Review by Marianne Luban:
When the Year 1000 was drawing near, people took it as an omen when Halley's Comet streaked across the heavens. Did this portend Doomsday or the advent of the Messiah? Was Man marching inexorably into the dusk or the dawn? Another thousand years later, we still don't positively know the answer to that question.
The eminent historian, Eugen Weber, delivers his latest work, "Apocalypses", just in time to ponder our status on the brink of the new millennium and to give us insight into the hopes and fears of previous generations who found themselves hesitating before the looming gateway of a new era, weighing prophecies or confronted with phenomena consisting of "lamps of fire, angels, plagues, lightenings, thunderings, earthquakes, falling stars, fire, blood, hail, black sun and bloody moon". Weber writes: "When the world ends, it could be argued that all that ends is the world we know. The end of the world was really only the end of one world, not the end of time but of our time, not the annihilation of mankind but the end of a way of life and its replacement by another."
While some contemplated finales, optimists dreamed and wrote of their hopes for an enlightened, repentant world and the regeneration of the human race: "They speak, earth, ocean, air; I hear them say 'Awake, repent, 'ere we dissolve away!" Yet others faced the unknown and dire forebodings armed with their wit. According to Weber, when Pope Benedict XIV was informed that the AntiChrist had come and was now three years old, the pontiff quipped, "Then I shall leave the problem to my successor."
Eugen Weber must be the world's most fascinating conversationalist. One gets the impression, from reading "Apocalypses", that he has the entire saga of mankind stored in his marvel of a brain and can conjure up imagery, names, anecdotes and dates from it with the same fluency that some of us have when writing a chatty postcard home, describing an exciting day in a far-away locale. This is not to imply that, although Weber's style is urbane and witty, that "Apocalypses" is an easy read. It is not. Eugen Weber is never ponderous, but he makes it plain that he is first and foremost an historian and only secondarily a raconteur. Or perhaps thirdly, because Weber as philosopher is also very much a presence in the book. In fact, it is his own thoughts and comments that leave the most lingering impressions, reminding us that, while the deeds of Man are fleeting, it is his "death-defying thoughts", set down on paper, that are like the nacreous bits of shell that remain gleaming on the beach after the great tides of history have flooded and ebbed. For an academic, Eugen Weber is a very good writer, indeed.
How different our "fin de siecle" seems from bygone chronological milestones. No longer moved by superstition and too jaded for optimism, we await the Millennium with a kind of dull signation. Our popular heroes are all dead or aging and nobody has emerged to replace them. The close of the century seems characterized by vapidity, greed and a lack of concern for the health of the planet we call home. Could there be a more fitting commentary on the status quo than that our direst prophecy for the Year 2000 concerns the imminent failure of the Machine, upon which we have formed such a frightening dependency? Eugen Weber doesn't have an email address. Perhaps he never will. Intellectually speaking, his address is the universe, his understanding cosmic. Doubtless he would like to offer greater comfort, but the honest scholar can only counsel, while commenting on the recent trend toward apocalyptic films and literature: "Adversity is good for faith, and adversity is ever present. Ages of decadence always suggest an end; few ages have not struck their contemporaries by their decadence" and "We suffer and suffering is catastrophic, sometimes unbearable, sometimes final....We yearn for some explosive, extraordinary escape from the inescapable and, none forthcoming, we put our faith in an apocalyptic rupture whereby the inevitable is solved by the unbelievable...in the end, salvation from sin and evil--meaning anxiety, travail and pain."
Marianne Luban is a freelance writer living in Minnesota. Her short fiction collection, "The Samaritan Treasure", is published by Coffee House Press