who had spent time in Mordovia’s prison camp, claimed there was no greater insult on the inside than to harangue members of sects for their unfulfilled predictions.

Just because the world is not going to end when we are all expecting it to does not mean that it will never end. We even know how it will happen – the Earth will dissolve into the Sun. But for those of you who just can’t wait billions of years, there is an alternative: Just pop the best film ever made about the apocalypse into your DVD player to see how the end of the world would go down if it were to take place tomorrow. I’m talking, of course, about “Melancholia,” in which director Lars von Trier explores the psychology of the apocalypse.

An asteroid is hurtling towards the Earth. Justine, our heroine, is cursed with the gift of prophecy. She knows the end has come, but does not receive this revelation all at once, only in parts. Eventually, she reconciles herself to the inevitable and tries to bring her vision to bear on her daily life by getting married. But this all comes to nothing. Work, love, career, holidays, sex, cake, cognac – everything has lost its meaning. We cannot live for the moment, only by borrowing from the future. But there is no future. Justine knows that her garden will never grow, her fiance will never become her husband, and her job won’t be a career.

Prophets don't acquire their knowledge by learning. It comes instead as a thunderbolt, and a stigma. The problem is how to live with this prescience, for a month, a week, a day, even a minute. Justine’s sister Claire does exactly what we all would like to do. She prepares for a solemn funeral wake, with wine, candles, Beethoven’s 9th, even though the symphony is an “Ode to Joy.” Yet there is no cause for joy. And it is so much worse for Justine, for like all prophets, she knows what will be, and worse, what will not be.

Every apocalypse is blessed with grace, since it not only encompasses the punishment of the wicked, but also the redemption of the righteous; the temple is destroyed, but we have the New Jerusalem; time is defeated, but eternity is triumphant. The Last Judgment is harsh, but it is also just – it sorts out the sheep from the goats. Yet for von Trier, this judgment isn’t frightening enough.

For the asteroid Melancholia, it’s all the same. Despite all our evil, good and Beethoven, we’re no better than dinosaurs. The universe is utterly indifferent to our lives, because it is deprived of one itself. Intelligent life, as Justine discovered in a prophetic fit, is an exception, a unique and unrepeatable fluctuation that both arose and vanished accidentally, leaving no traces.

And now, what shall we do with all this needless knowledge?

Von Trier, taking his lead from Dostoevsky, finds a way out. Justine has a nephew who couldn’t be saved but could be distracted. And the last moments of the history of Earth are spent on this deception. Justine builds a hut in a field, telling the boy that it will protect him from the onset of Melancholy, which has already occupied half the sky. But the hut is made of birch twigs. Newton couldn’t save him, Beethoven was no help, immortality and hope do not exist ... but the puny hut made of twisted twigs does its job, and comforted a small boy for the few last moments. It may be a white lie, but that is how Art works, and it's quite something.

Alexander Genis is a Russian-American writer, broadcaster and columnist for the Russian newspaper, "Izvestia." 

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