It’s a weekend for stories – in particular ones that have, historically, shaped beliefs and ideologies and provided guides for living life. Of necessity, the sharing of those stories has a different form right now as the rituals that accompany them have to be amended for our safety and the safety of all of those out there dealing directly with this virus on behalf of us all.
We lost a great storyteller this week, so my thoughts have been straying in the direction of how and why we create the tales that keep us entertained and provide us with models for living this life – or help to point us in the direction of things that we can do to make it all better.
I’m listening to one of my fave contemporary storytellers right now. @thebrianfallon’s album was released two weeks ago, and since he can’t get out to present it to us in person, he’s been streaming from home and sharing his thoughts and stories on all the social media. He’s overcoming the strangeness of playing to an empty room so that we can participate in some check-in time and share feelings about the physical distancing that will be our collective situation for the foreseeable future. It’s a lovely indicator of the ways in which we can maintain our connectedness in this time of enforced disconnection.
John Prine was a master of the story song. He created characters and embodied and expressed their individual voices when he told us about their lives. Brian’s songs are likewise relatable – and hit hard and close to home because we can see ourselves in some element of the slices of life he presents in his lyrics. There is an optimism and comfort even in the mundanity and loss and the day-to-day struggles presented in the songs that may not have direct equation in everyone’s life, but which share the commonality of being human and the joys and pain that accompany that condition. I don’t think I’m alone in my feeling that stories like this need airing more than ever at this point in time.
For those who might need a reminder (or who might not have known), I deal in apocalypses. Most of my adult life has been about reading them, and interpreting them, and putting them into appropriate historical, geographic and cultural contexts. I’ve been writing one of my own for the past couple of years, as a matter of fact. As far as literary genres go, the apocalypse ranks among my personal faves and takes up an inordinate amount of my head space.
That’s creating some issues for me right now. This global pandemic we, as humanity, are enduring as part of our shared experience is more than disconcerting in its scope and uncertain outcomes, so thinking about the end of days… that’s a bit of a slippery slope if I want to keep myself from depths of despair and the inactivity that accompanies that condition.
Since I can’t let go of the apocalyptic thinking, I’m going back to my primary sources and thinking about what we can learn from it – as pattern of thought that arose from the need to cope with circumstances that are less than ideal (to massively understate the severity of the here-and-now. It’s a rhetorical device I’m using as way of keeping panic at bay).
Apocalypticism, as a literary genre and as an ideology, is a reflection of societal discontent and disconnect – something called anomie, if you want to get all sociological about it. The stories that come out of this discontent – often presented as dreams or visions of future events and an undoing or redoing of the world – are creative revelations about what will happen if things continue along a particular trajectory of wrongness.
The Wikipedia insists upon a religious connection – and yes, most apocalyptic envisioning accompanies a particular mythology – incorporating its motifs of good vs. evil (angels, demons etc.) and all the various players in the dramas that make up the foundations of belief systems around the world.
In more contemporary times, the players in the end of days dramas are just as external as angels and demons – aliens, AI run amok, zombies and the like – and still set one group – ‘us’ – against another – ‘them’.
Apocalyptic ideation is a way of coping the world that is an inherent part of Western interpretations of experience.
Intrinsically – if not always consciously – we are conditioned to think about ‘next things’. We are told that in order to get this job, or to earn that reward, or make it through a global pandemic, there are certain steps that need to be taken.
As human as this inclination may be, it’s symptomatic of the fact that we slip into the habit of striving exclusively for the future and neglecting to acknowledge the moment in which we are, right now, living. This creates a certain tension that leads to a great deal of personal discomfort, if I’m honest with myself.
Historically and sociologically, apocalyptic thinking develops as a response to the perceived disparity between expectations and societal realities. When we are unhappy in our current situations, we project a better scenario at a future date.
In historical literary and religious traditions, the better scenario generally comes after a cataclysmic and status changing event of some kind that trashes the social or cultural system that is causing the disconnect between expectations and reality. The new reality is posited to be one of justice – as perceived by the person who is unhappy with the current status quo. Religious apocalypses promise salvation as the aftermath of the period of trial and unhappiness.
We still think in these terms in our secular environments, even if all religious underpinnings are removed. We are the product of millennia of this approach to dealing with societal realties – and it has become part of our inherited way of approaching our world and managing our existential discontent.
For all that I love the myths that have been created in accordance with this particular worldview (some of the best stories are apocalyptic in nature (go reread that one about The hand, writing on the wall, if you doubt me) from a philosophical and personal perspective, it can be a problematic construct. Apocalypticism, by its very nature, negates the life we are living now, in favour of the life that might come along at some point in the future.
It can be a very useful coping mechanism – when things are stressful and deadlines need to be met, or when we are told to hunker down and remain isolated for an indeterminate amount of time. It’s a well-used and generally effective management technique – we’ll get through this period of uncertainty and then things will quiet down and get back to normal.
We’re all experiencing this kind of anxiety now. We are conditioned, on some levels, to think that we need, sometimes, to suffer in the moment so that the next things will be better.
Those who fully accept this paradigm may be handling all this better than I am right now. I tend to want to appreciate and be thankful for those things that are of the moment – so the future-striving as central tenet is distasteful to me. Simply enduring the right now with the hope of something better coming along seems both wasteful and somewhat lazy.
Time may be a construct, but as we’re seeing all too frequently right now, it isn’t endless and we don’t have much of a say as to when ours will come to an end.
I need to reach a happy medium between the acknowledgement that whenever we come out the other side of this pretty much everything is going to be different and using the time confined to the house to some purpose and level of productivity. Sitting and doing nothing but waiting for this to be over is not going to be sustainable for me or for my health.
One of my favourite bands has a song that’s all about visions of the literal end of the world that strikes some of that balance. Spending whatever hours might be left in conscious awareness of the minutes passing, with gratitude for what we have. I love listening to this song as the sun sets over the Big Lake on that rock at the Cottage on the Bay.
Yeah the sky was falling and time was bending
We spent our last night in the moonlight
Baby it’s so bright we’ll be up all night
I got a helluva view for the end of the world
I’ve got a bottle of booze and a beautiful girl
If I’m a’goin to die I’m gonna go in style
Baby it’s all right we’ll be up all night
What if we’re unmade when the stars fade?
Keep me going ’til the night turns into the day
Until the Night Turns is one of the connected story songs on Lord Huron’s Strange Trails album. It’s a loosely-woven series of fairy tale-esque interactions with the other, supernatural, world and its impact on those it touches. It’s my kind of mythology – and in keeping with the direction of my thoughts and the ways in which I’m coping with things right now.
For me, listening to Lord Huron, and to Brian, and John Prine as I mourn his passing, permits a means of reflection and appreciation of the past, a method of coping with the present, and acts as guidance as I engage in some future planning – and hopes as to what might take shape as we re-evaluate what is important as we live in society and in community.
It is clear that things will be very different on the other side of this. Taking lessons on board – about inequity, and struggle, and anachronistic biases and prejudices – as taught by our storytellers can help with the reshaping of the world if we don’t turn away from the evidence of disparities that this crisis is highlighting.
We speak in apocalyptic terms without giving it much thought. One of my Dad’s favourite things to say when I was making mountains out of emotional molehills (i.e., being a drama queen) was ‘it’s not the end of the world.’ Right now it feels like we’re as close as we’d care to come to it being, in fact, the end of days. Instead of dreading the inevitable changes, we need to take this time to build our true apocalyptic vision of what those better days to come will look like.
Whatever stories you are celebrating this weekend – whether of deliverance from destruction, rebirth and salvation, or the return of the fertility of the land that keeps us fed – I hope you do so in safety while maintaining whatever level of connectivity you can.