The new eschatology

December 24, 2016 0 Comments

As 2016 comes to an end the heavens are full of what Flann O’Brien’s great scientist De Selby called ‘black air’.  A long night, it appears, is about to fall on two continents. 

In the United States a plutocratic bully and egomaniac with the crudest social and political attitudes is about to take power, unrestrained by Congress, the judiciary or any concept of veracity.  Inside the country many citizens and most non-citizens have good reason to be fearful for their interests and even their safety.  The rest of us wait to see which Donald Trump will turn up, the America First isolationist ready to build a wall against the non-American world, or the gorilla-jawed aggressor and nuke builder eager to pick fights with China.

Trump’s letters to Alex Salmond, revealed this week, in which he complains about plans to build a wind farm close to his Aberdeenshire golf course, show all the worst features of their author’s character: his insolence (‘Do you want to be known for centuries to come as Mad Alex?’), disdain for green energy and the planet (turbines are ‘monstrous industrial machines’), threats (‘your economy will become a third world wasteland that overseas investors will avoid’) and braggadocio (‘as you have probably heard, the highly respected Robb Report has just voted it the best golf course in the world’).

Things are no better in Europe.  The collapse of the euro economy and the migration crisis exposed how arthritic the EU had become, and gave fresh impetus to its sworn enemies.  Brexit condemns the UK to a decade or more of confusion, depression and nostalgia for nonexistent glories.  Much worse, it has unleashed and legitimated prejudices that many people fondly thought were buried in the distant past.  Its standard-bearer, Nigel Farage, is a man whose beery pinstripe disguises very thinly a nastiness and extremism that has quickly become accepted, for example by the BBC, as the new normal.

The despair that decent people express in the face of these events has begun to verge on fatalism.  Like bad money crowding out good, the politics of fear, hatred and irrationalism belittles and shouts down any voice that calls for solidarity, compassion and truth.  Social democratic parties everywhere are heading for oblivion, and even continental Christian democracy is in retreat against the march of harsher ideologies.  No one in power over the last forty years understood that globalisation and extreme economic liberalism unaccompanied by strong measures to counter the grotesque inequalities in wealth that came in their wake would lead in the end to explosions of disgust and reckless protest.  Has the process already moved so far, so quickly that we have to accept the possibility of governments like those on Poland, Hungary and Turkey, nominally democratic but in reality authoritarian and intolerant, coming to power all over Europe?

It might looks as though things can only get worse, or even that the world as we’ve known it is coming to an end.  Eschatological thinking, once a preserve of extreme religious sects, is making a comeback.  Of course it’s not inconceivable that Trump could bring us closer to nuclear oblivion than we have been since 1962.  But otherwise it’s too easy to think that ours is a uniquely impossible and hopeless situation, and that there’s no way back to a more progressive, civilised way of seeing and arranging the public world.  In the past others have felt a similar desperation, and been through harsher experiences, and yet seen their worst fears go unrealised.

I’ve been reading recently about a little known but fascinating man called John Thelwall.  A friend of Wordsworth and Coleridge, he was a republican, radical and peace-lover at a time of fierce reaction, repression and bellicosity.  The Prime Minister, Pitt the Younger, whom my school history books unaccountably wished me to admire for his statesmanship, was in reality a vicious reactionary who stamped on dissent and protest wherever they dared to arise.  Thelwall, a powerful orator, got under Pitt’s skin by supporting the French Revolution and helping radical groups like the London Corresponding Society.  In 1794 he was charged with treason as a result of protesting against the arrest of fellow-radicals, and was sent to the Tower of London along with John Horne Tooke and Thomas Hardy to await trial.  To the amazement of many the three were acquitted and freed.  But Pitt’s repression intensified with the passing of the so-called ‘Gagging Acts’ of 1795, and Thelwall was followed about by government spies.  Violent mobs were sent to disrupt meetings he addressed.  In 1798 he made a tactical retreat from ‘front-line’ politics, and went with his family to live as a smallholder and writer in Llyswen, Breconshire for three years.  But he never renounced his beliefs or ceased to agitate, and later he resumed speaking, publishing and writing against the established order and in favour of parliamentary reform.  He was still active in 1819, addressing meetings to protest against the Peterloo Massacre.

Thelwall’s story is a heartening one, of persistence and constancy to a progressive cause in the face of what must have seemed like impossible odds.  He is someone we should remember and celebrate at times of mounting despair.  (Pitt the Younger was a more formidable enemy, I suspect, than Trump and Farage rolled into one.) 

Eschatology, the belief in last things and specifically the end of the world, is an uncomfortable doctrine, and it can be quite embarrassing.  In 2011 Harold Camping, a Christian radio broadcaster in California, announced to his many listeners that the world would come to an end on 21 May that year.  When it failed to do so he revised his predicted date to 21 October 2011.  Again the world refused to oblige.  Camping retired soon after and came to an end himself two years later.

I didn’t get where I am, though, by playing Dr Pangloss, and I should revert to character.  There are very good grounds for believing that the end of the world, for humans at least, really is on the way.  In November this year Danish and US environmental scientists warned that Arctic air temperatures were 20⁰C higher than normal, and sea temperatures 4⁰C higher.  Arctic ice is melting far faster than anyone had predicted.  Many scientists believe that the feedback process – solar heat absorbed instead of reflected from ice, leading to further ice melt – is irreversible and that anthropogenic global warming is now unstoppable, Paris Agreement or no Paris Agreement.  Storms, flooding and drought, water wars, migration on a mass scale – all these and more may be what we have in store.  The President-elect will have none of it, of course.  Already surrounded by deniers of climate change, Trump shows every intention of ignoring all advice by reputable scientists.  Maybe we have to believe he is right and they are wrong?

It could already be too late, though.  Even before his inauguration Trump may possess a quantity of the deadly chemical D.M.P., with which to destroy the earth in an instant.  Once again, it was Flann O’Brien who warned us.   His great scientist De Selby announces to a gathering in the small town of Dalkey:

After extreme study and experiment I have produced a chemical compound which totally eliminates oxygen from any given atmosphere.  A minute quantity of this hard substance, small enough to be invisible to the naked eye, would this convert the interior of the greatest hall on earth into a dead world provided, of course, the hall were properly sealed.  Let me show you.
He quietly knelt at one of the lower presses and opened the door to reveal a small safe of conventional aspect.  This he opened with a key, revealing a circular container of dull metal of a size that would contain perhaps four gallons of liquid.  Inscribed on its face were the letters D.M.T.
– Good Lord, Hackett cried, ‘the D.M.P.!  The grandfather was a member of that bunch.
De Selby turned his head, smiling bleakly.
– Yes – the D.M.P. – the Dublin Metropolitan Police.  My own father was a member.  They are long-since abolished, of course …
… a deoxygenated atmosphere cancels the apparently serial nature of time and confronts us with true time and simultaneously with all the things and creatures which time has ever contained or will contain, provided we evoke them.  Do you follow?  Let us be serious about this.  The situation is momentous and scarcely of this world as we know it.’

Now that’s what I call eschatology.



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