Repent! The End Is Near-And Much Worse This Time!

The End of the World , edited by Lewis Lapham. Thomas Dunne-St. Martin’s Press, 297 pages, $24.95.

As the countdown continues to that great Christian conceit, the third millennium, Lewis Lapham offers readers a portable guide to Last Things, from Gilgamesh (the Flood) to Bill Gates (the Anti-Christ?). In a devoutly terminalist nation, where cultural historians remind us that apocalypse is probably even more American than apple pie, Mr. Lapham, editor of Harper’s Magazine , is an urbane skeptic. “The foretelling of the end of the world,” he reminds us, “is as old as the wind in the trees.”

Since the first shaman terrified his audience with a predicted imminent crash in the hairy mammoth population, we have been suckers for the doom-and-gloom salesmen who infest every epoch. Now, as time runs out on the “game clock of the 20th century,” Mr. Lapham writes, “the bearers of bad news already have swarmed onto the field waving the banners of destruction and blowing the triumphs of doom.”

He continues: “Amidst the clatter of foreseeable headlines we can expect them to continue to predict catastrophes matched to the fears of the audiences they have been paid to alarm–politicians talking about the trade and moral deficits, economists worrying about the depleted reserves of oil and Deutsche marks, movie producers depicting the future as an increasingly barren heath largely inhabited by robots …”

This, of course, is tonic common sense, buttressed by the reminder that what we usually hallucinate as exterminating angels are only our own sinister alter egos. History, in Mr. Lapham’s construction, is a steel-nerve balancing act between inhumanity and humanism, massacre and redemption. For every world conqueror and his pyramid of skulls, there comes a prophet of hope to rescue humanity from the final darkness. The abyss is not bottomless.

In the late-imperial decadence of Clintonian America, replete with mystery cults (“The truth is out there”) and millenarian paranoias (the “Y2K problem”), Mr. Lapham strikes the pose of a stoic philosopher. In contrast to the “quack evangelists” who rule the temples of the electronic media, he counsels a return to the works of the Great Historians, preferably in a quiet study with a sober view of some ancient ruins. “Calm down and reflect” are his watchwords.

I am afraid the toga is more impressive than the philosopher. The reader who pays careful attention to Mr. Lapham may score 100 percent on his next Western Civ exam, but I am willing to bet my dogeared copy of Thucydides that he will be frustrated, if not outright nettled, by the sloppy concepts that confuse rather than organize his eclectic collection of excerpts.

To take obvious examples, it is morally disconcerting to read that the expulsion of Empress Eugénie from the Tuileries (she had a bad cab ride) or the arrest of Jefferson Davis (he spent almost as little time in jail as Michael Milken) are in any sense equivalent “ends of worlds” to the extermination of Jewish children in Nazi death camps. Nor is Karl Marx’s “expropriation of the expropriators” in Das Kapital , except in the most disheveled mind, any counterpart or analogue to the ecocide forecast in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring .

Such conflations, moreover, point us back to Mr. Lapham’s foreword, where Titus’ sacking of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. is eloquently equated “in the ferocity of man’s heart” with Auschwitz and Hiroshima. I am not impugning Mr. Lapham’s moral sensibility. Anyone who conjugates “Napoleon, Adolf Hitler and Harry S. Truman” probably ranks high in personal conscience, but flunks out at the level of understanding historical specificity.

To my way of thinking, carnage not only makes up much of history but also has a distinctive history itself. Mr. Lapham, I think, is simply wrong about steady-state supplies of inhumanity in history. The debate over the constitutive role of violence in human culture–killer apes, “Manson gangs” from Mexico, and all that–belongs in the anthropology department. Historians are generally more struck by the changing scales and logics of violence over time. The low frequency of war in sub-Saharan Africa before 1500 contrasts with the explosion of internal conflict that accompanied the growth of the Atlantic slave trade. Likewise, as sociohistorical processes, Napoleon’s execution of Spanish partisans is simply not commensurate with Hitler’s scientific extermination of an entire people.

There is a directionality in history, even if it is only bad water rising. Lucretian confidence in the ultimate balance wheel of history, like Enlightenment faith in the Newtonian rationality of markets and states, crumbled in face of the advent of concentration camp ovens and atomic firestorms. And rightly so. To comprehend such unprecedented forms of inhumanity and threats to the continuity of culture has required revolutionary new ideas (Marx and Freud at a bare minimum) about history, not just an evening with Procopius or Voltaire.

Worlds, contra Mr. Lapham, really do end. The synagogues in Krakow may have been carefully restored, but the people and their great culture are gone forever. Likewise, there are no longer Trojans, Arawaks, Tasmanians, Mandans nor Greenlandic Norse. Their dark prophets were not such cranks after all.

Nor is the current “end of nature” hysteria as irrational as Mr. Lapham seems to believe. Although plagues, volcanoes and earthquakes make brief appearances in The End of the World , natural forces count for little more than background noise in his “wreck of time.” His understandable distaste for hyperbole slips carelessly into cavalier disregard of the unprecedented dangers posed by our current meddling with biospheric metabolism.

Human culture, after all, occupies a highly unstable, even experimental niche in natural history. Each major step toward the biological reunification of humanity–through medieval Eurasian trade, the 16th-century invasion of the New World, even modern air travel (in the case of H.I.V.)–has been a dance with plague and death. The H.I.V. infection–and prospective AIDS deaths–of 21 million sub-Saharan Africans is a world-shattering fact in the same sense as was the Black Death of the 14th century in Europe and China.

Likewise, even in the quiet pond we call the Holocene (the 11,000 years since the last ice age), environmental historians are finding the fingerprints of extreme climatic events all over civilizational collapses (in the middle and terminal Bronze ages) and epochs of chaos (as in the 14th and 17th centuries). As recently as the late Victorian period, powerful El Niño events contributed to famines in India, China and Africa that killed more than 35 million people.

If the new millennium scares the pants off many of us, it is not only because we are rubes for Mr. Lapham’s doomsayers and rapturites. The conjugation of radical environmental instability with extreme global inequality (according to a recent study by the United Nations, the 225 richest people in the world have a combined wealth equal to the 2.5 billion poorest) augurs a rough ride ahead. Is there a destination? I don’t think even Clio, muse of history, knows for sure.