By Peter Versteeg Recently Chris Cornell, singer of the bands Soundgarden and Audio-slave, died. Soundgarden is probably best known for their early nineties song ‘Black Hole Sun’, which is the invocation of a sort of natural disaster which will swallow everything that is ugly and false. It is a cry to be released from a depression that is caused by an awareness that life has become hollow and that the earth has been delivered into the hands of frauds, crooks and idiots. Cornell took his own life. Announcing his tragic death, news shows showed exactly this song as he played it during the last earthly gig he ever played. It is not difficult to feel its ominousness.
When playing this song a couple of times on Youtube, I was struck again by the strong religious imagery of it, especially when looking at the video, but also the self-evident way in which the idea of an apocalypse, a supernatural catastrophe that will somehow bring an end to everything, was used in this song. It perhaps shows how ‘the end time’ is a recurring reference in American cultural life, having spilled over from the end time theologies of a number of American religious movements. Latter Day Saints, Watch Tower believers, Adventists and not to forget regular Evangelical ‘old time religion’, all proclaimed the coming of a new era that would end existence as we know it. This idea of an end time has spawned numerous scenarios, very often in a fictional form, of how things are going to take place. It is perhaps the pioneering nature of these American religions that made them so eager in expecting the end. They chose to break away from the redundant, the lukewarm, the spiritually dead, to start their own fresh version of the Christian faith. Hence every beginning started with the end of what came before, and this perhaps made the ‘end’ an endemic expectation in every new American religion. As such, the imagined end of the world is the beginning of a new and a radically improved one.
End time imagination often combines pessimism with optimism, and artistic renderings of the end time are no exception to this. In the Black Hole Sun video everything and everyone is melting and dissolving – but we may find consolation in the fact that all depressing and ugly things are washed away. In the film Melancholia earth will perish because of a planetary collision, and the movie shows how people struggle with this absolute finale. The main character suffers from a devastating depression but by accepting the inevitable she finds peace. Others characters deny or resist the coming disaster – and the viewer of Melancholia is left with a choice. In Tarkovsky’s Offret we see the image of another apocalypse: destruction through nuclear weapons, as we experience it through the visions and dreams of Alexander, a retired and disappointed theatre actor. Once the manic visions stop, however, Alexander sets out to accomplish what he has promised God in his desparate state of mind if He would avert the apocalypse: sacrificing everything he loves. In the morning he puts his house on fire, and – the film almost ends – we are left with the horrifying idea that his six-year old son is still in it. The apocalypse did not come, but to fulfill his promise Alexander imposes a tragic catastrophe upon his own life and the ones he loves. (But you do not have to worry: the boy was not in the house…)
Do we, as we grow older, live toward our own apocalypse, gradually projecting it onto the world, as Dutch writer Andreas Burnier suggested? ‘Black Hole Sun’ tells us that there is more to it, and, tragically, Chris Cornell’s death does that even more. The end always signifies experiences of failure and despair, and the hope for the consolation of destruction. The little apocalypses that we have scheduled in our calendars, such as the end of the season, are merely shadows of the existential visions of the latter days in our imaginaries. We are happy to announce that the end is near. We need the comforting thought that we can leave things behind in the undoing that is called summer holiday when part of our social self dies and will never return.
Peter Versteeg is lecturer at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, VU Amsterdam.