The third archetype we need to discuss is that of the Apocalypse.
It is critical to this enquiry about rage in American life to remember that the myth of American innocence began to take form while Puritanism was still dominating all intellectual discourse and most politics in both Britain and North America. Then, the idea of “America” – and along with it, the narrative of regeneration through violence – was gestating even as religion appeared to be losing its grip on the modern mind, to be replaced by nationalism.
But from the point of indigenous people, both mass religion and nationalism are ideologies, vast systems that people construct to alleviate their alienation from the Earth and from their own souls.
Those old religious roots held fast in the underworld of modernism and put out strong “shoots” in our lifetime. Now, we are faced with the undeniable fact that Trump and the fascist police state that he threatens to enforce upon us is a direct result of the massive support he continues to receive from white, evangelical Christians. In addition to identifying with his insecurity, they support him because of their racial hatreds and fears.
Do you doubt that statement? As I mentioned above, all you need to do is check the contrasting voting patterns of black evangelical Christians.
But both groups share a fascination with the Apocalypse, and so do many of us who are attracted to the Warrior and King archetypes and their “boy psychology” versions.
A staggeringly large percentage of Americans expect the world to end in Armageddon. In 2010, 41% of respondents expected Christ to return to Earth by 2050. A 2012 poll found that over a fifth of Americans believed the end of the world will happen in their lifetime (compared to 6% in France and 8% in Great Britain). Four years later, 15% said that since God controls the climate, people can’t be causing global warming, and 11% agreed that since the end times are coming anyway, there’s no reason to worry about it. In 2018 the Trump administration officially agreed.
Americans inherited a long and bloody tradition of apocalyptic madness from their European forebears, and, as I show in Chapter Seven of my book, made it an essential aspect of their national psyche, impacting several “Great Awakening” revivals and crusades against alcohol. But it was also the emotional force – killing to bring on a better world – that drove the American Revolution, the genocide of the Native people and the mass slaughter of the Civil War and all our subsequent wars. Betsy Hartmann, author of The America Syndrome: Apocalypse, War, and Our Call to Greatness, writes:
Of all the intertwining reasons for our apocalyptic disposition, the one that stands out most starkly is our acceptance of the necessity and inevitability of war. In the same 2010 Pew survey, six out of ten Americans saw another world war as definite or probable by 2050. This expectation of war isn’t surprising, given that Americans’ apocalyptic images and beliefs are derived mainly from Christianity, especially the Book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament which, above all, is about the grotesque violence and crowning glories of war…This promise of a New Jerusalem for the elect, and the cataclysmic violence against people and nature necessary to achieve that goal, has made the Book of Revelation an ideological tool of conquest and empire from the Crusades onwards. You don’t have to be a Christian to be susceptible to John’s logic that the perfect end—the New Jerusalem—justifies the bloody means.
A recent article proposes that we are all living in a “United States of anxiety.” But Chapter Ten of my book, published eight years ago, argued that Americans have been twisted between the two poles of fear and denial for a very long time.
Nor do you have to be a Christian to be swept up by fantasies of the end of the world as we know it, as New Age fascination with the “Y2K” phenomena and the 2012 “Mayan prophecies” indicates. The issue we need to fully understand is what the notions of “death” or “ending” mean in myth and to the psyche. As I wrote here:
What does it mean to be at the end of an age? What does it mean to end? To honestly approach the question, we must step away from literalist thinking (whether New Age or fundamentalist) and accept that in biological, ecological, mythological or indigenous initiatory terms, to end is nothing other than to die. Only when death and decay are complete can they be understood as the necessary precursors to fermentation and potential new growth…simply focusing on the light is another form of literalization equal to religious fundamentalism. An awareness of death is precisely what I see missing in New Age thinking. To celebrate rebirth without considering the breakdown and destruction of what must precede it is to wallow in innocence. As Jung said, “…the experience of the Self is always a defeat for the ego.”
The word “apocalypse” comes from a Greek root meaning to uncover, disclose, to lift the veil from what had been concealed. Here is the essence of the issue: “End times” is a metaphor for the archetypal cry for initiation. It is our own transformation – the death of who we have been – that we both fear and long for. We long for it because our indigenous souls understand that there is no initiation into a new state of being unless we fully accept the necessary death of what came before, what no longer serves us or our communities. We fear it because our heritage of literal thinking confuses death of the ego with actual, physical demise.
Barbara Ehrenreich recently rephrased Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward catastrophic annihilation.” She is a proud materialist and she was talking about her own inevitable death.
In our demythologized world the problem is that we no longer possess the tools to imagine inner, symbolic renewal, so we see literal images elsewhere. And we project our internal state onto the world, looking for the signs of world changes “out there.” I think that Freud was literalizing this archetypal urge when he wrote about the “death instinct.”
It gets worse before it gets better. Two thousand years of literalization and loss of initiation ritual have created a condition in which the most psychologically damaged among us – and I would include in this population almost all of our mega-billionaires – have been elevated to positions of extreme power and influence. Such people can only objectify other human beings. They are incapable of “I – Thou” relationships. And they can only see the Others of the world – people of color, women, gay people and the poor – as deserving the symbolic death that they unconsciously desire for themselves.
We have to understand one further step: in their mad obsession with denying climate change, are they not projecting their death wishes upon the entire planet?
Is history cyclic? Perhaps the Paranoid and Predatory imaginations have merged once again, as they did during the crusades and the early colonial period. Or perhaps, like antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a new strain of reactionary has evolved: true believers in apocalyptic end, whose own ends justify any means. They are grandiose boy-men who subsidize murder not despite their faith but because of it. They see no ethical dilemmas in corruption and violence because their twisted mix of smug righteousness and social Darwinism assures them that their victims deserve their fate. Anyone who isn’t a hero is a victim, and all but the inner circle are now Other.
Again, I suggest: only a mythological perspective can make any sense of this. America’s rulers are not ignorant; they are fully aware of our human and environmental tragedies. The fathers no longer send only the young to be sacrificed; now they offer everyone and everything to the sky-gods. Whether or not we take their religious rhetoric literally, they are deliberately (if unconsciously) provoking both personal and global apocalypse.
Look to the myths. Recall Pentheus, emerging from his collapsed palace, even more determined to confront (or to merge with) Dionysus. Thebes/America is a city of uninitiated men, fanatically devoted to the systematic destruction of their own children. When I was writing my book, a boy-king, who secretly longed for the symbolic death that might effect his transition to manhood, was leading this city. The entire world could almost feel it as a desperate, visceral prayer when, in June 2003, Bush, the self-appointed embodiment of American heroism, challenged the Iraqi resistance to “bring it on!”