The End Of The World. History Without an End

The 1900 Crisis The Break By 1900, no more bets. Pessimism. Denial of progress, return of the cyclic history. Social conflicts. Revolutions. Decline of the West and the yellow peril. Anti-utopia. The Great War. Abstract art. Earthquakes. Halley's comet. The end of the world. A puzzle to sort out: is there a connection? A unifying principle? Starting out from the end of the world, let us try to rationalize the beginning of the 20th century, the beginning of a new era, to understand it and ascribe a meaning to it. People had worshipped a god and they were now ready to burn it. The god called Progress. Of course, it had improved people's lives, but the world was very far away from the imaginary wonders it had expected from progress. Social injustice continued despite progress. Likewise, ethnic and racial discrimination: the colonial system served only to increase them. Even worse, progress-limited in fact to material improvement only-did not seem to have triggered any moral betterment. Behind the middle class facade of the 19th century, the old cave man was hiding, now having frightening weapons. How was he going to use them? In the absence of moral progress, was this exclusively technical progress going to trigger the collapse of humankind or at least that of the modern civilization? Would man become a slave to machines? Was he going to be devoured by a barely imaginable destructive force? The ancient demons of the Apocalypse showed up again. The fear of the end. And even a desire to put and end to an aberrant civilization. There had been a streak of pessimism from the very beginning, right from the time of progress. Schopenhauer (1788-1860) had built his system on a tragic view of the human condition. But the optimists were much stronger. Only as late as 1880 and 1890 did the discordant voices begin to be heard and the melancholy atmosphere of the fin du siècle begin to be felt, a prelude to the hurricanes that came after 1900. A Jewish physician born in Hungary, educated in the German culture and living in Paris, made a very severe diagnosis of his time's evil. The books of Max Nordau (1849-1923) were dramatic. Les mensonges conventionnels de notre civilisation, 1883 utterly exposed the parodies of religion, monarchy, politics, business, marriage. Everything was a lie, the entire edifice was based on a false foundation. The scientific and rational view of the word no longer had a correspondent in the old institutions. The latter had to disappear, to allow for new structures, built according to reason. "We are right in the middle of this epoch of demolition," Nordau announced. "I believe today's civilization, which is characterized by pessimism, lies, and selfishness, will be followed by a civilization of truth, love for one's neighbor, and well-being." In his other book, Dégénérescence, 1893-1894, the end of the world was described even more clearly, in a purely Apocalyptic tone: "Today, in the minds of the elite, a dark disquietude is rising, anticipating a twilight of the nations, with all suns and stars being extinguished, one by one; surrounded by a dying nature, people perish with all their institutions and creations. Obviously, one era of history is ending and a new one is being announced. All the traditions are falling apart, and tomorrow does not seem to wish to be tied to today." Progress? A bourgeois notion, now out of style, proclaimed French sociologist Georges Sorel (1847-1922) in a book with a telling title: Les illusions du progrès, 1908. On the other side of the Atlantic, the brothers Henry and Brooks Adams launched an unprecedented attack against their epoch. The former felt the new century would witness a terrifying last collapse. Brooks Adams came up with a law of civilization and decay in a book that was influential enough (The Law of Civilization and Decay, first edition in 1896); basically, he maintained that modern civilization was on the brink of a cataclysm comparable to the one that produced the decline of the Roman Empire during its last centuries of existence. The exchange of opinions between the two brothers were anything but optimistic! Brooks wrote to Henry wondering how we could hope to see a new world, a new civilization or a new kind of life. In his opinion, we were at the end; and he thanked the Lord for one thing: that they did not have any children. The motif of the West's decay was an element in the rebirth of a cyclic vision of history. Before perishing in matter, the world was annihilated through the force of imagination. Nothing is as revealing as what happened immediately after 1900 in art history. The artistic renewal of the 20th century considerably changed the image of the world, but without touching its main structures. Once the threshold of 1900 was left behind, forms were dissolved, as artists obviously took pleasure in tearing the world to pieces, in reducing it to chaos, in rebuilding it (perhaps) afterwards, based on new rules. Abstract painting, which was invented by Kandinsky (1866-1944) between 1910 and 1913, marked the last step in decomposing the world or at least its image. At the same time, Expressionism, with its contorted forms, was mostly marked by suffering, anxiety, and decomposition. Look at this painting by Edvard Munch (1863-1944), revealingly called Fear, and painted in 1894; it is the quintessence of a new epoch expressed by anxious characters. Owing to intuition and sensitivity, artists were the first to show the destruction of the old world in their works, in their field. Even a superficial comparison between the relatively serene and balanced art of the 19th century and the apprehensive iconoclasm of the early 20th century sheds light on the meaning of the 1900 break -- more so than any historical study. It is also interesting to note that the painted representations of the Apocalypse, which had virtually disappeared in the West since the 17th century, came back in full swing in the Western art. Odilon Redon (1840-1916) already offered an Apocalypse series in 1899, and this motif was increasingly made use of after 1900. The mirage of the abolition of the past and of the final cataclysm is most evident in the Futurist movement manifesto, drawn up in 1909 by the Italian poet Marinetti (1876-1944). The Futurists glorified the forces of destruction (war, anarchy), demanded the dismantling of museums and libraries and proclaimed the abolition of space and time (almost a complete end of the world!) Morbid, macabre themes, images of disasters were increasingly present in literature. At the same time, the direction of utopia began to change. The old utopia-positive, optimistic-was already looking like a fairy tale. Little by little, anti-utopia took its place, and, with it, the image of a dehumanized world of the future. The paradox was that the same author, H.G. Wells (1866-1944), was the father of both utopia and anti-utopia in the 20th century. In the Time Machine (1895), he described the civilization of the year 802,701, an impressive, pessimist image, which was far from Flammarion's optimism. Then came the dehumanized societies described in the War of the Worlds (1897), and, most of all, in the First Men on the Moon (1901). The latter novel created, in a perfectly logical manner, an extremely efficient soulless society. It was placed on the Moon, but it could also amount to a possible future for the Earth. As if to summon the worst tendencies of evolution, in A Modern Utopia (1905), Wells invented a positive solution, capable, in his view, to ensure an at least relative rescue of human freedom in hi-tech circumstances. But his first message, the pessimistic one, was much more heeded than the latter, as the 20th century solidly set itself in anti-utopia. The decisive victory of anti-utopia in the western culture is one of the most consequential phenomena of the contemporary ideology. The loss of confidence in the future is undoubtedly one of the main causes of crises in any culture. If people deny the future, or if they fear it, the rest does not really matter. Announced so many times at the beginning of this century, the Apocalypse took actual shape with the outbreak of World War I. The Russian revolution of 1917 served only to widen the gap between the old world and the new one. But this was not enough for a radical renewal of humankind. The war was to beget new wars, violence triggered new violence. After 1918 nothing was the way it had used to be: the Belle Epoque, with its apparently stable bourgeois facade, was over and done with, but this was only the beginning of the crisis, which was developing and growing. This was not the end of anxiety, it was only the beginning of a great about-turn, one which could lead, perhaps, or one which had to lead to a new civilization formula. But until then, the ground was unstable, and nothing is ever as efficient in helping Apocalyptic solutions flourish. Dancing on the Volcano By 1900, a strange thing happened, unquestionably fortuitous, because there was no natural relationship tying it to the social and ideological crisis. Fortuitous, but highly symbolic in the eyes of its contemporaries. The earth began to display its violence, devour its children, and destroy the works of their civilization. In the early 20th century, geological phenomena were extremely brutal. Already announced by the spectacular explosion of the Krakatau island (1883), which meant some sort of an end of the world for that thirty-five-square-kilometer island, natural disasters occurred in an uninterrupted series between 1990 and 1910. In 1902 the Pelée Mount suffocated the 30,000 inhabitants of the Saint Pierre town in Martinique. In 1906 a powerful earthquake destroyed San Francisco, one of the proudest cities of the modern world; that same year, another quake turned upside down Valparaiso and Santiago, Chile. Europe was struck in late 1908 by the terrible quake of Messina (death toll: approximately one hundred thousand), and, the next year, Provence, a region considered stable enough, was, in turn, the victim of geological forces. The list of examples can continue: it seemed the Earth was shaken by earthquakes that never stopped. Scientists began to study the situation in a cool manner, but, little by little, some of them entered the game. After the Krakatau disaster, Flammarion stated: "These cataclysms must not lead us to doubt the general stability of the planet, and we should not see in these movements of the ground anything else than local incidents, just slight tremors of the planet's skin." An exotic island on the fringe of civilization, Krakatau was safely far away. Change of tone after 1900. Conclusion reached by geophysicist Alphonse Berget (1860-1934) in the May 15, 1905 issue of the widely read Je sais tout magazine: "The crust, which is relatively thin, can burst any time. We are dancing on a volcano. If we think about the thinness of the crust we are on, we wonder how come 'it's still holding.'" Flammarion, new opinion expressed in 1909: "This planet is not completely formed. The human race has arrived too soon and has settled too early." In a book about Les Tremblements de terre, 1909, abbot Théophile Moreux (1867-1954), an astronomer who distinguished himself in making science popular, spoke his mind. The thin solid crust is becoming-owing to its continuous cooling-thicker and more rigid all the time and this makes it increasingly unable to be elastic and adjust to the permanent oscillations that are caused, in Moreux' view, by fluctuations in the solar activity. Actually, we have a pretty good image of our future, of the geological destiny of the Earth: the Moon. The same is in store for us. "Horrible convulsions will threaten our fragile planet. The tormented and disturbed face of our satellite offers us the best probable image of a world where volcanoes, in the convulsions of a frightening agony, have put an end to all life." To begin with, the abbot prophesied an awakening of the volcano activity in France, the sinking of a huge part of that nation-the English Channel being united to the Mediterranean Sea-and the actual immersion of half of France. On the new map of the continent, France would no longer exist, except for some islets, and the same would be true of Belgium and the Netherlands. Of the British Isles, only Scotland and a piece of Ireland would be saved; one part of the Italian boot would be eaten up by waters, and a huge sea would cover the Russian steppes. Scandinavia, the Iberian Peninsula, Central Europe and the Balkans would be the only intact places left. All this would not happen tomorrow, but, still! A strange, but perfectly explainable phenomenon occurred. Geological dramas grew and became increasingly manifest because of the degradation in the social climate. The epoch's "anxiety," the offensive of historical pessimism, and the expectation of the Cataclysm found in this accidental and temporary increase in terrestrial vibrations a catalyst for fantasies and fears. The public opinion was the most affected, but science was stained, too. The serenity of nature, so dear to Humboldt and Lyell, was now disturbed. In geological theories, disaster re-acquired some of its rights. Between 1883 and 1909, Austrian scientist Edouard Suess (1831-1914) wrote a book entitled of Das Antlitz der Erde (The Face of the Earth, published in France in 1897-1918): it was one of the most important geological syntheses of the time, a scholarly repertoire of various disasters: earthquakes, floods, cyclones. The first chapter dealt with the Biblical Flood (its origin, according to Suess, was an earthquake in the Persian Gulf, which triggered a giant flux of sea water.) But the most significant aspect is the very essence of the theory put forth by Suess (and others as well): the Earth is getting cooler little by little, so it is contracting, its surface gets wrinkled and sometime it collapses. What had been considered accidents amounted in fact to the actual dynamics of the terrestrial history. Intermediary continents have already sunk in the past and oceans have taken their place. The idea of the Earth being contracted and of the disasters brought about by this contraction had already been applied unexpectedly by Lowthian Green (1819-1890), who proposed in 1875 his very weird theory of the tetrahedron. A contracting sphere tends to become a pyramid with a triangular base, a tetrahedron. You have already guessed that the Earth was at stake: yes, one day it would have four faces and four peaks. Therefore, the birth of such a strange form was not going to happen without formidable convulsions. Between 1900 and 1910 this crazy theory, which held that the Earth was not round anymore and it would become even less so little by little, had its moment of glory. Abbot Moreux took his oaths on it only, and a renowned geologist, Marcel Bertrand (1847-1907), a disciple of Suess, built an entire system around the idea that our earth was no longer round. He tried to deduce the displacements of the earth's axis, according to the incessant deformation of the tetrahedron. In a permanent change of aspect and movements, the earth became a very shaky place to live on. Another geologist who was famous enough, Pierre Termier (1859-1930), a disciple of Suess and Bertrand, concluded, in a speech of 1919 on the Great Mysteries of Geology, that the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean, and, perhaps, the Pacific Ocean as well were formed and "fed" by engulfing solid lands. "Sinking," he assured his audience, "is, in the history of the Earth, a frequent, almost habitual occurrence. The power of destruction unleashed by a collapse does not only touch the submerged region: neighboring lands, continents or islands, can be devastated by the strong currents of tides; this can go so far as to annihilate all terrestrial animal life along a huge stretch of land. Even tomorrow, perhaps, the ocean waves created by the descent into the abyss of a piece of a continent as big as Atlantis will assault the coasts all over the world, swallowing, under the ruins of cities and under the mud of the plains, ten percent of humankind. A few years will go by; and people will wonder, the way they do now about Atlantis, was it history or legend?" Termier believed (like Suess before him) that solid earth was losing ground and the sea would end up covering everything. The Return of Atlantis In the late 19th century the myth of Atlantis attained considerable force and was strongly established for a long time in the imagination of our age. The era of science-fed myths began and, in this context, Atlantis (a lost civilization of the past) was the twin myth of the aliens, the inhabitants of Mars, up to the UFOs (civilizations of outer space.) So, well flanked from all sides, modern man seemed to feel less lonely and discovered a certain meaning in life. The spreading of the Atlantis myth to a large audience is owed, undoubtedly, to a large extent, to the famous novel Vingt milles lieues sous les mers, 1870 by Jules Verne: as everybody knows, in that book captain Nemo takes his companions to visit the majestic ruins of Atlantis, covered by the Ocean waters. But it was an American politician, Igantius Donnelly (1831-1901), who managed to reconstruct the history and disaster of Atlantis in a book published in 1882 (Atlantis, the Antediluvian World); that was the starting point of the modern science of Atlantis, with its ongoing investigations and its "revelations." In Donnelly's view, Atlantis was the center of a world empire, like Britain in his time. The colonial system of the 19th century was thus projected to a very distant past. Fortunately, the fall of the British Empire was less dramatic than the sinking of Atlantis. By comparison, we can say the British were lucky. A historical and geological issue? So it seemed, but it was rather the symbol of the brutal and definitive fall of a civilization. In a broader sense, a person who believes in Atlantis is penetrated by the feeling of the precarious nature of man and his work and this belief coincides with the little confidence in the stability of the earth's crust that people had by the year 1900. Let us go back to Pierre Termier and his beloved geological disasters. In a speech made in the late 1912 and published in 1913, entitled Atlantis, he said he was happy because "for a few years now, science has been looking at Atlantis again." He gave his geologist's word that everything was rigorously true, that "a vast region, a continent, or an area made up of huge islands had sunk west of the Pillars of Hercules." He seemed to provide a beautiful list of certitudes: the certitude that there had been giant collapses which made islands or even continents disappear; the certitude that some of these collapses happened yesterday, in the Quaternary Age, so man was most probably able to see them; the certitude that some of these disasters happened suddenly, or at least very fast." The geologist could no longer doubt "the almost sudden disappearance of part of a continent, of an element of a mountain range, of a great island in an abyss thousands of meters deep." Geology began to speak prophetically: "I wonder about the last evening of Atlantis, which was perhaps similar to the last evening, the 'great evening' of mankind." Atlantis alone was a disaster. Several Atlantises already made up a theory of disasters, a history that was presented as having disasters for landmarks. And there was always the southern continent of Gondwana imagined by Suess, Lemuria in the Indian Ocean, proposed by the British geologist Philip Sclater (1829-1913), and, of course, Pacifica, or the fabulous continent of Mu, which American James Churchward (1852-1936) spent his entire life researching. Churchward's scientific adventures, in spectacular and tortuous learning, from one end of the world to another, are of little interest to us. For now, let us just consider the conclusions in the book The Lost Continent of Mu, published in 1931. The book reveals the existence of an ancient continent right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It stretched over five thousand miles from east to west and over three thousand miles from north to south, so it must have had a surface of forty million square kilometers, similar to that of Asia and four times that of Europe. Its population reached sixty-four million inhabitants (nothing is left out by this wonderful scholar.) At its climax, fifty thousand years ago, the Mu civilization was at the origin of all the other civilizations spread over the existing continents. It perished, sixteen thousand or twenty-five thousand years ago, the victim of a "super-Atlantic" cataclysm-if we can put it that way. The continent sunk following earthquakes and the invasion of the sea crowned this destructive work. The Pacific Ocean (ironic name!) was born. So the purely geological mechanism of a succession of civilizations was found and the eternal returns were thus explained. An "Atlantic-type" history was being formed. It was formulated, up to its last predictable consequence in a story published in 1910. L'Eternel Adam, inaccurately considered a posthumous work of Jules Verne's, and which was probably written around 1906, after Verne's death, by his son Michel Verne (1861-1925). The book teaches that one day in the third millennium, all continents sank; at the same time, the ancient bed of the Atlantic Ocean rose and became the new and only continent. About thirty survivors settled there (the only surviving humans.) They tried to adjust to the new environment and save the works of civilization. The survival operation was successful, but, at the same time intellectual degradation occurred, which is inevitable. Man returned to barbarity, namely to his animal nature; it would take millennia for evolution to get back on course, and twenty thousand years to reach a level comparable to ours. The pattern is taking shape. The existing civilization is preceded by the civilization of Atlantis, which was engulfed about twenty thousand years ago, and it will be followed, after the collapse, by another civilization. And who could know if the very distant past or the very distant future did not actually hide an entire chain of ends of the world and perpetual new beginnings? The history of Atlantis is in keeping with the eternal return of mankind. The Sea in Paris The rising of waters appeared as an interesting phenomenon that was complementary to the sinking of land. Erosion achieved its work in time, the solid ground became flat, thus facilitating the invasion of the sea. "In northern France," Flammarion explained, "the cliffs are withdrawing by almost two meters annually" and, at this speed, "the sea will reach the Tuileries in eight-five thousand years." It was still in the distant future, but a sudden flattening of several dozens of meters would lead to the sudden engulfing of Paris. Flammarion's article, published in the Je sais tout magazine (1905), was accompanied by a very realistic drawing by L. Hanos, called Le déluge à Paris. L'Opéra au fond de la mer. In fact, the Parisians had their little deluge; in January 1910 their capital city was already under water. It was not the sea, but the river Seine, which was believed to have risen to eight and a half meters. Following the earthquakes of the preceding summer and just before the much expected and feared visit of Halley's comet, the Paris inhabitants got a taste of the surprising transformation of their city into something like Venice. Flammarion encouraged them in his own way: "If, owing to some geological cause, the land sank by thirty meters, the sea would arrive in Paris. At a forty-meter-sinking, our great capital would be entirely submerged." A general invasion of the sea could be the consequence of a displacement of the earth's axis. Certain unbalances (the folding of the crust according to Marcel Bertrand, for instance) could bring about such a tilt. An explanation like this was proposed for cataclysms such as the Flood or the end of Atlantis (of Atlantises). The accumulation of ice in the polar caps became an issue to be concerned with. Was a new Flood in store? To the Italian writer Emilio Salgari (1862-1911) the people of the year 2000 would already live in fear of an imminent flood (Le meraviglie de Duemilla, 1907.) The ice of the South Pole, thickened to thirty-seven kilometers (!) on a surface equal to that of North America, was in the process of unbalancing the planet. A phenomenon similar to that which occurred twenty-five thousand years ago, when the ice cap of the North Pole acted in a similar manner and provoked the ancient Flood. It was the reiteration-but in the terms of imminent danger-of the beautiful mechanics developed by Adhémar. As far as the new flood was concerned, the prediction was that some three fifths of the planet's waters would come over the northern hemisphere. The continents would be sunk and the southern seas would withdraw, making room for new continents. In a book entitled The Great Deluge and Its Impending Recurrence, British scientist Leon Lewis published a concrete analysis of the same issue. His conclusions were not encouraging at all. The ice amassed at the Southern Pole threatened to break loose. Predictable consequence: the sea water would rise and get colder. Enormous icebergs would float along sea currents, up to the European coasts. The impending ice deluge would destroy almost the entire organic life on our continent, which would be covered to a large extent (France would be covered completely) with water. Perhaps this was for tomorrow. The Journal des voyages published in its issue of January 19, 1902 La fin du monde. Le Déluge de glace, a long review of Lewis' book. On the cover, the Eiffel tower was collapsing under the pressure of ice masses. The so much feared event eventually took place in 1907. Europe was submerged and the few survivors fled to Algeria, where they began to build a new civilization. Later, the sea withdrew and it was possible to visit the ruins of Paris (for more details, see Émile Solari, La cité rebâtie, 1907.) Poisoning and Epidemics Could mankind perish from poisoning? According to Matthew Phipps Shiel (1865-1947) such a solution was conceivable, at least in fiction. His novel The Purple Cloud, 1901, tells the story of how mankind perished, following a mysterious emanation, probably from a volcano. (Shiel was a prophet in his own way: this is what happened later in Martinique, fortunately in a limited framework.) The hero of his story, the only survivor of a polar expedition, finds a totally deserted world, with dead bodies scattered all over the place. Now the only master of the universe, he begins to travel and lighten up his solitary evenings with the show of cities burning, before finally finding a girl who had survived. History could begin all over again now, according to the good recipe, with a new Adam and a new Eve. It was more classical-but the purpose was the same-to resort to epidemics, preferably provoked by an unknown disease, which is therefore impossible to combat. Jack London (1876-1916) used this theme in The Scarlet Plague, published in 1913. The scarlet plague acted very rapidly-usually killing within one hour-, it was an extremely contagious diseases, and it attacked mankind in 2013. A population of eight billion people was rapidly reduced to a few dozens. Civilization collapsed, man forgot almost all his old scientific and technological achievements, the savage nature took over and filled up the spaces left empty by their former master. Sixty years after the disaster the entire terrestrial population barely reached three or four hundred individuals. The fragility and superficiality of our civilization are pointed to. The entire social order and the moral values disappear before a new tribal, pre-historic type order is established. History re-begins: a simple reiteration-without any memory-of the history that has just unfolded. Flagrant futility of all human effort. The epidemics were undoubtedly a symbol of a sick civilization, close to ruin, a symbol of decomposition: just like in Der Tod in Venedig, the short story by Thomas Mann (1875-1955), published that same year. Concern for Outer Space Movements Geological fears and symbols had enough weight at the time in the fears and symbols of cosmic origin. By 1900 there was a massive transfer of social anxiety over objects and dangers from outer space. The most notorious event was the great panic caused by the passing of Halley's comet in 1910, but it was only an explosion of the fears that had gradually accumulated and which were, in turn, fed by ancient fears and superstitions, by scientific theories and their popular versions, and by literary fiction -- everything in a climate of nervousness which was characteristic of those years1. The astronomers, like their colleagues, the geologists, had re-become sensitive enough to the idea of a shock, of an accident. The mechanics of the solar system seemed faultless, but there was nothing to stop an alien heavenly body from penetrating it and disturbing the entire system. It even seemed probable that such an encounter had to happen one day, at some cosmic crossroads, as the Sun, planets, stars, and all the other celestial bodies wandered incessantly in the infinite space. So, the predictable consequences were anything but encouraging. The alien celestial body-most likely an extinguished sun-could choose between several procedures: to strike the earth in full swing (no details about the consequences are necessary here), to get entangled with the Sun (considerable rise of temperature, the Earth is burned), to disturb, through its force, the planet orbits (change of weather conditions, disappearance of life) or, passing by the Earth, to provoke, owing to the same attraction force, natural disasters (earthquakes, giant tides), thus being able to considerably alter our living conditions. John Ellard Gore (1845-1910), a British astronomer, had this advice for his colleagues: to closely monitor the outskirts of our solar system, in order to be able to announce in due time the approach of the cosmic monster. The extinguished Sun coming from elsewhere was just a hypothesis, but the Comet returned to the center of the stage. "Nothing visible," of course; however, something more than just an invisible entity to certain astronomers of the year 1900. The hard core was no longer feared (although the danger incumbent in it was not completely ruled out), so the comet fear was completely transferred to its tail. The core was only a dot; the tail, however, had a considerable size: tens or even hundreds of millions of kilometers. So, it was perfectly plausible that the Earth could cross a comet's tail. In that case, everything depended on the chemical composition of that tail. Rich in carbon oxide, it would consume all our oxygen and we would suffocate. But, if it stole the nitrogen of the earth's atmosphere, the surplus of oxygen would trigger an excess of our vital functions (restlessness, then delusions and madness), leading to the same end: the destruction of life. The surprising thing in the early 20th century is the ambiguity of scientists, the ambiguity of their scientific discourse and, most of all, the ambiguity of the words they used to popularize science. To Flammarion, the end of the world caused by a comet accident was unlikely; but, after 1910, he increasingly indulged in playing with the possible effects of a disaster. He made an inventory of the possible consequences of an encounter with a comet in La Fin du monde, an article published in the Je sais tout magazine (1905) and written for a very wide audience. The facts are the same as in La fin du monde of 1894, but the spirit seems different, emphasis is now placed on the disaster. Bombardment of the earth's crust, the atmosphere taking fire, suffocation, universal madness, nothing is left out. The audience was going to remember this. Wilhelm Meyer (1853-1910), a German colleague of Flammarion's, played the same game in an entire book dealing with the end of the world and cosmic disasters (Der Untergang der Erde und die kosmischen Katastrophen, 1902). After reading it, people had difficulties telling whether the author considered a large-scale cosmic accident improbable, possible, or imminent. Anyway, the list was full, mixing comets and all sorts of celestial bodies that could strike our earth. For instance, a huge meteorite would start the fire consuming our atmosphere, earthquakes, floods, changes in the tilt of the earth's axis, the earth crust would break and there would be explosions when the sea encountered the central fire, the weather would get cold due to the dust that filtered the solar radiation. If it fell into the sea, it would undoubtedly cause a deluge. The same, ice masses from outer space could come and strike the earth, etc., etc. Literary fiction grabbed the opportunities offered by astronomy and spread even further the image of an insecure outer space, where any disaster could occur, any day. The Star by H.G. Wells, published in 1897, was the masterpiece and model of this genre: it tells a very detailed story summing up scientifically the effects the earth would experience at the passage of an alien celestial body through the solar system (rise in temperature, floods, giant tides, eruptions, earthquakes, land collapse.) In Wells' steps, the cosmic-disaster literature imagined the most varied situations, going, in the most extreme cases (which were in fact rare) up to the disappearance of mankind and of the terrestrial life. The outer space was capable-at least in literary fiction-of offering a remarkable variety of horrors. Invasion from Mars (H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds), deluge brought about by a cosmic cloud (Garrett Serviss, The Second Deluge, 1911), a disastrous crossing of toxic belts (J.H. Rosney Sr., La force mystérieuse, 1913; Arthur Conan Doyle, The Poison Belt, 1913), plus all sorts of clashes between comets and wandering celestial bodies. The menu was complete. Everything could happen: the sword of Damocles was threatening. Considering the climate, the "real" alarms obviously had the strongest effect. On November 13, 1899, some people waited for the end of the world or at least for a considerable cosmic accident, according to the menace expressed by astronomer Rudolf Falb (1838-1903); that day the Tempel comet had to encounter the earth. Let us mention, if anyone is wondering, that the encounter did not occur. But the big event was that of 1910, the time when the earth had, according to all astronomic calculations, to cross the tail of Halley's comet. Most astronomers-Flammarion included-insisted it was impossible for the extremely rarefied comet matter to act in any way over the dense terrestrial atmosphere. Too late, the harm had already been done. The comet and its deadly gas, cyanogen, which would poison mankind, had already concentrated all the sick tendencies of a society that had fallen prey to its own apprehensions. Expectation in fear, aberrant behavior (including suicides), some astronomers persuaded that "something" was due to happen, all came to an end on May 19, when people had to admit nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. They did not even know whether the earth had crossed the comet's tail. The ridicule was as strong as the invoked peril. But, like the Comet, ridicule does not kill. Even if its prestige dropped following the misadventure of 1910, the Comet remained and will remain for ever a privile