Literally, the ‘last thing’: the day, post-Armageddon, when the fate of all humankind will be decided.
From the Ancient Greek term for ‘end’.
This article starts, appropriately enough, with a revelation (in one sense of the term): for years, you’ve been listening to people misuse the word ‘apocalypse’. Francis Ford Coppola got it wrong in Apocalypse Now, just as Alexander Witt got it wrong in Resident Evil: Apocalypse. And radio host Harold Camping got pretty much everything wrong when he tried to convince us that ‘the apocalypse’ was coming in May 2011… and then again in October 2011.
Francis Ford Coppola, Alexander Witt, Harold Camping, and just about everyone you know (unless they have an active interest in Ancient Greek) should be abandoning ‘apocalypse’ and rediscovering ‘eschaton’ — the ‘correct’ term for the end of time. Think about it long enough, and Eschaton Now seems like a catchy title.
‘If you’re being very strict about things,’ explains Mark Forsyth in The Horologicon, ‘an apocalypse is not the end of the world, it is merely a vision of the eschaton.’ Etymologically, ‘apocalypse’ goes back to the Greek word (because this column loves Greek roots) ‘apokalyptein’ (‘apo’ meaning from, and ‘kalyptein’ meaning to cover or conceal). An apocalypse, then, is simply a revelation or a vision, and — until the 1800s — had very little to do with the eschaton. The confusion stems from the most well-known vision of the eschaton, which occurs in the final book of the New Testament — the Book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse of St. John.
Does anyone still know or care about the distinction between ‘apocalypse’ and ‘eschaton’? David Foster Wallace, self-confessed ‘snoot’ (‘nickname à clef for a really extreme usage fanatic’), certainly knew and cared when it came to inventing a game for Enfield Tennis Academy students to play in Infinite Jest. ‘The most complicated children’s game anybody around E.T.A.’d ever heard of’ — a game involving baffling array of acronyms (‘the biggest priority for AMNAT right at 1515h. is to avoid having to SACPOP with SOVWAR… trading massive infliction of INDDIR for massive body-shots of SUFDDIR…’), and several hundred tennis balls standing in for thermonuclear warheads — is, sure enough, called Eschaton.
Partly because of the acronyms, but mainly because of David Foster Wallace’s intimidating command of everything from Mean-Value Theorem for Integrals to the early work of Albrecht Dürer, the ‘Eschaton’ section can seem like one of the most impenetrable thickets in the deep dark wood of Infinite Jest. DFW takes care to leave a breadcrumb trail of rewards for the perseverant reader: for example, early in the scene we’re shown an ‘enormous print of Dürer’s ‘The Magnificent Beast’ on the wall by… Schtitt’s big glass desk.’ Anyone taking the time to look up Dürer’s ‘The Magnificent Beast’ will discover that it belongs in a series of woodcuts entitled ‘Apocalypse’ — from the thermonuclear warheads/tennis balls onwards, the ‘Eschaton’ section is packed with images alluding to the end of days.
Excepting Infinite Jest, ‘eschaton’ is a word more likely to occur in theoretical writing than in literature, although it does provide the title of Michael Heller’s most recent poetry collection. Even the snoots among us have to concede that ‘apocalypse’ is one of those words which have severed their etymological roots and grown stronger in the process: as with ‘enormity’, the ‘incorrect’ version of the word has gradually supplanted the ‘correct’ version.
‘Eschaton’ clings on, primarily thanks to the apparently infinite supply of people willing to believe that the end of the world is imminent. As Christopher Hitchens points out, ‘religion looks forward to the destruction of the world… perhaps uneasy about its own greedy accumulation of temporal power and wealth, religion has never ceased to proclaim the… day of judgment.’