Mayan priests celebrating the beginning of new 5000 year cycle, December 19. [Moises Castillo/AP]
Well, somehow it seems like we escaped oblivion yet again. I say again, because this has occurred many times before and certainly will repeat. Now, recognizing that our existence will continue for a while longer, now is the time to sit back with a glass of something or other and ruminate on the notion of the End of the World. But if that’s too much work, then drain your glass while reading Brillat-Savarin’s meditation on the subject from The Physiology of Taste: or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy
published in 1825:
The End of the World
…Indubitable signs teach us that this globe has already undergone several complete changes, which have been in effect ends of the world; and I do not know what instinct it is that warns us that there will be still more of them.
Often before now we have believed these revolutions ready to happen, and there are many people still living who once hurried to confess their sins because of the watery comet predicted by the good Jerome Lalande.
According to what has been written on the subject, we seem only too eager to surround such a catastrophe with avenging fury, with destructive angels and the sound of trumpets, and other no less horrifying accompaniments.
Alas, we do not need such histrionics to be destroyed; we are not worth a funeral display, and if God wishes it he can change the whole surface of the globe without such exertion on his part.
Let us suppose, for instance, that one of those wandering stars, whose paths and purposes are unknown to any of us, and whose appearance is always accompanied by a legendary fear, let us suppose, I say, that such a comet flies near enough to the sun to be charged with a terrible excess of heat, and that it then comes near enough to us to cause a six-month period of a general temperature of about 170 degrees Fahrenheit (twice as hot as that of the comet of 1811).
At the end of this murderous period, all animal and vegetable life will have perished, and all sounds have died away, the earth will turn silently until other circumstances have developed other germs of creation on it; and still the cause of out disaster will lie lost in the vast halls of outer space, and we shall have passed no nearer to it than a few million leagues.
This happening is as possible as any other, and it has always been for me a tempting thing to dream upon, and one I have never shunned.
It is a strange experience to follow, in spirit, this unearthly heat, to try to predict the effects of it and its development and the way it acts and then to ask:
What happens during the first day of it, and the second, and so on until the last one?
What about the air, the earth, the waters on the earth, and the forming and mixing and exploding of all the gases?
What happens to mankind, according to age, sex,and strength or weakness?
What about man’s obedience to law, his submission to authority, his respect of other people and the property of his fellows?
What does he do about trying to escape from the situation?
What happens to the ties of love, of friendship and of kinship, of selfishness and devotion to others?
What about religious sentiments, faith, resignation, hope, et cetera, et cetera?
History can supply us with a few facts about the moral reactions; for the end of the world has already been predicted more than once, and even fixed on a certain date.
I really feel ashamed about not telling my readers how I myself have decided all these questions; but I do not wish to deprive them of the pleasure of doing it for themselves. It can eliminate a few insomniac hours for them, and even pave the way for some daytime siestas.
Real danger tears down all social ties. For instance, in the epidemic of yellow fever which struck Philadelphia in 1792 or thereabouts, husbands closed doors against wives who shared their homes, children abandoned their fathers, and other such phenomena were common.
Quod a nobis Deus avertat! [God keep that from us!]
[translated by M.F.K. Fisher]
Thus Brillat-Savarin laid out the conflicts that we are all familiar with when confronted by the question, How do we deal with survival and other people during or after nuclear holocaust? Killer meteor strike? Total climate collapse? Flesh-eating zombie apocalypse? Actually, Brillat-Savarin might have a few more words to say about the last, since his book is about food. I can visualize a chapter on the preparation of brains for example.
A free download of The Physiology of Taste is here, but I recommend the M.F.K. Fisher translation, because Ms. Fisher, a pre-eminent writer about food, lards the book with her own observations on cuisine: The Physiology of Taste: or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy