All this it is and more, as one of the oldest ideas of the human species. Thick volumes could have been written on its origins, and of course such volumes actually have been written. We know likewise all manner of things about its checkered history, about its periodic ebb and flow, and the way these fluctuations connect with the material process of history. The idea of the apocalypse has accompanied utopian thought since its first beginnings, pursuing it like a shadow, like a reverse side that cannot be left behind: without catastrophe no millennium, without apocalypse no paradise. The idea of the end of the world is simply a negative utopia.
But even the end of the world is no longer what it used to be. The film playing in our heads, and still more uninhibitedly in our unconscious, is distinct in many respects from the dreams of old. In its traditional coinings, the apocalypse was a venerable, indeed a sacred, idea. But the catastrophe we are so concerned with (or rather haunted by) is an entirely secularized phenomenon. We read its signs on the walls of buildings, where they appear overnight, clumsily sprayed; we read them on the printouts spewed forth by the computer. Our seven-headed monster answers to many names: police state, paranoia, bureaucracy, terror, economic crisis, arms race, destruction of the environment. Its four riders look like the heroes of Westerns and sell cigarettes, while the trumpets that proclaim the end of the world serve as theme music for a commercial break. Once people saw in the apocalypse the unknowable avenging hand of God. Today it appears as the methodically calculated product of our own actions, and the spirits whom we hold responsible for its approach we call reds, oil sheikhs, terrorists, multinationals; the gnomes of Zürich and the Frankensteins of the biology labs; UFOs and neutron bombs; demons from the Kremlin or the Pentagon: an underworld of unimaginable conspiracies and machinations, whose strings are pulled by the all-powerful cretins of the secret police.
Berlin, Spring 1978
When I wrote my comment on the apocalypse—a work that I confess was not particularly thorough or serious—I was still unaware that you were also concerned with the future. You complained to me on the telephone that you were “not really getting anywhere.” That sounded almost like an appeal for help. I know you well enough to understand your dilemma. Today it is only the technocrats who are advancing toward the year two thousand full of optimism, with the unerring instinct of lemmings, and you are not one of their number. On the contrary, you are a faithful soul, always ready to assemble under the banner of utopia. You want as much as ever to hold fast to the principle of hope, for you wish us well: i.e., not only you and me, but humanity as a whole.
Please don’t be angry if this sounds ironic. That isn’t my fault. You would have liked to see me come rushing to your aid. My letter will be disappointing for you, and perhaps you even feel that I am attacking you from behind. That isn’t my intention. All I would like to suggest is that we consider things with the cuffs off.
Hobsbawm is quite correct. The ideological deficit exists on both sides. Yet the loss of certainty about the future does not balance out. It is harder to bear for the Left than for those who never had any other intention but to hang on at any price to some snippet of their own power and privileges. This is why the Left, including you, dear Balthasar, go in for grumbling and complaining.
No one is ready any more, you say, or in a position either, to put forward a positive idea that goes beyond the horizon of the existing state of affairs. Instead of this, false consciousness is rampant; the stage is dominated by apostasy and confusion. I remember our last conversation about the “new irrationalism,” your lamenting over the resignation that you sense on all sides, and your tirades against the flippant doomsters, shameless pessimists, and apostles of defeatism. I shall be careful not to contradict you here. But I wonder whether one thing has not escaped you in all this: the fact that in these expressions and moods there is precisely what you were looking for—an idea that goes beyond the limits of our present existence. For, in the last analysis, the world has certainly not come to an end (or else we could not talk about it); and so far no conclusive proof has reached me that an event of this kind is going to take place at any clearly ascertainable point in time. The conclusion I draw from this is that we are dealing here with a utopia, even if a negative one; and I further maintain that, for the historical reasons I mentioned, left-wing theory is not particularly well-equipped to deal with this kind of utopia.
What is striking in this proposition is above all its essential defensiveness. For a hundred years or so, as long as it was sure of its ground, classical Marxist theory argued the very opposite. It did not see the images of catastrophe and visions of doom of the time simply as lies concocted by some secret seducers and spread among the people, but sought rather to explain them in social terms, as symbolic depictions of a thoroughly real process. In the 1920s, to take just one example, the Left saw the attraction that Spengler’s historical metaphysics had for the bourgeois intelligentsia in precisely this way: The Decline of the West was in reality nothing more than the imminent collapse of capitalism.
Today, on the other hand, someone like yourself no longer feels his views confirmed by the apocalyptic fantasy, but instead feels threatened, reacting with last-ditch slogans and defensive gestures. To be quite frank, dear Balthasar, it seems to me that the result of these obeisances is rather wretched. I don’t mean by this that it is simply false. You do not, of course, fail to resort to the well- tried path of ideological criticism. And it is child’s play to show that the rise and fall of utopian and apocalyptic moods in history correspond to the political, social, and economic conditions of the time. It is also uncontestable that they are exploited politically, just like any other fantasy that exists on a mass scale. You need not imagine you have to teach me the ABCs. I know as well as you that the fantasy of doom always suggests the desire for miraculous salvation; and it is clear to me, too, that the Bonapartist savior is always waiting in the wings, in the form of military dictatorship and right-wing putsch. When it is a question of survival, there have always been people all too ready to place their trust in a strong man. Nor do I find it surprising that those who have called for one more or less expressly, in the last few years, should include both a liberal and a Stalinist: the American sociologist Hellbroner and the German philosopher Harich. It is also beyond doubt that the apocalyptic metaphor promises relief from analytical thought, as it tends to throw everything together in the same pot. From the Middle East conflict to a postal strike, from punk style to a nuclear-reactor disaster, anything and everything is conceived as a hidden sign of an imaginary totality: catastrophe “in general.” The tendency to hasty generalization damages that residual power of clear thought that we still have left. In this sense, the feeling of doom does in fact lead only to mystification. It goes without saying that the new irrationalism that so troubles you can in no way solve the real problems. On the contrary, it makes them appear insoluble.
But the future is not a sports ground for hussars, nor is ideological criticism a cannonball. You should leave it to the futurologists to imitate the boastings of an old tin soldier. The future that you have in mind is in no way an object of science. It is something that exists only in the medium of social fantasy, and the organ by which it is chiefly experienced is the unconscious. Hence the power of these images that we all produce, day and night: not only with the head, but with the whole body. Our collective dreams of fear and desire weigh at least as heavy, probably heavier, than our theories and analyses.
The really threadbare character of customary ideological criticism is that it ignores all this and wants to know nothing of it. Has it not struck you that it has long ceased to explain things that do not fit our schemas, and started to taboo them instead? Without our having properly noticed, it has taken on the role of watchdog. Alongside the state censorship of the law-and-order people there are now ranged the mental-hospital orderlies of the Left in the social and human sciences, who would like to pacify us with their tranquilizers. Their maxims are: 1. Never concede anything. 2. Reduce the unfamiliar to the familiar. 3. Always think only with the head. 4. The unconscious must do what it is told.
The arrogance of these academic exorcists is surpassed only by their impotence. They fail to understand that myths cannot be refuted by seminar papers, and that their bans on ideas have a very short reach. What help is it to them, for example, and what use to us, if for the hundredth time they declare any comparison between natural and social processes inadmissible and reactionary? The elementary power of fantasy teaches millions of people to break this ban constantly. Our ideologists only raise a smile when they attempt to obliterate such ineffaceable images as flood and fire, earthquake and hurricane. Moreover, there are people in the ranks of natural scientists who are in a position to elaborate fantasies of this kind in their own fashion and make them productive instead of banning them: mathematicians drafting a topographical theory of catastrophe, or biochemists who have ideas about certain analogies between biological and social evolution. We are still waiting in vain for the sociologist who will understand that, in a sense that is still to be decoded, there is no longer any such thing as a purely natural catastrophe.
Are you still with me, Balthasar? Are you still listening? I am nearing the end of my letter. Forgive me if it has gotten rather long, and if my sentences have taken on a mocking undertone. It’s not me who injected this; it’s a kind of objective, historic mockery, and the laugh, for better or worse, is always on the losing side. We all have to bear it together.
Optimism and pessimism, my dear friend, are so much sticking plaster for fortune-tellers and the writers of leading articles. The pictures of the future that humanity draws for itself, both positive and negative utopias, have never been unambiguous. The idea of the millennium, the City of the Sun, was not the pallid dream of a land of milk and honey; it always had its elements of fear, panic, terror, and destruction. And the apocalyptic fantasy, conversely, produces more than just pictures of decadence and despair; it also contains, inescapably bound up with the terror, the demand for vengeance, for justice, impulses of relief and hope.
The pharisees, those who always know best, want to convince us that the world would be all right again if the “progressive forces” took a strong line with people’s fantasies; if they themselves were only sitting on the Central Committee, and pictures of doom could be prohibited by decree of the party. They refuse to understand that it is we ourselves who produce these pictures, and that we hold on to them because they correspond to our experiences, desires, and fears: on the motorway between Frankfurt and Bonn, in front of the TV screen that shows we are at war, beneath helicopters, in the corridors of clinics, employment offices, and prisons—because, in a single word, they are in this sense realistic.
I scarcely need reassure you, dear Balthasar, that I know as little of the future as you do yourself. I am writing to you because I do not count you among the pigeonholers and ticketpunchers of the world spirit. What I wish you, as I wish myself and us all, is a little more clarity about our own confusion, a little less fear of our own fear, and a little more attentiveness, respect, and modesty in the face of the unknown. Then we shall be able to see a little further.
Translated by David Fernbach
In. Critical Essays, eds. Reinhold Grimm and Bruce Armstrong, Continuum: New York, 1982, pp. 233-241.