Ever since atomic bombs were exploded over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the closing days of World War II, end-of-the-world forebodings have been present in Western cultural consciousness. In the background of such thinking is the religious anticipation of a day of judgment when life in earth will be replaced by the consignment of everyone then living to either the hell of damnation or the heaven of salvation.
The first type of end time thinking is based on the fear that the Promethean gift of technological innovation when carried to its omega point will produce a big bang terminal moment in the human experience. The second kind of end time thinking imagines that the gift of planetary life was a testing time for the human species that would end with endless punishment for the many and eternal rewards for a few, and was divinely programmed in a fatalistic manner beyond human capacity to control or alter.
We live now amid both types of end time thinking, a realization made more troublesome because such alarmist patterns of awareness, while rather widespread, have not generated any strong reactive movement based on prudence and preservation. Instead, all of us avert our eyes most of the time, and most manage to look away all the time often with the help of drugs and denial. Only a few are able to fix their full gaze on the impending cosmic wreck without turning away.
One of those few is a poet named C.K. Williams who in an essay, “Nature and Panic,” which appeared in the October 2012 issue of Poetry magazine, acknowledged panic in response to what he observes in the world around him. In words that resonate with me Williams wrote:
“Like many people I know, I often have a somewhat—no, a wholly—frightening vision of the future of humanity and of our earth. There are periods when I live in a state of acute anxiety, indeed, near panic, about what awaits our children and grandchildren. Last year, I realized one day that every poem I was writing or attempting to write, had global warming and its consequences either as its overt or implied theme. Sometime I’m depressed beyond writing or saying anything at all; I fall into a funk that threatens never to end.”
Williams goes on to refer to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which paints the darkest possible picture of the desperate aftermath of a totalizing apocalyptic catastrophe that reduces human existence to the barest of survival struggles waged among roving gangs of desperate people ready to feast on one another. Such an extreme playing out of dark forebodings provokes an attitude of resentment in Williams, not because it is an exaggeration of what lies in store for humanity, but because it rings true!
In Williams’ words:
“I’m not the only person I know who’s expressed regret at having injested the book: I feel sometimes indignant that I have to have it in my consciousness. If there ever was a book that embodies the extremity of the emotion we call panic, this has to be it. I find it’s like having a piercing scream in my mind, one that, when the book comes to mind, which it does more often than I’d like, goes off like a siren.”
From this low point of panic, Williams finds his solace in beauty as an authentic manner of not succumbing to the torments of reason and the all too realistic tremors of a beckoning end time. He takes note of the pervasiveness of beauty in all its forms—music, painting, architecture, poetry—“if not in every day then in every age” as something that lifts human experience to a higher realm of being that is no longer vulnerable to panic no matter how dire the warning signs.
Williams writes “[o]ften our first experience of beauty will be the first hint of what each of us at some point will dare call our soul.’ This allows our exposure to great art of any kind to carry us beyond ourselves and whatever conditions we fear in the world. Williams notes that the first creators of painting retreated to caves so as to avoid being distracted by the lesser wonders of nature that he seems also to regard with awe, yet a lesser awe, because these wonders are there to be found rather than there to be discovered in the solitary mineshafts of the creative imagination.
Williams ends his extraordinary pilgrimage beyond the realms of end time with these almost hopeful words:
“Beauty saves us. Beauty will save us. The world, though, is still ours to cherish, and ours to protect.”
This brave sentiment is less an act of will than a refocusing of the human spirit. While we are alive, let us be saved by beauty, and I would add by love, but let us not forget that the world is not yet alien, but contains flowers and birds and stars and moonlight and rainbows and many beautiful people of all shades and beliefs. It is worth protecting, and cherishing, and who really knows what the future will bestow?
Despite sharing with Williams “a pessimism of the intellect” I also know deep down that the struggle for the human future is far from over, that the world and all those who are being made to daily suffer close by and at great distances are both “ours to protect.”