Societies have always been obsessed with the idea of the world ending. Many cultures and religions have their own versions of how it might happen, from the Rapture to a meteor crash to global warming. There are endless ways that we could all be killed off, but more significantly, our reactions to extermination have changed greatly over time.
After WWII, people lived in constant fear of a nuclear attack. Professor Steven Doloff, who teaches a class called “The Comic Apocalypse,” explains how art dealt with the threat of annihilation just around the corner. “One way to deal with it is to shudder, another way is to put it into art and contain it, contain the fear by making it funny,” he says, explaining how art became peppered with dark humor in response to the tense social atmosphere (as seen in the likes of Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller). In other words, pain is reconcilable if one approaches it from a light-hearted perspective, accepting the inevitable and learning to live with it. “There is this ‘I can’t go on… [but] I’ll go on’ attitude towards things,” he describes literature of the time. It is a reluctant recognition of death, a kind of cold hope: we’re all going to die anyway, and it is a shared experience.
Today, we are constantly exposed to the idea of an apocalypse; it seems like we are in a new dark era. America finds itself in a cold and frightening political landscape, and there is a modern obsession with dystopia. Fiction is littered with zombies, corruption, destruction…time and time again, art reflects the darkness of the social landscape. The current political administration draws many to deal with its presence through humor. We see it on SNL, in the newspapers, and on our Twitter feeds. As we watch the terrible state of things crumble around us, we laugh.
Yet maybe this focus on the end is not so hopeless after all. Perhaps today’s macabre comedy is only a spark for something new. We see cycles of cynicism and change throughout history, and recently, we are seeing young people seeking to change the old regime. Important political movements have been gaining more and more prevalence in recent years, signaling a call for hope. The darkness of our humor has led to a physical reaction. Why should we live in darkness and how can we change it? Why simply accept it? We do not have to simply deal with hopelessness, we can do something to fix it while we are still here. We see the end, and, incredibly, we fight for a new beginning.
Illustration by Joanne Lee