Behavior: The Deluge of Disastermania

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Some scholars think that this kind of writing may be a reflection, rather than a cause, of the preoccupation with disaster. Roy Peter Clark, an English professor at Auburn University, links the spread of millenarian fever with the approaching end of a true millenium—the year 2000. Says he: "We must prepare ourselves for the mass psychological hysteria, the conscious or unconscious sense of terror that may build to a climax." Others, like Psychoanalyst Eric Fromm, say that love of calamity shows a sense of alienation and powerlessness that seeks release through images of destruction.

Art Historian Andrée Conrad sees disastermania in sociological terms. In a recent review of 20 catastrophe books for the quarterly Book Forum, she argued that disaster writing and entertainment are safety valves for hostility toward a complicated culture. Says Conrad: "For one exhilarating and guilt-free moment, the whole teeming supermarket cart of capitalist goodies is sent hurtling down the aisle and crashes through the façade." The films, in her view, also ease the dread of death, since there is comfort in knowing that everyone almost always dies together. Concludes Conrad: "The success of disaster entertainment is rooted deep in the concerns and apprehensions of the American psyche." his pessimistic The Culture of Narcissism, argues that modern civilization is beginning to show signs of the breakdown that marked the end of the medieval world—the same point made by Barbara Tuchman in her bestseller A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. As Lasch tells it, disastermania and the selfishness of the "Me" decade indicate that humanity has lost faith in the future and awaits some kind of ending.

Few historians would care to push the analogy with the chaos and disintegration of the Middle Ages too far. Nonetheless, a few tantalizing similarities exist between then and now, among them the revival of millenarian sects and predictions about the world's end. Psychics and E.S.P. fanciers, for instance, have dusted off the 1934 predictions of Edgar Cayce: he forecast upheavals at the poles, the sinking of most of Japan into the sea, and the destruction of Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. In his recent book We Are the Earthquake Generation, Jeffrey Goodman explains that the latterday mystics are generally agreed that worldwide destruction will occur between 1990 and 2000 by earthquakes, tsunamis and floods; then John the Baptist will announce the Second Coming.

On the other hand, the end could come from mutated praying mantises, killer bees, flying saucers, aerosol cans, a shortage of STP, the retirement of Charlton Heston..

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