Ecstasies of the Apocalypse

Like most Catholic kids in the 50s, all I knew of the Bible were the gospel passages read by the priest during Mass. One of the most thrilling was the gospel for the First Sunday in Advent, "There will be signs in the sun and moon and stars, and on the earth dismay among the nations, bewildered by the roaring of the sea and the surging of the waves. Men will faint from fear and anxiety over what is coming upon the earth, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken..."(Luke 21:25)

St. Luke's trailer for the apocalypse cut into the tedium of the Latin Mass, temporarily obscuring such erotic day dreams as sitting in a church pew tended to arouse in me. During those post-war days in Catholic Wisconsin, the end of the world seemed a very real, maybe imminent thing. My sister saw a flying saucer hovering over her summer cottage. The Virgin Mary appeared to Mrs. Van Hoof in Necedah, warning of Soviet subs lurking off the Florida coast. Commies were everywhere: After all, Joe McCarthy was our senator and Mrs Peck, our 8th grade teacher, warned of eight hundred card carrying reds right here in Milwaukee, beer capital of the world. Overshadowing all was THE BOMB, whose explosion was a daily possibility we rehearsed during Duck and Cover drills.

Spoiler alert: the end of the world never did arrive, though there were some who were always seeing signs in the sun and the moon; nations were always being dismayed; and waves surged on to no great effect. But terminal suspicions remained, with dystopian, post-apocalyptic books and movies never losing their mojos. Art house classics like Bergman's Seventh Seal ("And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour"); Pat Frank's apocalyptic novel Alas, Babylon about the effects of nuclear war on a small town in Florida ("Alas, alas, that great city Babylon, that mighty city! for in one hour is thy judgment come"); and---reaching a kind of perihelion in the 1970s---Hal Lindsey's Late Great Planet Earth, and Tim LaHaye's Left Behind series, each of which sold tens of millions of copies (the later inspiring sixteen execrable movies), both based on the premise that Armageddon was near.

Authors and auteurs of these latter day nightmares were inspired not by the relatively benign warnings of Jesus, but by the psychedelic visions of John of Patmos. That Aegean island must have grown some pretty righteous weed, for John's rapturous Book of the Apocalypse---coda to the gospels---has driven poets as well as theologians into states of confounding ecstasy. Even Sir Issac Newton, when he was not busy deducing the foundations of modern physics and mathematics, was busy attempting to decode the near mad imagery of the Patmos revelations. D. H. Lawrence summed up more secular takes on the Book of the Apocalypse, which he called a 'death-product,' "full of flamboyant hate and simple lust...for the end of the world." He coined the term "Patmosser" to describe those Christians whose greatest joy was anticipating the howls of damned souls.

If Patmossery sounds like a fringe passion, you haven't been paying attention to 2016 headlines. Today foot soldiers of ISIS cut the throat of a priest saying Mass in Normandy; last week they mowed down kids munching Big Macs in Munich. Meanwhile, the Zika virus creeps northward, shrinking baby heads from Brazil to New York. Each month gets hotter, with rising seas inundating islands from the Marshalls to the Maldives (can Manhattan be far behind?) Now we learn that the cash strapped U.S. government is spending a trillion dollars to update its nuclear arsenal. And I haven't even gotten to the Republican nomination of a certain New York real estate mogul and reality TV host whose dark imaginings of America's decline and fall ("It's Morning Again in Somalia" as one wag summarized his acceptance speech), might have been drafted in Patmos. Yes, it's Donald J. Trump, who offers himself as the anointed one who will resurrect his country by fencing off those brown skinned rapists from south of the border.

Do I exaggerate end-time omens in Trump's apotheosis? Perhaps, but consider this description of the Cleveland convention written by Tim Egan in the New York Times, "the pious Dr. Ben Carson linked Clinton to Lucifer --the devil himself. So, little wonder that it produced barely a shrug when another delegate, and Trump's adviser on veterans, Al Baldasaro, said Clinton should be 'shot for treason.' The Salem witch trials had more respect for due process." David Brook, another Times op-editor, reached to the comics for his characterization of the newly anointed messiah, "Sometimes in the blood drenched world, a dark knight arises. You don't have to admire or like the knight. He is your muscle and your voice in a dark, corrupt and malevolent world...Trump has replaced biblical commitments with a gladiator's ethos. Everything is oriented around conquest, success, supremacy and domination."

Dark knight or Salem warlock, both Times writers are updating John of Patmos's description of the Anti-Christ ("the Beast with seven heads and ten horns") whose ascension will mark Earth's final Tribulation. But I'd argue that it's William Butler Yeats, Ireland's greatest poet, and no mean theologian, who gives the most resonant gloss to the Patmossian prophecies. In "The Second Coming," the most brilliant (and plagiarized) short poem of the 20th Century, Yeats writes:

...somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all around it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds....
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Will the November election of just such a beast, with his preternatural orange combover, mark the real apocalypse of this annus horribilis?