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Our Red Heifer

Updated: Jun 4, 2022

Writing by Gabriel Brody. Illustration by Cat Easeman.

Somewhere in the American Southeast there is a man called Clyde Lott, who, at this very moment, is trying to usher in the age of Armageddon - by breeding a red cow. In 1989 Lott stumbled across one of the Bible’s most mysterious directives; a passage in which the Lord commands that the ‘children of Israel’ shall “bring thee a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came a yoke”. The cow, soon to be slain and burnt, would have its ashes mixed with water, creating an ethereal blend essential to the purification of those exposed to death. Jesus’ return, the purging of ‘End Time’ and the ultimate, blissful descent of New Jerusalem from the sky is dependent upon the reconstruction of a temple in Jerusalem, which would restore the nation of Israel. In order for the Jews to build such a Temple, they must first be cleansed by the watery ashes of this heifer. The apocalyptic end of history thus hinges upon an evangelical cattle breeder somewhere in the American Southeast called Clyde Lott, and the colour of his cow’s hair.

Apocalypticism like this has long held close associations with Abrahamic religions, which often teach that there was an ultimate battle between good and evil determining the course of history and revealing a complex truth. Deeply rooted in our cultural zeitgeist, from Moses of Crete to Mormonism's eager anticipation of rapture, this religious relationship to apocalypse is profoundly pervasive. Its dialectical opposite is an existential hell, like Dante’s Inferno, or one which man creates on earth, like 1984. Amidst his forcing of the end, Clyde Lott might not have noticed that this apocalypse has indeed begun, and a different cow has already been birthed. We must forgive him, though, for the catalyst of our end is not red, nor does it have four legs. In fact, it bears no resemblance to Lott’s red heifer at all. It is closer to Dante and Orwell’s vision, for it is an existential hell of human creation; an apocalypse of language, consciousness and of future.

Just as apocalyptic eschatology looks back to ancient texts in order to foresee destiny, we must also turn to history to reveal our path into the future. Our tool of apocalyptic discovery is not an atavistic scripture, but ‘Youtube’, with the Miami Beach Convention Centre being our Temple of Jerusalem. In 1968, in this very temple, The Republican Convention nominated Richard Nixon for president - whilst the Democratic counterpart in Chicago volunteered the incumbent Lyndon. B Johnson. The presidential runoff that awaited was to be a final and titanic battle between two ideological deities who had towered across the political landscape: conservatism and liberalism. Observing and articulating this matchup was William Buckley and Gore Vidal; ‘literary aristocrats and ideological foes’, as Michael Grynbaum describes them, who performed an erudite duet of debate and discussion as the conventions unfolded. To viewers now they appear as relics of another world; public intellectuals with brilliant minds who fought by wit and words upon an ideological battleground. A homophobic snipe from Buckley has ingrained the contest in history for its vicious conclusion, and yet, despite this moment of infamy, videos of the debate reveal the erosion of civic discourse since. They refract to us a vision of an almost unrecognisable political arena, one free of vulgar TV personalities and inarticulate shouting matches. A sea of change separates this moment from then, and yet this is not our red heifer, but rather a diagnosis of something much larger.

Language, as Jacques Lacan describes it, is not man’s creation or instrument but rather the house in which we dwell. His motif inverts a conventional relationship to language in which we see it as ours, whereas a more accurate reading sees us as belonging to it. We are profoundly shaped by language, as it influences perception, focuses attention and gives meaning to experience. Our home, as Buckley and Vidal’s archives show us, has thus begun to fall apart. Cracks now run along the walls, the floorboards creak beneath our feet and the ceiling sags from a great weight above. The door too, hangs off its hinges, and through the cracked window panes we can see, standing in the field beyond articulation, a red heifer. This is the sign of our apocalypse, in which complex expression has been replaced by the crude functionalism of abbreviated texting and the inarticulate laziness of ‘emojis’. Huge human events are taking place, from ecological disaster to European wars and global pandemics, and we are more interconnected in these traumatic experiences than we allow ourselves to realise. Regression in language, however, has created a cleavage between experience and expression. So many of us no longer have the words to articulate this complex network of suffering, and are thus trapped in a ‘torture of language’ - as Slavoj Zizek describes it. Without being able to express these events they are void of meaning, and we are caught in a liminal space between psychic turmoil and speech; the dystopian setting of our apocalypse. Unlike the messinaic battles of religious prophecies, there is no esoteric revelation or blissful rapture in our apocalypse, but only the silence of inarticulate precognition.

Post-truth was the Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 word of the year; an ironic gesture, for a dictionary to acknowledge the collapse of language itself. The word has deeply political associations, just as language does itself. Ideology, like the monoliths who fought at the election of 1968, is framed and stabilised by language. It is also grounded in the safe assumption that something comes next. Such an ideological battle fights for a future which both believe could be better, and which both believe will indeed happen. We are not only losing language and truth, but also this; a vision of what comes next. The impossibility of imminent ecological disaster has rooted itself deeply in our cultural zeitgeist, and a future which ideology might seek to brighten is now shrouded in fear and misunderstanding. The stable ground of ‘what comes next’ has thus begun to dissolve beneath our feet, sending us forth into an ether of precognition and fear. It is as though we have been cut loose from our spinning rock in space, and float without the gravitational pull of language or future. In such an expanse, impulse and instinct motivate discourse and behaviour, and thus populism arises in the absence of ideology. Bolsonaro, Trump, Putin, Johnson, Le Pen and Orban are thus our red heifers, arisen from the ashes of the burnt house of language and ideology and embodying a politics of inarticulate rage and fear which is so very far from the battles of Buckley and Vidal. This might be the end of history, and not as Fukayama saw it, but as Orwell and Dante did. It is existential and it is man made, and the red heifers which announce this end have indeed been birthed already.

Clyde Lott is probably not thinking about all of this, though. He is confidently awaiting a rapture in which he will be saved, and taken to chiliastic paradise upon the back of his red cow. Our apocalypse, although dialectically opposite to this, might also bring to us an Edenic bliss. In his talk at the Ethnobotanical Conference in Mexico, 1994, Terence McKenna paints this calming picture of the end of history. “Global civilisation is dying”, he says, “there are too many problems…this is really, in fact, the end of the road”. And yet, McKenna says, “this is a cause for great rejoicing”. The planet will soon heave an enormous sigh of relief, and - in fifty or sixty thousand years - the glaciers will run again, the jungles will restabilise and the oceans will cleanse. This is our rapture, McKenna argues; a new world in which these catastrophes of language and consciousness have long been at rest. The sound of this Eden is not the silence of inarticulate precognition, but the quiet calm of peace, and the flowing of a new breath of life. In accepting that this shall happen, that all must pass and that all is transient, we can find this paradise before then, though, and truly feel rapture on Earth. Prince said it best, in 1999: “But life is just a party, and parties weren’t meant to last”.

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