The allure of the apocalypse: Dark Awe

An essay from Steve Almond a couple of weeks ago in the NYTimes Sunday magazine, has been haunting me.

As they say in songs, it went something like this:

As a form of disposable entertainment, the apocalypse market is booming. The question is why. The obvious answer is that these narratives tap into anxieties, conscious and otherwise, about the damage we’re doing to our species and to the planet. They allow us to safely fantasize about what might be required of us to survive.

Of course, people have been running around screaming about the end of the world for as long as we’ve been around to take notes. But in the past, the purpose of these stories was essentially prophetic. They were intended to bring man into accord with the will of God, or at least his own conscience.

The newest wave of apocalyptic visions, whether they’re intended to make us laugh or shriek, are nearly all driven by acts of sadistic violence. Rather than inspiring audiences to reckon with the sources of our potential planetary ruin, they proceed from the notion that the apocalypse will usher in an era of sanctified Darwinism: survival of the most weaponized.

There’s a deep cynicism at work here, one that stands in stark contrast to the voices of even a generation ago. And this cynicism has, I fear, become the default setting of a culture that lurches about within the shadow of its own extinction yet lacks the moral imagination to change its destiny.

Another word for that deep cynicism was coined by an underground rocker, quoted in a spiky art/writing/museum/collective/Internet thing called The Dread Exhibition. (Translation: Don't ask me to crush it into a sentence — you'll have to look it up yourself if you want the whole story.) 

Here's the point:  

Dread, that visceral sensation which can be used both to comment on and revel in the anxieties of our time…is best understood as an aesethiszed experience of fear,or, as sci-fi author China Miéville defined it in conversation with the DJ and curator Juha van ‘t Zelfde, “dark awe,” a grim negative to the sublime. 

Think of Caspar David Friedrich, who could make even postcard-type pictures darkly ominous:

Moonrise-over-the-Sea

Until we understand this allure, this dark awe, we won't be able to overcome it. 

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