Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Movie 2012 and End-of-the-World Scenarios

Why is the human psyche so attracted to scenarios of the end of the world?

Last weekend, the movie 2012 opened. It set a box office record for the openings of nonfranchised movies. I arrived at the theater fifteen minutes before the scheduled showtime. (This, we all know, is 30 minutes before the show begins.) Other showings for the evening were sold out, but I found a seat for this showing, albeit, in a very crowded theater auditorium. Based upon trailers I had seen for this movie, I expected it to lay out a developed Mayan argument for anticipating the end of the world on the Winter solstice (December 21) of the year 2012. This, I thought, would lend verisimilitude to the movie, in the way Jurassic Park carefully laid out its explanation for its premise that dinosaurs could be genetically recreated (i.e., dinosaur DNA being found in blood devoured by a mosquito that was subsequently captured in amber). Instead, the Mayan dating premise was just paid lip service (almost in passing) a few times. It appeared to me that the creators had just developed an end-of-times movie, and since the date of the end of the Mayan calendar was approaching, they decided to link their movie to the Mayans, as an afterthought. The website of National Geographic debunks several myths related to the premises of the movie: 1. Maya Predicted End of the World in 2012, 2. Breakaway Continents Will Destroy Civilization, 3. Galactic Alignment Spells Doom, 4. Planet X Is on a Collision Course With Earth, 5. Solar Storms to Savage Earth, and 6. Maya Had Clear Predictions for 2012.

Actually, 2012 is just the latest installment in humanity's extraordinary fascination with the end of times.

In 2006, former Vice President Al Gore's documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth, based on his 1992 book, Earth in the Balance, predicted dire consequences for the Earth, due to global warming.

In 2004, a science fiction movie, The Day After Tomorrow, attempted to dramatize the dire consequences Mr. Gore predicted.

In 1997, NBC TV aired the movie, Asteroid, in which the United States government tried to stop an asteroid collision with the Earth.

In 1995, Kevin Costner starred in the movie, Waterworld, in which the polar ice caps melt and most of the Earth's land mass is underwater.

In 1983, ABC TV aired the movie, The Day After, in which the United States and the USSR mutually destroy each other in nuclear war.

In 1968, Charlton Heston starred in the movie, Planet of the Apes, based on the premise that the human domination of the Earth would end after humans engage in nuclear war. Evolved apes would take charge of the Earth.

This list is only illustrative, not exhaustive. The list does not even include the many end-of-time speculations emanating from the religious world.

Kenneth Burke's classic Definition of Man includes the phrase, "rotten with perfection." Burke suggests that humans have a compulsion to see things completed or perfected. Why do die-hard fans not leave sporting events before the end of the game? (I pity the fans of the Indianapolis Colts who turned off their sets, Sunday night in the 4th quarter--when the Colts were 17 points down to the Patriots!) Why do we not leave a movie before its end? Why do some flip prematurely to the last chapter of a novel to see how it ends? Burke's answer: We are rotten with perfection. Burke calls his philosophy "Dramatism." He explains that humans tend to view their behavior as "action" rather than as "sheer motion." Action, as in drama, always has a beginning, middle, and end. We are fond of looking back to our beginnings--the Book of Genesis, the founding of our Country, the story of our Birth. We also, then, have a compulsion to envision our ends--the Book of Revelation, the Fall of our Country, etc. One notable exception to this point about envisioning our ends, as any life insurance salesman will tell you, is the idea of envisioning our death. In my book, "Persuasion, Proposals, and Public Speaking (2nd ed.)" (Say Press, 2009), I trace the sale of a life insurance policy through the 21 Sales in a Sale. Clearly, one essential ingredient in the sale of life insurance is getting the prospect to envision his/her own death. Most prefer not to think of that.

Perhaps, the most fascinating of all end-time scenarios is found in the Book of Revelation. Throughout the past 2000 years, audiences have tried to interpret and apply its symbols. In my book, "Revelation: The Human Drama" (Lehigh University Press, 2001), I offer a Burkean perspective on why this book is so compelling. I argue that John (the author) sees all of history as one huge Human Drama. He
writes of the Lamb as the "alpha and omega," the "first and the last," the "beginning and the end." He taps in to that human compulsion to view history dramatistically. I argue that he sees human history in the way one looks in a mirror. Seeing all the way back to the Beginning allows us to see all the way forward to the end. In the same way the beginning and end of such movies as Forrest Gump and The Lion King are mirror images of each other, John sees the End of the world as the mirror image of its Beginning. Creation, the Tree of Life, marriage, and an ideal world exist at both extremes of the drama.

As in all dramas, there is conflict and tension along the way, but the serpent who stirs up chaos in the beginning is the dragon who is devoured in the Lake of Fire in the end. In the dedication to my book, I sum up the representative anecdote: "Adam had Eve. God had Israel (and the first Jerusalem). Jesus has the church (the 144,000, the New Jerusalem). I have Linda. This is dedicated to my bride." In each epoch of history, John sees a woman/bride struggling with a serpent/dragon. In the first two epochs, the serpent/dragon wins. In the third epoch, the woman/bride wins. The bride's name is "New Jerusalem." She marries the Second Adam and lives happily EVER AFTER.

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