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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

End of the World Still Nigh




A cartoon in The New Yorker last week said it all: An end-of-the-world visionary - long beard, small sunglasses, sackcloth cloak, unlaced tennis shoes on sockless feet - walks down a city sidewalk holding a placard that says, "Hey! Everybody makes mistakes."


But, if you really want an absurd glimpse of thwarted expectations, look at Willowick, Ohio, where for five nights before the turn of the millennium, evangelical congregants of a storefront church went into a frenzy of loud songs and prayer, bouts of speaking in tongues and even fainting spells as they waited for the rapture to lift them into heaven before the apocalyptic battle of Armageddon would destroy the world.


When the calendar turned, of course, they had to dust themselves off, go back to the little church tucked between a liquor store and a bank, and start facing the prosaic realities of mortgages, whiny kids and dead car batteries. The mother of all letdowns.


Of course, if the apostles of apocalypse want to look at the bright side of it, technically they still have another year to get ready for the rapture. As pedants and contrarians everywhere have reminded the rest of us, the real millennium doesn't start until Jan. 1, 2001, since the Gregorian calendar creators, not having the mathematical concept of zero because they were using Roman numerals, started at year one.


There is something in all of us that loves a disaster. The bigger the catastrophe the better: Witness the barely suppressed glee that grips weather newscasters when a whopper of a snowstorm approaches, or the delicious frisson of foreboding mixed with fatalism with which Los Angelenos talk about the Big One that will split Southern California off the continent and turn it into a New Age Atlantis.


And, when a disaster is averted, there is always a sense of peevish anticlimax jading our pious protestation about how relieved we all are.


Did we really want to deal with a Y2K meltdown? Or terrorist attacks by crazed millennialist militias? Not really. But there is something of a letdown involved, especially for those who stocked up with 200 gallons of bottled water and more cans of canned tuna and baked beans than could be consumed in a year.


What is it about not just disasters but the ultimate disaster that fascinates us so much?


On a visceral level, a catastrophe is a chance for a dramatic interruption in everyday life. For those not intimately affected, it's a way to witness a soap opera on a grand scale, with heightened emotions and that peculiar guilty pleasure that Germans call Schadenfreude, the joy felt in others' misfortune.


As for the ultimate disaster, the notion of apocalypse is certainly embedded in Judeo-Christian thought, possibly because these Western religions deal in linear time, with beginnings and ends.


In some Eastern religions, the notion of existence is more circular, with life repeating itself in endless cycles of rebirth and virtually no sense of an ultimate undoing of all existence.


Apocalyptic writings in Jewish and Christian literature are based on the belief that God will intervene in an evil age to vindicate the suffering elect over their oppressors.


The most famous and most dramatic predictions of apocalypse are contained in the New Testament's Book of Revelation of St. John the Divine.


The images in this book are stamped on the popular imagination. So much so that, taken out of context, John's visions sound like the hallucinatory rants from someone who has been out in the desert sun fasting for just a little too long, or has eaten some very strange weed in that desert.


In a vision, a man appears holding "in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword"(1:16); a beast rises from the sea "having seven heads and 10 horns, and upon his horns 10 crowns, and upon his head the name of blasphemy" (13:1). A throne appears on a sea of glass, four angels stand at four corners of the earth and the famous four horses - white, red, pale and black - signal war, famine, pestilence and death. Come to think of it, that could make a grand movie scenario, ripe with special effects. Having tackled the Holocaust, Steven Spielberg ought to think about doing Revelation. Or Martin Scorsese should really do Apocalypse. Now. There is still time. Almost a year to the real end of the world, and counting.


Adrian Peracchio is a member of the editorial board of Newsday, where this column originally appeared.