An Allegory for Studying the End Times
Every story is a story about death. But perhaps, if we are lucky, our story is also a story about love.
Helen Humphreys, The Lost Garden
Apocalypse feels primal. It has been baked into many of our cultures in different ways, to different degrees, with an unequal distribution of its experience on Earth. Others have written about how the specific meaning of ‘apocalypse’ gets lost in its more general use (i.e. Dunn & Weyland 2022; Jones 2022). Confusion about its meaning is matched by the surprise, disbelief, and humour that comes from explaining that apocalyptic studies is a genuine, diverse field of scholarship. This article seeks to replace the imagery of ivory towers, dusty theologians and their even dustier eschatology treatises, and doomsday sign wavers in the marketplace. The gap between apocalypse as a relevant object of study and its real impacts as a disruption and discovery is closed via a comparison to love. This article makes this comparison through their similarities as co-produced and powerful experiences influenced by spirituality and history, felt viscerally, and lived in the wake and shadow of loss and transformation.
Talking about the relevance of apocalyptic studies through a comparison with love requires a baseline of why it is studied to begin with. There are three broad reasons. Scholars may firstly be interested in preparing for apocalypse. This may be individual or shared preparation, as well as material or emotional preparation. The purpose of which is about building resilience, developing systemic, scholarly fortifications like academic preppers for when ‘shit hits the fan’. Secondly, apocalyptic studies can be conducted to imagine how an end of days might be staved off, at least for the time being. The purpose of which is, on the other hand, about placating and counterbalancing the fiends of societal entropy, like doctors or epidemiologists looking for trends and making diagnoses to keep our systems healthy for as long as possible. Thirdly, apocalypse can be a fascination, an aesthetic, and a trojan show pony to be paraded while a scholar’s central focus is only tangentially related. Apocalypse is dramatic, cathartic, and gives a synesthetic pleasure from an antagonistic society’s death howls. Upheaval around the world and in living history gives apocalyptic studies a stylish backdrop. These, alongside the transformations of the past and the ricochet of the future’s psychic shriek, can each be metamorphised into zeitgeisty allegory and art for those fortunate enough to view them from a distance.
Scepticism about secular apocalyptic studies is not unfounded. But like it or not, apocalypse is an influential narrative and deserves attention. This article seeks to bring the above reasons for study into sharper focus through references to a certain apocalypse in miniature: the loss of love. This article has been layered with the story of a breakup, which is told to demonstrate some key themes of apocalyptic studies including narrative, temporality, resilience, and discrimination.
It was a good life. He prided himself on his job, half because it was rare and retro, and half because of the role it gave him as a knowledge keeper. Laszlo was a young bookbinder. If books were knowledge, then he was the one who held that knowledge together, and restored it when it went ragged. He was a calm and unassuming figure with a uniquely Laszloian dignity as a 21st century artisan. He imagined himself as the quiet, hardworking glue that kept things in one piece. Now the bookbinder was finally pulling the pages of his own life together. Laszlo made a hobby into a job, had his first dog, his first long-term apartment and, much more importantly than all this, his first long-term relationship. She was a big picture person, and dazzlingly sharp. Heide and Laszlo had been together for almost three years. A bookbinder and a young entrepreneur, ready to leave their mark on the world together.
The heroic author and social activist bell hooks made a connection between love and endings. In a whole chapter dedicated to loss in her aptly entitled book All About Love she writes “we must befriend death and let it be our guide in life, meeting it unafraid… It takes courage to befriend death. We find that courage in life through loving” (bell hooks 1999: 197). Love is a process of giving time, care, and self which cyclically brings meaning to our world, our relationships, and ourselves. The loss of a loved one or the breakup of a relationship can feel apocalyptic because it is very much like the loss of a world. Showing vulnerability and extending ourselves into a relationship means its ending includes some loss of self, be it a relationship with a person, or a world or place irrecoverably changed from what it was. Loss is a natural part of this cycle and without the courage to accept it the whole process falls apart.
Love and apocalypse are transformative. Sometimes they fill this role as narratives, genres, and story beats. Divergent (2014), The Hunger Games (2012), and The Day After Tomorrow (2004) are relatively recent attempts from a wide trend combining love, apocalypse, and post-apocalyptic dystopia in popular cinema. Going off of these films, it seems nothing is sure in life except death, taxes, and romantic subplots. Fictional or non-fictional apocalypse does not need romance of course. But like Hollywood’s trick of emotional investment, recognising our own personal relationships, loved ones, and experiences of loss through someone else is an immediate way of building empathy and connection, especially when we see them under threat. The study of apocalypse as a powerful narrative, as something to develop shared resilience against, and something that represents a disruption of our relationships, makes more sense in this light.
Our relationships to the world, ourselves, and one another in general, are the vulnerabilities defining love and apocalypse. This essay expresses how these are experienced through temporality, resilience, and narratives in two ways. Firstly, the role of vulnerability is expressed and thus elaborated. The significance of this background is given, secondly, through how apocalypse and loss are not distributed, experienced, or caused equally. The takeaway is how apocalypse matters both as a narrative and a reality: be it at an individual or mass scale; from personal love to loss at a mass scale. Apocalypse and love are diverse, some of their examples are inevitable and some preventable, and we must embrace the right types in good time, particularly in the case of climate crisis.
Laszlo wanted Heidi to be happy. He first met her in the short calm before her life became chaos. Laszlo barely got to understand who she was before he knew her in the face of adversity. She lost her father in an electrical accident at home. The eventual bookbinder saw the before and after of a person whose place in life had been totally upended. It disturbed him. He tried to be as supportive as he could as the small feature in Heidi’s life that he was. Eventually they became close friends. Eventually, after that, they became partners. Laszlo and Heidi loved each other. Fundamentally, showing care was something that Laszlo craved. While changed, Heidi eventually found the rhythm to life without her father. Laszlo began to wonder what ten years in the future might look like for them. Which of Heidi’s dreams might come true with him by her side?
Apocalypse is a revelation. It is the unmaking of an old understanding of the world, and, thus, a need for a new understanding in its place. In Western, privileged discourses the apocalypse is usually discussed as an oncoming threat (Riesch 2021). However, it doesn’t need to be that way. For many around the world the apocalypse has happened recently or is happening right now (Bold 2019). These experiences of displacement, violence, discrimination, and place destruction have many examples, with many Indigenous peoples and minority groups as the speakers (Danowski & Viveiros de Castro 2016). Yet for those people outside the power structures giving shape to these crises, apocalypse still gives space for hope that the world can change, and change dramatically. These hopes are often in line with older ontologies which provide some sense of balance in existence.
Temporality is important to apocalypse. Ignoring how time is used risks misrecognising different apocalypses, and the narratives told through them. Whether it be in the past, present, or future, cyclical or linear, the temporal features of apocalypse impact how apocalypses are told, experienced, learnt from, and the lessons they impart. Narratives themselves are knowledge told in a sequence of connected events, structured with themes coherent to the teller (Thornborrow 2012). Like the story of a lost life partner or failed relationship, apocalypse is a compelling narrative often told to warn of, and make sense of, disruption (Fenn 2003). Its stories vary from dramatising and delegitimising opposing narratives, warning against disaster with an extra layer of ontological significance, making a ploy for political control and power, and placing otherwise chaotic events into an ontologically rational series of events, amongst others. Some of these stories are more suited for an apocalypse in the future. But this is not necessary, and the future itself can be distributed unequally (Appadurai 2013). Making sense of where disruptions sit temporally is important not just for how we understand them, but cope with them. Temporality bleeds into resiliency.
Resilience is our ability to adapt and recover from external shocks, be they material or immaterial. It is not a solution in and of itself, but to be resilient is a valuable asset for encountering crises with a mindfulness toward learning, and encountering apocalypse with the potential for survival. Relationships and community can be pragmatic forms of resilience. Sharing support, care, and personal investment with others builds our resilience socially, emotionally, and materially. Love saves lives. Support networks and shared care make us more responsive to the dangers we face, challenge the destructive individualist ideals which fuel much of what becomes apocalyptic today, and give us a reason to persevere.
Laszlo had begun to slip things into conversation. “Imagine when we look back on this someday…”, “I love the snapdragons, too! Something to remember for our own garden when the time comes”, “I’ll always be behind you. Now until forever”. He would ask Heidi about her dream house, and as he listened, he would imagine himself in it. When she asked Laszlo the same, he said as much and not much else. Like a point of pride, if hidden and at times done unknowingly, Laszlo’s dreams were singularly transplanted from Heidi. And with every operation, Heidi began to listen to his answers less and less. Slowly the transplants began to fail.
Vulnerability, in some ways, is the foil to resilience. Resilience by itself is largely reactive and can only be a partial solution to the features of apocalypse, like discrimination and climate crisis. This vulnerability is diminished by resiliencies, but just like there are multiple types of resiliencies there are multiple vulnerabilities. Some are necessary for forming attachments and interacting with others and the world in meaningful, self-evolving ways. A relationship without vulnerability is cold, cynical, and untrusting. The first show of vulnerability is the hardest, but it never becomes easy. Love is many things, including a commitment to respecting and caring even in times of stress, stripped of passion, putting the other’s needs ahead of yours but not instead of them. Seeing who and what you love as a chosen vulnerability is why this understanding of love in the face of apocalypse is not limited to a human romance, but our shared vulnerability as communities, and shared vulnerability with the planet.
Laszlo didn’t know why Heidi began to take him less seriously. She had always given him surety and direction when inwardly he felt doubt. It was a deep bruise to have her of all people not care or believe what he said. But Laszlo knew that not everything was supposed to be perfect. He reflected, and tried asking Heidi less about the far future, and more about her life here and now. He thought this would help whatever the problem was. It also might give him clues about the slowly unfolding problem as well. Laszlo asked how her start-up work was going, how she felt about the routines in their apartment, and simply if she was stressed at the moment and what he needed to do to help.
Apocalypse is about discovery as much as destruction. On a set of scales between the two, the weighting is not always even. But discovery is often overlooked and misunderstood, particularly by privileged audiences. This is because in truth it does not need to feel any better than destruction. Despite being virtuous, discovery is often embraced more easily by the disempowered than the privileged. If a system, a relationship, or a way of being with the world is working for you, every discovery can be a challenge.
Real apocalypse, like real loss and real breakup, is distributed unequally in time and in consequences (Danowski & Viveiros de Castro 2016). Like Trotsky’s theory of uneven and combined development (Williams 2011), the same apocalypse, breakup, or revolution does not need to be simultaneous or experienced similarly. It is true that, as Jones (2022: xi) writes, “[a]pocalyptic thought points to crisis as the vehicle that creates new opportunities and brings the previously impossible within reach,” but crisis does not distribute its prospects equally (Roitman 2014). For one, a breakup can be a reckoning. For the other, freedom. For one, loss can leave an eternal mark. For the other, they are simply lost. One person’s utopia is another’s dystopia. Or an even bigger difference: it may mean nothing to them at all.
Laszlo started these conversations because he hoped they might make Heidi happy. His fulfillment was seeing Heidi fulfilled. Her answers were sometimes indirect. She said she just felt distracted with other things at the moment. Her answers were sometimes piercingly on-target. She said she was stressed, and Laszlo was stressing her. “I want to do the thinking just for myself. Is that so much to ask for?” She asked back at him one day. Laszlo had built his whole identity in the relationship into an aircushion. Without an emergency he had no shape. At best he was still just full of air, and at worst he looked like he was beckoning for a crash. With all decisions and plans in Heidi’s jurisdiction, how couldn’t she be stressed? All the choices for her future were made into decisions for two. Laszlo’s drive to give happiness and show dedication, to provide fulfilment, had missed the road signs and ended up in a town called Burden.
This is not the first breakup. We are already post-apocalyptic. Was your last loss clean? Is there unfinished business? When was the last time you spoke about it and why? When we pass apocalypse, it is not simply dead and buried. Like a healing wound or scar, we carry it wherever we go. That can be post-apocalypse. Meanwhile that frantic energy mixed with doubling down and cognitive dissonance, that can be an apocalyptic lead-up. At least, that is the lead-up from the causer who is not used to being on the receiving end. Determination that a perfect relationship and utopia should exist has yet to ever manifest them into existence, or our loved people and places back after being lost. A love developing cracks and a society passing planetary boundaries have a lot in common. Both came from pushing limits and escapist, exceptionalist thinking. Both culminate in hurting what we cherish and hurting ourselves as a result. No more fake promises. No more apology gifts or distraction projects, and certainly no more talk of spaceships and bunkers. We cannot just weather or avoid this. The relationship needs to change before it gets worse.
“How fucking ungrateful” Laszlo’s mind repeated over and over. As the relationship unwound like a rat nest in a wool closet, living with Heidi took on a stink. Laszlo felt like he was fighting against two enemies at once. One was the person he thought understood him and made him his best self, the bookbinder, who held things together and made dreams come true. The other enemy was Laszlo himself. How did he degenerate into someone who could think such nasty things about the woman he loved? He hoped this was some kind of passing sickness, or a rough patch on the mend. After all, some evenings Heidi and Laszlo still smiled at each other, still laughed, and still cared. It was easier to focus on these fleeting moments than a coming life without her. By working hard to distract himself, Laszlo entered a vicious cycle. Anything he thought Heidi wanted he gave into; frustrating her even more. That, and he would sporadically change tack and try to disprove his dependence, giving Heidi whiplash from his sudden unpredictability. The more he dug around the love of the old ways the more the foundations of his home sunk, until the home collapsed completely.
Comparing love and love lost with apocalypse is dangerous. Equating a privileged person’s broken relationship with mass structural violence, ecological destruction, and genocide is worthwhile only as a reminder of the privileged class’s dysfunctional, escapist relationship with other human beings and the planet, which mirrors and moulds that violence. This is relationship therapy and an intervention. Shared lessons from lived apocalypse and personal strife are simultaneous reminders that a shared reliance on love means essentially all of us have something in common, and that the systematic abuse of this love against class, race, gender and sexual identity, religion, and place of birth is a disgrace. This is the risk of virtue signalling in universal love, put forward by so many great spiritual teachers and forgotten by organised religion, where love is praised but loss is not recognised or valued equally. Take that as an example of where apocalypse is not just destruction but discovery, and both have the power to hurt.
Vulnerability comes in different forms. Some should be avoided and some are necessary for meaningful relationships and to better ourselves. Apocalypse can hold particular hope for those disaffected by current systems, though it may compound the intersectional inequalities defining their place in the system, as they have been forced to understand the power of vulnerability. Obsession with old strategies of success to fix new (or at least newly discovered) problems can be a doubling down on the causes themselves. This accelerates the experience of apocalypse and reduces resilience, making transformation more violent. Change becomes more and more of an existential challenge to our personal value and values, what we can become, and any future chance to form stable systems and loving relationships in this epoch while it lasts.
The sun was golden. So were the fields. The swooping road stretched beyond them. But it wasn’t a road they were destined to walk forever. Say goodbye to Burden. Heidi picked seedheads of grass, rolling them through her fingers. With a heavy breath, Heidi explained why she asked him for the walk. She was breaking up with him. Laszlo wasn’t surprised to hear it. How couldn’t he know when his whole recent identity had been made to prevent it? The bombshell was endothermic. The whole world turned cold, and from that point time went blurry. Heidi would keep the golden apartment. Laszlo would keep the dog. That would give him something to care for while he figured out how to care for himself. But before then the walk must have come to an end. Laszlo cried in the garden. Heidi cried in the bedroom. It was done. Laszlo didn’t want to stoke the fire and make it harder than it needed to be. He still loved her, but in a different way now. But that was too late. Heidi needed an equal partner to be fulfilled. For Laszlo, the world had spun and he needed to find where and when he was before happiness was even a concern. Playing selfless hero put his old world up in flames.
You never really lose a loved one. We carry them with us. From the childhood pet that taught you responsibility and unabashed affection, to the people who raised you up from a little one and made you their beautiful legacy when they were gone. Sometimes it feels like we make the same mistakes when we look back at old relationships. But no one really comes though loss unchanged. Going through apocalypse does not guarantee utopia on the other side. There are not many guarantees when it comes to a living and breathing utopia, apocalypse, and love. But change is constant. The only way you would go unchanged is if you did not experience them to begin with. In other words, if a relationship ends and one person goes on without any changes, that is a good indicator of why it ended. They were not practicing love. If someone goes through apocalypse unchanged, then they did not experience apocalypse. Apocalypse is not universal. It is felt unequally across time, space, and body. It discriminates. Or perhaps, the people who bring it discriminate.
For months Laszlo would almost swear he heard the sound of crunching rubble under his feet wherever he went, living in the post-apocalypse. The bookbinder was a charlatan. Now Laszlo the crab was here. He felt far away from everyone, surrounded in the deep. His life was smaller now. But with new routines, turning the seabed cracks into spoils of treasure, his grasp of what he had was better than ever. A crab in his element; not a bookbinder in somebody else’s. Laszlo has spread himself thin for Heidi. His own wants and identities had been watered down to soak into somebody else’s. Now like some kind of auto-archaeologist, Laszlo sifted his own sunken ruins for traces of a true self. In this time before a new normal, he saw his life stretched before and after him as a cycle of peaks and valleys. But the magical transience of the post-apocalypse would slowly recede, and the drama would calm. Laszlo would one day go on simply as happy, or happy sometimes. And he would eventually meet Antoine.
Apocalypse and love are diverse. Some of their examples can be prevented. Others, less so. Some love is unfair. Some apocalypse is worthwhile. We must embrace the right types with good time. Studying these stories is worthwhile. The language of apocalypse in the West is often told through the Book of Revelation and the omnipotence of God, giving apocalypse a sense of universality. But that is a misreading. Apocalypse has always discriminated. From the Rapture’s rising up of the righteous to intersectional vulnerability in mass disaster. From specific examples like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and broad examples like the climate crisis and its knock-ons, and its other planetary boundary buddies. The uncomfortable reality is that even the chance of rebirth and discovery discriminate. Apocalypse is not natural. Apocalypse must be wilfully shifted onto those who can experience it without mass death, and those whose ways of being are responsible for enacting apocalypse on others to begin with. Apocalyptic studies is one avenue for recognising these relationships. Embracing apocalypse can be channelled through love, and love as a valuing of equity, justice, and tenderness for a recognisable life and future on this future. An aesthetic or a call to action, apocalypse is in our lives. We can choose how to learn from it.
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Alexander Luke Burton is a Human geography PhD candidate studying at the University of Tasmania’s Department of Geography, Planning, and Spatial sciences. Alexander focuses on narratives of sustainability, collapse, and escape on the island of Tasmania and is interested in geographical imagination and climate crisis. Previous publications include the Wiley journal article “Journaling the COVID-19 pandemic: Locality, Scale and Spatialised Bodies” in Geographical Research (2020) https://doi.org/10.1111/1745-5871.12459 .