Listen To Article
For several summers I’ve taught a course on global literature organized around the topic of “Apocalypse.” But the course material isn’t what you might expect–no dystopian or scifi novels, no action-packed blockbuster movies.
Instead, we read the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians,” the surprise turn of which is that the barbarians never arrive, leaving us no option but to fix our own problems; Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in which we find that “the horror” resides in our own hearts; Lu Xun’s “Diary of a Madman,” in which the insane narrator may be the only deeply sane person; Tadeusz Borowski’s “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” which reminds us that the line between victim and oppressor is very thin, only a heartbeat; and the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova’s heart-rending Requiem, a set of elegiac poems memorializing the victims of Stalin’s secret police, including her son and husband.
Death, persecution, the fall of empires, the suffering we cause ourselves and others: this is definitely not summer beach reading.
“Someday,” I say, “an apocalypse is going to happen in your life. And it won’t be something you can anticipate or plan for or negotiate your way out of.” Shadows flit across their faces. “But that’s okay. Because I think what you’ll find is that an apocalypse isn’t the end of all things, it’s just the end of things as you know them. And that’s transformation.”
Perhaps because I’ve been thinking about this theme of “the end of the world as we know it” I heard with new ears the readings in church on Sunday–the prophetic, dreamlike visions of the four apocalyptic horsemen in the sixth chapter of Zechariah and the sixth chapter of Revelation.
John’s revelation is both stunningly poetic and shockingly fierce: “Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures call out, as with a voice of thunder, ‘Come!’ I looked, and there was a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer.”
What follows is a litany of destruction as seal after seal is opened and the cosmos registers the environmental, economic, social, and spiritual effects of total disconnection with Love–both the One Who Is Love and the Others whom we are to love.
But the minister reminded us that “Revelation is not about the future. Instead, ‘apocalypse’ is the unveiling of the now”–a revelation of the real and a destruction of our many and pervasive illusions: of control, of comparison, of security, of safety.
“Yes,” she said, “the Horsemen are riding, but we’re called to pray ‘Come!’ even still.”
In a few minutes I’ll walk into my class and we’ll begin our work for the day, carefully attending to T. S. Eliot’s modernist masterpiece “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Prufrock will ask in his world-weary and disillusioned way, “Do I dare/Disturb the universe?” We’ll wander together through the foggy, dirty urban streetscape of the poem, through the fragmentary, isolated inner landscape of the poetic voice, until we reach those memorable final lines…
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
Perhaps we will drown when we wake up, who knows? But we must wake up, nevertheless. We must pray “Come!” And we must embrace the apocalypse as an unveiling of the now, as startling and as surprising as that unveiling may be.
Sarina Gruver Moore teaches English literature and writing at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.