Unfolding the Map
We pass into Virginia as our trip west to the origin starts to gain momentum. Today, 12/21/2012, is the predicted date of the Mayan apocalypse. Even though it has little to do with today's passage, I will consider apocalypse and doomsday, and more. To find out where we are as the Mayan calendar ends, go here for the map.
"I came into Virginia on state 218, an old route now almost forgotten. The towns, typically, werre a general store and a few dispersed houses around a crossroads: Osso, Goby, Passapatanzy."
Blue Highways: Part 10, Chapter 1
Osso, Goby and Passapatanzy, Virginia
Last year, I saw the most depressing movie I can remember seeing in a long time. Lars von Trier's Melancholia ends with a rogue planet smashing into the Earth, completely annihilating destroying our world. Just like that, in molten rock and fire, everything is gone and the universe is bereft of human presence.
I bring up apocalypse because today as I write this, 12/21/2012, is the latest in a string of days since the beginning of time that people have been predicting the end of the world. I think it's instructive that the original meaning of apocalypse is, from the Greek, a "disclosure of knowledge" or "revelation." Of course, we have since come to identify apocalypse with doomsday scenarios.
For example, if you go to this page on Wikipedia, you will see a list of of predictions starting with the fear of Romans that the city would be destroyed, through the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, and into the modern day. While most of the predictions are biblical in nature, some are based on astrological predictions such as planetary alignment. More than a few self-described prophets of doom have revised their predictions at least once when the world didn't end. And while many predictions were made in earnest, more than a few hoaxes were reported. My favorite is the Prophet Hen of Leeds, in which a hen laid eggs that had "Christ is coming" written on them. It was later revealed that the apocalyptic phrase was etched in eggs with corrosive ink and reinserted back into the hen.
In the 20th century, as nuclear weapons were developed and improved, apocalyptic predictions of all-out war, often combined with Christian prophecies of the Second Coming of Christ, became de-rigueur as explanation for the end of existence. As we moved into the 21st century, religious and nuclear apocalyptic predictions began competing with other explanations involving space aliens, planetary alignment once again, space objects colliding with earth, and terrestrial electronic malfunction. 1999 was forecast to be the year that we met our doom, and when we lived past that, the Y2K computer malfunction was forecast to end civilization as we knew it at midnight when the year 2000 commenced. When the predicted dire consequences didn't happen, various people predicted a similar number of catastrophes. Not content with our own predictions, we reached back into history to conjure the latest, Mayan calendar prophecy of doom. A story I heard recently was that even the remaining Mayans didn't take the prophecy of their ancestors that seriously.
I'm beginning to think that humanity is uncomfortable without some kind of impending doom hanging over its head. Knowing that we each meet our own personal apocalypse in the form of death at some point in our existence, maybe it's comforting to know that there is the possibility that we can all go together. We know that eventually there will be an apocalypse when the sun eventually burns through its hydrogen and expands and dies. If humans have survived and manage to be off the planet by then, we know that the universe will eventually end. It might rip itself apart, or it might lose all of its energy and die a slow, cold death. Or, perhaps it will reverse and fall in upon itself, creating a new universe in a titanic explosion.
In my estimation, time itself records the end of the universe. If we crudely imagine the passage of time to resemble the frames of a movie, every brief moment, second, or fraction of a second constitutes the end of the universe in that instance and the beginning of another at the start of another fraction of time. No matter how small the interval, each new interval brings something slightly changed and new. If the interval is large, we notice big changes. A passage of ten years creates alterations in reality that could easily be interpreted as a universal change in this or that.
We still haven't lost our taste for the predicted worldwide apocalypse, and we tend to mostly ignore the little apocalyptic events that happen to people on a small scale every day. A death of a friend or loved one, a sudden illness that throws a family into financial chaos, the loss of a business, all can cause conditions resembling apocalypse in the lives of one or a few people. I think of the Newtown children whose lives were snuffed out by a gunman a week ago, and I imagine that the parents of those children are focused on their own personal apocalyptic tragedies, not some Mayan prediction of the end of the world.
I doubt that LHM was thinking about the literal end of the world when he was driving through Osso, Goby and Passapatanzy, Virginia. He might have felt, however, that he was at the end of the world and certainly, in the original meaning of the word, his trip in Blue Highways was his apocalypse, often found in quiet, rural and wilderness areas with few people around so that he could reflect and find meaning.
And ultimately, I think that is what the eventual end of humanity will be like. I don't think we'll go out in a blaze of glory, with missiles or comets or asteroids or rogue planets. To me, that's not a disclosure of knowledge or a revelation. I don't think that there will be fire or brimstone, or a glorious Second Coming and celestial battle.
Instead, I picture the eventual end of humanity as a slow progression, but also one in which we've lived out our purpose after having achieved some revelation or some assimilation of important cosmic knowledge. At that point, our end will consist of no drama, no pyrotechnics, no mess. Our apocalypse will simply be the last breath of a last someone in a future time in some quiet place with a universal truth now fully understood. That future someone's last breath will linger for a second on the atmosphere, and then the silence of the universe will fill the space where once were human voices.
Tom Lehrer is currently a mathemetician. But in the 1950s and 60s he had an interesting side line...he played piano and sang humorous songs. Here is one of his famous ones dealing with apocalypse, We Will All Go Together When We Go.
If you want to know more about Osso, Goby and Passapatanzy
Next up: Fredericksburg, Virginia