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Creating a Tale at Century's End

 Many say that our civilization is losing its capacity and will to create in- spiring, transcendent images of the future. One has only to look at the language: brokers have been “trading in futures” and economists have been “discounting the future” since the 19th century. The future “comes upon” us out of the blue, time acts upon us, the 21st century “looms” on the near horizon.

We have the obligation, and perhaps the privilege, to take advantage of the cultural richness and historical weight of the year 2000 to construct a new tale of the future – a story to tell ourselves at this century's end that our grandchildren will tell their grandchildren. This story might find inspiration in the Six Memos for the Next Millennium, written in 1985 by Italo Calvino, the author of Cosmicomics.

Lightness.
It should be a tale neither of grief nor grievance but of disembarrassment. “Were I to choose an auspicious image for the new millennium,” wrote Calvino, “I would choose … the sudden agile leap of the poet-philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world, showing that with all his gravity, he has the secret of lightness.”

We should without advertisement divest ourselves of what we never needed in the first place and conduct a giant potlatch, moving from house to hutch to hut to the millions of homeless. Thus, astride a flying empty bucket, wrote Calvino, “we shall face the new millennium, without hoping to find anything more in it than what we ourselves are able to bring to it.”

Quickness.
It should be a tale of sharp epiphanies. The historical and the personal must come together to make sense all at once. The tale should be a dangerous tale; in the year 2000, we should consciously and conscientiously put ourselves at risk. We can acknowledge the fin de siècle despair and millennial impatience by requiring of ourselves an experience of the tremendum, that which makes us tremble. We could each commit ourselves to a week of living beyond our means – literally: uneasy, unaided, unprepared, uninsured, in surroundings that hint of those things we most fear. Then each of us could devote the year to acts of community and honesty that lay us further open than we ever cared to be.

Exactitude.
The telling of the tale should last 368 days, from Friday, December 31, 1999, through the leap year 2000 and the first day, Monday, of 2001. The thought and passion that have gone into debating whether the new century begins at midnight, December 31, 1999 or 2000 must be redirected toward the entire year 2000 as an anniversary. Since the 1890s, people have anticipated a centurial debate over 1999/2000, and since the 1940s, commentators have wondered how the years 2000 and beyond will be commonly spoken: “Two thousand? Twenty hundred? Twenty oh-oh? Twenty naught naught? Twenty cipher cipher? Twenty flat?” The favorite of a New Yorker columnist in 1963 was “Twenty oh-oh – a nervous name for what is sure to be a nervous year.”

Visibility.
The first point is to see people, of this and that kind ... in all their variety of garments and gestures, some white and others black, some in peace and some at war, some weeping and others laughing, some healthy and others sick, some being born and others dying.” This is Ignatius of Loyola's first spiritual exercise for the first day of the second week. Calvino considered it central to his memo on Visibility, by which he meant visual imagination.

Loyola's exercise is clearly what we must demand of ourselves at this century's end. The tale we tell must be about people, not things, and about people in their disturbing complexity, neither gussied up for a Millennium Ball nor extravasated into specious psychic realms.

I would like the millennial year to be dedicated to poverty work. Let each person dedicate New Year's Week, 1999/2000, to work with the infirm and the dying, and New Year's Week, 2000/2001, to work with infants and battered children, so that we are never tempted to deny the physicality, the visibility, of life. Such bodywork may heal us of the fatigue, invalidism, and powerlessness felt at centuries' ends.

Multiplicity.
The last half of the 20th century has overwhelmed us with the symbolism of numbers: 6 million Jews murdered during World War II; the 6-million-dollar man and woman; 6 billion people alive on Earth by 2000 A.D. The round numbers numb. These elements of our century's end, rationality, regularity, finality, must be complemented in our millennial tale by the Etruscan emotional sense of a generation that has lived out its life to its furthest extent, and by the Augustan political and spiritual excitements of a new era.
If, for many nations, the generations of the 20th century have been cut short, leaving us with a premature sense of survivorship, and if one “new era” has followed another like bees in a barrel, then the honor must devolve upon us in the year 2000 to welcome a polyphony of voices of all ages.

Consistency.
What we make of the year 2000 we make, of course, in our own image. It would be helpful to enter the year 2000 as Daybreak, a journal edited by North American Indians, will enter the year 2000, dedicated to “the seventh generation yet unborn.” The tale we tell ourselves at the millennium should remind us of the future; in the long run it is the children who determine the legitimacy of their parents. Therefore, at the pivot of the millennial year, from daybreak to daybreak of the summer solstice, we should cease and desist. Silence. Fasting. Remembrance. Stillness.

{ ... }
The closed, vacant brackets heading this section allude to annihilation and to possibility, sabbatical withdrawal and Sabbath joy.

“After the Alamogordo atomic test, Churchill was handed this message: ‘Babies satisfactorily born,'” Maggie Gee wrote in The Burning Book (1983). Science and technology have appeared in modern times as the true instruments of change; in fact they are the ritual (male) pantomime of pregnancy and parturition.

If we are to avail ourselves of the millennium as a pregnant historical moment, we must do so (as futurists themselves tell me) naked, and we must be led (futurists do not tell me this) by women, who are as accustomed to griefwork as to childbirth. Editing Woman in the Year 2000, Maggie Tripp wrote, “Relocate the future. That is what women are about to do.”

One morning in the spring of 1985, Christine Downing, an historian of religions, awoke with a fragment of a dream, the long title of a poem, “Love Song to This Doomed, Self-Destroying, but so Beautifully Creative Species of which I am a Member.”

Reflecting upon the fragment, she came to a sense of peace: “Accepting that we as a species may die means celebrating the beauty of our everyday life, living it as fully and creatively and gratefully as we are able.”

On the Beginning and the Ending
It is important here to be personal. In August 1988, I received a circular from a friend, a professor in Vermont, Daniel C. Noel, who was wondering what might be done to “foster a re-imagining of millennial and apocalyptic prospects” in the years before the turn of the millennium.

He had attended a 1983 conference on “Facing Apocalypse,” organized by Jungian analyst Robert Bosnak on the premise that “the vision of a cataclysmic ending that has haunted the human imagination for the full 3000 years of recorded history is now no longer a symbolic and remote admonition but a literal menace and a source of present dread.”

Noel, in his six-page letter, called for “a process of collaborative myth- and ritual-making” through which to deepen the experience of the millennium, and he proposed that we should meet for those rituals at the southwestern-most tip of England, Cornwall's Land's End.

“One of the more tangled issues of modern mythography is whether individuals can presume to create what once would have functioned as an authentically communal myth or ritual,” Noel wrote. “Probably not.” “And yet,” Noel continued, “there is a vision and an event to be worked toward in behalf of ‘the late great planet Earth!' between now and the turning of the millennium.” A funeral celebration, perhaps: “something which can align us, however briefly and imperfectly, with the subtlest necessities of the planet's or the race's prospective ending.”

It would be best, however, to take the year 2000 not as a summing up, but as a summons. We have come through many centuries' ends intact, raising the stakes each time since 1300, and always it seems that there can be no more to wager.

Divesting myself of that which I never did need, I will go, I think, to some Land's End on the eve of the year 2000 and again, on the eve of 2001, and I will presume with others of like mind to create a ritual. An invocation, maybe, to what we can see only with our eyes shut, or a dance to all that is, and must be, visible.


Hillel Schwartz is a cultural historian, senior fellow at the Millennium Institute, and author of Century's End: An Orientation Manual Toward the Year 2000 (NY: Currency Doubleday – currently out of print).

Italo Calvino died on his way to deliver the series of lectures now entitled, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, translated by Patrick Creagh , published posthumously by Harvard University Press, 1988.

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