Dreaming the End of the World
Apocalypse as a Rite of Passage
I went to America this summer, 2005, on a 4-week trip that grew out of my wish to attend the Association for the Study of Dreams‘ annual conference. The conference was certainly interesting in its own right, but the real fruits of the venture were, inevitably, completely unplanned and unforeseen.
While staying with some friends in San Francisco, I coasted through a bout of depression by immersing myself in their dream-related book recommendations. James Hillman‘s name had trickled with growing insistence into my life for the past couple of years, and the dam holding back these mounting waters finally broke in that apartment between the Haight-Ashbury and Twin Peaks neighbourhoods.
More particularly captivating for me was a book I’d never heard of by a writer I’d never heard of: Dreaming the End of the World by Michael Ortiz Hill. It was first published in 1994, the year I started creating a zine on dreams, the year before I started creating a journal inspired and framed by apocalyptic concerns. How could I have so totally missed this book, explicating the rich juncture between these two major themes of mine, for over a decade? The question didn’t elicit exasperation, though; there was a sense of mysterious timing, of something vital waiting in the wings with infinite patience for the right moment to step forward and start talking to me.
The last time I went travelling for longer than a couple of weeks was ten years ago, the summer of 1995 spent hitching and camping around southern England and the Welsh coasts. That was a rougher, less civilised journey that took the lid off my head several times. On returning home to Leeds, I was plunged into a period of quite intense undoing, opening up, that lasted several months. Right at the start, shortly after I returned, the intellectual tone for this time was set firmly by a chain of synchronicities that lead me to the dusty basement of Ubik, the now-defunct “secondhand books and clothes for weirdoes” emporium, where I picked up a beautifully yellowing first edition (1966) copy of Norman O. Brown’s Love’s Body (for a couple of quid). Brown’s dense, visionary, poetic reading of Freud reshaped my world for a time, profoundly influencing my thinking on eschatology.
My sense of delayed necessity in finding Hill’s book was compounded, then, as I read his acknowledgements as he thanked the people who had guided him through homelessness and psychosis:
Last, among my street mentors, I have to include Professor Norman O. Brown. His essay ‘The Place of Apocalypse in the Life of Mind’ was pivotal for me, as was the seminal Love’s Body, shifting my apocalyptic concerns from the prophetic mode I had learned as an evangelist to the cultural and psychological perspective that was becoming so vividly real. Although I was much too shy to make Dr. Brown’s actual acquaintance, when I was homeless I would often sit in when he taught the classics at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
Fantastic! The chains of perceived fate and coincidence that light up in such moments of discovery – possibly mundane to outside parties – are truly heartening. I devoured as much of the book as I had time for there. (I also contacted Michael, and flew to Los Angeles a week later to interview him, but that’s another story.)
Echoing James Hillman’s open-minded approach to psychology, heavily influenced by Jung but wholly open to Freud, and peppered with personal twists, Hill considers the image of the nuclear bomb, and the mythical patterns that its creators and their society – our society – seem to have found themselves enmeshed in as the actual nuts-and-bolts-and-plutonium bomb arose from the wider, deeper dream of the Bomb.
Hill’s thesis is both stark and sophisticated. The central contention is that the Bomb has constellated, brought to a head, the core mythical conflict of Western civilisation. Looking behind and before St. John’s Revelations, with its final conflict between Beast and Messiah, to Babylon’s “primordial dragon” Tiamat and her death under the blade of the “municipal god” Marduk, Hill finds here a root expression of the conquest of nature, the progressive split between civilisation and wilderness. The Beast – dark, chthonic, ravenous, destructive and polluting – is defeated and held in abeyance by the Messiah – from the sky, illuminating, sharp, wielding technology. Sensing some alchemical telos in our history, a cosmically apt collision of warring principles, Hill sees in the Bomb’s image – the detonation, the mushroom cloud and the aftermath – an uncanny fusion of the Messiah and the Beast. The Bomb, which was ushered into history by a feverish need for salvation from the horrors of World War II, brought a dark cloud with its silver lining:
The trajectory that began in the Iron Age of sharpening and refining our weapons against the agents of chaos ends here: the ultimate weapon has delivered us unprotected into the chaos it promised to do away with once and for all.
The Beast and the Messiah have merged in a “terrible koan” that has begun to unravel the fabric of Western culture.
Such a summary does little justice to Hill’s thesis, which relies on patiently traversing a tightrope between literalism and runaway fantasies. As with Norman Brown and James Hillman, both enemies of the tendency to literalise and draw simple parallels between psychic and social realities, both scholars careful not to fly away into reality-denial, Hill’s arguments are put forward as much in their form as their content. Gracefully dancing around the pitfalls of seeing with a metaphorical eye, he manages to convey a position that is keenly aware of the bomb’s reality in the world, and passionate about defusing its proliferation, yet at the same time deeply committed to the ways of the dream – shifting, ambivalent, multiplicitous, imaginal and charged with numinous potential.
Analysis of apocalyptic dreams forms the core of this work, with several dreams grouped at the beginning of each chapter exploring a different region of the “geography” he discerns in our dreaming of the End. Recurrent themes – No Refuge, Invisible Poison, Suffering Children, Mutations – are made clear, delineating a process we seem to be living through of reconfiguring our mythic habitations in response to the wonders and terrors of the modern age. (I should add that his breakdown of themes corresponds very closely with my own numerous apocalyptic dreams.)
All this is done with a view to the perilous yet necessary task that Hill sees before us: descending deeper into our dreams of apocalypse, accepting them as an initiation that may be our only deliverance from literal apocalypse. The strangeness and power of this process is revealed plainly in the chapter ‘The Emergence of the Sacred’, in a quote from a woman who is an anti-nuclear activist:
It was weird, but in the dream the feeling was – well, this is it. It was not like we were freaking out. It was very ‘Zen’. This is it. I feel like in my dreams, I’ve progressed from panic and denial to accepting that the Bomb is ‘in me’. Out of that, I feel empowered to meet it.
The Bomb is taken as our central apocalyptic archetype, but part of the power of this book is that it convincingly tracks the emergence of images of environmental devastation from this complex, visions of ecological collapse blending seamlessly with the desolation and carnage wreaked by nuclear weapons. It seems that in the imagination, the Bomb has subsumed eco-disaster under its toxic umbrella.
Indeed, because a widening hole in the ozone layer, or rising statistics of skin cancer, or the silent but relentless decimation of plant and animal species proceed with a whimper and not a bang, it may be a number of years before the psyche can fully and sharply imagine – and therefore respond to – ecological catastrophe.
This is a prescient observation of an issue I’ve seen being discussed more and more now, as the hard (yet non-imaginal) scientific data about the horrendous scale of the ecological problems we face mount up, alongside a relative dearth of cultural, visionary responses to the issue.
Hill finishes with a bold attempt to re-write some of his informants’ dreams from the perspective of the Bomb itself, and a vivid account of his personal healing ritual at the Trinity test site.
I need more time than I currently have to find real fault in this profound, fertile work. Of course it’s there; but the book is still glowing with too much personal resonance for me to see that clearly. It’s easier to relax and enjoy such “distortions” of judgement, of course, when the author in question is clear enough about his ideas to offer caveats as lucid as this:
Beware the seduction of the image, mine and others, for the myth of apocalypse seeks to enthrall us into an epic fiction with very real consequences. Beware the fascination with what is larger than life, this vulgar Passion Play that would crucify the world.
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