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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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7 occurrences of Dictionary_of_the_History_of_Ideas
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3. The death of universes appeals to the imagination
no less than their birth; but it does so in two very
different ways. It can exert a horrifying fascination or
can be joyfully accepted as a stage of the cycle of life
and condition of rebirth.

There is a problem here in which hidden individual
or social preferences play an important role; for from
the day when we are to be faced with the death of
universes as a physical phenomenon, several ends are
considered possible: death by cold, after the extinction
of the sun; by slow disintegration; by the return of the
planets to the Father Star in a final flare-up; by collision
with an intruder, e.g., an extinct star. These kinds of
death—for the earth, for the solar family, and for the
entire universe—may be reduced to two types, which
approximate the two old myths of the flood and the
burning: a slow death at night, a sudden death by fire.

Now there are eras in which concern for the end
of the world is absent, others in which eschatology
becomes obsessive. And the prevailing choice is not
made for reasons that are essentially scientific, even
among scientists. Apparently before and during periods
of crisis, the imagination finds some satisfaction in
imagining a cosmic cataclysm, followed or not by a
renovated world; whereas in periods of disappointment
and political stagnation, the nightmare of a slow death
predominates. Thus, before and during the French
Revolution and the Empire, the expectation of a catas-
trophe dominated the mind; on the other hand, after
1815, and then again in the 1880's, the obsession of
universal darkness weighed on the imagination. Of
course, there are exceptions and distinctions that should
be made.

The appeal of a slow death during the night may
manifest itself in two very distinct ways, for there are
two nights: one, the gentle enveloping night, represents
to the unconscious the Mother rocking her child;
worlds allowed to fall asleep in her arms return to
primordial matter or to the nebulous in order to be
born again rejuvenated. But there is another night,
which is a Void at absolute zero, and is associated in
the unconscious with a devouring mother, who is far
from preparing for any rebirth. Now there are types
of men who not only aspire to an annihilating void
but desire to extend it to all, to “being” itself; and
this suicidal desire extends to the cosmic plane. This
disease of the imagination, encouraged by the vogue
of Schopenhauer, prevailed all over Europe during the
1880's and 1890's. We can also see a return of the
Parmenidean imagination in the haunting fear, then
current, of petrification in various forms: the com-
placent evocation of a dried-up earth reduced to a
skeleton or rock, caught in a shroud of ice or salt. The
vision that Galileo scoffed at, an earth turned to a
desert of sand or block of jasper, became once again,
through disgust with life, the nostalgia of a decadent
generation.

Among cosmologists the physics of that period justi-
fied an increasing and total torpor of the universe worn
out by its motion and by the degradation of its energy.
Hervé Faye (Théories cosmogoniques, 1884), for in-
stance, offers an impressive table of these “dark and
icy globes circulating in the gloom of eternal night.”
Similarly with Flammarion (La fin du monde, 1894)
and with countless works of fiction and poetry, we find
the same images reproduced.