Books of the decade

Our contributors recommend some slow reading for the festive season

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December 31, 2019

Not long after I moved to Texas in 2006, I got heavily into the end of the world. It’s just the kind of thing you do over here. We have the apocalyptic heat, the empty wastelands ideal for receiving prophetic messages, and — of course — easy access to the weaponry required for waging war in the battle of Armageddon.

But the apocalyptic vibe in Texas, home to both David Koresh and a very big plant for assembling nuclear weapons, felt like a more condensed version of a zeitgeist that was abroad in the culture more generally. Anxieties about jihadi terror, global warming and the decline of the West were widespread, and zombie plague movies were just starting to take off. Society, it seemed, was in a state of apocalyptic arousal, and I detected a weird undercurrent of yearning, as if some people liked it. But why?

I started taking the bus to the Austin public library to read whatever they had about the end of the world. This being Texas, they had rather a lot, and I have fond memories of sitting among the homeless people and the hippy burnouts, leafing through the Encyclopedia of Millennialism and Millennial Movements, absorbing endless factoids about strange religious movements, cults and prophets.

The theme would follow me home; on the way back to the bus I would always pick up a free street newspaper that informed me that the Maitreya, a messianic figure from Buddhism, was already among us. (He still is, apparently, although his prophet has since died, alas.)

I soon realised why some people seemed to crave the end of the world; they want this terrible world of suffering to pass away and be replaced by a new world (and some people really want to see the wicked punished). I also discovered that belief in an earthly heaven on earth — Millennialism — had inspired some extraordinary behaviour over the centuries. Why had nobody ever taught me about the naked Adamites of Bohemia, or Sabattai Zevi, the mysterious messiah who aroused the hopes of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire only to convert to Islam, or the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom and the enormous devastation it wrought in the dying days of the Qing dynasty.

Come to think of it, why was it not better known that Isaac Newton and James Napier were profoundly apocalyptic thinkers? The neat line between their scientific-mathematical studies and their religious obsessions was an anachronism imposed by revisionist historians. Then there were the obvious millennial aspects to the French Revolution, and communism, as well as Nazism; throw in the messianic-apocalyptic aspects of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam and it seemed as though maybe this whole end of the world thing was one of the most important ideas going…

It was as if I had discovered an alternate history of humanity, where the dream of a happy apocalypse had inspired prophets, saints, scientists, madmen and martyrs to repeatedly attempt to birth new, better worlds out of the flawed ones they lived in. I liked how strange, and wild it was, and how ambiguous it was in its legacy. There was a whiff of the disrespectable about it, which appealed to me; but that in turn meant that many “serious” writers ignored the theme, or quarantined it in the “mad cult” category.

Maybe digging into this stuff wasn’t good for your academic career. And as for those who did write about it, well they talked about Protestant Europe and the USA a lot. Even Russia, with profoundly deep millennial tradition, barely got a look in. Clearly somebody needed to write a book that would tie all these strange events and threads together, clearly articulating why the End was so important, and why.

Then, in 2011, that book appeared: Heaven and Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience, written by Richard Landes, the editor of Encyclopedia of Millennialism and Millennial Movements. Landes is a mediaevalist and he could easily have turned out a book focusing on the likes of Joachim of Fiore and Rodulfus Glaber but instead he took inspiration from Georges Perec’s novel A Void which omits the letter “e” entirely, and wrote a book about the millennialism that didn’t include Jewish or Christian case studies. This radical exclusion enabled him to more clearly highlight just how much the phenomenon cuts across time, space and culture.

Thus Landes highlights the tale of Nongqawuse the Xhosa prophetess in southern Africa, who told her followers to slaughter their cattle that the dead might arise and drive out the British; the Taiping Heavenly kingdom, cargo cults, the French and Russian Revolutions, UFO cults and the Pharaoh Akhenaten.

We see millenniums pursued from the top down as well as from the bottom up, and Landes explores how an accelerated sense of “apocalyptic time” acts upon those who welcome the advent of an earthly paradise and those who resist it. We read of great and terrible deeds, and of course, the repeated experience of failure, disappointment and what follows it.

After reading the book, I was left with an unshakeable sense that apocalyptic and millennial undercurrents are always running through our societies, but that it is practically impossible to tell when they will erupt to the surface. Yet when they do, hitherto rejected and bizarre ideas can move to the centre rapidly, turning everything upside down. Thus Heaven and Earth powerfully underscores the importance of ancient dreams, phantoms and prophecies as motivating factors in human affairs.

That, no doubt, is why Landes wrote a very long introduction in which he defended himself against anticipated criticisms from his academic peers. Having taken such a bold stance, he clearly expected strong pushback. Instead the book shared the same fate as so many others: it entered the world, got some reviews, but not too many, and that was that. Not many people were outraged; not many people were paying attention. If they did pay too much attention they would see how deep these currents run even in themselves, and that might prove a difficult pill to swallow.

But Landes’s book does deserve a wider audience, and to be read, and debated. He provides powerful tools for thinking about the allure of the apocalypse and the millennium, and enables us to detect patterns, categorise types and recognise symptoms. I don’t think that the world has become less apocalyptic since I started getting into the end back in 2006; with the sudden rise of Extinction Rebellion we see a movement that is living in accelerated apocalyptic time, albeit without much hope of anything nice happening on the other end, unless you like wearing hair shirts.

But who knows how it will mutate, or what other ideas will emerge to surprise, disappoint or perhaps transform us. From reading Heaven on Earth it is clear that such ideas will emerge, though — as example after example in the book proves — we should hope it doesn’t happen in our lifetimes.

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