Midnight is again closer on the Doomsday Clock. As of January 2017, it was only two and a half minutes to the symbolic time for a hypothetical global manmade catastrophe. The clock was set at seven minutes to doom when it was first introduced in 1947 by a group of Chicago atomic scientists who had been part of the Manhattan Project. Today we are just thirty seconds away from the bleakest point to date, set at two minutes in 1953 at the heart of the Cold War. For the past seventy years, eschatological anxieties have been excited by this uncanny metric.
In his 1963 work The Sense of an Ending, the literary critic Frank Kermode analyzed longstanding literary variations on this world’s finitude, coined in his famous adage: “No longer imminent, the End is immanent.” His epochal study could be supplemented by a discussion of a distinct version of immanence in Genesis that appears in both the Jewish tradition and a Christian apocryphon: the haunting presence of the worlds that were destroyed before this one was created, or their destruction in order that the new one could be created. If this is all there is, where would this go, what would this be—on doomsday and ever after?
An early Jewish commentary on the Bible, the Midrash, tells us that this world is not the first one that God created. The text’s reflection on Genesis takes place in the form of a dialogue between two rabbis.
Rabbi Judah b. R. Simon said: “Let there be evening” is not written here, but “And there was evening”; hence we know that a time-order existed before this. Rabbi Abahu said: “This proves that the Holy One, blessed be He, went on creating worlds and destroying them until He created this one, and declared, ‘This one pleases Me; those did not please Me.'” (Midrash Rabbah – Genesis III:7)
The problem at hand is linked to the question of creation ex-nihilo. In addition to Genesis, other passages of the Bible such as Deuteronomy 4:32 allude to the prehistory of time: “For ask now about former ages, long before your own, ever since the day that God created human beings on the earth.” Prior worlds led to this one, suggesting some kind of evolutionary worldview couched in religious terms: This would be the meaning of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s phrase in his 1710 Theodicy, according to which this is “the best of possible worlds,” a proposition mercilessly mocked by Voltaire in Candide.
Yet Midrash Rabbah has a particular edge: The figure of God shaping worlds but repetitively destroying them allows us to play with the idea that this might be the work of an underachiever or an impatient adolescent. Is this all there is, the best of possible worlds? Is it a consolation to think that some version of this story proved even more unacceptable, or that it could be worse? The episode of the binding of Isaac prompted Franz Kafka’s comparison of Abraham to a waiter, subserviently taking orders. In Mel Brooks’s version, Moses tripped himself and smashed the third tablet of the law, which bore a third set of commandments for humanity. Such ineptitude could justify every variation of Woody Allen’s derisive observation: “If God exists, I hope he has a good excuse.”
The Zohar, a medieval foundational text of Jewish mysticism, preemptively rejecting any such notions of God’s cluelessness, or even relative incompetence, suggested that God only contemplated building these worlds, but never acted. It also clearly asserted that, rather than exemplifying God’s caprice, these other worlds did not conform to the law of nature (Zohar Bereshit 25a), from which one should infer that this one does.
The midrashic literature, when revisiting the first five days of creation, deciphers God’s assessment of his creation (“and God saw it was good”), which caps the account of every day: God’s verdict of “good” indicates that—after tinkering with earlier possibilities—he had achieved the version of the world that he wanted. The preparatory stages of creation were imperfect but necessary precursors to this world. In fact, they were created and then destroyed so that their debris, mute receptacles, and remains of imperfection could become incorporated into our present and existential reality, and thus give humankind the opportunity to lift itself above the initial and flawed version of this earth.
A similar interpretation of the lingering presence of bygone worlds can also be discerned in the passage of the book of Isaiah, where God declares: “For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17). The question of why this earth has found favor in God’s eyes has led many exegetes to explore the nature of the divine in arguing that God’s decision both to instill a capacity of redemption and balance out justice and mercy had made this world fit to endure. Yet another divine caution follows: “and the former [worlds] shall not be remembered nor come to mind” (Isaiah 65:27). What remains is an elusive mnemonic trace: our unconscious. And, if we follow the Zohar’s logic, the fabric of this world conforms to the laws of nature. And this is in fact composed of these.
According to the Zohar, as well as to Or ha-Hayim (1:12), an immensely popular Pentateuch commentary by the eighteenth-century Moroccan kabbalist Ibn Attar, these hidden worlds numbered a thousand. Other sources reach similar numbers, notably the Midrash on Psalms (Midrash Tehillim 90:13) and the Talmudic tractate Hagiga (13b-14a) with its enigmatic formulation: “These are the nine hundred and seventy-four generations who pressed themselves forward to be created before the world was created, but were not created. The Holy One, blessed be He, arose and planted them in every generation, and it is they who are the insolent of each generation.”
Worlds that can neither be remembered nor completely effaced and generations uncreated that nevertheless dwell on the surface of the planet are certainly paradoxical. But both of these manifestations serve to complicate our understanding of mnemonic traces. How do these spectral shapes represent the insolence of each era: Is it because they manifest that which cannot be forgotten—would that be the ultimate insolence? Friedrich Nietzsche believed that our society failed in its mission to facilitate forgetting and to shelter consciousness from the invasion of mnemonic traces. Resentment comes from being trapped in experiences already had. In that case, this is already a poisoned legacy: locking humankind into an amorphous excess of memory and the hypermnesia of past worlds. A kind of mnemonic Groundhog Day that ends in Doomsday, a feat of manmade destruction.
This Nietzschean version, where harm is done because of memory, and where humanity has no escape, calls to mind a modern take on the Gnostic faith as formulated in the interwar period by the philosopher Hans Jonas. The real God, who has withdrawn, ceases to be involved with—indeed has severed all ties with—his creation, leaving his place to an evil demiurge, who has created a web of lies in which humanity is trapped and enslaved—a simulacrum and a variation on the Matrix.
As Benjamin Lazier aptly demonstrated in God Interrupted, Gnosticism attracted significant attention in the first half of the twentieth century, in particular during the Weimar Era. Hans Jonas analyzed it as symptomatic of the alienation of man in the industrialized world. If the Gnostic religion provided an existential metaphor for that alienated condition, what might this narrative of prior worlds and remnants of earlier destruction mean now?
If these clusters of anteriority are the fabric of our universe, as remains of worlds that we never knew and yet mourn, they might be the very source of our melancholy. In The Shell and the Kernel, Maria Torok and Nicolas Abraham posit that the melancholic cannot separate himself from the object that he mourns. In the postwar period, haunted by the victims of the Holocaust, Patrick Modiano, W. G. Sebald, and George Perec displayed that syndrome, as did André Schwarz-Bart in the opening pages of his novel The Last of the Just: “Our eyes register the light of dead stars.”
This is the essence of Derridean hauntology: staring at these traces as “the future that never came to be.” None of the previous worlds or stars was ever restored: And thus all there is are the traces and those who are compelled to decipher them.
In Genesis Rabbah, Rabbi Abahu characterizes the creation as an act of creative destruction, a way to dispose of the remnants of the prior worlds whose “formlessness and void” nature, tohu u bohu, is the place where evil can prosper. Whether filled with evil or not, these past worlds turn our universe into a haunting palimpsest.
There is a distinct affinity between dark nights and mysticism. Right before midnight, whatever the clock, someone pondering what there is to lose may wonder about previous losses and think about this web of imperceptible debris and melancholy. Such a grammar and landscape of entanglements, elusive materiality, involuntary and burdensome memory, and the search for ways to read them might, indeed, be all there is.