Ernesto de Martino’s The End of the World – On the fundamental paradox of security and insecurity in modernity

CAPAS warmly welcomed me on 26 January to speak about the project I am currently working on, a first-ever English translation of The End of the World, by Italian anthropologist Ernesto de Martino (1908-1965). The book is a dense and ambitious comparative study of apocalyptic thinking in various periods and settings, and de Martino masterfully brings to bear studies from a wide range of disciplines: religious history, literature, ethnology, philosophy, psychology and psychiatry. And for a study dating from the mid-1960s, it speaks to us today in a surprisingly current way. 

De Martino was working on the book at the time of his death, and the first edition was published posthumously in 1977, edited and introduced by de Martino’s former student Clara Gallini. Until recently, the book has always been problematic as an assemblage from de Martino’s notes, yet it was tantalizingly promising in many of its passages. Now, thanks to scrupulous archival work by three new editors – Giordana Charuty, Daniel Fabre, and Marcello Massenzio – a revised edition (published first in French in 2016 and then in Italian in 2019) has proven to be a game changer, making the work more cohesive and, the editors argue, truer to de Martino’s original intent.

De Martino was well aware that the planned title of his last book, La fine del mondo [The End of the World] would be provocative. He tempered the title’s unsettling impact by adding the subtitle, “A Contribution to the Analysis of Cultural Apocalypses”. Here, he did not use the term “apocalypse” in a merely negative sense as cataclysmic destruction, but also as it is employed by historians of religion to refer to visions of better times to come. De Martino explores cultural apocalypses under four broad categories: primitive Christianity, millenarian or prophetic movements of the Global South, Marxian apocalypse, and apocalypse in contemporary Western art and literature. He compares these cultural apocalypses to a key fifth category, psychopathological apocalypse, drawing on evidence from phenomenological and existential psychology and psychiatry. De Martino’s social-philosophical thought subtly weaves back and forth between a micro level of attention to individual psychopathology and the role of ritual in treating it, and a concern with cultural apocalypse both within Western culture itself and in relation to its Others.

“Modern technology has led to the risk of humanity’s annihilation on an unprecedented scale.”

The volume is a prescient new contribution to international apocalyptic studies not only due to its interdisciplinary scope, but also for new philosophical territory it charts: it dissects the crisis of the hegemonic Western world on individual and social levels, and it yields a unique theorization of personhood. Through the lens of his ontological formulation of “presence” (a reworking of Martin Heidegger’s Dasein), de Martino delves into a fundamental paradox of modernity’s security and insecurity. In comparison to conditions historically and in the Global South, modern Western societies have, for their majorities, secured presence to the point that many forms of ritual and religious practice appear to be unnecessary relics or worthy of backward “Others”. At the same time, however, modern technology has led to the risk of humanity’s annihilation on an unprecedented scale: de Martino refers to the death camps of the Holocaust and nuclear war, while today’s reader may think especially of terrorism and the environment. Having abandoned traditional rituals and languages for dealing with crisis, modernity is left without eschaton.  

The alienation and psychopathology that de Martino explores through psychiatric and existentialist literature are anything but surpassed conditions in the twenty-first century. He gives us a means to reflect on the loss of domesticity in a world experiencing an unbridled global interchange and dramatically reconfigured social relations through new technologies. We can also understand how a presence at risk becomes prey to the millenary lure of extremist sirens, as fundamentalists of all stripes spread their apocalyptic gospel throughout cyberspace. With increasing inequalities, groups that had secured their status in the postwar boom of de Martino’s day have, decades later, experienced downward mobility. Such conditions suggest the need for a return to Marxian analyses, but with a renewed, Gramscian-influenced perspective as proposed by de Martino. Finally, de Martino’s volume suggestively probes the very bases of what it means to be human, a necessary reflection in an epoch of cyborgs and robotics, and one in which our relationship to nature can be ignored no more, if not at the risk and peril of an end to our world.