The Apocalypse Archetype
How do we walk back from the brink?
As I brood about the situation in Israel and the world situation more generally, I keep thinking about an old, lost friend. I have led a number of professional lives at this point. Many years ago, I was part of a young, hard-drinking cadre of writers, editors, and journalists in New York City, back in the days when certain magazines (Vanity Fair, The New Yorker) conveyed a sheen of glamor and respectability.
One of my closest friends from the “roaring nineties,” Lee Smith, formerly editor-in-chief of ArtForum’s book section and the Village Voice Literary Supplement (VLS), vanished from New York soon after 9/11. We completely lost touch. He moved to the Middle East, studied Arabic, and made a surprising swivel to the Far Right.
Lee eventually joined the Hudson Institute, founded by Herman Kahn (theorist of thermonuclear war who provided the model for Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove), penned a column for Tablet Magazine, and published several books, including The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations and The Plot Against the President. In his books, Lee proposes many ideas I find disturbing, incomprehensible, and just plain wrong. Recently, he has defended Donald Trump, arguing that the 2020 election was, as Trump incessantly claims, stolen from him.
From our shared moment in late 1990s New York, my interests turned in a completely different direction. In my late twenties, I underwent a slow-motion existential emergency — a crisis of nihilism — that eventually led me to the exploration of psychedelics and visionary plant shamanism chronicled in Breaking Open the Head, my first book. My discovery that the esoteric knowledge held by many indigenous cultures had experientially verifiable truth compelled me to explore prophecy and mystical philosophy. This study culminated in Quetzalcoatl Returns (originally published in 2006 as 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl).
As a result of researching Quetzalcoatl Returns, I still look at the ongoing march of events through a prophetic lens. It often seems to me that our human world functions like an extremely intricate mechanism designed — orchestrated, like some operatic spectacle — to bring about an inevitable culmination. I still find it necessary to try to understand this — to dive deep into it — with delicacy, compassion, and respect for human agency (at least, the intractable illusion of agency). This feels, to me, like my ethical, even in some sense my “religious,” obligation, as much as I often wish I could do something else with my time.
What’s awkward, of course, is that various religious fanatics and Fundamentalists — Christian, Jewish, Islamic — also believe we approach the fulfillment of prophecy. For them, this means a threshold of destruction for the masses, but salvation (via transport to some immaterial “other world,” Heaven, or paradise) for those who follow the “true faith,” which just happens to be their faith.
Carl Jung and his followers wrote about the “archetype of Apocalypse” embedded in the human Psyche. Jung thought archetypes, like the spirits known to shamanic cultures, possess their own agency. They seek to realize themselves, over time, in our shared human reality. This archetype of the Apocalypse is – unfortunately, or not – very deeply rooted in the collective unconscious. It seems destined to be realized in some way.
Archetypes have negative and positive polarities. In a positive sense, Apocalypse – the word literally means uncovering or revealing – represents, for Jungians like Edward Edinger, “the momentous event of the coming of the self into conscious realization.” This means it is a threshold when humanity has reached a stage of maturity where we can integrate all of the contents of the unconscious — its darkest and brightest aspects — into consciousness. Edinger explored this brilliantly in his book, Archetype of the Apocalypse (1999):
We have evidence all around us in our daily analytic practice and in contemporary world history that this earth shaking archetypal event is taking place here and now. It has already started. It is manifesting itself in international relations; in the breakdown of the social structures of Western civilization; in political, ethnic, and religious groupings; as well as within the psyche of individuals.
What I find painful, right now — what I sit with every day — is this: The dysfunctions in the human mind, both our individual and collective psychology, seem to be driving us toward destruction and even our own extinction, via one path or another. We no longer fight external enemies (like saber-toothed tigers or giant snakes) but internal enemies, far more dangerous and insidious. We lack the time or capacity to build defenses against them.
Among our biggest and most immediate obstacles: We confront the psychopath problem and the problem of fanaticism. These are deeply connected. As civilization became larger and more complex, we created hierarchical systems of top-down control and indoctrination. These hierarchical systems often enable people with psychopathic tendencies to rise to the pinnacle of power, because they are the most self-interested and the most willing to ignore “externalities,” such as the destruction of ecosystems or mass murders, if it gets in the way of their short-term goals.
We know, for example, that the top executives of the oil and gas industry understood for many decades that the ongoing exploitation of fossil fuels would trigger an ecological holocaust. Yet they ignored the long-term health of the planet and humanity’s shared future to reap enormous profits for themselves and their cronies. The executives at cigarette companies behaved in the same self-interested way, as did the Sackler family, who knew that Oxycontin was hyper-addictive and would lead to mass overdoses. (The new Nan Goldin documentary, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, explores this). Similarly, dictators like Putin and Xi Jinping will do anything to maintain and intensify their control over their nations, no matter how many millions suffer and die as a result.
One of my pet theories is that past civilizations – not as technologically advanced but perhaps wiser than ours in crucial ways – understood the psychopath problem. They devised internal mechanisms to handle it.
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