So the year draws to a close and this will be my last post in 2010, the 70th since I began this blog last February. And we are bombarded, as we always are, on television, in the newspapers, on the internet (including blogs like this), with retrospectives of the year gone by, with pictures and films and reports and discussions of what various people consider to be the important and significant events of the past year. Midnight will spread across the globe from the Pacific islands through Australia and Asia, Africa and Europe, the Americas and on to the Aleutians and Hawaii, accompanied by parties and fireworks and revelry as people worldwide put the past behind them and indulge themselves in the feeling of making a new start.
Astronomically, there is nothing special about January 1st; it is simply an ordinary day ten or eleven days after the winter solstice and two to four days before the earth’s perihelion (the day on which it is closest to the sun in its annual revolution). Both of these dates would be more logical for the beginning of the year, but the beginning of the year on the first day of the month of January, the month of the god Janus, the god of gateways, and beginnings and endings, usually depicted as a head with two faces looking simultaneously forward and backward, is a convention going back, according to tradition, around 2,700 years to the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius. While many cultures have traditionally celebrated the beginning of the year in the middle of winter, some others chose different dates, a popular one being the vernal equinox on March 21st. But the worldwide dominance of European culture in the past two hundred years or so has led to European conventions, including those of dating, being generally accepted globally and so, despite all inaccuracies and issues of cultural imperialism, most of the world accepts the convention that the year 2011 – itself based on an erroneous calculation of the year of birth of Jesus of Nazareth – will begin on January 1st.
So what’s to say about 2010, the year we’re so anxious to get rid of, the year we’ve used up, that beautiful clean sheet we presented ourselves with twelve months ago? Earthquake in Haiti, war in Afghanistan, floods in Pakistan, Obamacare, midterm elections, a new government in Britain, the World Cup in South Africa, the Love Parade deaths in Duisburg, Aung San Suu Kyi released, Liu Xiaobo given the Nobel Prize in the teeth of furious Chinese protests, financial crash in Ireland, Malcolm McClaren and Dennis Hopper dead, William and Kate engaged, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, Icelandic volcanoes and WikiLeaks and Gulf oil spills, the year cold at the beginning and cold at the end … another year, the same as any other, unique as any other. All the stuff that went through the news, that was deemed to be important and be talked about; reality TV and talk and game and so-called talent-shows turning up millions of instant celebrities, all scrambling for their fifteen minutes of fame and subsequently hustling to make as much money as possible from it as long as they are somehow marketable, pop stars and film stars, footballers and racing drivers and an elite of other sport professionals earning sums enough to keep tens of thousands in food for a year (and if they have to have plastic surgery or dope themselves to do it, well … it’s their choice anyway, isn’t it?).
For most of us these are just background noises most of the time, the big news stories like posters plastering the temporary wooden hoarding walls hiding ongoing renovation or development in the city, perceived at some level, occasionally perhaps even a cause for discussion or jokes or outrage, but shallow and unimportant compared with the intense everyday drama and stories of our own lives.
We all have our own personal perceptions and stories of 2010, the whole artist’s palette from ecstasy to tragedy with everything in between;
the first shared orgasm of star-crossed teenage lovers,
the unbearable death of a child,
champagne shared to celebrate a deal made worth millions,
the shocking pain of a blow struck in sudden anger,
the creative joy of a new piece of music written and performed,
the grinding hurt of a collapsing relationship,
the bursting pleasure of a heroin shot in the vein opening the way to sordid individual disintegration,
a family rejoicing over a birth,
the combined terror and pride of a young tribesman proving his manhood by shooting his first foreign soldier,
an old woman’s identity slowly vanishing into the confused and fearful half-world of dementia,
life and death and suffering and joy and fraud and justice and despair and hope.
And what should make all our billions of individual experiences and stories less significant and important than those of the great and the mighty, the rich and the famous, who play out their deeds and lives in the glare of continuous media scrutiny and commentary?
Nothing. Oh, they may have power over us and our lives may be influenced by what they do or do not do, or they may simply be avatars for our desires and dreams but in the end they too are only parts of the stories we make, the conceptual and emotional structures we construct to order and give sense to our lives.
At the end of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the supremely cynical character known as “the Criminologist,” who appears from time to time to offer a commentary on the proceedings, quotes a short verse:
“And crawling, on the planet's face, some insects, called the human race.
Lost in time, and lost in space... and meaning.”
It’s all very funny of course and fits into the film perfectly, but, in reality, the Criminologist is wrong about one point, that of meaning. There is meaning enough or, rather, the possibility of meaning – but that meaning is our own to make. We do not always succeed, particularly in the face of suffering but even here, should we not have the strength or inclination to find our own meaning, there are enough communal, prefabricated models to which we can take recourse if we so choose or have already chosen to satisfy our human desire and need for sense in this way, for such, fundamentally, are all the religions and philosophies on offer. I do not judge them here.
I will simply state that it seems to be a fundamental characteristic of our human nature to structure and order our experiences and perceptions, both individually and on all our social levels, from the shared stories of relationships and families to national and international myths, sagas and identities. And an important part of this structuring is the temporal one, ordering events and occurrences into seasons and years. This allows us, even as we realise that life is an ongoing journey and that most of our stories are unfinished and still being told, to organise ourselves and our lives and everything that is happening or has happened in them (or at least give ourselves the illusion of such an organisation).
And this is where the celebration of a New Year finds its own meaning and importance. At a randomly chosen (if collectively agreed) point, we make a symbolic act of ending and beginning. Janus is indeed an appropriate patron for such an act. In the continual revolution of this small blue dot (to use Carl Sagan’s wonderful description) which is our planet around its sun, which in turn is on its own journey through the galaxy and space in general, we mark a point and say, “Here it ends and here it begins again.” We allow everything which has happened to be consigned to a particular unit of time now past and turn over a new page, giving ourselves a new beginning, a new chance to do things again … and maybe do them better this time.
It is our right, for who shall gainsay us in this instinctive, deeply-felt expression of that optimism and hope which – despite so frequently momentarily experienced evidence to the contrary – seems to be an essential part of our human nature?
Let the wheel turn once more.
All is quiet on New Years Day …