The Apocalypse Seminar: Fin de Siècle,
Millenium, and Other Transitions
Reactions to temporal endings, including the apocalyptic "end-time," become
particularly vivid in a "period" like our own, when the end of a century
coincides with the turn of a millennium. This year's Fellows Program, "The
Apocalypse Seminar: Fin de Siècle, Millennium, and Other Transitions," will
explore the ways human beings demarcate time and how the distinct sense of
beginnings and endings structures our lives and the ideas we create of the past.
Ten faculty members representing seven departments will meet weekly at the Center
to discuss these themes. Throughout the year, visiting scholars will address the
fellows and give public lectures. The seminar is co-directed by Margaret Anne
Doody, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities, Professor of English, and
Director of the Program in Comparative Literature, and David C. Wood, Professor
of Philosophy and Chair of the Department. Letters recently met with the
seminar's co-directors to discuss the relationship between philosophy and
literature and this years topic.
LETTERS: Could you explain your understanding of the motivation behind this
year's Fellows Program, especially in relation to your respective disciplines,
literature and philosophy?
DOODY: For a long time, I have become increasingly worried by the emphasis placed
on the "end of time," especially images I see in popular culture, television, and
movies of not only coming disaster but an apocalyptic end. I am beginning to feel
that we are extremely conscious of the end of the century and the end of the
millennium, and that a desire to see something big and ugly happen really
exists. It began to strike me that not only our literature and the movies, but also
our domestic an foreign policy, are now driven by the fear or lust for an apocalypse . I want to ask why we look at a mere marker, like the year 2000, with
such great respect. Where is the emotionnal investment coming from, since the
year 2000 is simply an artifact? Even Christians know that it does not date time
from the birth of Christ, and for Moslems and people of other faiths the year
2000 has scarcely any real meaning at all. Yet everyday we see that it is gaining
WOOD: I have many of the same concerns as Margaret, especially the social and
political ones. My own interest, more generally, has been "time" for a number
of years. I have tried to track a recent tradition of thinking about time
beginning in the late nineteenth century with Nietzsche and continuing through
the work of people like Husseri, Heidegger, and Derrida. I suppose this
tradition goes back to Kant; it is a tradition that takes seriously the idea
that when we deal with time we are not simply dealing with something "out
there"; in fact, we are dealing as much with our own constructions of time as we
are with any natural given.
DOODY: Literature is also profoundly concerned with time, not only because it
keeps cropping up in literature as a theme, but because literature itself is
organized in time. For instance, you cannot read an epic or a novel without
noticing it takes quite a long time to do it. Reading time is part of the
experience of literature. In addition, the "author" is always pointing out
moments of temporal crisis or temporal passage so that one can say every
literary work, even a small one, is organized around some reflection of time.
Even the more conventional works operate with a desire to create some sort of
interruption, if only by calling a moment of time to your attention. "Mig nonne,
allon voir si la rose/Qui ce matin avoit declose/Sa robe de pourpre au
soleil...." Time is part of the content of such a poem, but it is also part of
its content that we, the readers, should live in the "now." Literature has an
inclination to value the "now," which is what differ entiates it from philosophy
to a very large degree. Philosophy is more abstract and is not so inclined to
value the "now." Philosophy has its transcendental side, whereas literature only
has transcendental yearnings. Literature keeps trylng to escape back into the immediate and to value an experience that is not necessarily temporally organized.
LETTERS: According to this description, it sounds as though philosophy and
literature are at odds when it their respective approaches to questions
pertainiing to time and the end of time. Do you think that philosophy and
literature can find a more productive collaboration?
WOOD: The work of Paul Ricoeur, particularly his long trilogy Time and
Narrative, begins from the premise that philosophers have not solved the problems
of thinking about time. One of the most important reasons they have not solved
these is that philosophers try to think of time independently of language.
Ricoeur says we have to solve these problems by taking a detour through
literature, particularly through narrative. But what is so fascinating about
these books is that at the end Ricoeur realizes the problems and contradictions
are still there, that the detour through literature does not completely solve
them. So then we have to ask ourselves, what does literature do? One of my
answers would be that it dramatizes contradictions that are not merely logical
errors in our thinking about time, but reflect lived tensions in our experience
of time as an interruptive event and time as an intelligent, narrative
DOODY: I think you are right; the great thing about literature is that "the poet
nothing affirmeth, therefore never lieth." It is not philosophy; it is not the
search for truth. It does not say this is so; it asks, what if it were so? Even
the most solemn novel, like Anna Karenina, even the lightest lyric is doing this.
Literature plays without having to commit itself to some program. At the same
time it also points out, as you say, the disruptions and the tensions. Literature
treats the grittiness of tlme m our experlences of loss, bereavement, growing
older, and the decay of hope, things which philosophy typically does not engage.
For the most part, modern philosophy, beginning in the seventeenth century, has
seen such things as belonging to the "vulgar" world and not worthy of attention. And I think that ignoring the vulgar world is one of the errors made by
the Enlightenment academy in which we still live, move, and have our being.
WOOD: I think we can get to this same point via certain philosophical
reflections, too. Margaret talks about the positive importance of literature as
reminding us of the grittiness that philosophers have traditionally tried to put
to one side. The appeal, for me, of many contemporary philosophers is that they
themselves are raising this very question about the philosophical tradition.
Philosophy itself is at war with a certain narrow, logo centric conception of
philosophy, of our desire to get one which would put literary awayand be free of
forms of thought to one side as time and matter, too informal or non-systematic.
In fact, it is this do not see literature as something coupling of time other
or absolutely separate from and matter that be philosophy, rather as that which
comes very impor enables philosophy to recover instant. Literatures own
"authentic" possibilities represents that which
is trying to work toward possibilities other than a similar return to this grittiness, what I
call "dry the place from which philosophi-transcendence," cal reflection begins
and towhich which is an at it needs to continue to return. tempt to get away
Merleau-Ponty calls this "hyper-from the world of reflection." I know that
sounds even worse than reflection, but he means returning to the perceptual or
experiential grounds of our systematic thought in order to rub ItS nose against
the concrete, the empirical, the singular.
DOODY: I do not see philosophy and literature at odds, but I think they are
looking in different directions. Real philosophers have had a strong
relationship with literature and, indeed, are very fine literary writers. The
most notorious case is Plato, who for centuries has been an influence on what we
call literary types.
WOOD: But in Plato, writing is seen as a mere shadow of spoken language. In
fact, for many philosophers, Plato's claims, rather than his own practice, have
had a very negative influence on our thinking about the relationship between
philosophy and literature. Plato's style may have inspired great, philosophical
writings, but what he said has had a negative effect on the philosopher's
capacity to deal productively with good literature.
DOODY: The Phaedrus itself is a terrific example, because it starts off in a very
novelistic way, and it evokes a natural landscape with trees and the water. But
then it moves into the daily life of eros, after which it turns away from this to
look at the transcendental love of the earth itself. The entire work is a strong
expression of our desire to get away and be free of time and matter. In fact, it
is this coupling of time and matter that becomes very importatnt. Literature
represents that which is trying to work toward possibilities other that what I
call "dry transcendence," which is an attempt to get away from the world of
matter. And, in as much as women stand for matter and time, women must be
transcended. Within this framework, women are like trees and soil, in that they
are there to be used like other matter for the purpose of achieving
transcendence. As a result, there is a move to get rid of those who are calling
for respect for women, for attention to be paid to the environment, etc., because
they are speaking as if matter is important.
WOOD: I might also add that the same seems to be true with animals. That is, they
are there for us to use. To use a concrete example, we can chop down huge tracts
of the Brazilian jungle, in order to graze cattle, in order to supply beef for
fast food chains. Animals, like women and the environment, are simply a resource
DOODY: TO take the point one step further, I think when time is seen as an
extension of matter, time is hated. It is in time that we live and die. Time is
used as the measure for biological events that are distressing; therefore, time
is often attached to that from which we want to escape.
WOOD: Are you thinking of decay?
DOODY: Yes, time is thought of as decay, so then time is hated. It is a tyrant;
therefore, to reach the "end-time" would be to cheat matter. For instance, in
Paradise Lost, Milton has difficulty imagining how you could garden in a world
without death. Any gardener knows that you rely on death a great deal if you are
going to be a good gardener. You are always trimming and pulling out weeds,
fertilizing, and poking dead leaves back into the soil. The whole cycle of
gardening is a cycle that depends on decay. We use words like "decay" and
"corruption" negatively, but we rely on these as part of the whole system of
WOOD: We might start to think here of the apocalyptic sects that seem to be
appearing all over the world. It is as if they are responding to a sense of loss
of control over themselves, over time, over matter, by wielding the force of
death. Both suicide and mass-murder are attempts at avoiding subjection to forces
with which these sects feel they cannot deal.
One of the real problems with the current approach to the millennium is that we
still take shelter under the belief that the future is when things are going to
turn out right and come together. And yet everything we read would suggest this
is not going to happen. This brings with it an extraordinary sense of loss of control,
loss of confidence, and a breakdown in the horizon of the future.
Death-dealing sects are actually attempting to recover control.
DOODY: The odd thing is that human beings usually have very little control over
their life and death and over their environments; life is harsh. The modern
world has been given a great deal of technological control, and it is
interesting that we are finding much of this apocalyptic fervor cropping up in
rich countries that have a lot of technology. While technology has promised some
control, we want infinite control. But the only in finite control would be to
stop the world of nature all together, which is the world of time in which things
die. It is almost as though to accept a natural death is to fall prey to the
ugly, dirty forces of matter, of nature. But to bring an end to time, to force
the millennium to come, to force a new world to appear would be magnificent,
because it would put an end to that cycle of powerlessness and decay. As a
result, every Hegelian or neo Hegelian pursuit of synthesis has to be referred to
with a certain irony.
WOOD: The trouble is that irony is a dead end, because it devalues various kinds
of commitments to tolerance, pluralism, and so on. It can be a form of detachment rather than a form of life that will enable us to get along with each
DOODY: This is where we part company. I see irony as a very creative possibility,
a way of laughing at ourselves and getting rid of some of the rigidities of acknowledging that we often hold paradoxical views. I think Swift is a great
ironist and, at the same time, a great fighter for human freedom and human
rights, but he is not nice about it. He pokes us where we have our inconsistencies.
WOOD: But irony is never constructive.
DOODY: No, I think that is not true. I think irony can be and very often is constructlve.
WOOD: I am happy to agree with this when we regard irony as a transition or as a
mode of imagination, not as a form of life.
DOODY: I would really rather live life ironically, but I do not want to think one
could not live one's life seriously either.
WOOD: Someone like Rorty seems to me to be advocating irony as a form of life,
which looks like giving up on a whole range of ideals, including the ideals that
might get us to abandon certain apocalyptic desires.
DOODY: But I think there has to be a comic sense about the in completeness and
paradoxical nature of our own pursuits, and that is where irony resides. It is
an ability to see quite different refiections of human behavior and desire
without eliminating them. A novel like Virginia Woolf's The Waves seems to be
helpful as a picture of not only time but of different people trying to live a
life in time. In many ways, it is a very ironic book, but it is not a
destructively ironic book.
LETTERS: In a certain way, it seems as though these ideas con cerning time carry
with them a relationship to the ways in which we employ our imagination to anticipate the future. What do you think is the relationship between time and
WOOD: Imagination cuts both ways. On the one hand, if we think about the year
2000, we think about a new society where everything will be put right and all
problems will disappear. It is actually very easy to imagine; it is easy to
construct a utopia where the year 2000 becomes the point of truth. The mentality
is such that we will either get what we want, or we will have to tear it all
apart in order to get what we want. On the other hand, imagi nation can actually
help us imagine what it would be like to construct a new society in detail and
show us just how awful things could be. The imagination can serve to penetrate
and prick the bubbles of our dreams, be cause when we take our dreams as
realizable as they are in all their usually static and undeveloped dreamlike
character, then we are faced with the most incredible danger. In fact, one of the
really important things about universities is that we can develop these two
sides of the imagination. The university is an enclave of slightly detached
sanity that can export the possibility of thinking all of these things through.
DOODY: Right now, however, universities are seen as training grounds that serve
the technological world. I think that writers of literature have more chance
for leadership than university scholars, because writers are less fettered. They
are the "unacknowledged legislators of the world." To change our dreams, to
change the ways that we look at possibilities, seems to be of major importance.
I think writers of the moment, however, are paralyzed in the face of steady doses
of television footage from Bosnia. What could be worse? What could a writer tell
you about the evil of violence that would be worse than what we see? We see it
and go on; we simply do not care. We become calloused to the insanity and the
cruelty and the suffering; and, as a result, we just turn the television off and
go to dinner.
WOOD: Part of what the writer can show us is that the tribal warring that erupted
after the breakdown in Yugoslavia is based on stories people tell about
themselves, about their own identity,and about their own hopes of being. The
misery in a photograph of orphans is sadly linked to the stories that people
have told about themselves. It is linked to narratives and to the impossible
convergence of some of these narratives. In a sense, what we have here is an
invisible background. We know how much photographs or images are not the whole
truth, so in a sense our job is to reconstruct the background that gives some
kind of sense to this nonsense. There is, however, a sense of fragility within
the very possibility of writing, the fragility of meaning, the fragility of
communicating anything to anyone else.
There may have been times in the history of the world when this was not a
problem. Since the Holocaust, however, the very words that have voiced some of
the highest human idealsó"free dom," "justice," "equality," and so onóhave become
hard to believe in. These words now have, for many people, a kind of worn out
quality to them. Even as they are reaffirmed, there is a sense that these words
are written on the surface of something that is empty and hollow. I am thinking
particularly of the work of Maurice Blanchot in his book Writing of the
Disaster. It is not as if the disaster is going to happen in the year 2000; it
has already happened. It may have happened in the early 1940s. The basic assumptions of reference and of communicability, shared values that we thought were
built into language, have become untrustworthy. What Blanchot is offering us is
a reminder that language itself, writing itself, and hence literature and
philosophy are not things that allow us to move forward with confidence; they
are themselves the sites of problems that reflect our difficulty with the year
2000. They are themselves the sites of miniature apocalypses.
DOODY: I do not think in a blanket way anything can be wholly trusted. Even the
very best and highest, often turns out to be often the worst; it corrupts, so the
better it is, the worse it gets. But that does not mean that we cannot to some
extent trust imagination; we have to. In fact, that is one of the few things we
To go back to your earlier point, I think the stresses of the 1990s are in many
ways peculiar to ourselves. These stresses come out of a bloody twentieth cen
tury, with its horrible and dramatic events, apocalypses without endóWorld War
I, the Holocaust, World War II. Yet it is horrible to think that these
"apocalyptic" epochs of the twentieth century have inspired other people to want
to repeat them. These terrific events seem to have grandeur that gives meaning as
a temporary rush. Here is an addiction much more sinister than drug addiction.
It is an addiction to the kind of rush of power and meaning that you get from a
truly vlolent event.
WOOD: When there is nothing that seems to make sense to do, or to will, or to
desire any more, the will to negate and destroy is very powerful.
DOODY: I certainly do not want to universalize it, because those people who are
weeping for the children in Oklahoma City are not the people who set that bomb
off. But there are those who delight in the rush of power that comes from
destruction. One of the things that appeals to people about the horrible history
of the twentieth century is that these orgies of destruction release people from
individual meaninglessness and give them a certain war mentality that excites a
sense of divine meaning. That is extremely hideous. I am not sure how this would
be possible, but the business of ridding some other human being of life must be
For more information, contact the Center's executive director, Mona C. Frederick.
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