The Apocalyptic Imagination Paranoia, History, and Violence

Many draw inspiration and hope from millennial dreams of renewal in a remade future. That is equally true in the world of religion as in politics. It would be hard to imagine Jesus, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King except in that context. But there is a shadow side to the apocalyptic that most interests me, something that makes most sense in a psychological, rather than strictly religious, mode of thought. Endism, as I called it in 1994 (in Apocalypse: On the Psychology of Fundamentalism in America), is the location of self in some future narrative. I use that idea as a psychological construct but recognize the endist narrative is also not one thing but has itself evolved historically, from the Egyptian Book of the Dead in the 13th Century b.c.e., with its exotic ideas of the second and final, ultimate death; to the early Zoroastrians some six centuries later, with their simpler and more focused ideas that have so influenced the Judeo-Christian traditions; to the later biblical prophets in the Hebrew Bible, including Daniel (ca. 200 b.c.e.); to John of Patmos in 95 c.e., who created in Revelation the Ur text of apocalypse for all the Abrahamic faiths and most others as well, a vast image of God’s destruction that makes Him, in the words of James W. Jones, a “divine terrorist”; to Joachim of Fiore (1135-1202) in the Middle Ages; but in no way more importantly than in our recent historical discovery of the ultimate power of the destruction with nuclear weapons and increasingly with other biological agents.

Nuclear weapons and the endist narrative are at the heart of things. We attribute to the Divine the power to create and destroy, that is, of beginnings and endings, but we are most anxious about death. We all die, and the extension of that foreknowledge—which is what most decisively distinguishes us from the higher primates--to the potential end of human life itself served originally as a creative force in the making of culture some 8,000 years ago. The human reached out to the Divine. Over time and with traditions of ritualization, culture assigned the task of imagining the end to three important but relatively marginal groups: mystics, artists, and psychotics. The apocalyptic remained at the edge, but such intellectual and spiritual themes were neither static nor predictable. The sense of collective endings ebbed and flowed with historical change. During and after times of great crisis, for example, as the plague in Europe between 1348 and 1351 when more than a third of the population was wiped out, apocalyptic thinking more forcibly entered the mainstream. During times of relative peace, as in the 18th century, it then receded back to the margins of imagination.

Splitting the atom and the destruction that event released altered the dynamics of our sense of Divine power. Nuclear weapons—and increasingly other means of destruction—shift the agency. We don’t need God anymore to end life. That is deeply confusing. The apocalyptic narrative has always been simultaneously one of violence and redemption, of endings that are new beginnings, of vast death that cleanses the world of sin and leads to new life. There is hope, as exemplified in the role of the Messiah, whether he comes, or comes again. In a nuclear end, on the other hand, there is only death. It is an entirely “pointless” apocalypse, as Robert Jay Lifton has put it (The Broken Connection, 1979). We therefore live in the present in our imagination as survivors of future apocalypse. The shadow of the future casts doubt on our capacity to inhabit it.'

'We therefore live in the present in our imagination as survivors of future apocalypse.  The shadow of the future casts doubt on our capacity to inhabit it.'

All that has led me to try and think more deeply about what I have called a “fundamentalist mindset.” (The Fundamentalist Mindset, Oxford University Press, 2010, of which I was the lead author and co-editor).  Given our new relationship to these ultimate issues, it is not surprising we live in world awash in apocalyptic themes and new forms of fundamentalism have sprouted like a disease of epidemic proportions.  There is, I think, a fundamentalist mindset, rooted in the past but newly energized, one that transcends its particularity in contemporary religious movements.  Islamists, for example, have fueled the global jihad that has culminated in the astonishing apocalypticism of ISIS; evangelicals have pushed Christianity to the right in the US; and the settlers in Israel have evoked a new millennialism about Jewish land not seen in centuries.  They overlap in curious ways. The haredi rabbis and Islamist imans wear the same beards. Christian preachers in Alabama ranting about women or homosexuals can sound strangely like jihadi fanatics.  And so it goes on?

Phillip Rieff in his wonderful 1962 study, Freud: The Mind of a Moralist, characterized Freud’s ideas in terms of kairotic time.  Cartesian time is chromatic, evenly spaced, regular, and entirely predictable, able to be measured with amazing degrees of accuracy that has been the basis for the creation of the modern.  Kairotic time, on the other hand, comes in many shapes and is completely irregular and uneven.  Freud located key transformative moments in childhood around which crystalize all that matters then, or later, and which he named the Oedipus Complex.  More broadly, his philosophical approach to time has shaped the central focus now in psychoanalysis on trauma.  For in trauma, a black hole of misery collapses time and space. 

That is central to understanding apocalyptic time, which is deeply kairotic in nature. ISIS lives in this world.  Kairotic time is not linear or homogeneous but is weighted by value and experienced in an uneven, discordant fashion.  Like trauma experienced by an individual, such experience of time is psychologically and spiritually different from history as we know it.  In the apocalyptic the only meaningful future event is the transformative end of the world, followed by salvation.  Apocalyptic believers are not living within time but rather escape history by destroying time, thereby freeing themselves of responsibility for the world.  Kairotic time is always running out, and urgent expectation of the end frames believers’ logical, spiritual, and ethical deliberation.

What is troubling in this narrative is that the transformative moment at the end of time in the apocalyptic imagination is always one of great violence.  It is a death-drenched story.  The book of Revelation, for example, with its three waves of destruction unfolding in patterns of sevens, with seven digressions of great significance folded into the text, depicts rivers of blood that run up to the bridles of horses, Satan unleashed from the depths, and an angry Messiah riding a white horse with a suggestive phallic sword coming out of his mouth.  But out of such violence comes redemption.  Death is regenerative, as the new heaven and a shining Jerusalem with twelve gates and foundations “garnished with all manner of precious stones” welcomes the reborn.  Sinners, on the other hand, forever swim in the lake of fire.

The narrative fits the more extreme dualistic fantasies of paranoia that feed on the desire to destroy the evil persecutor.  Such fantasies lurk in the heart of troubled individuals but also have a place in the collective, that is, in history, in terms that my colleague, David Terman, has called a “paranoid gestalt.”  Among religious fundamentalist believers there is nothing more basic to their belief system than hope for the coming, or return, of the Messiah.  For secular millennial movements, such as the Nazis and their vague notions of the thousand-year Reich, the redemptive goals are elusive but equally central to their aspirations.  But in the apocalyptic narrative there can be ultimate salvation only with the absolute destruction of the world and its evils.  That evil can be constructed as counter-revolutionary forces for Robespierre, Jews and other “life unworthy of life” for the Nazis, and echoes of such ideas about Obama and the government for the Tea Party and others on the right in the US.  The end of evil through collective death, however, overcomes death itself in a remaking of the world that brings with it powerful hope.  This transcendent process totalizes the other, requiring radical dualisms and evokes evil in paranoid ways.

 Violence lurks in this nexus of paranoia and the apocalyptic.  The other becomes the embodiment of evil.  As such, that malignant other deserves not simply to be punished but can be, indeed in more extreme historical situations of crisis must be, dispensed with.  It is not simply an allowance to kill.  Killing becomes an obligation and to act against the perceived tormentor in the name of self-protection is to become a savior.  Violence heals and redeems.  Because one acts on behalf of absolute righteousness, a sense that history itself is being cured, killing becomes healing and is therefore an ethical obligation, as Robert Jay Lifton has described so well with the Nazi doctors.  People commit personal violence for all kinds of idiosyncratic reasons. They murder loved ones, rape, plunder, rob, and steal for selfish, mean, and sometimes psychotic reasons.  But people commit genocide out of a moral purpose to cleanse the world of evil.  You cannot kill on that scale without a sense of higher purpose, albeit one that is tragically perverse.

To understand contemporary life, one must grapple with these issues.  I often tell my students that you if don’t think about nuclear weapons and the apocalyptic, you aren’t thinking.  At the same time, don’t yearn for destruction to remake the world.  The only thing that matters is a human future, and our most important ethical obligation is to hand over the world and life itself to future generations.


About the author:

Strozier is a Professor of History and the founding Director of the Center on Terrorism, John Jay College, City University of New York; Faculty, Training, and Supervising analyst at the TRISP foundation; and a practicing psychoanalyst in New York City; and a Visiting Senior Research Fellow, Centre for the Study of Intractable Conflict, Harris-Manchester College, Oxford University (2015 ff).  He has twice been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize (2001 and 2011); he is an Honorary Member of the American Psychoanalytic Association (2006); winner of the Gradiva Award in 2002 for the best biography in psychoanalysis in 2001, National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis; and in 2005 awarded the Goethe Award from the Section on Psychoanalysis of the Canadian Psychological Association.  Strozier is the author of Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln: The Enduring Friendship of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed; Until The Fires Stopped Burning: 9/11 and New York City in the Words and Experiences of Survivors and Witnesses; (along with Terman, Jones, and Boyd), The Fundamentalist Mindset: Psychological Perspectives on Religion, Violence, and History; Heinz Kohut: The Making of a Psychoanalyst; among many other works.

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