Notes on the Apocalypse


Nostalghia (1983)

by Hannes Schumacher

The Gift

Which of you has done this? The Lords …?

— Maria! Who made that?

— Little Man.[1]

Since the arrival of the Great Pandemic, I see Andrei Tarkovsky’s obsession with the apocalypse in a wholly different light. I clearly remember the magnetic mental force of the outbreak in spring 2020 as I witnessed the unfolding of a true event: my whole life I had been waiting for this moment.

Echoing Arundhati Roy, “The pandemic is a portal”[2], or as David Lynch said, it is a unique opportunity for all of us to develop spiritually.[3] After more than one year, my intuition still holds that the impact of the Great Pandemic was far more mentally than physically enforced. As in all great events – and this is the first I witnessed in my lifetime – I surely know that it has occurred, although I remain constantly unsure about its actual existence. COVID-19 is a vast magnetic field that sucks in all our desires, fears and fantasies into a single name that shakes the ominous “new normal” which had been burned into our brains since the end of World War II. Instead of desperately craving for a “return to normal”, with Tarkovsky we should understand it as a precious gift.

“… are now being organised nationwide. This is even the duty of all officers of the army. Every responsible citizen is expected to behave with courage, to keep a cool head and to help the army in its efforts to re-establish peace, order and discipline. The only dangerous enemy in our midst at the moment is panic. It is contagious and won’t allow itself to be ruled by common sense. Order and organisation and nothing less, good citizens! Only order … order … against this chaos.

I beg you, I humbly appeal to your courage and in spite of all to your common sense. … Communications may be broken at any time but I have told you what is most important, my fellow citizens. You are to stay where you are. There is no place in all of Europe that is safer than where we are now. In this regard, we are all forced in the same situation.”[4]

Naturally, the company of “good citizens” is desperate to the point of insanity. But to Alexander, the protagonist, something very strange occurs. Actually he is happy about this genuine rupture of the status quo, that had tormented him throughout his lifetime. He is happy because the bourgeois bubble that he had been living in bursts in a single moment.

The Sacrifice (1986)

What Tarkovsky has in mind is not war per se but – to put it baldly – the end of the world. Tarkovsky’s final films (Stalker, Nostalghia, Sacrifice) circulate around the theme of the apocalypse and while forests are burning in Greece after a major flood in central Europe, this is certainly the time to ask oneself the question: Why? ‘Apocalypse’ in Greek (apokálypsis) is synonymous to ‘revelation’; yet although Tarkovsky was vastly influenced by Orthodox Christianity, his films belong to the tradition of global mysticism, which certainly does not believe in the doctrine of the Final Judgment in its literal sense. We speak about a very different sense of revelation. With Tarkovsky, we may speak of an apocalypse which is both utopian and dystopian. According to Tarkovsky, every gift involves a sacrifice, and it is only now that we may gain a global understanding of this concept.

Chaos and the Kabbalah

The Great Pandemic marks the beginning of a new era in which environmental catastrophes are becoming the “new normal”. In his eighth thesis on the concept of history, Walter Benjamin notes:

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of exception” in which we are living is the rule. We have to come to a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then we will face as our task the evocation of the true state of exception.[5]

To be sure, the tradition of the rulers teaches us that law and order is the “normal”: “Order and organisation and nothing less, good citizens! Only order … order … against this chaos.” Yet this order is obviously enforced by the power of the State and it is therefore not at all a natural given. What the tradition of the rulers calls the “normal” is actually an exception throughout the entire universe[6] and the Great Pandemic has shown to us “good citizens” (predominantly living in the West) that we are not actually excluded from the vast chaos that surrounds us. There is a stubborn arrogance among “good citizens” and a ridiculous ignorance of the “problems of the others” which are “obviously not induced by us!” … Since the Great Pandemic, it has become more clear that “we are all forced in the same situation”. As a proverb says, if one part of the body hurts, the whole body hurts as well; but we are still far from this simple understanding on a global scale.

Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of the Kabbalah who had a vivid correspondence with Benjamin, asked the crucial question closely linked to the “true state of exception”: “How shall we imagine the original structure of the Torah, given that the Messiah will once have erected it in all its plenty?”[7]

According to the cabalists no later than the 16th century, the original Torah before the creation of the world was a chaotic mixture of all letters of the Hebrew alphabet (letter soup) which were then arranged in words and sentences corresponding with the unfolding of history. Historical time is a time of clear articulation, ‘significant’ and ‘signifiers’ corresponding to the Law, whereas messianic time marks the return to the original chaos. One may elaborate this ambivalence with the image of the tree of knowledge and the tree of life.[8]

Scholem – in this sense – describes messianic time in terms of a law which no longer has a meaning but is still in force (Geltung ohne Bedeutung); it is not the very end of history but the intermediary state that we are living in. Benjamin – in contrast – argues that a scripture which we can no longer decipher and a scripture which got lost in all eternity eventually results in the same because “a scripture without its corresponding key is not a scripture but life”. [9] Although Giorgio Agamben emphasised this contrast critically,[10] today we see more clearly that a strict decision between these views neglects their dialectical entanglement which precisely is at stake in our current situation. (Note that Agamben was the first to say that COVID-19 actually does not exist.[11]) Pure life – or ultimate extinction – is a strange attractor at the end of history that infinitely feeds back into our desires, fears and fantasies.

 Inverse Correspondence: dike

“There is an incredible amount of sea life in this book. The oceans slowly seem to start a silent revolution against the arrogance of man.”[12]

I keep on remembering these words we wrote in the introduction to love & politics in 2018.

What we are witnessing today is not yet another poor representation of “Mother Earth” but an actual reaction of natural forces in the form of basic elements: water, fire, air and earth. Before Aristotle spoiled the history of European philosophy, philosophers of nature, such as Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Empedocles, etc. had a deeper understanding of these elements in their mutual entanglement and argued for a non-hierarchical structure of the cosmos. Their minimalist sense of “justice” (dike) was not about morality or what one “ought” to do but what will happen anyways, much closer to the modern sense of natural laws. This is to say that we are not morally obliged to save our environment: if and only if we spoil it, we eventually will spoil ourselves.

In the 1940s the founder of the Kyoto School, Nishida Kitarō, put this vision further by elaborating his concepts of “inverse determination” and “inverse correspondence” according to which everything (be it human or non-human) is mutually determined by everything else: even God – in Nishida – is identified with an absolute nothing which has to manifest itself within the world in order to exist at all. The human individual is determined by its environment, which in turn is determined by the human; this way, the individual eventually determines itself through an infinity of feedback loops.[13] In other words, we indeed “are what we eat” and there is no reason to take this proverb metaphorically but rather ontologically. Nishida’s concepts utterly support contemporary environmental theories with an ontological footing.

In the present situation, we no longer have to ask ourselves how to amplify the voices of the earth; given the example of the rising sea levels and increasing incidence of floods, nature eventually speaks for herself; it is rather us (environmental artists/activists) who are now amplified by the vast forces of the sea. My whole life I have felt that since the death of God we are utterly alone in our struggle for a better world; but since the forces of nature literally entered the social sphere of human and non-human interaction, I find myself surrounded by a crowd of helping micronauts (mostly animals and plants), the only true proletariat struggling in a silent revolution.

Xerxes’ soldiers lashing the sea who had destroyed his bridge at the Hellespont

The Apocalypse

How to develop from these views a vision of the future – the apocalypse – which is both utopian and dystopian? The term itself – as I have said – amounts to both ultimate extinction and revelation. The decision of the future lies precisely in these terms and their dialectical entanglement. To say that the apocalypse is both utopian and dystopian is neither left nor right but baldly realist; it is to prolong the ultimate decision into all eternity.

As we have seen, messianic time is not the very end of history; originally, it was conceived as an intermediary state of transition, but in recent times it has become clearer that this “transition” increasingly becomes indiscernible from the “golden new era” which it projects into the future. The transition itself becomes the “new normal”.

Given the rapid increase of technology amidst both fascist tendencies and rising environmental awareness, the future will dissolve into a collective consciousness of all humanity, of which it will be difficult to say whether it is dystopian or utopian. Drugs will be legalised, researched and integrated in the global market, technology will serve for absolute surveillance of every angle in the world and, simultaneously, to reconnect each and every brain cell with each other so as to form a juicy new people of schizophrenic synaesthetes … As the Zen master Dōgen says, a blurry vision is the vision of the enlightened.[14] Our time is the new age of techno Buddhism in which even the question of life or extinction will be ultimately blurred, as we slowly return to the original state of chaos before the actual creation of the world.

In Stanisław Lem’s Solaris[15] –which was adopted by Tarkovsky – the homonymous oceanic planet is sometimes described as a natural phenomenon, sometimes as a single brain, as a society which eventually overcame the restrictions of individual bodies and now “contemplates”? The Congress (2013), another film based on one of Lem’s stories,[16] depicts the takeover of new chemical drugs, a dystopian utopia of a planetary rave in which the whole world becomes a cartoon. Although the protagonist is desperately craving for a return to normal, this is certainly not the state that we are heading for. The future will be strange and perhaps I’m not the only one who is terribly excited about this.

The Congress (2013)

About the Author

Having studied all around the world, Hannes Schumacher works at the threshold between philosophy and art focusing on post-apocalyptic aesthetics, chaos theory and mysticism. He is the founder of the Berlin-based publisher Freigeist Verlag, co-founder of the grassroots art space Chaosmos ∞ in Athens and member of the artistic collective Vandaloop.


[1] Andrei Tarkovsky, The Sacrifice (1986).

[2] Arundhati Roy, “The pandemic is a portal”, Financial Times, 3 April 2020.

[3] Zack Sharf, “David Lynch Predicts a ‘More Spiritual, Much Kinder’ World After Quarantine Ends”, IndieWire, 9 April 2020.

[4] Andrei Tarkovsky, The Sacrifice (1986).

[5] Walter Benjamin, Über den Begriff der Geschichte“ [On the Concept of History], Gesammelte Schriften, Bd. I-2. Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1980, p.697 (translated by HS).

[6] See Benoit B. Mandelbrot, The Fractal Geometry of Nature. New York: W. H. Freeman, 1977.

[7] Gershom Scholem cited from Giorgio Agamben, “The Messiah and the Sovereign: The Problem of Law in Walter Benjamin”, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, ed. & trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford (CA): Stanford University Press, 1999 (altered translation by HS).

[8] The tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions symbolises the expulsion of mankind from the innocence of paradise. On the other hand, the tree of life in the corresponding mystical traditions, such as the Kabbalah, symbolises the idea to restore the original harmony.

[9] Walter Benjamin/Gershom Scholem, The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem 1932-1940, trans. Gary Smith & Andre Lefevere. New York: Shocken, 1989, p.135 (altered translation by HS).

[10] Giorgio Agamben, “The Messiah and the Sovereign: The Problem of Law in Walter Benjamin”, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, ed. & trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford (CA): Stanford University Press, 1999.

[11] Giorgio Agamben, “The Invention of an Epidemic”, Coronavirus and Philosophers, European Journal of Psychoanalysis, 26 February 2020.

[12] Evgenia Giannopoulou/Hannes Schumacher, “Nephelokokkigia”, love & politics. Berlin: Freigeist Verlag, 2018.

[13] Nishida Kitarō, “The Logic of Topos and the Religious Worldview”, trans. Yusa Michiko, The Eastern Buddhist, Vol. XIX & XX, 1986/87.

[14] Dōgen, “On the Flowering of the Unbounded (Kūge)”, Shōbōgenzō: The Treasure House of the Eye of the True Teaching, trans. Hubert Nearman. Mount Shasta (CA): Shasta Abbey Press, 2007, pp.552-64.

[15] Stanisław Lem, Solaris, trans. Joanna Kilmartin & Steve Cox. New York: Harvest Books, 1987.

[16] Stanisław Lem, The Futurological Congress, trans. Michael Kandel. New York: Seabury Press, 1974.

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