Peter Mandelson, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s fixer, spin doctor in chief, and Minister for the Millennium, recently appeared before the members of a House of Commons select committee to tell them the purpose of the dome which the British government is currently building at Greenwich at a cost of one and a quarter billion dollars, the most lavish spending on the forthcoming year 2000 anywhere on the planet, although the costs of the Roman Catholic Church for its Jubilee year in Rome may come close to it. “It’s a chance for people to think about their society, and hopefully improve it,” he said. The chief attraction, he added, would be an interactive computer game called surfball.
This is not to be the only delight. We are also promised the thrill of an enormous steel ball drawn to earth by a giant magnet, an intriguing prospect for those of us who had supposed that large metal objects were drawn to earth by gravity. In addition, according to the original plans, visitors would also be able to walk inside the model of a man, a hundred and fifty feet high, learning how the body works—or most of the body, since the man was to have no genital organs. The plan has since been modified: the figure will now recline, and be more than 300 feet long. It is not yet determined whether it will be male, female, or “genderless.”
This is not the first time that New Labour has adopted this somewhat unhappy symbolism. During the general election campaign the party ran a poster featuring a British bulldog (named Fritz, as it transpired); the Churchillian resonance of this was rather undermined when it was noticed that the animal’s manhood had been airbrushed out of existence. Indeed, the dome itself (originally planned by the last Conservative government, with the subsidiary purpose of reclaiming an area of land polluted by coal gas manufacture) is looking increasingly like an allegory of New Labour: shiny and modern, it is made of plastic and poorly resistant to stormy weather (it has an expected life span of twenty-five years), and no one yet has much idea what is going to be inside it. A more surprising light is cast on the new Britain by the news that, as in the old Soviet Union, special privileges will be reserved for the nomenklatura. Corporate hosts will be able to book tables to eat: the rest of us will have to queue.
The Great Exhibition of 1851 and the many international exhibitions across the world which followed it were inspired by commercial energy, pride in craftsmanship and industry, and a kind of moral vision. All these things seem to be lacking this time. Stephen Bayley, then creative director of the Millennium Exhibition, wrote in a recent article that it would contain “thought-provoking exhibits and experiences which blur the distinction between education and entertainment whose accumulative effect is to equip the individual visitor with liberating insights into the present and future condition of this world.” Sounds fun, doesn’t it? It also sounds extremely vague. On another occasion he told an interviewer, “I am the project’s creative conscience. My task is to make sure the display is stimulating. If I have my way, it will be about sex, manners, music, cinema, architecture, sport, shopping.” He has since flounced out of his job, claiming that Mandelson could not live up to these lofty standards. What we seem likely to get is a mixture of funfair and earnest didacticism. An eight-year-old boy has recently been appointed to advise the committee on its proposed exhibits. Throughout my adult life, I have loved funfairs, but I wonder if this one may not be a little too childish for me.
Two thousand years of what, anyway? The squirming embarrassment with which Mandelson and his team have responded to this question has been a delight to behold. It appears unlikely that any room will be found for Jesus Christ, the first century CE religious activist, though Christianity will figure in a historical context, as part of a display illustrating the development of Britain through the centuries. Admittedly, there is one sense in which the year 2000 is not a Christian anniversary, because it does not mark two thousand years from any Christian event. We do not know when Jesus was born (though it was almost certainly earlier than 1 BC), and the churches find themselves inhibited from wholeheartedly celebrating two millennia from the Incarnation, because that moment in all probability has already been passed, as Stephen Jay Gould points out in Questioning the Millennium.
But this does not explain the exhibition organizers’ agony of unease. One cause may be a characteristically British bashfulness: religion is to the English, like money, sex, and folk dancing, a source of irrational embarrassment. The deeper cause, however, may lie in a secular materialism which shrinks from the spiritual. It has frequently been said that the Princess Diana phenomenon revealed the existence of a spiritual hunger, in search of an object on which to glut itself, but the bleaker truth may be that what people want is an alternative to the spiritual. After all, when people binge on burgers at McDonald’s, we don’t say that they are really hungry for bran and fresh fruit. Mandelson’s problem is that in the absence of a natural moral, spiritual, or imaginative pressure, it is not clear what the millennium celebrations should be about. According to a recent opinion poll, four out of five Britons reckon the dome to be a waste of money.
Why are we so unstirred by the millennium? Gould refers repeatedly in Questioning the Millennium to our current “millennial madness,” but surely the really striking phenomenon is how little fever there is around. If there is any excitement, it is like the kind of excitement that surrounds Titanic or The Lion King—that is, one manufactured by commercial interests and wholly superficial. One reason, no doubt, is that the arrival of a year denominated 2000 is actually very unimportant (except for its effect on computers)—a “precisely arbitrary” moment, as Gould puts it. And the new number, like poetry in Auden’s phrase, “makes nothing happen.” Yet at the same time the scale of the anniversary, if we are to take it seriously, is of such magnitude that we do not know how to rise to the occasion. Newspapers and magazines may run surveys of the past year, or the past decade, even of the past century. But the past millennium? The idea is somehow absurd. Similarly, hundreds of thousands of people celebrate the arrival of a new year by getting drunk. How do you mark the arrival of a new millennium? Get very very drunk? As an event, the millennium is either too large for us to cope with, or too trivial.
But perhaps it is not exactly true that the number 2000 makes no difference. Is it possible that the knowledge that we are reaching the end of a millennium affects our behavior? Gould refers to the issue, hotly debated among dark-age historians, of whether a “panic terror” swept Europe around the year 1000. His own cautious conclusion is that “at least a modest claim for substantial millennial stirring” at that time can be sustained. Many people seem to believe that even rather less spectacular dates can influence popular attitudes, and Gould himself writes of “the angst that always accompanies the endings of centuries,” though he adds that he refuses to speculate about its psychological source. But is it true that there has been a recurrent angst of this kind? Our weakness is that our memories are so short. As a century draws near its end, there are very few people around who can remember the end of the previous century, and none at all who were alive a hundred years before that, and it is easy to suppose that the outlook characteristic of the close of the last century was similar to that of other, earlier turning points.
Yet the reality, surely, is that it was not. We should probably have difficulty in finding people oppressed by the sense of an ending in the last years of the eighteenth century, for example. Gould notes that the American people had the death of George Washington to mourn at the very end of 1799, but that moment, solemn though it was, did not mark the fading of an ancien régime: on the contrary, the dead man had created something powerfully new, and it was a young country that lamented his passing. In France, so far were the revolutionaries from feeling world-weary that they declared the year 1 of a new era: for Robespierre and his friends the 1790s were not the last decade of a century but the first. The term fin de siècle, as it happens, is not recorded in any English language source before 1890, and does not seem to be much older as a significant expression even in France itself. Besides, it has been used almost entirely in relation to the nineteenth century ever since. And maybe even at the time the fin de siècle idea did not spread very far beyond France and Britain; in the German-speaking world the aesthetic fashion of the moment was Jugendstil, the very name implying freshness and the beginning of something youthful and new. Not until the 1960s would teenage taste, for the first time in the history of the world, become the dominant cultural force of an age, but here already, in the supposedly worn-out 1880s and 1890s, was the conception that young men might set a period’s tone.
Where the fin de siècle idea did catch on, it seems to have been inspired by conditions peculiar to that time—the affectation of decadence among some writers and artists, and a sense of moral instability related to the apparent crumbling of religious belief; many agnostics at the time, indeed, saw the great religions as outworn creeds sliding toward a not very distant oblivion. Contemplating, as he supposed, the relics of a discredited faith at the Grande Chartreuse, Matthew Arnold had seen himself as “Wandering between two worlds, one dead,/The other powerless to be born”; and Thomas Carlyle had declared, “The doom of the Old has long been pronounced…but, alas, the New appears not in its stead.” It was a commonplace to contrast the oldness of one’s own time with the youth or childhood of the world, often represented by the blithe, athletic spirit of ancient Greece: even Karl Marx joined in that game. In some minds, a sense of the oldness of their time became intertwined with a feeling that science had sucked all the magic and numinousness out of the world: the grayness of age and the gray dullness of fact became two aspects of a pervasive mal du siècle. The young Yeats—not yet a modern, but a fin de siècle aesthete—began one of his earliest poems, The woods of Arcady are dead, And withered is their antique joy; Of old the world on dreaming fed; Grey truth is now her painted toy.