REVIEWS: The Myth of the Great Ending
Whether it is thought that the world will end with extreme weather, as R. Frost (1969) imagines in “Fire and Ice,” or “not with a bang but a whimper,” as T. S. Eliot (1973) proposes in “The Hollow Men,” both poems illustrate the fact that end-of-world thinking pervades the collective consciousness. Figuring out why and what to do about it is the subject of The Myth of the Great Ending: Why We’ve Been Longing for the End of Days Since the Beginning of Time, in which J. M. Felser (2011) synthesizes insights from philosophy, mythology, psychology, and the new physics into “a useful analysis of a contagion” (p. 3) whose origin in America dates back to William Miller’s prophecy that the world would end on October 22, 1844, but whose provenance lies shrouded in prehistory. What is clear, however, is that the end of the world is not an upcoming historical event but rather a myth that points us toward the possibility of greater self-knowledge and wholeness. Those who subscribe to a literal interpretation, Felser insisted, consume “junk food for the imagination . . . a deadly poison circulating in the body of human consciousness” (p. 196). He urges, as an antidote and alternative, that readers embrace the world of nature around us and our own inner nature, the unconscious.
At the heart of the Myth of the Great Ending lies the concept of linear time versus time as circular, a distinction that is present in the plays of W. Shakespeare, whose language provides an apt starting point. Prospero’s phrase in The Tempest, “the dark backward and abysm of time” (1.2.50; qtd. in Bevington, 1992, p. 1531), bodies forth linear time in which the past is distant, whereas Feste’s phrase in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, “the whirligig of time” (5.1.376; qtd. in Bevington, p. 361), conveys not only the cycle of life, but perhaps also the unity of all action. That is, time is a loop encompassing past, present, and future, much as all points on the circumference of a circle are equidistant from the center (perhaps a missed analogy to Focus 15, in which all time periods are available, much as spokes emanate outward from the central hub of a bicycle wheel). Although Felser did not include the bard’s terminology, he did mention King Lear’s “own great ending, which serves as a handy escape-hatch from the suffering of which he himself is the principal author” (p. 39). It would have been helpful to note, in addition, these questions—Kent’s “Is this the promised end?” and Edgar’s “Or image of that horror?” (5.3.268−69; qtd. in Bevington, p. 1217)—regarding Lear’s death. Here is a perfect illustration of one of the theories that Felser debunks: the idea that the death of individual persons in the medium of linear time accounts for the Myth of the Great Ending. There is a similar missed opportunity in the mention of W. B. Yeats’s (1973) “The Second Coming,” whose line, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” Felser reads as Yeats’s “own take on the Great Ending” (p. 38). More precisely, however, the phrase “widening gyre” earlier in the poem expressed Yeats’s idea that history is cyclical—not a whirligig or a circle but a series of interlocking 2,000-year cones; and he probably took grim satisfaction in knowing that, though his own death was imminent, the world as he knew it was ending along with him.
Reviews/February 15th 2011 . Parapsychology
Felser (philosophy, Kingsborough Community Coll., CUNY) looks at the prevalence of the end-of-the-world belief system and finds it a morbid and distorted idea that should be discarded so that we can proceed into a new, unified way of thinking and understanding. He believes we must align ourselves with nature and with our own true deepest selves to overturn negative beliefs and move forward into a healthier, more positive, happier life. This is one of his main points in his previous book, The Way Back to Paradise: Restoring the Balance Between Magic and Reason. Adding appeal to this latest work, Felser sprinkles throughout the history of the end-of-the-world movement from Zoroastrianism to present-day thinking and the ideas of many of the world’s great thinkers including Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, David Bohm, William James, and others. VERDICT This book is worth reading for those fascinated by the idea of the world coming to an end. It makes many good points and isn’t so scholarly that the average person couldn’t enjoy it. Good for large public libraries.
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World Culture, Religion, and History
This is not a book about the future, real or imagined. It is about the past. Felser, a university professor of philosophy, takes a close look at the way beliefs in end times have surfaced throughout recorded history. He argues that the myth of the Great Ending is the psychological residue of unresolved trauma that began with our rejection of nature’s circular rhythms. He speaks of the belief in end times as junk food for the imagination, a deadly poison circulating in the body of human consciousness, infecting everything we do. He argues there is no such thing as an End of Days. He sees the present yearning for the end of the world, either in world-escape or world-destruction, as hiding a healthy, although repressed, longing for reconciliation of our inner and outer worlds in the here and now. This book’s far-reaching examination of end-of-world myths and highly readable style make it a welcome antidote to present media hype about the supposedly fast-approaching end days.