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Dreams of Millennium: Report from a Culture on the Brink

by Mark Kingwell

As we edge closer to the year 2000, there is one clear sign that the apocalypse is upon us: everyone’s writing about it.

And I do mean everyone. It’s getting difficult to open a magazine or enter a bookstore without encountering breathless theorizing about the eschaton and its impact on virtually anything. There’s Frank Ogden’s futurist tome Navigating in Cyberspace: A Guide to the Next Millennium; Paul Kennedy’s Preparing for the Twenty-First Century is out in paperback; and Cosmopolitan magazine recently published a feature on “party outfits for the turn of the millennium.”

In this context, it’s refreshing to have someone discuss where our Year-2000 fascination comes from, and what it means. In Dreams of Millennium, University of Toronto philosophy professor and sometime Globe columnist Mark Kingwell examines the history of apocalyptic traditions in Western society and finds recurring strands of behaviour, many of which are being played out today – in sometimes distressing ways.

Take, as an example, distrust of authority. Anti-authoritarianism overturned – and killed – many landowners in earlier apocalyptic peasant revolts. Today, Kingwell argues, it’s manifest in our culture’s aggressive anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism: the triumph of Forrest Gump over rational politics (or, as Kingwell puts it, “the identification of virtue with mental impairment”). Similarly, concern for spirituality, he notes, has returned in a rash of dubious New-Age practices. Meanwhile, UFO conspiracy theory has gone mainstream.

Dreams of Millennium is an absorbing read, partly because the research is so wide-ranging – Kingwell swings easily from early messiah cults to his experiences roaming through body-piercing expos, uncovering, along the way, millennial behaviour as surreal as the “Jerusalem Syndrome” (modern-day pilgrims deciding they are the second incarnation of Christ).

It’s refreshing to hear an intelligent writer’s take on this material, although Kingwell’s approach can be a little self-referentially condescending; it seems he can’t quite shake the (often legitimate) feeling that pop-culture criticism is a bit of an intellectual party trick. Kingwell is thus at his best when he leaves pop culture and wades knee-deep in pure philosophy, as he does in a sinewy discussion about the clash between individual and collective rights. Few writers in Canada are better at rendering complex issues in such vivid, simple writing.

The only true confusion in the book occurs during Kingwell’s own forays into prophecy. When surveying the rise of environmental and political traumas, he occasionally argues that the year 2000 actually will bring a heightened level of physical, global cacophony. It’s as if – after looking so closely into conspiracy theorists and religious death-cults – he can’t quite figure out whether the millennial chic of the 1990s is a cultural artefact born of our psyches, or whether the apocalypse is an actual event that will destroy the world in a frenzy of environmental devastation, third-world class terrorism, and general disrespect for university academics. Perhaps it’s both. Either way, the fact that millennial panic would touch Kingwell himself is perhaps the best illustration possible of his point.