The End of the World

Now and again, when Kim Jung Un threatens, as his father and grandfather did before him, to turn Seoul (on whose southern flank I live) into a sea of ashes or a river of fire, or some such formulation, I think of this poem, …

Some say the world will end in fire, 

Some say in ice. 

From what I’ve tasted of desire 

I hold with those who favor fire. 

But if it had to perish twice, 

I think I know enough of hate 

To say that for destruction ice 

Is also great 

And would suffice.

I have heard that this poem by Robert Frost in part inspired the title of the fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, more commonly known after the name given to the TV series, A Game of Thrones, which we expect will end in a great kind of CGI Ragnarok of ice-zombies battling fire-breathing dragons. Well, cast such visions out of your head, and likewise forget exploding asteroids, supervolcanoes, ice-ages and blizzards, for Frost is not really talking about natural or supernatural phenomena. He is asking a question about human emotions: whether desire, the passion of the zealot, which he calls fire, is more dangerous, or hatred, which he equates with ice, cool disregard for humans. What is worse for mankind, a surfeit of emotion or a lack of it? The poem is thought to have been inspired by Dante’s Inferno, with its divine punishments meted out to the world’s sinners in the nine circles of hell. Most people associate hell with fire – as indeed ‘inferno’, the Latinate term for fire denotes – but at the end of Inferno, at the very centre of the circles of hell, Satan himself is encased within a great block of ice. This is not the morally neutral ice of an ice-age, but the coldness and callousness of a heart without love, of a person who can reduce his fellow human beings to mere abstractions, and wreak ‘destruction’ on them. (There’s something of that ‘fire’ in the crazed rhetoric of the North Korean regime, to be sure, but there is also something of that ‘ice’ in their callous and destructive ideology.)

Pondering the end of the world or of civilization as we know it, was a regular preoccupation of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For the philosopher and madman Frederick Nietzsche, the really big ending had already happened. But when he famously declared ‘God is dead,’ he was not making a theological argument one way or the other about the existence of a supreme being, rather he was – quite happily – declaring the end of the long Judeo-Christian – Liberal Weltanschauung that had long dominated Western thought, and the dawning of the Supermen, as he argues in his long, crazed, and yet strangely poetic, prophetic screed, Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

Only since he has lain in the grave have you again been resurrected. Only now does the great noontide come, only now does the Higher Man become – Lord and Master!

Nietzsche saw a future in which ‘will to power’ held sway, and the superior used and abused the inferior as necessary – it was an absurd vision, even an evil vision, but then he took a different view of good and evil from that of most people, explaining traditional Judeo-Christian conceptions of goodness and charity as a kind of disease born of resentment and weakness that was slowly undermining the strengths necessary for the survival of Western civilization. Whatever one thinks of his answer, Nietzsche asked a question that haunted the Western imagination for much of the first half of the 20th century, and arguably still does. If we take it, as he did, that liberalism and much of western culture are offshoots of Christianity, and dependent on it, what comes after that? For the parts of the world that have no historical connection with Christianity, the question is still relevant if rephrased as so: if our society has progressed past the point at which traditional values no longer hold sway –  and these are values that touch on everything, even the very meaning of words – then, what will come after? What will be our new values, or our new God?

W.B. Yeats posed the same question more eloquently, painting an apocalyptic picture of anarchy and some as yet unknown ‘solution’ in what is, in political circles at least, surely the most quoted poem of the twentieth century, The Second Coming. While Nietzsche enjoyed his fantasies of domination and revolution from the sanatoriums of Germany in the placid closing years of the nineteenth century, Yeats lived through more tumultuous times –revolution and civil war in his native Ireland, the First World War, and the coming of the Second –and he was disturbed by the changes he saw and those he intuited to be coming. He ends his poem prophetically thus:

now I know   

That twenty centuries of stony sleep 

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

That ‘rocking cradle’ is an obvious symbol of one of the centrepieces of Christian theology  – the crib in which that ‘First Coming,’ Jesus Christ, was born – an event that in Yeats view changed the direction of history. The beast represents the next great movement which will dominate the west, and perhaps the world, but its exact nature, what rough beast, is left as a question mark. What is it, we might ask? Given that the poem was written decades ago, before World War 2 and many other tumultuous events, we may ask whether it has arrived yet– was it fascism, that short-lived dawn of the Supermen of Nietzsche’s fevered imaginings? Or Communism? The modern state? The deification of the self? Were those things the death pains of the old order, or the birth pangs of a new order? Is it perhaps the coming of the technological age?

Or is it, rather than something new, something actually very old indeed: the barbarians waiting at the border walls, ready to destroy and devour our precious civilization? The Alexandrian-Greek poet C.P. Cavafy wrote a poem called Waiting for the Barbarians in which he describes the strange atmosphere of anticipation in a rich and presumably quite decadent city as news filters through that barbarians have invaded and are heading to the city for an audience with the emperor. Cavafy had a keen sense of history and wrote a lot of poems based on real historical characters in Ancient Greece, Hellenistic Greece, and the Byzantine Empire. He was aware that failed, decadent or just unlucky civilizations are often replaced or superseded by those less cultured yet somehow more vital. Yet in this poem, 'the place and period' is not named, which might suggest that decadent civilisations being overrun by unlettered hordes is a permanent or recurring feature of history. The poem ends with a twist, however: the barbarians are not coming after all. In fact, there are no barbarians:

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution. 

What if there is no drama at the end of the world or at the end of civilization as we know it? What if it dies of weakness or lassitude? T.S. Eliot suggested as much in his poem The Hollow Men. Most of the poem is voiced by the eponymous hollow men, men caught between their doubt and their yearning for belief, trapped in hopelessness and on the verge of death.

We are the hollow men,

We are the stuffed men

Leaning together,

Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!

The poem ends with the famous refrain, This is the way the world ends, / Not with a bang but a whimper, lines that are italicised to show that they represent a voice distinct from the main voice in the poem. It is like a snatch of nursery rhyme – quite similar in rhythm to the old English rhyme ‘Here we go round the mulberry bush’. The intention, I think, is to mock: to mock the hollow men and their lack of faith, and perhaps to goad them – and us – to change. Who are these hollow men? Perhaps he is mocking the leaders of his own day, and perhaps himself – still stuck on the verge of a religious conversion (one he would soon after embrace fully), and perhaps modern man in general, that indecisive, mediocre creature who had been the butt of the scorn of earlier satirical poems like The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

Compared to the fire and ice of Frost’s imagination, or the anarchy prophesied by Yeats, a bit of cultural decline and decadence doesn’t seem so much like the end of the world. The modern world, whatever Eliot or Nietzsche might think of it, is not a bad place to live. In the western world, and much – though not all - of the rest of the world, people are breaking faith with their ancient religions and traditions, and embracing a lifestyle built on technological advances, material comfort, and consumption. Perhaps a society without its ancient religion and its heroic myths can linger on after all, like the city in Cavafy’s poem. And yet his own city provides an instructive case study that rather suggests that is not how things work. During his own lifetime, Alexandria was a cosmopolitan sort of a place, at the twilight of the British Empire, strongly influenced culturally by the French, and a great mix of cultures old and new, where Arabs and Copts lived peaceably alongside longstanding Jewish, Greek and Armenian diasporas, and more recent French and Italian immigrants– and even a gay scene, in which Cavafy participated. But this is all gone now, washed away by tides of nationalism and religious extremism. Today, as ever, when a civilization loses faith in itself, loses the will even to defend itself, there is no shortage of barbarians ready to destroy it.

Credits

Fire and Ice by Robert Frost is in the public domain and available on the internet.

The Nietzsche quotation is from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche, Transl. R.J. Hollingdale, Penguin Books, London 1961, page 297

The Second Coming, from W.B. Yeats, Selected Poems, Penguin Books, 1991,

Waiting for the Barbarians, from C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems, Chatto and Windus, London 1998

The Hollow Men, T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems 1909-1962, Faber and Faber, London, 1963