If this is the apocalypse, why are so few of us eating each other’s flesh?
Writing a whole book on the end of the world didn’t prepare me for this half-baked version
The end of the world as we know it?: at least for the luckier among us, the basic elements of ordinary life remain in place. Photograph: Justin Paget/Getty
If you wanted to know about the end of the world, you’d think I’d be the guy to talk to. I wrote a whole book on the topic, after all: a book about the anxiety of apocalypse, and the various ways people imagine and prepare for it. I spent the better part of three years thinking, and writing, about all of this: about billionaire bunkers in New Zealand, apocalyptic survival communities in the American midwest, doomsday preppers and their violent fantasies of civilisational collapse. For three years, all I did, all day, was think about the end of the world.
The book was, in the end, a series of essayistic attempts to grapple with my own inchoate anxieties about the future, through encounters with external manifestations of those anxieties.
The apocalypse was, among other things, a means of tying together, and theorising, those anxieties – a literary device, in other words, that reflected the ways in which the idea of the end of the world gives vivid focus to the vague and multifarious anxieties of a wider culture.
Many doomsday preppers imagine grand cataclysmic events – asteroid impacts, nuclear strikes and, yes, viral pandemics – leading to mass death, civil unrest and the eventual collapse of civilisation itself
These anxieties of mine, which were the impetus (and in some ways the true subject) of the book, had mostly to do with climate change, and with the problem of living and raising children against the backdrop of a dark and unknowable future. I wanted to arrive at some form of hope for that future, and a means of understanding the apocalyptic impulses of the present.
So you would think that, as events unfolded in April 2020, at the precise moment the book was being published, I might have been in some kind of privileged position. You would think that the pandemic, and the series of societal paroxysms that came in its wake, might not have taken me entirely by surprise – or that I would at least have greeted it with some sense of composure and perspective.
Multiple interviews began with the jokey suggestion that surely I, or my publishers, must have known something the rest of the world had not. I knew no such thing. I was no more prepared for whatever this was than the next person (unless the next person was a doomsday prepper, in which case I was a good deal less prepared).
I was unprepared, specifically, for how boring this particular apocalyptic scenario would be, relatively speaking. One of the things I came to realise, in scrutinising various end-times movements and subcultures, is that when people imagine the apocalypse, they are often engaging more with their fantasies than with their fears.
Many doomsday preppers, for instance, imagine grand cataclysmic events – asteroid impacts, nuclear strikes and, yes, viral pandemics – leading to mass death, civil unrest and the eventual collapse of civilisation itself. They imagine a catastrophe that pits the prepared against the unprepared: every man for himself, defending his home and family against starving, violent marauders. There is a frisson of dark exhilaration to these imaginings; they arise more out of a fantasy of rugged, individualist masculinity than an anxiety about the fragility of the structures that hold our civilisation in place.
There is a sense of time having divided into a before and after Covid, along with a growing apprehension that, when the pandemic does eventually end, our world will not return to anything like what it was before
One of the people I spent time with was an American property entrepreneur who was building what he called “the world’s largest survival community”, based around a network of reinforced steel and concrete bunkers in rural South Dakota. He talked incessantly about what he believed would happen in the wake of a grand cataclysmic event. He was especially fond of invoking the prospect of people resorting to cannibalism.
Recently, I read a newspaper interview in which he claimed that the pandemic had provoked a 500 per cent increase in his business. I often wonder whether the people who have bought bunkers from him feel disappointed by the way things have panned out over the past year or so: by how civilisation has failed to collapse; by how few people, if any, seem to have developed a taste for the flesh of their fellow humans.
I have come to think of the experience of the pandemic as a “half-assed apocalypse”. There are, on the one hand, certain obvious respects in which our situation feels recognisably apocalyptic. There is, for instance, a sense of having left behind a former era, of time having divided into a before and after Covid, along with a growing apprehension that, when the pandemic does eventually end, our world will not return to anything like what it was before.
I am increasingly catching myself in the act of wishing away months of my life, of wanting the time between now and whenever this stasis ends to pass as quickly as possible. This is a disorienting attitude to find myself taking towards time
There is also the fact that almost every aspect of our lives is, at present, defined by the decisions of government and the logistics of giant pharmaceutical corporations; a situation that feels if not necessarily apocalyptic then certainly dystopian enough to be getting along with. And yet, at least for the luckier among us, the basic elements of ordinary life remain in place. Most people are still working. The supermarket shelves continue to be stocked. No one is eating anyone.
The experience of the past year, and in particular the most recent months of lockdown, has been one of a radical reduction of the dimensions of life. It’s as though the system of the world is running in safe mode; still functioning, but at a drastically reduced capacity. A half-assed apocalypse.
There has been no grand systemic collapse, but there has been a collapse of the experience of time, and of the sense of its meaning. The flatness of the days, the endless sameness, is building towards some cumulative emotional effect, and we have not yet begun to take the measure of it.
I am increasingly catching myself in the act of wishing away months of my life, of wanting the time between now and whenever this stasis ends to pass as quickly as possible. This is a disorienting attitude to find myself taking towards time, not least because it is in conflict with (and yet somehow exacerbated by) my growing apprehension of the shortness of life.
Until recently, the person in my family about whom I worried least, in terms of the effects of lockdown, was my daughter. At two and a half, she was too young to be properly aware of what was going on in the world outside her home; her life was, by definition, so embedded in our family that the social restrictions of the past year seemed unlikely to have any serious impact.
The pandemic is not, obviously, the end of the world. But there is a sense that it might be the beginning of a new one, and that this will be the world my children will have to live in
But I have lately come to see how wrong that was. She is a naturally sociable little person – far more so than either her parents or her older brother. When we are out together for a walk she’ll wave at passing strangers, and introduce herself and then me, and then tell them about her mother, who is at home working, and about her brother, who is seven, and her dog and so on. It’s charming, and sweetly awkward, but also clearly an expression of a desire for a broader experience of the world, a widened circle.
Recently, the effects of lockdown have become visible in her fantasy life, too. She has begun instructing her mother and me to role-play other people who are close to her but whom she no longer gets to see. I spent an entire breakfast recently pretending, at her insistence, to be my own father. (“Daddy, you be Grandad!”) I sat there channelling my dad, dialling up (but by no means hamming up) the avuncularity a notch or two, and she filled me, or her grandad, in on what had been going on in the past few days – which wasn’t much, even by toddler standards.
This week she asked me to play with her. When she took out her building blocks I asked what we should build, and she informed me that we were going to build her pal Caspar, the three-year-old son of friends we have not seen since Christmas. I think we made a pretty decent go of it, given all we had was blocks. The fact that, in the end, she clearly took more relish in knocking him down than she had in building him did not detract from my overall sense that some deeper yearning was revealing itself, some lack that may come to be formative.
Perhaps it will do nothing more than strengthen her inherent gregariousness, but the pessimist in me feels a gnawing sense that some developmental need is failing to be met.
Even if the virus were to completely disappear, never to be heard from again, the duration and intensity of what has already unfolded seems to me to all but ensure that the world will be profoundly changed by it
The pandemic is not, obviously, the end of the world. But there is a sense that it might be the beginning of a new one, and that this will be the world my children will have to live in. When I think about this – about the effect of Covid-19 on our lives, and on the world outside – I recall a line from Beckett’s Endgame, a play about four people confined to a small room in the wake of an undefined catastrophe, that has haunted me over the past year. “What’s happening?” asks the blind and wheelchair-bound Hamm of his younger servant, Clov. Clov’s reply is comically vague but disturbingly emphatic: “Something,” he says, “is taking its course.”
These last words seem to encapsulate for me the emotional experience of the pandemic. Something is taking its course, all right, in here as well as out there, offstage. But what?
Somewhere over the past few months, the general understanding of this pandemic has shifted: it has come to seem less like an interlude, an acute period of crisis before an eventual return to normality, and more like a shift in the order of things.
Even if, one fine day this summer, the virus were to completely disappear, never to be heard from again, the duration and intensity of what has already unfolded seems to me to all but ensure that the world will be profoundly changed by it. Something is taking its course. It’s not the end of the world, but then the apocalypse never is. – Guardian
Mark O’Connell’s Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back is published by Granta