Fuel for Fantasy
In a culture where the line between reality and fantasy has blurred, the Book of Revelation provides plenty of good source material.
the source: “Angels and Engines: The Culture of Apocalypse” by Marina Warner, in Raritan, Fall 2005.
In the age of mass media, the Book of Revelation is reaching far beyond the church pulpit. Revelation’s lush numerology and colorful characters—consider the Whore of Babylon astride a scarlet beast, or the famed Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—prompted George Bernard Shaw to dismiss the book as “a curious record of the visions of a drug addict which was absurdly admitted to the canon under the title of Revelation.” But Revelation’s ridiculers can no longer “mock it out of meaning,” writes Marina Warner, professor of literature, film, and theater studies at the University of Essex, England, for the visions and violence that drive this final book of the Bible are tailored for a culture in which the line between reality and fantasy has blurred.
Revelation’s symbolic violence—its rivers of blood, mass slaughter, and bodies eaten and torn limb from limb—invites us to dissociate atrocity and its flesh-and-blood consequences. In part, this is because that violence is done to evil-doers, while a blessed few, with whom readers identify, are saved. But it required modern technologies for these themes to find their fullest expression.
The advent of photography and “moving images” has distanced us from the true effects of violence even as it has disseminated apocalyptic culture. “The distinction that used to seem so clear between fantasy and memory, actual and imaginary events, has been fading,” Warner writes. “Technological media act as the chief catalysts of a new phantasmagoria masquerading as empiricism. They wrap us in illusions of monsters and angels, turning myth into history and vice versa.”
Consider the big-screen incarnation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings fantasy novel series, which depicts apocalyptic battle between the forces of good and evil. A “terrifying number” of people in a recent British poll thought that Hitler was imaginary and that the orcs’ defeat at Helms Deep in the movie version of Tolkien’s The Two Towers actually occurred.
Revelation exerts a political influence as well. A book about an engulfing conflict and a remnant of chosen survivors offers tempting tropes for the makers of foreign policy these days. In his 2002 “axis of evil” speech, President George W. Bush drew on apocalyptic phrases. In his second inaugural speech, he referred to September 11, 2001, as “the day of fire.” Meanwhile, Tony Blair explained his decision to go to war in Iraq as prompted by the “revelation” of September 11, and warned, “We are in mortal danger of mistaking the nature of the new world.” Meanwhile, the hugely popular books in the Left Behind fiction series identify the Antichrist as the new leader of the United Nations and unfold a present-day apocalyptic final battle, encouraging readers to connect real-world events with Revelation’s prophecies.
In the recently released photos of Iraqi captives at Abu Ghraib prison, in which prisoners were forced to stage punishments and degradations for the camera, Warner discerns the damage that cinematic realism has wrought in the age of apocalyptic culture. The perpetrators, when caught, defended themselves by saying that the violence wasn’t real.
But in the public’s revulsion at the Abu Ghraib photographs, Warner sees hopeful evidence that “affectless disassociation hasn’t altogether triumphed.”
Still, Revelation’s “phantasmagorias” have never been as fully conceptualized as they are today. And unless the public redraws the line between artifice and reality, and decides to “keep faith with the laws of time and the flesh, with the reality of pain and suffering, . . . we risk deepening the current disregard for the consequences of violence.”