Four Arguments for the Elimination of the Eschaton
(with apologies to Jerry Mander)
Introduction: Stepping Into The Abyss
My favorite tarot card, The Fool – known by some as Il Pesce – is most often pictured as a carefree lad stepping out into a chasm that can only be forded in an act of faith. It is in this thrust toward the unknown that I most often find myself, arms outstretched, to find myself dangerously balanced atop nothing at all.
And yet, in moments like these, I discover my capacity for flight. Gravity – or at least, gravitas – bounds the body in space, but it fails to ground the spirit in its flight toward some higher truth. If we avoid becoming overly Gnostic about its significance, the Fool represents the body which, in its innocence, does not know it is condemned to fall to the ground. This prelapsarian soul, who has not tasted the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, apprehends the whole universe directly, yet makes no assumptions about its nature.
We should be so lucky. But, because we are not, we live entirely constrained by our doubts, which bring us down on our respective crowns, irreversibly broken, thermodynamically transformed into something less than whole, despite a reconstruction from countless pieces. What is missing – inevitably – is the Telos, the flicker of destiny that speaks not to how (the consuming passion of the rational mind), but to why.
And for this reason – or rather the superimposition of reason on processes both perfect and not nearly rational – I find myself regularly confronted by voices, both internal and external, which question the air upon which I would walk, which would call me to stumble and fall, to the dumbfounded glances and powerless hands of all the King’s men.
But I am my own High Priest, my own King; no one has authority over me. Yet every voice presents an argument which assails my knowing, which would supplant faith with reason, or rather, myreason with their faith. To do as I Will, then, it becomes necessary to confront this Beast head-on, to crawl deep into its belly and from there, plant the seeds of its destruction. This methodology is known as the via negativa, the way of denial. Only through coming into darkness can one ponder the renaissance of light.
So, now – into the darkness.
One: Concerning The Reading of Interior Apocalypse as Exterior Reality
Umberto Eco wrote nearly a thousand pages of paranoia in Foucault’s Pendulum, tracing out the vast dimensions of a conspiracy which encompassed all history, all humanity, and all institution as a vast mechanism intent on destroying the narrator, who had – through sheer accident and foolhardiness – run afoul of the most powerful engines of civilization, the teleological dimension of Authority, intent to assure itself, like 1984‘s Inner Party, of absolute dominion for all eternity.
The reader, fully absorbed in the suspensions of the text, believes it, and understands that the narrator has become the fly caught in a spider’s web of intrigue, until the voice of the feminine appears in the body of the narrator’s lover, and neatly overturns the carefully constructed edifice of the text with a simple, sobering thought: the conspirators have mistaken the psychological for the physical, and have projected their neuroses and psychic peccadilloes onto the world around them.
Certainly this seems simple enough; any personal apocalypse of any magnitude can become psychologically conflated with a more general event, identity achieved through enormity, personal egotistically amplified into the universal. What if, for example, Terence McKenna is scheduled to die on 21 December 2012, at the ripe old age of 66? Is it, perhaps, that the shamanic regions have revealed to him only the date of his passing and not the more generally passing of the Age? It is, I believe, perfectly reasonable to allow that communication with the dream-time can result in the acquisition of information about the time and manner of one’s demise, and certainly rather more believable than a date which marks the end of everything recognizable.
This had occurred to one of my friends – a woman, interestingly enough – who remarked that I only focused on the Eschaton when my own life was going poorly, as if I amplified my own general fears of the future into a less specific situation of complete transformation, wishing for this event to release me, a fantasy construction which bore no reality other than its ability to relieve me from my present pains.
This assessment hit home, fitting the facts perfectly. I came to my first consciousness of the Eschaton in the depths of fantasy during my “failure” at MIT, a period of time when I ran away – internally – to a degree which astonishes me even today, a situation which practically bifurcated my personality into “real” and “fantasy” elements, which – to this day – occasionally conflate, to my continual epistemological confusion.
In short, I have trouble knowing the truth, a worthy attribute for any Fool, but a characteristic which makes me gullible in the extreme, taken up by my own suppositions into the rarefied air of dreams, jack-stories, which, like some impossible architectures, can not be built in the world of gravitas, but must remain forever palaces of the mind’s eye.
Thus, it could all be completely unreal, this End of Everything, just the mirrored reflection of the ego in death throes, and in that not utterly unlike the moment of terror and revelation that immediately precedes the little death of the ayahuasca experience, when one is not completely sure that one is coming back, as the first feelings of sickness, disorientation and panic wash through a body about to be completely in the grips of an irresistible force.
Must we argue that the Eschaton is outside of us, that sudden, staggering transformation has any reality beyond the boundaries of the individual? Or do we have the courage to tell ourselves that we’re looking at our own deaths, Writ Large? Terence McKenna found himself an End Date when he was in his late twenties, a time when the consciousness of death finally begins to make an impression on the adult of our species, when we realize with some absolute certainty that we will not live forever – rather, we will die trying.
The soul would be content enough at a time like this, as it intuits the great transmigration of being which awaits it, but the ego, which can neither be described nor eliminated, refuses to accept the inevitable, and instead throws a psychedelic nightmare upon the walls of a mind which, ignorant of its own inner workings, sees these phantoms as patterns of the real, rather than patterns imposed upon the real.
The End of History, then, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.
Two: Concerning the Impossibility of an End
Perhaps the largest conceptual revolution within the span of history following the collapse of the Roman Empire involves the upset of the Aristotelian paradigm in favor of the Copernican/Newtonian view of the world. The Aristotelian view, blessed by Saints Augustine & Thomas Aquinas formed the backbone of scientific thought in the West until the mid-seventeen century, when – under the pressures of scientific inquiry – it was put aside as an article of faith.
The Church suffered greatly in the conflation of pseudo-science and religion, so much so that through to this day science and religion are considered by most as irreconcilable opposites. Whatever ground the Church held onto – such as the divine creation of the world on 23 October 4004 B.C. – gave way before geology, paleontology, and finally, evolutionary biology. Richard Dawkins, mawkish genius and consummate atheist, remains the archetype of the scientist who has seen the light of reason and turned his back upon a Creator god.
In all of the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – time is cast as profane, separate from the eternity of the divine. God is not seen as experiencing time, and even the Christian mystery of the Incarnation places the appearance of Christ at the absolute center of the timeline – the boundary between B.C. and A.D. – as if to indicate the singularity of the occurrence, drawing time back – temporarily – making room for the divine invasion.
Because of this theoantipathetic relationship toward temporality, each of these religions bounds time in an Eschaton. In the Jewish tradition, the Messiah comes, the crowned and conquering king, to declare his kingdom. In fact, the Jewish eschatology of the Roman period became the Christian Eschaton as transmitted by Matthew and John of Patmos, who, in his Revelation, gave us the crowning archetype of the End of History, one which has so suffused the West that it has become absolutely identical with it.
It is reported that when Oppenheimer looked into the nuclear furnace at Alamogordo, he quoted the Bhagavad-Gita, “I am become Shiva, the Destroyer of Worlds.” As over-educated and over-privileged as he was, he overlooked the more obvious and plebeian references from the Bible, where God promises Noah “fire next time”, or perhaps, more poignantly:
Revelation X:4 – 8
The world of the East – and the pre-Abrahamic West – presents a constant play, an evolution of form, a circle or wheel or ribbon, which wends hither and thither, flowing like a stream as it encounters obstacles in its path, which it either moves, or erodes, or ignores utterly and passes by on its journey to the sea. There is no coming or going – we are already there. There is no beginning or ending – everything is already perfect, though perhaps not conscious of its own innate perfection.
Strangely enough, despite its Western propensity for analysis and division, science has acquired a rather Eastern taste for the eternal flow of time. Once thought utterly unbounded, we believe it to be coming forward, spreading out from the singular event of its creation, but find it so seamless and uniform now that almost every observation shows us that things will remain much a they are today for as long as we care to look into the future. The stars themselves will cool and die and turn to dust, but the universe, and its lawful play, will go on and on and on. Apocalypse is not in the cards for us.
We could, if we desired, bring a thermonuclear hell to bear, and immanetize the Apocalyptic fantasies of a few, but even this would have only the most marginal of local effects; the universe would not end with the death of the Earth, as horrific as it might be for humanity. In the end, this Apocalypse is just another case of the Interior looking at its fantasies and mistaking them for the real, but at a sociological level rather than the psychological. Save the one indeterminate instance of our origins, we have no examples of an ultimate non-linearity, of a catastrophe so beyond imagining that it literally shatters our conceptions of the world. Scientifically, then, such an event is highly unlikely, if not completely impossible.
As Terence McKenna recently pointed out, there is no closure. Hence, any End is inherently suspect.
Three: Concerning Knowledge of the Day and Hour of the Eschaton
The history of the West – precisely because it is littered with so many announcements of the Terminal – is almost comic in the precise repetitive response to human communities in the face of the call of the Eschaton. The destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans was in some part due to the appearance of false Messiahs, who led the citizenry in a popular uprising against the Roman government. Zvi, a Jew who lived in the mid-seventeenth century, proclaimed himself Messiah, had his followers sell their possessions in advance of the immanence of his kingdom, then promptly fled Europe to Constantinople, where the Sultan put him to torture, resulting in his conversion to Islam.
The pattern recurs in the nineteenth century, with the Millerites, forerunners of the Seventh-Day Adventist movement, expecting the end of the world in the 1843 – whoops, better make that 1844. The Jehovah’s Witnesses predicted a Second Coming in 1914. The Church considered any speculation on the temporality of the End Times as rank heresy, a direct denial of Christ’s dictum that “no man will know the day or hour.” This focus on scripture likely stems from the fact that the earliest days of the Church were fraught with the immanence of Christ’s kingdom, a kingdom which did not come before the first generation of apostles passed away, or the second, or the third. By the time of Augustine, the Church had become charisma routinized, accepting the doctrine of the Eschaton while denying its fundamental immanence. One simply could not live life – or grow into an institution which would conflate with the Empire – and simultaneously believe the world would presently pass away into a more perfect form.
The Church has survived nearly two thousand years in the shadow of the Eschaton, mostly by ignoring the darkness. Any attempt to date the End, to draw attention to that which must not be noticed, drew the wrath of the institution, and charges of witchcraft. Michelle Nostradamus, the sixteenth-century French astrologer and numerologist, charted the generations until the Eschaton, predicted the end of the papacy (only two more to go, by his reckoning), and produced a wealth of confusing quatrains which have formed the firmament of Western occult sciences prior to the twentieth century – all while dodging the Inquisition.
The story of this century is that of occult explosion; all of the traditions are available – on-line – all of the time. This means that every one of the prophecies concerning the End of History have had a chance to splice their memes, and give birth to newer heresies. The Hopi stories of an end time, the Lakota Sioux visions of Black Elk, the warnings of Amazonian ayahuascuranderos who sense the death of the planet as their forests dry, Crowley with his prognostications for an aeon of Horus, each of these has fed into a commonweal of prophecy; but none – absolutely none – has had the autocatalytic effect of the translation and interpretation of the Mayan language, and, in particular, their calendar.
The Maya were without question the most sophisticated timekeepers of the modern archaic period, a people who constructed intricate cycles of time to track celestial motions, but never employed the wheel for locomotion. All of their wheels rolled about in the heavens, precisely observed and carefully calculated – both backward as well as forward in time – yielding a system of representation known today as the long count, a way of representing their interlocking system of calendrical cycles as a single entity.
This system, in its careful algorithms, contains its own version of a millenium bug. The baktun count – cycles of 144,000 days, roughly 394 years – rolls over after thirteen baktuns, beginning with a count of zero. And we’re well into the twelfth baktun, if the consensus estimate on Mayan calendar dating holds true. In fact, on 21 December 2012, just over 14 years from the moment these words were written, the long count calendar “resets” itself, to 0.0.0.0.0. It is believed by some Mayan scholars that the long count measures out the length of an Age, from beginning to end, this being derived from the ecliptic and precessional cycles which are described within the count. Thus, it is argued, the Maya came to know the day and hour of the Eschaton – from a scientific observation of the universe around them.
What must also be noted, as this argument is presented, is that Terence McKenna developed the same date, independently (or so he claims) of any experience with that calendar. The confirmation of his intuition of the date of the Eschaton with the terminus of the Mayan calendar served only to reify his own understanding, and led to his public pronouncement – in the pages of The Invisible Landscape – that the Eschaton would in fact occur on 12/21/12 – at the moment that the Earth-Sun system lines up with the galactic center, located some 30,000 light-years away in the constellation of Sagittarius.
While all of this makes for good astrology – the coincidence between the end of the long count and the astronomical alignment is remarkable – none of it is indicative of any radically transformative event. So far as we know, the Mayan calendar experienced similar “resets” in earlier ages, none of them resulting in the absolutism of the Eschaton; and while the Maya may have observed the Winter solstice as the beginning of the precessional cycle, there’s nothing to indicate that 25,800 years ago anything quite so remarkable took place. Nor can Terence McKenna offer any explanation for this date, other than his statement that it fits the curves of the timewave rather well.
Given the rather poor track record of the Abrahamic religions at predicting the impending End of Everything, can we trust the Mesoamericans? Has there been a conflation between the cycling of an ancient calendar and an apocalyptic event? Have the Maya been used – misused, actually – to present a justification for an event they never predicted?
The truth of the millenium bug is that it’s entirely culturally constructed, a phantom of modernity; the closer you look, the more the date of the Eschaton looks like a millenium bug.
Four: Concerning Why It Can’t Possibly Happen in Fourteen Years
At the center of this labyrinth, at the heart of the religious belief which could perhaps be called Eschatism, lies the ever approaching terminal date. Even if it is allowed that this event has some exterior reality, that time can end, even that the time of that ending can be known, it still seems unreasonably close at hand. The Eschaton of the Maya and McKenna lies just over 5200 days in the future.
Jean Baudrillard recently noted that a millennial countdown clock posted at the Centre Georges Pompidou disappeared from public view, secreted away in a safe, where it could count down the days, minutes and seconds in an invisible meditation on the End of the Modern, without scaring Parisian passers-by. Perhaps there should be installed – on a Jumbotron screen in Times Square – another counter, working its way through fourteen years, two months and some-odd days.
Seeing the approaching End of Everything as a digital hourglass will most certainly cast a new light on everything. Truly, if we double that count and round it out to 10,000 days – perhaps thirteen years ago – we see a world fundamentally like our own. Some things are different, of course, such as the omnipresence of computer networks and the invisible threads of global capital that trail along with them, but this world of Ronald Reagan and a declining Soviet Union and Mutually Assured Destruction is in most respects identical to our own.
And while it hasn’t always been so, we can stretch into the comfortably distant past and find a world very much like our own. My own benchmark for an ancient intelligence I can comprehend comes from the women of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, who sit around their apartments telling bawdy stories about the size of their lovers’ genitals or sexual frustrations, who end a war by denying their husbands their conjugal privileges, who in every way seem so completely modern – sans twenty-five hundred years of technology, of course – that I would be comfortable meeting them at a party, or dining with them in a trendy restaurant.
The Eschaton necessarily implies a change in human behavior, in fact, it changes the definition of what it means to be human, perhaps into concepts which can not be intuited by us. The Eschaton means that we will lose the thread of continuity which connects us to Aristophanes, to Chaucer, to Shakespeare and Milton, to Keats and Shelley and Yeats and Pound. These works – indeed, the narrative itself and the song of poetry – depend so entirely upon the unspoken common ground shared by all human beings, the space of values so enculturated they seem almost innate, that a radical departure from them would produce a massive break in history, bifurcating perception into an unintelligible before and an unpronounceable after.
If our species loses its stories, even its ability to relate a story, the species itself has been lost, translated in a one-way function permitting no reverse decryption of the older codes. To expect something so final, so utterly complete, in the short space of fourteen years means that one must accept a completely unprecedented sense of acceleration, of forward progress, movement from the tragic ego of classical drama beyond the transcendent being of the Buddha; not just for the individual, but for everyone, and not just for everyone, but for everything, for the Eschaton is the Terminus of All – every road ends there.
To contemplate such an eventuality is one thing, but to contemplate its immanence is another thing entirely. Immanence requires sufficient satisfying conditions, and despite the occasionally dizzying speed of informational flow and development of ideas which pervade the postmodern world, we haven’t seen ourselves move one inch away from the humanity of the Greeks or the Elizabethans. In fact, the tragedy of history is the folly of ignorance, the mind-numbing repetition of stupidity & avarice, and the banality of evil. The further we travel, the more we cover the same old ground, only our carriage has gone from bipedal jaunt to animal labor to mechanical device, but the beast of burden still bears the same mind, the same tiny little thoughts, ones we share in large part with out nearest relatives among the primates – only we have guns and art and money.
To presume that we can just leap away from what we are – as if gravity suddenly abandoned us – is to call for a deus ex machina, an intervention of divine order along the lines of the highly non-linear. While God has been known to flood lands and take human form, that all seems trivial (!) against a heavenly finger poised upon the cosmic reset button, ready to announce, “Game over, dude!” and send us all back to the further reaches of RAM as bits stripped of any character. Is this some form of comic judgement? Or has the dance of Good and Evil so fully played out its hand that the only reasonable reaction is to toss the game board into the air and blame one’s actions on boredom?
An immanent Eschaton is more than just an untenable idea, it’s actually impossible; it would require a twisting of the real so massive, so entirely complete that the boundaries of reality would already need to be seriously strained. It could not possibly be a discontinuous event, as that would reduce everything to rubble rather than booting it into a cosmic unity. While times are admittedly strange, we don’t seem to be bearing up under the cosmic boot intent on grinding us into our constituent flecks of common being; things are flying apart, chaos is everywhere. Conditions seem to be exactly at odds with an approaching End.
Acceleration is an illusion, everything has always been one instantaneous interconnected whole: the Eschaton already happened, ten billion years ago. How, then, can it be so near to us?
Conclusion: Negative Theology and Crypto-Eschatism
Over the several evenings I spent working out these thoughts, I sent out the unfinished manuscript to some friends for their review. I was surprised – astonished, actually – to find them relieved that I had seemed to revoke my earlier beliefs in the Eschaton, developing instead a list of arguments against such an occurrence. This misapprehension comes from an unfamiliarity with negative theology, the practice of the via negativa.
I have developed all of these arguments in order to better understand my own beliefs. Each – argued as persuasively as possible – stand as the immovable objects in my path to a more complete understanding. Any articulation of the Eschaton has to answer every one of these four arguments against its eventuality, and do so definitively: any other response would be to abandon reason – not for incompleteness’ sake, which is a justifiable act – but simply because it is inconvenient.
Even if the revelation of the purpose of the cosmos comes as an inchoate vision, eventually words are found, and syntax laid as a foundation upon which a language can accrete. It took Terence McKenna some years to find his own voice in these matters; that it took me nearly twenty years (1981 – 1998) before I dared speak to this publicly is well known to my friends and to those who have tracked the course of my public career. In the earliest years, I hid my thoughts very carefully in my choice of words, drawing near to the line of the reasonable when it seemed absolutely necessary to make my points. As time passed, I grew increasingly bold, and drew the convergent lines thus and so, as if tracing out the gravitational patterns around and into a singularity.
Only in this year did I finally tell my whole story, as a three-day narrative, at Esalen. Like some crypto-Jew in an eighteenth century Spanish cathedral praying to a different god, I spent too many years giving a lip-serviced half-truth to the world at large, all the while experiencing the full force of the dissonance between what I said and what I felt to be true. When, at last, I gave full voice to my vision, the energy released propelled me into a new understanding, neither specifically mystical nor metaphysical, of the reality of the Eschaton, as an object simultaneously both immanent and transcendent, as a state of being and a terminal condition, of a subject which admitted no comprehensive understanding and remained as clear as blue sky.
The paradox is that all of this is true, every last bit, every argument and turn of phrase and supposition and proposition and belief. I made it all up – both sides – and it’s all true nonetheless. Because what is happening, at its deepest, most fundamental level, is playing with language, getting to us in the syntactical nature of our understanding, hacking the deep linguistics which breathe meaning into the world, and which are common to everything we know. I roll these rocks to stand in my way – to withstand my way, and I glory in it, because these rocks lay out a path on the way; and all journeys end where we ourselves come to a stop.
7 Akbal – 9 Chicchan