- Pronunciation: a-pock-a-lip-so (əʼpɑkəˌlɪpsoʊ)
- Part of Speech: Noun
- Provenance: Contemporary poetry (Evelyn Reilly’s Apocalypso)
- Example: Apocalypses tell you that all is lost because the world is about to end with either a whimper or a bang. Apocalypsos show us that although the situation may look (really) bad, you should not give up, because while some things are coming to an end, others are being born. So stop whimpering; start dancing.
“Two thousand zero zero party over, oops, out of time,” sings Prince in his millenarian Cold War classic, “1999.” The song bears several hallmarks of apocalyptic texts. Like the biblical apocalypses of Daniel or John of Patmos, Prince presents a prophetic vision (“I was dreaming when I wrote this”). It also belongs in the tradition of nuclear and environmental apocalypses emerging from what literary critic Frederick Buell describes as a “world-historical change in humanity’s position” when, for the first time, advancements in humans’ technologies gave us the power to initiate our own ending on a global scale. In the nuclear flash, we become destroyers of worlds. Accordingly, for Prince, “war is all around us” and “everyone’s got a bomb.” Armageddon looms in our minds, enveloping us, and when the end is nigh, you might as well party hard. Hence, despite its jubilant chorus, the song reproduces some of the more problematic tendencies of apocalyptic art, including pessimistic nihilism (“Tryin’ to run from the destruction, you know I didn’t even care”) as well as an exclusion of those who do not want to revel in revelation (“If you didn’t come to party, don’t bother knockin’ on my door”).
We frequently use the word apocalypse as shorthand for cataclysm or destruction on a grand scale, but the term comes from the Greek ἀποκάλυψις, meaning “un-covering” or “disclosure.” The etymology denotes revelation, the uncovering of that which was hidden. Over the last few decades, the sciences have revealed the extent of the hitherto unknown impact of human behavior and technologies on local and global ecologies, and the alarming future scenarios that might lie in wait. Faced with interlinked environmental crises such as climate change, ocean acidification, and rising extinction rates, we should heed Prince’s words that we “can’t run from revelation.” But there is a difference between responding to the frightening possible futures revealed to us by climatologists and believing that the end is nigh. The petrocapitalist party (to which many were never invited) might be coming to an end, but we are not, in Prince’s words, “out of time.” We need to counterbalance the doom of apocalypses, even ones with synth-funk backing tracks.
Visions of likely or assured future destruction often sponsor cynicism and despair; they can therefore become self-fulfilling prophesies because they encourage a belief that all ameliorative action is futile. Rather than orientating ourselves toward future disaster—or putting our faith in salvation through divine intervention, or through the invisible hand of the markets, or through an as-yet-undiscovered technofix—I suggest we shift from the apocalypse to come to the apocalypso now. I first came across the word apocalypso in Evelyn Reilly’s 2012 poetry collection Apocalypso, a book that explores environmental crisis in relation to cultural traditions of apocalypse. Reilly never explicitly defines her suggestive title, but she does indicate the process that led her to it, explaining that her working title was Apocalypse but she began wondering “where’s the joy?” and started “researching the emotions and practices of calypso music and changed the title.” I have adopted Reilly’s portmanteau because it articulates the seriousness of the troubles that societies face without tipping into the destructive negativity that can arise from the purely apocalyptic. Apocalypso fuses the alarm and concern surrounding discussions of environmental crisis with the sense of play, togetherness, and critique typical of the calypso tradition.
The word apocalypse can refer to both a cataclysmic future event and the vision or text describing (i.e., revealing) that future—most famously the Book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse of John. My sense of apocalypso emerges from that second definition of apocalypse. The word apocalypso absorbs and modifies the word apocalypse. Accordingly, apocalypsos are texts or visions that absorb but also disrupt apocalyptic futures. Apocalypsos—whether they are poems, performances, or visions—may incorporate apocalyptic tropes and fears, but they are ultimately apocalypsoic (the adjectival form of apocalypso) in their resistance to apocalyptic pessimism. While my focus here is on apocalypso as vision or text, the dual meanings of apocalypse as both text/vision and event suggest a secondary definition of apocalypso: an event that resists an apocalyptic future via a fusion of joy and critique. This essay culminates in one such fusion: the defiant dancing at the 2011 Occupy Oakland protests.
Both senses of apocalypso resist apocalypse’s inertial drag of cynicism and paralyzing hopelessness in the face of catastrophic futures. Where apocalyptic texts prophesize a disaster to come, apocalypsos reveal and revel in the possibilities of a troubled present. The stateof the biosphere may mean that the present contains the seeds for a potential future apocalypse, but those seeds need not germinate. Crisis may precede catastrophe, but it does not guarantee it. Cynical resignation that all is lost is a failure of responsibility and imagination. An apocalypso does not mean a calypso for a coming apocalypse; an apocalypso is not dancing at the end of the world because, despite its manifold troubles, apocalypsos do not see the world asabout to end.
Calypso is not just dance music. It evolved partly as extemporized, satirical Creole songs that were a form of resistance to and defiance of colonial authority in Trinidad. From the late nineteenth century onward, calypso songs grew much more elaborate, with a strong emphasis on lyrics as well as music and with performers (known as calypsonians) often taking aim at local social and political issues. Caribbean musicologists Peter Manuel, Kenneth Bilby, and Michael Largey explain that “penning verses about current events makes calypso a uniquely dynamic form of grass-roots folklore, closely attuned to people’s daily lives.” As calypso developed, some calypsonians expanded their focus beyond the local, turning their critical eye to topics ranging from the treatment of Caribbean migrants upon their arrival in the United Kingdom to the technologies of American neoimperialism. Although infused with fun, calypso is a politicized and critically aware tradition.
I do not wish for my description of apocalypso’s fusion of apocalypse and calypso to co-opt or appropriate calypso’s Caribbean specificity. Rather, I am interested in how a calypsoic combination of celebration, creativity, and critique might disrupt or negate the despair and reactionary cynicism associated with the ways we think and write about apocalypse. From the dancing protesters in Juliana Spahr’s poetry collection That Winter the Wolf Came (2015) to the rave anthems that structure David Finnigan’s satirical theatre project Kill Climate Deniers (2014–18), there are already multiple contemporary artworks that might well be described as apocalypsos, or that at least contain an apocalypsoic dimension. Apocalypsos often share several features with calypsos. They demonstrate the capacity of the arts to synthesize and interrogate the sundry challenges of our current crises, and they also often maintain a link with tradition, recuperating what is valuable in the past in order to prepare for and cultivate a future that will not allow us to merely wallow in the negative. They celebrate fun—whether having fun or making fun. Apocalypsos know the importance of joy, but they are not naive; dancing in the face of disaster does not mean fiddling while the world burns. Instead, the word apocalypso speaks to an active and concerted effort to address our present troubles in all their complexity and creative possibility. As Naomi Klein suggests, our environmental crisis is a kind of “civilizational wake-up call” that functions as both a demand and an opportunity to tackle social and political issues: “we need an entirely new economic model and a new way of sharing this planet.” In the words of Margaret Atwood, “it’s not climate change it’s everything change.”
Reilly’s Apocalypso illustrates how a text can bring together calypsoic celebration and apocalyptic anxiety. She explains that “we still need to embed ourselves in the joy of art, even when that art addresses potential disaster. So I hoped even for this grief-stricken book to stay tethered to that notion of music, of joy.” Part of the joy of the long title poem, “Apocalypso: A Comedy,” is the way it plays with and transforms the apocalyptic tradition:
This morning kicking against the pricks
of wholesale legislative
and in the distance the sirens
add some lurid backup
to these cataclysmic lyrics:
And a third of the sea became blood
a third of the living creatures died
And many were cast alive into a lake of fire
and all the fowls were filled with their flesh
which, along with the condor,
is of the family Cathartidae
By “cataclysmic lyrics,” Reilly means both the four italicized lines that are adapted from Revelation (8:8–9; 20:20–21) and the phrase “kicking against the pricks.” The latter is an allusion to a song Reilly references several times throughout the poem: Johnny Cash’s Judgment Day ballad, “The Man Comes Around,” where the Man in Black rasps, “It’s hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” To kick against the pricks, a phrase with biblical origins (Acts 9:5), means to resist authority (as an ox might “kick” against the “prick” of an ox-driver’s stick). Reilly therefore intimates resistance and outrage against a quiescent legislature that abandons its responsibilities, refusing to legislate and thereby damning organisms and ecosystems, leading to the images of environmental despoliation that permeate the poem.
The italicized lines from Revelation and the accompanying nod to avian purifiers highlight one of the central problems with the apocalyptic mode and the need for a countervailing apocalypsoic force. As historian Matthew Avery Sutton and literary critic Marina Warner have pointed out, apocalypses often encourage absolutist thinking that splits the world into the damned and the saved. Reilly focuses on this divisive aspect of apocalyptic tradition elsewhere in the poem:
disclosing things to certain entitled persons
things withheld from the majority
of humankind (Wikipedia
apocalypse definition two)
and allowing those with the seal
upon their foreheads
to torture the rest
While the scorched landscapes of catastrophic climate change have usurped the “lake of fire” in the contemporary apocalyptic imaginary, the division between an enlightened elect and a doomed majority persists. We see this misanthropic ecological pessimism in figures such as the novelist and “recovering” environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth or the doomsday preppers made popular by the National Geographic TV series of the same name. The danger is that the apocalyptic fears that drive individuals to prepare themselves and their immediate circle for an anticipated catastrophe mutates into a loss of hope for humanity in general. Conversely, apocalypsos promote solidarity and togetherness instead of individualist survival fantasies. This does not mean glibly asserting that “we are all in this together.” From those island nations most threatened by sea-level rise to the disproportionate per-capita CO2 emissions of the Anglosphere, neither the risks of nor the responsibility for environmental crises are evenly distributed. Nevertheless, apocalypsos emphasize the importance of (nonexclusive) community and cosmopolitan responsibility over a selfish insistence that since the end seems imminent, it’s time to start building a bunker in the basement and stocking up on canned food and ammo.
Apocalypsos resist the tragic inevitability that haunts many versions of apocalypse. It is worth dwelling on the etymological link that Reilly highlights between the flesh-consuming avian “purifier[s]” (Cathartidae) and tragic catharsis (i.e., the purgation of emotions via vicarious experience associated with Aristotle’s description of tragic theater). This connection accrues significance as a result of Reilly’s title: “Apocalypso: A Comedy.” An apocalyptic tragedy might generate catharsis from readers experiencing trauma at a remove—the sort of vicarious revelry in another’s difficulties we find in survivor narratives such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) or prepper-favorite William R. Forstchen’s One Second After (2009). But where tragedies traditionally end with death, comedies frequently close with the coupling of characters and therefore the promise of future life. Apocalypsos are fundamentally comic (albeit a black comedy) in their affirmation of life’s endurance. Fittingly, “Apocalypso: A Comedy” ends with a show of resistance to the apocalyptic tradition and an acknowledgment of a comic one:
(You, too, John,
should get some rest)
Thank you friends, for your love and endurance
This is the end of our revelatory revels
By dismissing John of Patmos, Reilly tells us to give the overwhelming doom of apocalypse a rest. The “end of our revelatory revels” is a clear nod to Prospero’s “our revels now are ended” speech from The Tempest, a hymn to the transformative power of the imagination (“we are such stuff / as dreams are made on”) from a play where the apocalyptic storm is not the end but the beginning. As she does throughout her text, Reilly emphasises the way the arts’ disruptions and distortions can metamorphose literary and environmental apocalypses, turning them into something rich and strange that does not ignore crisis but that also refuses to succumb to despair—an apocalypso.
Juliana Spahr’s poetic intervention into environmental crises provides an alternative example of what might constitute an apocalypso. The poems of Spahr’s 2015 collection That Winter the Wolf Came move across interlinked political, economic, and ecological concerns, ranging from Occupy Oakland to Deepwater Horizon. Features such as the ominous tick-tock created by Spahr’s continual insertions of Brent Crude’s fluctuating spot price, or the images of exoskeletoned police and subterranean explosions could easily have been pressed into the service of a predominantly apocalyptic vision, but Spahr’s focus is on participation, activism, and possibility in the face of seemingly overwhelming troubles. At some points the poems’ dialogue between hope and despair erupts into an apocalypso. The following is from a poem fittingly called “It’s All Good, It’s All Fucked”:
walk out of the bar and down the street to the plaza to be with. And when I got to with, it was entirely possible, likely even, that Smooth Criminal was playing and a form of dancing that made no sense was going on, messy, chaotic, slightly frightening in its uneven physicality and very likely at that moment the sky was a deep, dark clear, with no stars because of the lights on the buildings. There jostled in that crowd by the felonious and the thieving and the sincere and the oppositionally defiant and the stoned and the overeducated and underemployed and the constantly shaking and the drunk all the time and the missing teeth and the bloodstained crescendo Annie and even by the socialist with the small yapping dog, at that moment I would feel I had made a right decision. Were we okay? Like Annie, of course we were not . . .
This is apocalypso as event and as text describing that event—the revelation of the possibilities for resistance in the present. If the sky that Spahr’s motley crew dances under seems sinister, it is perhaps because the disappearance of stars is itself an apocalyptic trope (e.g., Revelation 6:13 and Joel 2:10). The twice-used nounless preposition “with” suggests togetherness without specificity and therefore without exclusion. It is not the divisive apocalypticism of the damned and the elect but rather a state of openness to friend and stranger alike, not purification by fowl or fire but messy togetherness. The tone is likewise messy—which is to be expected when calypso meets apocalypse, fear meets fun, celebration meets critique. This is not a dance in avoidance of troubles faced but in acknowledgment of them. Facing rough and smooth (and sometimes perma-tanned, settle-out-of-court) criminals, like Annie, we are not okay. This can’t go on; we must go on. A shared sense of risk engenders uncertainty, urgency, and experiment. Spahr swaps the despairing paralysis of a terrifying future for an active engagement with contemporary troubles.
Spahr’s poem, like Reilly’s, captures the spirit of apocalypso: fears for the future are transformed by imagination and fortitude into different ways of dreaming, making, and belonging in the present, thereby opening up different possible futures that are not such stuff as nightmares are made of. Cancel the apocalypse; apocalypso now!
Another Path: Misneach
1. Prince, “1999,” 1999 (Warner Bros., 1982).
2. Frederick Buell, “A Short History of Environmental Apocalypse,” in Future Ethics: Climate Change and Apocalyptic Imagination, ed. Stefan Skrimshire (New York: Continuum, 2010), 14.
3. Prince, “1999.”
4. Prince, “1999.”
5. For an interesting discussion of Prince in relation to apocalypse and Will Smith’s alternate millennial vision, see Malcolm Bull, “Tick-Tock,” London Review of Books, December 9, 1999, https://www.lrb.co.uk/.
6. There is a counterargument that the shock of apocalyptic visions can function in a positive manner. For example, Mark Levene sees apocalypse “not as a prospect simply of obliteration, and with it world-end, but rather as a prophetic warning whose wake-up call to all humanity beckons them to participate in a general act of redeeming planetary reconciliation.” See Mark Levene, “The Apocalyptic as Contemporary Dialectic: From Thanatos (Violence) to Eros (Transformation),” in Skrimshire, Future Ethics, 61.
7. A telling example of the curious belief that climate change will be solved by divine intervention is Republican congressman Tim Walberg. See Mahita Gajanan, “Republican Congressman Says God Will ‘Take Care Of’ Climate Change,” Time, May 31, 2017, http://time.com/.
8. There is an earlier—and, outside of poetry circles at least, much more famous—coining of the word apocalypso as the title of electro duo The Presets’s platinum album Apocalypso (Universal/Island, 2008).
10. Interestingly, though, a calypso for the apocalypse has been written. See Graham Roos, Apocalypse Calypso (Buckingham: University of Buckingham Press, 2012).
11. Peter Manuel, Kenneth Bilby, and Michael Largey, Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae (Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press, 1995), 195.
12. See, e.g., the calypso “Satellite Robber”—“I’m here to rip out your heart, tear your culture apart, make you worship the American flag. . . . don’t aggravate me, when it coming to TV, it is I who control you” (quoted in Manuel, Bilby, and Largey, Caribbean Currents, 195) and the analysis of “Signal Da Plane” in Kezia Page, “‘Everybody Do the Dance’: The Politics of Uniformity in Dancehall and Calypso,” Anthurium 3, no. 2 (2005).
13. Juliana Spahr, That Winter the Wolf Came (Oakland, Calif.: AK Press, 2015). For a description of Finnigan’s project, see Kill Climate Deniers, http://www.killclimatedeniers.com/. Another strong theatrical contender for apocalypso status is Bruno Latour’s play Gaia Global Circus, which toured in English and French from 2013 to 2015. For details, see Bruno Latour’s website (http://www.bruno-latour.fr/).
14. Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 25.
16. Evelyn Reilly, “Evelyn Reilly in Conversation with Andy Fitch,” Something on Paper, http://www.somethingonpaper.org/; originally published in 60 Morning Talk (New York: Ugly Duckling Press, 2014).
17. Evelyn Reilly, Apocalypso (New York: Roof Books, 2012), 85. Italics in original.
18. Johnny Cash, “The Man Comes Around,” Johnny Cash IV: The Man Comes Around (Universal, 2002).
19. Matthew Avery Sutton, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014); Marina Warner, “Angels and Engines: The Culture of Apocalypse,” Raritan 25, no. 2 (2005): 12–41.
20. Reilly, Apocalypso, 101. Italics in original.
21. Doomsday Preppers (2011–14), https://www.nationalgeographic.com.au/tv/doomsday-preppers/; Paul Kingsnorth, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist (London: Faber & Faber, 2017). See also the useful discussion in chap. 1 of Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, Peak Oil: Apocalyptic Environmentalism and Libertarian Political Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).
22. For an introductory insight into preppers and the items they are likely to hoard, see Rod O’Connor, “These Suburban Preppers Are Ready for Anything,” Chicago Magazine, May 2014, https://www.chicagomag.com/.
23. Reilly, Apocalypso, 110.
24. William Shakespeare, The Tempest (1611), new ed., ed. Cedric Watts and Keith Carabine (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 1994), 4.1.138–49.
25. Spahr, That Winter the Wolf Came, 71.