Ernst Jünger anticipates Nolan’s Batman in his bleak essay “On Pain.” Junger, writing just before the outbreak of World War II, prophesies the rise of a new human who integrates with technology and becomes utterly cold to the pain of existing under modernity. Above all, the new human valorizes courage and discipline, finding its most powerful metaphor in the emergence of the art of photography. Fused with the eye of the director, the camera subjects the silent viewer to images of catastrophe with cold detachment. It’s Batman’s detachment from bodily and financial pain and courage in the fear of death that allows him to rise out of the abyss to exploit Bane’s weakness, his undisciplined rage, held in check by his opiate mask.
But in the face of crisis, pain is merely a symptom of a deeper sickness. In desensitizing oneself to pain, one opens the door to its deepening. This is not, of course, to advocate terrorism, but it is to suggest that humans do not have to sit idly by for the status quo in which the structures that promote greed and poverty enforce our decline. It’s valuable to learn to accept suffering, but we must also work to lessen it. The images the camera captures should spur us onward to at least slow the decline and help one another in our pain, and should not lull us into a state in which we open ourselves to its increase.
The Pale Horse
The sickly horse is the final nightmare, and perhaps the most real and frightening of this procession. Stoic suffering of pain is where this figure begins. At this stage, pessimism has doubled back on itself; the fire and/or brimstone pictures that the other figures represent a best case scenario to what the Pale Horse promises. True, they predict world-ending catastrophes just like the rest, but instead of pointing to a group or a force as a cause, they suspend that judgment. The causes of future suffering are mostly accidents. There is no utility in allowing these accidents to frighten us, and we must continue forth into the darkness, because that is all that remains for us. “This is how the world ends/ Not with a bang/ but a whimper.”8
Béla Tarr’s art house apocalypse, The Turin Horse, is perhaps the most coherent realization of this picture. In its glacial march towards oblivion, we witness a series of crises that confine the peasant protagonists to a fate of starvation. The first of these crises (apart from the constant gale-force winds that buffet their land) is the loss of their livelihood: the horse that drives the father’s cab refuses to leave the barn, refuses even to eat, like an equine Bartleby the Scrivener. Soon, they hear from a neighbor (named Bernhard, after novelist of endless rants Thomas Bernhard), a believer in the Dark Horse, that the nearby village has blown away. He blames its downfall on a corrupted other:
Everything has been debased that they’ve acquired, and since they’ve acquired everything in a sneaky, underhand fight, they’ve debased everything. Because whatever they touch — and they touch everything — they’ve debased… And those many noble great and excellent just stood there, if I can put it that way… I was truly mistaken when I thought that there has never been and could never be any kind of change here on Earth.
The skeptical father dismisses this attribution as rubbish, but sells him some liquor to ease his woes. After more meals of boiled potatoes, wild travelers stop at the family’s house and, amid offers to take the younger daughter with them to America, steal water from the family’s well. The father drives them away, knowing that America holds no solutions to their problems and that the traveling party has its own problems even before making the journey. Afterward, the well dries up, which triggers a food crisis. They attempt to leave, but return, finding that the surrounding areas all face the same struggles. Then the liquor goes and along with it any refuge from the decline. Finally, the lights go out, and a darkness covers the land.
Tarr takes care not to project a cause of the peasant’s suffering onto any particular force, but the destructive wind continues throughout. Sound editor Gábor ifj. Erdélyi uses the same sample over and over to represent that wind. Maddeningly bleak,The Turin Horse’s monotony presents its many convergent crises as constantly unfolding unto its end. This pessimism may be realistic, but it accords little potency to the possibility of recognition. In seeing the decline, in remembering the past, there is a hope of enduring the darkness. We must take The Turin Horse as a kind of challenge, to either stem the tide or face an inexorable doom.
The Audacity of Hope9
It is well-known that the Jews were forbidden to look into the future. The Torah and the prayers instructed them, by contrast, in remembrance. This disenchanted those who fell prey to the future, who sought advice from the soothsayers. For that reason the future did not, however, turn into a homogenous and empty time for the Jews. For in it every second was the narrow gate, through which the Messiah could enter.
– Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History”10
This article is by no means an attempt to diminish the conversation surrounding the various crises that our world faces. Very real threats to the lives and well being of vast populations confront the globe. Many exceed possibility. Climate change is happening. Even if humans were to slowly curb carbon emissions and discover the natural causes of these changes, the process already unfolds before us, and we can already witness its effects in record heat waves, huge storms, and droughts. Natural resources like oil and rare metals will deplete as world populations grow. The economies of the European Bloc and the United States (among others) face serious monetary crises that will deeply affect the livelihoods of their citizens. And as these major events occur, social unrest spirals out. In Greece, a neo-Nazi party rises; in the US, citizens petition the government for state secession. This is not to mention complex situations like the Israel/Palestine conflict, one of the many crises that seems to have polarized the world into factions staring down a global conflict. We do face a darkness, and it seems overwhelming. But the end has not come, and apart from an inescapable extinction event like an asteroid collision, our species will endure.
The past is full of great catastrophes. Rome seemed to suffer an apocalypse when it fell to the Vandals, but in reality, one faction merely ascended the throne of another. The world faced a possible picture of its collapse in World War II (and dealt with the fallout of its many great disasters and crimes), but, while we process the pain, we continue to live. During the Cold War, the world seemed constantly in peril of nuclear holocaust, but no one ever pulled the trigger(s). The world continued to turn, and humans survived, carrying the torch of civilization with them. In sifting through the garbage heap of history, our persistent existence is a testament to a crucial proposition: There is hope, even in the darkest times11. That hope lies in the force in which others have predicted our downfall: human beings.
This year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild12 represents a bayou community negotiating the floods after a huge storm through the eyes of a child. Although the danger is great, many of the residents of The Bathtub weather the storm without evacuating. After the rains, six-year-old Hushpuppy rides in her father’s boat, pondering the results of the disaster: “For the animals that didn’t have a dad to put ‘em in a boat, the end of the world already happened.” But the end has not yet occurred for her or for The Bathtub. Miss Bathsheba, teacher and homeopathic healer, instructs the young girls of The Bathtub in caring for “people small and sweeter than [they] are.” And despite The Bathtub’s use of less constructive coping mechanisms (like alcohol) and a questionable attack on the city dwellers’13 levee, the community-based healing seems to ease the pain of the catastrophe, if only for a time.
When Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy flooded swaths of New York and New Jersey’s coast, many offered immediate assistance to the victims, from places to stay to food and blankets. Of all places, New York, the nexus of American capitalism and competition, revealed a hidden community-mindedness. A more obvious example of this phenomenon occurred during the World Trade Center attacks. Firefighters, on or off duty, rushed to the scene; stories of heroism in the face of panic and chaos abound. The structured, official response to September 11, and the Bush Administration’s use of it to justify the “War on Terror,” are also the efforts of human beings, but in these responses we witness not immediate, community-based care and assistance, but the twisting of the narrative of the attacks to identify enemies (not just al-Qaeda, but eventually the Iraqi state) and present a flawed method for achieving “victory.” When apocalyptic mythologies simplify the discussion of the causes of disaster and the path to redemption, they become powerful tools to influence populations seeking answers in the midst of fear and grief.
Patterns in Chaos
Hurricanes are a phenomenon that result from a confluence of many factors. We’ve named them hurricanes because we’ve seen them before — they’re a pattern of weather that recurs, with specific characteristics we can identify, having recorded them during past storms. Other crises may be just as predictable when the occasion for their arising matches past circumstances. But by the very nature of an apocalypse, we have never witnessed one. The screen attempts to remedy that, but can only work in the imagination. In allowing projection of the mythical pattern of apocalypse on the formless noise of the crises that threaten us, we open ourselves to narratives that scapegoat certain groups or offer us protection at heavy costs. These stories divide to conquer. Instead of fleeing in panic or resignation, we must temper that fear with a rational assessment of each crisis phenomenon as it develops or else we face a descent into the very hysteria that appears on the screen.
Perhaps that descent has already begun. The camera now points backwards to document apocalypse culture. Reality shows depict a growing subculture of “preppers” that are planning for the day the “shit hits the fan.”14 You can watch families spend tens of thousands of dollars each year on the belief that disaster looms, planning to isolate themselves from the world at large with huge arsenals of weapons and ammunition. While some of these folks wisely promote sustainable, off-grid agriculture, others cling to a radical selfishness and a feedback loop of paranoia. Businesses see this phenomenon as an emerging market, happily selling potentially unnecessary products to compulsive buyers, marketing them during the commercial breaks. The epitome of this tendency is a product called Quantum Sleeper. For just $150,000, you can own a bed designed to withstand natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and home intruders, equipped with everything from a refrigerator to a DVD player and television (I’m sure they could build in a shelf for your laptop too). You can watch whole seasons of The Walking Dead fully insulated from the mythical zombie apocalypse. It is the ultimate doomsday cocoon, a final refuge in a constructed reality for those paralyzed by fear.
This fear is ultimately a response to change. Crises are inevitable, and in our media-saturated, globalized world, we are constantly aware of the proliferation of potential catastrophes and the complexity of the realities we face. Any covering of the flux of reality with an all-consuming apocalypse narrative can become a tool to create fear and insert ideology in the minds of a consenting audience. This is an ever-present danger in the mass spectacles of film and television. To recover the reality of our future from the illusions of our end, we must be willing to suspend the projection and confront complexity, lest the Pale Horse of resignation rear its powerless head.
1. Though often, as discussed later, these causes collapse into a good vs. evil scenario as in the Christian Judgment Day.
2. This section is a structural homage to Slavoj Zizek’s “four riders of the apocalypse” from his 2011 book Living in the End Times, though this article does not address the work.
3. See his famous Timewave Zero software, hosted here, a numerological schema involving the King Wen sequence of the I Ching.
4. Former Atlanteans, Quetzalcoatl, the returning Annunaki, Engineers, the infamous grays, or shapeshifting reptilians. See Zecharia Stichin’s book The 12th Planet or any of the nonsense David Icke writes.
5. Who, by the way, has nothing to do with Maya mythology and belongs to an altogether separate culture.
6. This is not to suggest anything about the belief in a god, but is a response to literal interpretations of eschatology.
7. Note the facile resonances with the nuclear power issue in Iran — Wayne doesn’t want this power to fall into the “wrong hands,” while Bane was born in a “prison” somewhere in “a more ancient part of the world,” i.e., the Middle East.
8. T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men.”
9. An attempt to reclaim, not to endorse.
10. Translation by Dennis Redmond, 2005, located here.
11. On Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s tour this year, a film loop featured the word Hope scrawled into the emulsion. The message was empty of content, but the simplicity of the assertion was powerful. Since the word had been co-opted by Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, it feels drained of significance, but the use transcended its potential corniness and felt like a reclamation.
12. I should here note (after dealing with the ideologies of the above films) that, in my estimation, the film is problematic in its construction of race and gender politics (see bell hooks’ scathing critique of the film here), but that these issues are beyond the scope of this article.
13. We see here, even in a narrative that abstains from the apocalyptic/world-ending scenario, that the us vs. them paradigm still holds sway.
14. See National Geographic Channel’s reality show Doomsday Preppers or the Spike TV’s forthcoming The Last Family on Earth.