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Why Do We Crave Doom?
An explanation for why we flirt with disaster.
I often lament being called a doomsayer, but if I’m being completely honest, there’s something in many of us in the prepping space that quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) desires to see the world as we know it fall apart.
This isn’t even a new phenomenon—predictions of imminent doom have been in vogue for at least 2,000 years. Entire volumes of prepper fiction have channeled these fantasies.
On a practical level, this is nonsense. If industrial society collapsed, even the hardiest of us would be faced with unimaginable death, destruction, and hardship. The relatively mild hiccups of 2020 are posing major headaches years later.
So why do we crave doom? I’ve recently been reading the works of the late John Senior, who is maybe the most important, prophetic, and overlooked author of the 20th century. Senior’s first book The Death of Christian Culture was published in 1979 and his second, The Restoration of Christian Culture, was published in 1983, but his commentary on societal decay, the partisan divide, and growing despair are even more relevant in 2023 than they were then.
We’ll be discussing the late Professor Senior’s work much more in Unprepared, because I think he not only nailed our society’s problems and their root causes but perhaps even had the keys to solving them.
I’ve highlighted many passages in Senior’s books, but one in particular stood out to me and inspired this post. Buckle in, it’s a long one but worth reading:
There is almost nothing not artificial in [modern man’s] experience—the fibers of his clothes, the surfaces of the tables and desks he rests his elbows on, the food he eats, the air he breathes, the odor even of his fellow inmates reeks with waves of artificially scented deodorant in this space—vehicle we have made of earth.
Oh, not all of it, thank God, but of the parts we live in. It is comforting to know that still over vast tracts of the third world, and even of the second and first, the unwashed, ordinary, backward, unindustrialized peasant poor still await the self-destruction of our folly, essentially unchanged from the way they were that dark night when the shepherds saw the star which is still as near to us as His presence if only we were poor.
I said I fear this seems like hyperbole, literary stuff, an hour's entertainment after which we return to the reality of our daily routine, but this is just the point—our daily routine isn't real. Poets are not just entertainers; they are right about something. No serious restitution of society or the Church can occur without a return to first principles, yes, but before principles we must return to the ordinary reality which feeds first principles. Given a ruined intellect and will, we are most unlikely to do this voluntarily but only consequently upon some catastrophe toward which the poets and prophets converge-a plague, atomic war, explosion in the sun, whatever it will be, after which the remnant of the human race will look over the vast depopulated earth and say, God has given us another chance.
And then the probability is someone will say, “This part is mine,” and “this strange eventful history,” as Shakespeare calls our lives, will start again. Meanwhile, there are a few who watch and wait.
In other words, modern life is an artificial construct that we have become trapped in, driving us far from nature and God. Senior’s thesis was that the modern world has separated man from fundamental reality, and as a result our souls, minds, and thus society are in a state of atrophy.
It would be easy to dismiss the above passage as the ravings of deranged Christian eschatology, except that there are reflections of these ideas in the popular culture we cannot ignore. There is a widespread and deep-seated feeling that we’re locked in a comfortable cage of modernity and we must destroy it to break free. Let’s examine some of the cultural artifacts.
The dark 1990s
Most of us of a certain age have rosy memories of the 1990s. Americans had an overly optimistic outlook that seems almost foreign in 2023. The economy was booming, the colors were brighter, we were awestruck by exponential technical progress, and the biggest concerns of the day seemed to be the murder trial of a football player and how the president conducted himself with an intern.
But there were dark undercurrents, especially in popular music. Kurt Cobain—whose life was cut short at 29 by a shotgun blast—sang of rape and torture. Marilyn Manson sang soulfully about antichrist and apocalypse while cutting himself on stage. Chris Cornell sang woefully about suicide… before eventually committing the act himself, decades later.
Meanwhile, politicians and business executives were plotting how to offshore the jobs and industries that fueled the American middle class while the federal government slaughtered its own civilians at Ruby Ridge and Waco. Both of those currents created a domino effect of resentment that later spawned the MAGA movement.
Yes, the good times were rolling, but many of us knew on some level that things were wrong, and the expressions of those sentiments reached their zenith at the end of the decade.
Escaping The Matrix to join the Fight Club
1999 may be the most consequential year in film history. The Matrix not only spawned a fashion wave of black trench coats and latex, it caused many to start questioning reality itself. Today, there are serious scientists who suggest that we are indeed living in a computer simulation. Toward the end of 1999, Fight Club identified and crystallized the growing ennui of young men.
We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off. — Tyler Durden, Fight Club
Looking back, I can’t think of any two films with more influence on the culture. I would also add 2005’s V for Vendetta to that list, though it came years later and addressed very different themes.
I’ve watched The Matrix and Fight Club many times, but until I read Senior’s words, their common themes hadn’t clicked with me.
In The Matrix, Keanu Reeves learns that the world of the 1990s he’s living in isn’t real, that in actuality humanity is barely surviving in a post-nuclear wasteland, merely sustained by a computer simulation that keeps the masses nourished and blissfully unaware. The handful who live in the real world live a life of abject hardship and misery where they slurp gruel in darkness.
In Fight Club, the unnamed narrator very much lives in the real world, but that “real world” feels fake. “Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy.” Then a new friend punches him in the face and he suddenly feels alive. It grows into a movement of men savagely beating each other in parking garages, culminating in a terroristic movement that seeks to destroy modern society (and maybe even succeeds).
Tyler Durden, the cult-like leader in Fight Club outlines the vision:
In the world I see you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You'll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You'll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Towers. And when you look down, you'll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying stripes of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighways.
The protagonists of The Matrix and Fight Club—despite existing in very different circumstances—seek the same goal: to destroy the comfortable illusion to live in the ruins of the real.
This theme is reflected in many films of the ‘90s. Two other film of 1999, the underrated The 13th Floor and Existenz, both dealt with the same themes of The Matrix, albeit in different styles. Rewind a year to 1998’s The Truman Show where Jim Carrey’s character is unwittingly a character in a TV production, his entire life fake and scripted. He eventually realizes the ruse and futilely punches the set walls to try to break free.
Must we destroy to create?
Why seek the destruction of a comfortable existence to suffer cold gruel and vicious beatings? If all the world is indeed a stage, why try to smash the set?
I think Senior nailed it: on some level, many of us feel that the comfortable construct of modernity is fundamentally wrong, but it’s such an all-encompassing system that it seems the only way to fix it is to tear it down and rebuild. There are so many interlinked cogs and gears that you can’t simply replace or adjust one, lest the whole machine break down. That reality was driven home in 2020 when a few disruptions effectively broke the global supply chain.
This sentiment encompasses the right/left divide. On the right, you have the Redoubters, back to landers, “The Benedict Option,” and of course survivalists. On the left, you hear talk of “late-stage capitalism,” deindustrialization to thwart climate catastrophe, and the “decolonization movement,” which seeks to replace the fundamental underpinnings of Western Civilization. Alas, if you remove enough blocks in the Jenga tower, sooner or later it does indeed fall.
I wonder if that’s why so many now seem to have given up on society. It seems like we’ve all agreed that it should all crumble. The only argument is how it should be rebuilt. I also wonder if this was the prevailing sentiment in the late Roman Empire.
I think the Davos crowd gets this, which is why Bill Gates is scooping up farmland and Klaus Schwab is trying to figure out how to make us eat bugs. Are they truly rotten people, or are they simply preppers with vastly greater resources than the rest of us? A generous interpretation of Schwab is that he’s working on the same problem we’re outlining here: rebuilding society before it collapses.
But again, the question is: how should it be rebuilt? What does the “new world order” look like, and who has the right to decide? No one elected Gates or Schwab to anything, we the people didn’t ask for their help. Why don’t we just do it ourselves?
Maybe we need the Matrix
If you follow the increasingly silly Matrix series long enough, they eventually realize that the humans need the Matrix, at least for long enough to make the real world habitable again. Destroying the system to live in caves was never a realistic plan.
By Senior’s estimation, the problem is that the Matrix has made us weak and soft, physically, mentally, and spiritually. As the saying goes, “Weak men make hard times, hard times make strong men.” This sentiment is an ongoing theme in the works of Frank Herbert, most famously the Fremen desert warriors of Dune, but also in his lesser-known The Dosadi Experiment, which plays with the same theme of superhuman warriors forged by a harsh environment.
It all comes down to this: to create a better world, we need better people. As Ben Franklin said, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” Ancient Israel fell into a sorry state, and eventually civil war under the loose libertarian rule of the Judges, because “every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”
A society can only be as great as the individual building blocks. If the wood used to frame a house is rotten, the house will not stand.
The fundamental problem with all political ideologies is that they only work well is the people running them are virtuous. Absolute monarchy is great—as long as you have a great king. In theory, Communism breaks humanity loose from corruption and greed and gives control to The People. In reality, people are corrupt and greedy and Communism is a perfect environment for those types to flourish. As Orwell quipped, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
No system, no matter how well-designed, can outsmart human ingenuity.
The prevailing theory is that we need a harsh world to make those better people. But does it all have to fall down? Must the Empire fall to make room for a Charlemagne? Or can we rebuild before we’re stuck working from ashes?
Something to fight for
I think much of this underpins the “manosphere” movement, which probably wouldn’t exist if not for Fight Club. Men desperately want to be more, but they don’t know how.
Online “gurus” promise to show the way—usually for a small monthly fee, or at least in exchange for ad revenue. The Andrew Tates of the world tell you to acquire materialistic wealth and use women like tissues. Men like Jocko Willinik present a more positive vision of discipline, fitness, duty, and sacrifice.
But while Willinik’s message is a good one, it rings hollow for many, because it’s fundamentally shallow. Wake up early, do the work, lift the weights. But why? That is the missing piece.
A man must have things to fight for. The knights of old fought for God, king, and courtly love. “Thy quarrel must come of thy lady.”
What do we have to fight for today? For many, the answer is nothing. Let’s hope we can find something before it’s too late.