Death, where is thy sting?

When people suggest that the mood of the times is uncommonly pessimistic – as happens quite often – I tend to think of the depths of the cold war and the months and years before World War Two as the most obvious counter-examples. OK, there are real concerns now about climate change, food supply, biodiversity and WMDs, not to mention the economy. But a little reflection suggests there was more cause for immediate worry during the Cuban Missile Crisis, say – when it was reasonable to believe that civilisation was going to destroy itself within the next few days –  or in the longer period before the outbreak of war in 1939, when there was a pervasive sense of things moving inexorably toward a terrible, necessary conflict. Sample Louis MacNiece’s brilliant Autumn Journal for a sense of what a life lived in that mood was like.

A better example, though, might be the later Middle Ages, because people were not just in fear of apocalyptic times, they were living through them. The fourteenth century, in particular saw a truly dreadful combination of recurrent famines, the Black Death, and the Hundred Years War, a conflict marked by a shift toward wider population involvement in wars and higher mortality rates. In Europe, the net result was a massive die-off, accounting for around half the population.

The population loss is often put lower, but John Aberth’s compelling From the Brink of the Apocalypse argues convincingly for the higher figure. And that is just the average. In many places, it was higher – near total wipe-out. Only the remotest corners of Europe, such as Finland, escaped lightly.

Aberth’s book, first issued in 2000 but republished in a second edition in 2010, is interested in the cultural effects of all this mayhem and mortality. What did it produce? Well, eventually, the Renaissance. European society, by whatever means,  reconstituted itself, gained a new cultural and economic momentum, and invented the idea of progress. That all took another century and a half or so, but still seems remarkable when you read of the devastated towns, mass graves, incinerated villages, and dormant croplands of the great age of disaster which went before.

How did they manage it? The answer Aberth explores relates to a crucial difference between then and now. It might explain, not how our forebears created the Renaissance and the scientific revolution, but how they coped with the daily reminders of mass mortality. They believed in the afterlife. The culture, as he illustrates at length, was proccupied with death to an unusual degree – understandably so. The image of the times, as featured on the book’s cover, is Breughel’s Triumph of Death. But in art and much other commentary it was usually depicted as a necessary prelude to the life to come. That did not make it welcome, and the century majored in some of the more horrible ways to die, but did perhaps make it easier to bear.

This is a description, not a prescription. Aberth declares there is no possibility of going back to a widespread belief in the afterlife (even in the US). But it offers a connection with another, slimmer, volume I’ve been dipping into again. Robert Heilbroner’s admirably succinct Visions of the Future (1995) also charts the rise and then decline of the belief in progress. He ends with a suggestion that the twentieth century’s interest in futurology is basically a substitute for belief in the afterlife. It is, as he puts it, a “secular analgesic”.

The phrase comes in a passage worth quoting at length:

“It is to find some secular analgesic for what the theologian Paul Tillich called “existential anxiety” that people…  seek to foresee the future. At a primal level it is simply to assure ourselves that human life will go on; at a more rational level, to depict its contours and design as best we can; and at a level that stands in for religious faith, to express what hope we can for the life of humankind.”

Hmm, seem to have arrived at a Futurist thought for the day there, so I’ll stop.

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