Commentary Magazine

Apocalyptic Thinking

For an observer with a moderately developed sense of history, and the most moderate standard of excellence, it can be an unbearable suspicion that his time and space may turn out to have been absolutely undistinguished. Dr. Pangloss and G. F. Babbitt warded off the dread thought by assuring themselves that it was the best of all possible worlds; Victorian optimists warded it off with the more modest notion of progress. The second of these views—with an obligatory codicil about how much there is to be done—lives on, but not among intellectuals, who are more likely to claim a sort of anti-distinction for the age and to take authentic delight in living in the worst of all possible worlds.

Of course, anyone who can neither see Lyndon Johnson as more wicked than Hitler or Stalin, nor Richard Nixon as the Antichrist, has not even the consolation of excelling in the lack of excellence. Such a person might, however, find another consolation—hitherto available only to religious fundamentalists—in the reflection that an access of degeneracy has traditionally been thought to signal the advent of the Last Days. Two thousand years ago, almost to the minute, the air was throbbing with apocalypse, and so it did a thousand years ago, and so it does today with another millennium soon to end and the year 2000 in sight. The Christian fundamentalists are at it as usual, greatly encouraged by an ancient prophecy according to which the Last Days will be immediately preceded by the restoration of Jewish rule over Jerusalem; and fundamentalism’s newest and grooviest sect, the Jesus Freaks, are especially attracted to chiliastic thought.

There are other mind-sets among us apparently apocalyptic, but only apparently: the agenda of the Revolution and its prophecies. For though the revolutionary impulse does indeed have a certain topographical relationship to the apocalyptic, seeking—in our time, at least—to hurry along the millennium, revolution and apocalypse are nevertheless ultimately antithetical, as can be seen in the reception serious revolutionaries gave The Greening of America. Charles A. Reich no less than St. John the Divine, so the response ran, is in the opiate-for-the-people racket. Indeed so. Reich is the most profoundly counterrevolutionary author of our day, for nothing could be calculated more effectively to dampen revolutionary ardor than the argument that the Bastille will crumble if we will just sit outside it and groove for a while.

But I have been talking of the apocalypse without defining it. I suppose the etymological pedant would limit the term to its original meaning, that of taking away the veil, while the etymological slob would expand it to include the whole realm of the sensational and mind-blowing. I steer a middle course: an apocalypse is a revelation about the future—understood as possibly 3:45 this afternoon—sometimes clairvoyant in provenance, sometimes extrapolatory. Although the apocalyptic impulse springs from a concern with the future, that concern, in its search for pre-apocalyptic symptoms, frequently deals with the present and past. An apocalyptic revelation might in theory be a crashing bore (“Behold, I say unto you, an age of no particular interest is upon you”) but all apocalypses worth attention rival the original one of St. John in scope and surprise value. Today, however, apocalypse is in a process of at least partial secularization, and it generally appears before us not in the language of divine revelation but in the profane dress of journalism and history.



One of the best-known recent examples of apocalypse disguised as journalism is Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock.1 Toffler’s thesis has just enough simple grandeur to provoke skepticism: change dizzily accelerates (this proven by an endless succession of statistics and other examples); such acceleration in turn makes people physically and psychically sick (this demonstrated by summaries of some recent research correlating change and illness); and to avoid an apocalyptic crisis, the earliest stages of which are upon us (demonstrated by attributing practically anything objectionable in the culture to incipient future shock), we must raise up a breed of futurist cicerones who will peer into the abyss and lead us into it. All this is set forth in a highly Lucid style (the author is a former Fortune editor) in which the words “incredible” and “fantastic” appear often enough to last this reader a twelve-month, sandwiched in between repeated dark statements to the effect that “it is no accident that” or “it is not by chance that” this or that is the case, to the effect, if not with the intent, that once one has said what a relationship is not, one is absolved from saying what it is.

An author who writes on so many topics ought, doubtless, to be reviewed by a committee, but even the narrowly educated reader will note some difficulties. Thus, surveying the history of speed, from camel to rocket, Toffler observes an impressive and accelerating rate of acceleration, from 8 to 18,000 mph, the increment having been 12 mph the first 4½ centuries, 80 mph in the next 3½, 300 mph in the next six decades, 400 mph in the next two, and 17,200 mph in the next two or three years. Gee-whiz! one is tempted to chorus in harmony with Toffler’s characteristic tone, until one recalls that only a handful of people on earth have experienced 18,000 mph, which (so I am told) is in free-fall much like any other speed you’d care to mention; of lay Americans only a minority have experienced 600 mph; of the world at large, only a tiny minority.

Moreover, the onset of acceleration, once one begins to worry about the nervous systems of real people rather than that nerveless abstraction called technology, is a function of the 19th century, not the 20th. Between 1820 and 1848 the available land speed rose by a factor of 6, a rate of increase not duplicated or exceeded since. Even more traumatic than such increases in personal speed ought to have been those attained by information, the telegraph, like the railway, having become available by mid-century. The telegraph annihilated of a sudden the geographical imperative with which man had lived from the rise of the camel until its minor amelioration by the railway. If change be in principle traumatic, the sudden increase in the range over which there might be knowledge of nearly simultaneous action—from the distance to the horizon to thousands of miles—and in the speed of transmission—from 8 mph to 186,000 mph—ought to have been a real shocker. Why then did the Victorians not suffer from future shock?

In the here-and-now, Toffler tells us, one of the symptoms of future shock is premature senility. Who are the prematurely senile among us? Why, people of thirty-five who don’t like the “new,” a euphemism for, among other things, student riots. It used to be, so it seems from Toffler’s account, that no one got to the stage of objecting to such novelties until all he could do was to pound his cane feebly on the floor next to his wheelchair and mumble toothless imprecations. Now most of us get there in the full vigor of early middle age. But neither are the young spared: they understand what is up no more than their prematurely senile parents, because they are ignorant of any past with which to compare the present. (Well, from my experience, not quite of any past. Many of them routinely compare the present with a mythical past which flourished in the Deuteropaleolithic Age, from 1950 to 1960.)

Toffler presents a great deal of evidence for the assertion that we live in a wildly transient age: the rise of the disposable, the mobile, and the rentable; the increasing evanescence of the family; and the like. Some of this material is quite striking, although Toffler is often very naive in his handling of it, as is the case with the linguistic argument he advances: from the unwarranted assumption that the English lexicon was as large in the 16th century as now, and the undoubted fact that a great many words have been coined since then, he draws the ludicrous conclusion that at least 200,000 words, perhaps several times that many, have dropped out of the language since Shakespeare. The most obvious test of this theory, one would think, would be reading Shakespeare to see whether he is intelligible. Apparently the expedient was not resorted to. Further, slang terms out of immediate fashion are presumed by Toffler to have become unintelligible. Here, as elsewhere, he fails to array, let alone confront, any contrary evidence. A good deal of the slang of the 1920’s notoriously remains with us, in a sort of museum permanent-collection, as well as such syntactic medievalisms as “willy-nilly.” Consider also the extraordinary durability of comic strips: how many now running were created before World War II? Before World War I?

Since Toffler admits—or is it claims?—that any of his observations may have become outdated by press time, it is perhaps unfair to tax him with what is happening to disposable bottles and cans. It does seem odd that a population allegedly addicted to the impermanent bottle, with which it need have no enduring relationship, should be happily contemplating the return of the returnable. But one of the nifty features of Toffler’s thesis is the ease with which it can dispose of such an objection. Is there evidence of permanence, claims for transience notwithstanding? Such evidence is no more than symptom of a culture shot through with transience, longing for stability. Can’t find some of the conditions cited as evidence for runaway change? Just goes to show you how fast things are changing. Now you see it, now you don’t. Plus ça change. . . .



While Toffler is aware that technology has its problems, his cheery assurance that it will all work out if one takes the long view is enough to make some schools of Neo-Luddite pessimism look tolerable. It is, he says, slanderous to accuse technology of wanting to standardize everything, for standardization is an artifact of primitive mass production, whereas the super-industry now benevolently cradling us has learned to produce the unique as cheaply as the uniform. Our only problem is going to be resisting a paralysis of the will in the face of a stultifying embarras de richesses.

Perhaps so, but not on the basis of the evidence adduced. The bellwether of the coming diversity, sprung on us by Toffler with all the earnestness of a Ford ad, is the Mustang, available, so it is pointed out, in x bodies times y engines times z transmissions, not to mention variations in color and trim. One can, of course, prove that there are no duplicates whatever of anything if one wants to tune one’s perceptions fine enough; but to bellyfeel the diversity of the Mustang herd would require fine perception indeed, perhaps the order of perception which Reich attributes to the Stoning of Consciousness III. Rapt in his 10n combinations of interiors and exteriors, Toffler forgets that all those steeds look like each other, and like the competition. (Or the competition like them. One must be fair to Ford.) The time is long past—as a consequence of the aesthetically pernicious process of slapping two patterns of bright metal trim on the same body shell and calling the result two makes—when any car had the distinctive personality of, say, Buick 1938-1949. If one no longer identifies the make and year of passing cars, the reason may just be that they all look alike now. Technology’s idea of diversity, as explicated by Toffler, is to give you tulips with the widest choice possible of streak-color. He attains self-parody in another example of the New Diversity: cigarettes. Well, maybe if someone came out with a square cigarette, or a safe one. But as things are, he sounds just like Sinclair Lewis’s Lowell Schmaltz (The Man Who Knew Coolidge) epitomizing diversity in Zenith:

There’s a lot of sorehead critics of America that claim we’re standardized but . . . this fellow and me—we’re as different as Moses and Gene Tunney. Where these poor devils of Europeans are crushed down and prevented from having their characters developed by the wide and free initiative so characteristic of American life, George and me can be friendly, and yet as different. . . . Well, like this, for instance. I drive a Chrysler, and Babbitt doesn’t. I’m a Congregationalist and Babbitt has no use what-somever for anything but his old Presbyterian church. He wears these big spectacles and you couldn’t hire me to wear anything but eyeglasses. . . . He’s got so he likes golf for its own sake, and I’d rather go fishing, any day. . . . Yes sir, it’s a wonderful thing how American civilization, as represented, you might say, by modern advertising, has encouraged . . . the free play of individualism.

But when technology in Toffler’s world is not producing Babbitt’s Delights, it is getting out of hand, and Toffler devotes the last part of his book to getting it under control. Here he proposes some home remedies for the disease of future shock, among which is the curious advice that one learn to forget information for which one is not going to have any further use. Both future shock and runaway technology, however, will best be treated, Toffler thinks, by public-health programs, primarily the establishment of Councils of the Future, which will operate in a variety of organizational contexts and provide advice on probable futures. Under the aegis of such institutions, man’s regrettable preoccupation with the past will be turned round to the future, which will become the subject of courses and games, providing him with a sort of Mothersill’s Remedy against the mal de temps threatened by each new dawn.

Of any serious thought about the social and governmental structures which will apply the wisdom thus generated, the book is innocent. Society even now does a certain amount of futurizing, and there is not yet any consensus as to what is to come and what is to be done about it. That historians sometimes experience a certain difficulty in agreeing about the past—which, after all, did happen—suggests that future futurists and their clients may find consensus about the future—which, after all, has not—nearly as elusive.

Finally, Toffler’s work is charged with a fatal contradiction inherent in pop futurism. In order to show that disaster is staring us in the eyeball, or that the future is going to be very different, or whatever, it becomes necessary to rely on the notion of accelerating change so heavily that prescription becomes increasingly risky. If the present is to be altered all out of recognition, then there is no guarantee as to the rate of change which will be characteristic of the remote future. Even the celebrated but not terribly helpful remark of Heraclitus, to the effect that nothing endures but change, leaves the futurist with the difficulty of treating a patient whose sole symptom is that his symptoms are in flux. Long-term planning becomes difficult, if not indeed impossible, for those committed to the notion of apocalyptic change.



The other best-selling apocalyptician, Charles A. Reich, totters inconclusively between scientific and religious chiliasm. Andrew Greeley has recently provided a remarkable exposition of The Greening of America as apocalypse,2 and so I can content myself here with some desultory remarks. Reich is nearly post-apocalyptic, arguing as he does that Consciousness III has already landed and is on the way to inevitable triumph, as believers in the old dispensation die or convert. The causes of the late apocalypse, like so much in the book, are obscure; it would seem that the contradictions of Con I led to Con II, and those of Con II, with the midwifely assistance of a kindly old crone named Mary Jane, gave birth to Con III, which, like socialist society in the Marxian vision, has no contradictions worth worrying about. But while the era of socialist man is always just over the horizon, the era of Consciousness III can begin in earnest just as soon as all those tiresome people over eighteen become III or un-persons. The event thus posited makes even the Christian apocalypse seem a little tame, since what has been changed in the twinkling of an eye is nothing so limited as the universe, but human nature itself. By comparison with this Panglossian annihilation of all problems without pain or expense, Love Story—that other product of Yale’s Ezra Stiles College—is a hard-hatted grapple with reality.



More interesting than Reich, though far less well-known, is William Irwin Thompson,3 an author apparently determined to play a belated Darwin to Reich’s Huxley. As befits a brilliant and learned young man of thirty-two, Thompson proclaims his apocalypse with wry, almost mocking detachment. Less ironically cool is the prose on the jacket of his book, where he is said to end up “demolishing the identity of history itself.” It is a little book for such a big feat, but crammed within the 163 pages of the text proper is learning so diverse that no reader is likely to feel cheated for quantity.

Of this astonishing quest after the hide of the historical dragon which has so long ravaged the fields of consciousness, there are two heroes: the author and William Butler Yeats. The former, constantly alluding to the latter, takes us on an expedition to the dragon’s lair via Los Angeles, Esalen, M.I.T., Canada, Yucatan, and points outward.

The encounter with Los Angeles and environs is straightforward enough, even predictable. With regard to L.A., I myself plan to emulate Dudley Fitts, who refused to read Silas Marner lest he spoil the appreciation and understanding of that novel gained from countless College Board papers. I cannot therefore speak to the accuracy of Thompson’s account, but he seems in accord with my own Virgils (Nathanael West and S. J. Perelman). The whole city is a movie set where people therapeutically act out their fantasies; they are always ten years ahead of the wicked East, and the future consequently keeps outcropping, just now showing as a Prevue of Coming Attractions the colossal epic of man’s transformation from homo faber into homo ludens.

The distance between the ridiculous and the sublime is easily compassed in the trip from Los Angeles to Esalen, where Thompson appears to have made some sort of transcendental discovery under the influence of Zen-baked bread. (The importance of bread to the counter-culturists is excessive, even for a staff of life.)

The seminar which drew Thompson Esalenward seems pretty dreary in the telling, perhaps as much to the writer as to the reader. The high point came late. As Thompson was recounting an epiphany vouchsafed him in the National Library at Dublin, to the effect that he was “the only available writer on Irish literature and politics” who could possibly write his book (the sort of epiphany also occasionally vouchsafed other authors, but perhaps one best thought better of at less inspired moments), in burst Joan Baez, acting, as Thompson told her right to her face, like “Maude Gonne screaming at Yeats to stop writing poems and start shooting Englishmen.” The comparison appears to have silenced her, after which triumph it was back to the baths for a bit and on to a folk-rock concert on the cliffs. Thompson and others danced about a pregnant blonde, and hey presto! “there at the edge of the Pacific you could feel the future blowing in your face and see all the new cultures streaming behind into the wake of history, where they would come to rest in the museums of New York and Europe. . . . I leaned against the wall and thought: At twenty-nine in the summer of 1967, I danced in the twenty-first century, and in the dark remaining years ahead I will remember this free-for-all4 of Pacific sound and light.” Doubtless all very heady stuff, and doubtless familiar to anyone who has been to a good party with good friends. But this particular gush of emotion recollected in tranquility illustrates a central fallacy of futurism: the self-intoxicated optimism which identifies a portion of the present one likes as a portion of the future.

From the cliffs Thompson descends to M.I.T., where he labored some years, and from which he came away with a dislike of the new industrial state as intense as, but a good deal more coherent than, that of Charles Reich. Neither of the two cultures at M.I.T.—which he sees as radical humanism and liberal science—took his fancy, and he is quite as acidly effective looking at the one as the other, although his critique of the former is perhaps the more pointed:

Freed by his Marxist materialism, of the feudal nobility that would suggest that evil is within the revolutionary and his movement as well as outside himself in capitalist society, [the radical humanist] rages with a blindness that prevents him from seeing the vices of his friends and the virtues of his enemies. . . . in encounters one is subjected to a suspicion of the past which amounts to a wilfully self-imposed ignorance: “I won’t teach Autobiography and Identity because the self is a bourgeois personalist fiction.”

Retreating then to a Canadian exile (which now may seem less “The Peaceable Kingdom” than it did a year ago), Thompson constructs an alternative third position—a theory of historical evolution displayed in a series of increasingly complex mandalas tracing the constituents of society at any stage back to four figures: shaman, hunter, headman, and clown. Such schematizations, no less than TV diagrams of the route an antacid takes from gullet to stomach, provide useful employ for deserving draftsmen; but for anyone linear enough to have learned to read, one wonders whether they say any more than simple prose.



In the remainder of the book Thompson goes on to deal with an extraordinary range of fringe-cultural phenomena, down to and including the Edgar Cayce fad, all tending to the conclusion that we are on the edge of history in a quite literal sense. We have erred in interpreting the past, and may well be mistaken in assuming that there is going to be a future, or at least a future which is no more than an extension of past and present. Before settling down to this demolition of history, Thompson undertakes a brief inquest upon the body of official, academic futurism, wherein such persons as Daniel Bell and Herman Kahn are said to “lack the imagination to see the whole wheel of fire and [to be able to view reality only] from the very limited perspective of the routine-operational mentality. They are simply blind to anything that is not supportive of the liberal-industrial world view.” If nothing else is made clear in the intellectual peregrinations to follow, it is that Thompson’s Weltanschauung is under no such constraints. He sees whatever wheels of fire may be.

In 1967, he points out, the most widely read authority on the year 2000 was not Daniel Bell, but Edgar Cayce, as represented by his biographer Jess Stearn.5 Desultory researches into the matter tend to confirm Thompson’s assertion that the benighted professional classes are comparatively unaware of the Cayce vogue among the lower-middle class and The Kids. Hence the following excursus into Cayce and Caycism, toward a more general appreciation of a book and a figure which provide a great deal of the intellectual impetus, if that is the phrase I want, for the lower reaches of current occult-futuristic thought.

Cayce’s life is shortly told: born Hopkinsville, Kentucky, 1877; settled in Virginia Beach, where he pursued the calling of photographer; uneducated, kindly, charming; conservative Presbyterian; about 1900, began to go into a trance twice daily, during which he produced advice and prophecy on a wide variety of subjects, principally medicine, religion, and politics; died Virginia Beach, 1945, survived by a circle of enthusiastically publishing hierophants, whose writings are based on stenographic transcripts of his “readings,” as the sleeping pronouncements were called.

Although Cayce made the Times in 1910, he exists now as a public figure largely through the medium of Stearn’s best-seller. The claims therein are of a familiar class, The-Perfectly-Extraordinary-If-They-Are-Literally-True. Cayce is alleged to have predicted the dates of both world wars; but one looks in vain for a text of the prophecy. He could cure any disease, sometimes by prescribing Castoria, sometimes by the application of a flayed rabbit to the sufferer. (The hierophants make much of the eventual development of a line of cancer research in which antibodies are grown in rabbit-blood.) Cayce’s medical practice, only occasionally interrupted by an insensitive Law, exploiting patent medicines and principles one can only call hypereclectic, was so successful that there remain to this day practitioners of the healing art—Stearn tactfully calls them “therapists”—who treat with the old original recipes, now accessible in the collections of the Association for Research and Enlightenment at Virginia Beach.

But it is as a prophet for the latter 20th century that Cayce has become a cult-figure. The prophecies, as one might have anticipated, lead up to a grand climax in the year 2000. The start of the final phase, according to Cayce, came in 1936, when the earth’s polar axis—as opposed to its non-polar one—shifted sufficiently to have serious seismic consequences. Stearn, in dealing with Cayce the Scientist, did not trust to the untutored instincts of a simple reporter, but pressed into his service an authority known in his pages simply as The Geologist.6 The Geologist meanders through the book, amiably checking out Cayce’s scientific expertise, more often than not in the Britannica. He takes it as quite probable that the earth’s axis did shift in 1936. Now, we hear a great deal about the pernicious effect of compartmentalization in the sciences, but I had not realized that a Geologist would keep his eyes quite so invariably on the earth beneath him. He seems not to have noticed the relationship of the earth’s axis to such trivial phenomena as the seasons and the appearance of the sky. Were Cayce right, no astronomer would be able to use his atlases to find anything in the sky. But if Cayce missed this consequence of a shift of the earth’s axis, he predicted even more sensational ones: great earthquakes ravaging New York and California, with Atlantis heaving into view off the Bahamas. (Senator Goldwater will no doubt be cheered to hear that New York is finally going to get it: the fault lies along 14th Street, should provident readers wish to make their plans accordingly.) This future, curiously enough, is also in the past, a wonder of science brought to us by reincarnation. For we—some of us, at least—are quondam Atlanteans, who, having mucked up one perfectly good continent by hitting the laser beams too heavily, are now being given a second chance.



But enough, enough. Every popular fantasy is here, all validated by emission from what Stearn is pleased to call the Universal Mind of Edgar Cayce, and all of it swallowed by the hierophants with an intensity which makes one unusually wishful that Mencken were living at this hour. One future shock which does seem to be upon us is the extent to which universal literacy and the paperback allow irresponsible journalists to diffuse the sort of misknowledge compared to which ignorance, if not downright bliss, is damn near intellectually respectable. Not just journalists: one of Cayce’s merchandisers is Harmon H. Bro, Ph.D., “the only trained social scientist ever to study Cayce extensively at first hand,” who is eloquent about the majestic prose of the “readings,” many of which to my insensitive ear seem to have been incompetently translated out of the original Extragalactish: “Just so is there the result in England, just so the conglomerate force in America. Just so are the domination forces in Japan, China. Just so in Russia is there the new birth, out of which will come a new understanding. Italy—selling itself for a mess of pottage. Germany—a smear upon its forces for dominance over its brother, a leech upon the universe for its own sustenance.”

Unlike most prophets, Cayce was rarely shy about specifying exact dates, and thus good sport can be had matching up prophecies and fulfillment. But the prose style of the Universal Mind is so fuzzy, and its scientific knowledge so imperfect, that the force of the predictions, perhaps great for the totally ignorant, becomes feeble for the moderately informed. A proper skepticism about received truth ought to make any claim, no matter how bizarre, subject to testing, but the present state of Cayce studies hardly allows the scholarly mind to operate on the problem. The first qualified researcher to hit up a foundation for a year at the Association for Research and Enlightenment might be able to correct the situation.

Whatever such a study would reveal, Thompson, without exactly joining the AR&E, fudgily suggests that the “readings” might reflect actual history. He himself states neatly the epistemological assumptions which lead him into this position: “. . . classes can be so interest-bound that they cannot perceive reality outside the terms that sustain their power . . . it is extremely important that we adopt an alien point of view—if only to open our minds and free ourselves of the ethnocentrism of our former position.” The thesis presented here is no doubt fundamental for your working apocalyptician, permitting as it does any nonsense to attain a certain éclat as long as it is different nonsense. Once one is willing to treat a taste for reason as a quirk of ethnicity—the ethnic group in question here being the intellectuals—one will not long be troubled by the inconvenient constraints of evidence and proof.

Thompson believes that academics cannot free themselves from the dreadful managerial assumptions of liberalism—the product of the military-rational complex—because the academy is so hard on heretics. In support of this charge he cites the case of Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky. I am, of course, quite incompetent to judge the theories of Velikovsky, and must rely on the almost universally negative reaction of the qualified. However, about the quite different question of whether Velikovsky got a fair hearing, I am in considerable doubt. A number of distinguished professional astronomers took part in a textbook boycott of his publisher, leading finally to the transfer of a hot best-seller to a house with no text division. Certainly, in the soft, bellelettristic quarter of the academy I inhabit, such an action would be unthinkable. Some of the reviews of the book by professionals appear to me to have seriously misquoted Velikovsky’s position, and some of these in turn appear to have continued in circulation uncorrected.

Velikovsky, in short, was treated like a crank. Cranks, to be sure, abound on the fringes of natural science—a colleague of mine in physics is incessantly favored with the publications of a gentleman who has replaced the theory of gravity with the assumption that the radius of the earth is expanding infinitely, and that thus it was a moving Newton who zoomed up to hit an apple at rest—and one can well understand that professionals develop the sort of impatience that literary historians develop for Baconians. Still, Velikovsky’s earlier career was not exactly that of a crank. And some of the assumptions of Velikovsky’s hypothesis originally taken as least likely—that Venus is quite hot, and has hydrocarbons in her atmosphere, and that Jupiter ought to be a powerful radio source—have subsequently been confirmed by orthodox science. Whether a massive study of Velikovsky’s work would in any particular alter the original negative response I cannot judge; but the cases of Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin indicate that the scientific community needs to be very careful about distinguishing cranks from heretics. In an age when such as Thompson—and his followers here are legion—tend to award a handicap to the outré, the need is going if anything to increase, simply to avoid feeding counter-cultural notions of “Establishment” reality vs. the “real” reality.

The history of thought can show any number of minority reports on the state of the universe, nearly all sensational in their implications. Such reports—re-visionings, as Thompson calls them—have generally been tendered with little consequence, but an occasional one has shaken the earth. It is too early definitely to categorize the current crop of apocalyptic re-visionings, but there is certainly enough evidence for an interim verdict. Thompson, for example, for all his brilliant and brittle erudition, manages an occasional howler:

[The idea of Atlantis] is not as absurd as it may seem if one stops to think of the lacunae in historical time. Five hundred years ago Columbus crossed the ocean in a bloated rowboat and now we are walking on the moon. In historical reckoning five hundred years is often the carbon-14 increment of plus or minus 250 years, so there are many places in history where we leap over centuries to the next fact simply because we have nothing to fill up the space. A civilization could have arisen in 10,500 B.C., climaxed in 10,000, and destroyed itself by 9500.

Very neat. As long as one forgets two little problems: a) getting your civilization from —10,000 to 1492, Columbus and his culture having represented a certain advance from that first date; and b) annihilating your civilization without a trace. Occasions such as this, when re-visioning depends on fantasy or sophomoric logic, makes one wonder how often elsewhere, in ways as ludicrous but less obvious, enthusiasm has overmastered good sense.

But let us imagine that all these re-visionings are well-founded. How revelatory are they? Is there any difference between re-vision and revision? If the Atlantis myth (about which Cayce, Thompson, and others make such a great to-do) turns out to be true, the major re-visioning will be of the history of Atlantis, the minor of our new understanding of certain cultures as degenerate rather than primitive. Nothing is revised by the major re-vision, Atlantis having heretofore had no history, and the minor is hardly any more astounding than the insights of orthodox revisionism, as exemplified, say, by A.J.P. Taylor’s The Origins of the Second World War. And more important: barring a Revelation, the historicity of Atlantis will have to be demonstrated by one of the tools of orthodox history, namely archaeology. Should the tool so serve, the discovery will doubtless be a nine-years’ wonder: but the methodological development will hardly deserve so pretentious a name as re-vision.



Perhaps the most widespread manifestation of apocalypticism today is to be found not in the taste for the occult and the irrational, but in an area which at first glance seems far removed from the apocalyptic spirit: the formation of educational policy and pedagogic theory. For assuming that an entirely new situation is upon us, a great deal of educational theory now proceeds on the belief that the basic tenets by which the theorists themselves were educated have become totally unsatisfactory for educating their charges. This belief—which permeates grant proposals in their thousands, memoranda in their millions—has recently been set forth with considerable distinction, attention to detail, and an often delicious sense of irony by Judson Jerome in Culture out of Anarchy: The Reconstruction of American Higher Learning.7

Jerome begins by identifying a diverse group of people who are desperate for self-realization: blacks, youth, women, and Judson Jerome. It is not quite clear whether he is the only middle-aged white male with such longings, but there he is, “lying on the glare-bright table of the 70’s like a fish whose lungs are pumping insubstantial air,” longing, so it would seem, for the moister 60’s. The crisis-laden atmosphere reeks of apocalypse, which is not long in the proclaiming: “A culture is dying. A culture is gasping to be born. These themes permeate this book, which only incidentally uses higher education as its evidence of a larger transformation in which we are all participating.”

The Last Days having been heralded, the book which follows is thoroughly exasperating, shot through with fatuities worthy of its first sentence, but containing also a good deal of insight, good sense, and first-rate educational reportage. Jerome has the unhappily rare habit of leavening his misinterpretations of phenomena with descriptions so clear and honest that the reader is enabled to make an independent assessment.

Both the culture and the anarchy are located in innovative higher education8 before viewing which Jerome surveys the traditional scene with traditional alarm. It is the sort of exercise which marks all apocalypticians, sacred and profane. Indeed, the resemblances between the innovationists and the Protestant fundamentalists are more than superficial: although the former regard their program, often incorrectly, as one of novelty rather than of restoration, it is in fact a fundamentalist stripping away of what are taken to be non-essentials, in the interest of instant salvation. There is also in the innovationist party a certain intolerance and fondness for Philippic reminiscent of the radio evangelist.

The smuggest observer, of course, of the campus today has trouble lighting his face with an infectious grin. But of what culture or when has this not been true? The 13th century was sound on stained glass, the 20th on poliomyelitis. It is in the hyperventilated atmosphere of public relations that crisis is blown up to apocalypse, and what used to be known as the condition of man seen as evidence for his approaching demise. But the burden of demonstrating an apocalypse is still upon the apocalyptician, at least if he is a secular apocalyptician and not consciously speaking as a Seer with a Revelation to bring. The claim being that apocalyptic conditions surround us in the here-and-now, it is susceptible of proof like any other claim about the real world.

What then is Jerome’s proof? “I hear students telling me what I never had the guts or imagination to say: the system isn’t working. The whole network of departments, fields, areas, credits, requirements, courses, grades, which we have accepted as the design of higher education, does not relate coherently to human learning and experience. Now the network is collapsing of his [sic: its?] Byzantine weight.” Now, I have it on the authority of Magnus Arbuthnot himself that what is Byzantine is complexity, never weight; but there is something else more disturbing here. Note the qualities the lack of which prevented Jerome from seeing reality: guts and imagination. What a diverse set of statements one might append to such a prologue as “I hear students telling me what I never had the guts or imagination to say”: “That I really come from a flying saucer; that the academy is heart and soul part of the Vietnam war; that black is white,” and so on and so on. But make it “guts and intelligence,” and the list gets markedly shorter.

The complaint, at any rate, is familiar a thousand times over to anyone who has been in shouting distance of a campus these past few years. The time scale is significant. Most of the phenomena (on the whole accurately reported) Jerome cites as evidence for his diagnosis of catastrophic failure are recent indeed. With such a short-focus perspective, the nearest objects made large in proportion, it is easy to say that the system is not working. But one must distinguish the not-working from the unworkable. Jerome confuses the two: it is an endemic habit, with its analogues in the marketplace, particularly that of automobiles. It is often assumed that it makes sense to trade in—salvage, in effect—a car on the brink of major repairs, even if the depreciation on the first year of the new car would pay for the repairs twice over. In fact, of course, someone is always waiting to pay for the repairs on one’s three-year-old model, and what seems not worth repairing to the first owner seems eminently so to the second.

To pursue this no doubt vulgar analogy a bit: it is easy enough to see whose interest is served when not-working cars are treated as not-workable, and by what devices the confusion is maintained for the new-car trade and straightened out for the used. Less so with the educational analogue. Why does Jerome rush to trade in the system on a new model? The major cause is, I suspect, a deficiency in historical perspective. One of the advantages of historical perspective, something from which the innovationists could profit, is the knowledge that crisis, being a recurring phenomenon, is a survivable one. He who knows this—who does not? one is tempted to ask, and the answer is that his name is Legion—is better prepared to meet the crisis with some hope that he is not going to add to it. At present the academy has no such luck: one component of the crisis is the hysterical reaction of the Jeromes, observers afflicted with time-referents calibrated in months, and by a perverse myth of progress which teaches that the line on the chart is headed inexorably and eternally down if something really big is not immediately done.

If one ignores the extent to which in the past the university has found itself upon evil days, and within itself found renewal, it is easy to see the alarums and excursions of the past few years as symptomatic of moribundity or worse. Such ignorance seems very common among apocalypticians, but the problem is not one simply of naiveté. For a sense of impending doom, as I noted at the beginning of this essay, need not be an entirely unlovely experience. He whose most cherished projects are not likely to be adopted short of the Last Days may well be forgiven if he greets the sound of beating hooves with mixed emotions. And those with a vested interest in educational Armageddon, like any devout fundamentalist, find comfort in the thought of an approaching Dies Irae on which the faithful will at last be recognized when and where it really counts. Apocalypse nourishes apocalypse in a nutritional chain to be broken only when it spawns a generation of prophets proclaiming, “Behold, I tell you a mystery: we shall not all change.” The lust for novelty is sufficient that the day of such prophets may not be inconceivably remote.



When he is not chanting Dies Irae, Jerome’s eye for educational inanity, although sometimes merely cute, is generally acute. His account of a visit to an “emerging” state university has moments of high hilarity, notably an encounter with the English Department’s tame Productive Scholar:

“How do you do,” says Professor Boggle. “Sorry to be late. I was in my office reading proofs. Just a revision of Journey” he says deprecatingly. (“You probably know The Irish Journey,” my host fills me in. “Standard background for Joyce.”)

His perceptions of folly are, however, colored by an attitude he enunciates at the outset:

. . . many of us are people of basically conservative disposition, often with teen-age children, who could not in conscience live with the options available for young people in our society today. We have come almost reluctantly to the conclusion that if there is to be, willy-nilly, some kind of revolution in this country, we had better do what we can to make the damned thing work.

That is to say, someone has to ride the tiger. It need hardly be pointed out that in two recent revolutions there were parties with similar aspirations, and when the dust settled, the smile was on the face of the tiger. The planted axiom is the apocalyptic one, that there is to be a revolution, some sort of one, willy-nilly, and this idea often leads “people of basically conservative disposition, often with teen-age children” like Jerome, into a certain hysteria.



Sometimes the hysteria manifests itself in small lapses of critical surveillance. When the Radical Chic Bartlett’s is finally compiled, one sure entry is going to be the following:

The streets of our country are in turmoil. The universities are filled with students rebelling and rioting. Communists are seeking to destroy our country. Russia is threatening us with her might. And the Republic is in danger. Yes, danger from within and without. We need law and order! Yes, without law and order our nation cannot survive. We shall restore law and order.

Adolph Hitler, Hamburg, 1932

These remarks are always being Quoted Without Comment, and here they are affixed as epigraph to Jerome’s Chapter 4, “As American as Apple Pie.” The trouble is that the quotation appears to be bogus. Repeated efforts to trace it to Hitler have failed—as, indeed, anyone with even the most modest grasp of modern German history should have been able to guess they would. For one thing the supposed eulogist of law and order commanded a private army at that very date the raison d’être of which was violence in the streets, and which had itself for a time been suppressed by the Weimar authorities on law-and-order grounds. And for another, Hitler would no more have called the hated “November criminals” of the Weimar government the “Republic” than the Black Panther would call the Oakland Police Department “the police.”

But Jerome is led into greater enormities. He seems quite sure that the tradition of liberal education is safe within the hands of the innovationist party. One might be more inclined to agree with him were it not for the examples he himself gives:

[Within educational communes] it is only the content of liberal education which has changed . . . nor is intellectuality always scorned. [At an educational commune in Baltimore] what struck me, as we talked about vibrations and energy and levels of consciousness and the discipline of meditation, was the highly complex and learned quality of their study. There was a Rosicrucian intricacy about their range of reference and reasoning. . . . Astrology, which many students and college students seem obsessed with, is a popularization [!] of studies with deep intellectual roots. [One of the communards]: “We say ‘Aquarian’ because this is the age of intuition, and Aquarius is the sign of intuition, the sign of Christ consciousness. Each age is 2100 years. . . . The Aquarian age began, some people say 1870, some say as early as 1776, but it is generally agreed that we’re well into it now. It’s an air sign. Aquarius is the water-bearer, but an air sign means it’s the holy spirit, and the spirit of wholeness, completeness and intuition. . . . We’re at that state in the evolution of the racial consciousness.”

Jerome displays more than enough intelligence to allow him to identify this piece of flatulent balderdash for what it is. But no,

I am soon over my head as I try to keep up with the intellectual syntheses these people are trying to put together. Here are some excerpts from a taped conversation: “My main interest is in what I call a politics of incarnation. I’m interested in deriving a real politic from essentially religious and psychological observations. . . . Systems analysis applies incredibly well to the study of intuition. . . . Chomsky uses that . . . he’s got a thing called methodological preliminaries, in his Aspects of Syntax, in which he outlines a method that fits very well. . . . Lévi-Strauss, the French anthropologist, has a thing in structural anthropology in which he comes up with some incredible data using a gestalt approach. . . . It’s kind of freaky, complicated. . . .”

One is simply disconsolate to find Jerome finding this sort of fragmentary name-dropping impressive enough to quote, let alone to cite as intellectually taxing.

While such naive concessions to the idea that all learning is equally educational vitiate Jerome’s pretensions as an educational theorist, his reportage of the current innovationist scene nevertheless remains highly effective, as in his account of Toronto’s Rochdale College, surely one of the most depressing experiments in the history of higher education, and his treatment of a clutch of other innovationist institutions. None of these places does he see as paradise, and when they fail to deliver on major and highly ideological promises, he admits it with a candid humor rare in educational theorists of any school. Despite its orientation, Culture out of Anarchy is the book to go to for data on the day-to-day problems, some of them serious, of an innovationist college. You will even learn that such places are often far more hostile and alienating than the uptight schools they are trying to improve on.

But the apocalyptic assumption allows Jerome to absorb what he sees without internalizing it, for anything is better than Armageddon. The vision of the Last Days is with him always, and under its influence he produces numerous passages of fashionable cant which live in uneasy coexistence with the cool reportage:

Willy-nilly, American education is entering a libertarian phase (call it a supermarket if you will) in which it is relinquishing its power to control and prescribe and develop a capacity to respond. It is a pity that those of us involved—parents, professors, politicians—must be scared into change by outbreaks of anarchy. It is a pity we cannot show intellectual initiative rather than panic and rigidity at a time when the need is so great and the possibilities are so abundant.

It is not only by rigidity that men show panic.



Where will the current wave of apocalypticism all end up? Nathan Glazer, writing of Charles Reich,9 has recently warned us to be very skeptical of people who tell us how bad things are, since such doomsaying has often been used to make intolerable programs seem tolerable. Now, while Alvin Toffler’s prescriptions for meeting the future may seem benevolent enough, their successful embodiment would require a society totalitarian enough to make the Soviet system seem permissive. William Irwin Thompson has no program, nor is one easily to be inferred from his book; but belief that one is at the edge of history is not calculated to encourage either personal or social providence. While Judson Jerome’s prescriptions are on the other side of totalitarian, heaven help the society educated on the principles of that Baltimore commune. And Charles A. Reich’s vision of the apocalypse-in-being, quite apart from its substantive unpleasantness, amounts to a prescription for inaction which if followed closely in an industrial society would breed horror upon horror.

But the individual dangers of these thinkers are smaller than the collective one. Apocalyptic thinking, to twist the Italian proverb, is ill-found if it is not true, and to those of us not possessed of a special revelation, the imminence of Armageddon very much remains to be demonstrated. For us the antidote to apocalypticism is not to take no thought of the morrow, but rather to fall back on a habit of life which has always been the best specific against future shock: providence. By this I mean simply the habit of rationally evaluating present action in terms of likely consequence. To point out that a society is suffering from failures of providence—as ours certainly is—does not vitiate the value of providence. It just means that the society must get better at it. Short of an authentic divine revelation, the only way we can project the future is on the basis of the present, which, faute de mieux, we must assume to provide a ground for the rational extrapolation of trend. Perhaps there is some folk-wisdom in the tense system of the English language, which recognizes only past and present. For there can be no future until it appears in the present, and the present disappears into the past just as soon as we can perceive it. The present and the past, then, are all we have, and we must make the most of them.




1 Random House, 505 pp., $8.95; Bantam Books, $1.95. The latter edition is available in a choice of colors, evidently an attempt to induce the ailment the book describes.

2 “The Redeeming of America According to Charles Reich,” America, January 9, 1971.

3 At the Edge of History: Speculations on the Transformation of Culture, Harper & Row, 163 pp., $6.95.

4 Note to anyone heading for Big Sur and the 21st century, or whatever is playing now: take money. Esalen is not free for all.

5 Edgar Cayce—The Sleeping Prophet, Bantam Books, 287 pp., 95¢

6 Thompson discusses the catastrophic paleoentomologist Manson Valentine, who shares with The Geologist not only a discipline but also a strong interest in Atlantis.

7 Herder and Herder, 330 pp., $9.50; paperback, $3.95.

8 I wish there were an accurate and neutral name for the educational party of which Jerome is a member. At one college of my acquaintance, the term “the feelies” has gained some endurance; but even if I wanted to give the word wider currency, Jerome is a very right-wing feelie. I shall fall back on the label “innovationists,” not that I believe everything the party stands for is innovation, nor that innovation is limited to it; but it is the party which has made a god of innovation, and there is some precedent for naming religious parties in terms of their god. The reader must imagine when I say “innovationists” a tone appropriate to a 2nd-century Roman bureaucrat saying “Christians.”

9 “The Peanut Butter Statement,” The New Leader, December 14, 1970.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.