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.
The theme was not wholly new: many years before Edgar Allan Poe had written a sonnet addressed to Science, attacking it as a “vulture, whose wings are dull realities”: Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood. The Elfin from the green grass…?
Not until the nineteenth century had science been powerful enough to be worth hating that much.
Into the more melancholic souls of the nineteenth century the wealth, materialism, and industrialization of their world infused a feeling of satiety; but there were also reasons why heartier spirits should experience a sense of closure. In the course of the nineteenth century the exploration of the world was effectively completed. For the first time it was possible to map the entire globe accurately and the long romance of terra incognita was finally over. Somewhat similarly, many well-informed people at the last century’s end thought that science was virtually complete: man had uncovered almost all the secrets of nature, and now knew practically everything that there was to be known.
A hundred years later, our own perspective upon time, now that the discoveries of nineteenth-century science have been fully absorbed into the general consciousness, is rather different. The world, we reflect, has been around for two billion years, but we ourselves—Homo sapiens, that is—appeared only half a million years ago. It took us a moment or two to find our feet (there being now only two of them), but just recently we invented agriculture, the wheel, and nuclear fission, and now we are on the verge of getting greater control over our environment. Far from the work of science seeming near an end, we observe dramatic advances ahead. Some of these may indeed appear frightening. One huge set of problems is environmental. How are the atmosphere and the ozone layer going to cope when a billion Chinese have automobiles and refrigerators? How will the beauty and glory of Venice survive if, say, several hundred million middle-class Asians all want to see it? More intimately disturbing, perhaps, is the threat that we shall acquire godlike powers over the making and shaping of human beings which we lack the moral preparation to use wisely (if indeed we should use them at all). There is plenty here to cause anxiety but not in the least because of a sense of an ending. On the contrary, we see vast new spaces opening up before us, and it is that vastness, that newness which scares us.
There are always reasons for fear and uncertainty, and therefore we should expect there to be anxiety around at the end of any millennium. That does not make it “millennial anxiety”; in fact, people now seem to be rather less anxious than they used to be. Suppose that we go back some thirty or forty years. At that time many highly intelligent people did indeed believe that the world would soon come to an end. Mankind now had the power to destroy itself entirely; even if malice and wickedness did not bring about the end, human error would sooner or later set off the disaster which would lead to the nuclear holocaust (the argument is so plausible that one wonders why it is not heard more often today). And anyway, the oil was about to run out. If the millennium had been due to end (say) in the year which we call 1970, there would indeed have been a sense of apocalypse.
In the later twentieth century as in the later nineteenth we see a great aesthetic movement drawing toward an end, in the earlier case Romanticism, in ours modernism. But there is this difference that at the end of the nineteenth century late Romanticism in several forms of art—perhaps in architecture, certainly in music—still glowed with a large splendor, even if overripe and overblown, and indeed proved to have some last great and original triumphs ahead of it. But our age already declares itself to be postmodern. The very term is expressive: modernism is over, and we don’t know where to go next. Isaiah Berlin used to say in his last years that there were no geniuses left anywhere in the world—none in literature, or painting, or music. That may or may not prove to be just, but it surely represents a current perception. Thirty years ago Stravinsky, Picasso, Bertrand Russell, and Henry Moore were still alive. Go back another ten years and you can add Le Corbusier, T.S. Eliot, and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Maybe some of these reputations were excessive and will not last, but the significant thing is that these people were seen in their own time as great masters; their works were already classics, and their contemporaries knew it. Rightly or wrongly, no one has that kind of status now, and we inhabit an age without living culture heroes. Nor do there seem to be heroes among the world’s statesmen, Nelson Mandela apart. The great men who for good or ill “made the weather,” in Churchill’s phrase, are no longer among us—figures like Churchill himself, President De Gaulle, Stalin, and Mao. But this at least may be a happy sign: remembering the supposed Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times,” we should perhaps be grateful that we are governed now by such small people.
In fact, the less politicians really make things new, the more they like to prattle about newness. Along with his implicit promise to the middle classes not to change anything much, Tony Blair has talked about a politics “for a young country.” What can this mean? Constitutionally, England is one of the oldest countries in the world—arguably the last surviving example of a medieval state—and demographically the population is inexorably growing older. The irony is that the rhetoric of newness is itself so old-fashioned, redolent of 1950s advertising for soap flakes and washing machines. For that matter Cool Britannia is a delightfully nostalgic concept, almost as retrogressive as John Major’s ill-starred Back to Basics campaign—a return to the swinging Sixties, only without the Beatles. But however empty such chatter may be, it probably has a subliminal effect, and for sure it lacks the fin de siècle tone.
Questioning the Millennium is an agreeable quick canter through a miscellany of loosely related topics: how the concept of the millennium has shifted from a future thousand-year period of righteousness to a moment in time; religious movements which expect the imminent end of the world, from the Anabaptists to Heaven’s Gate; Archbishop Ussher’s world chronology, starting with the creation in October 4004 BC; the origins of the Anno Domini system of dating; the problems of irregularity in solar and lunar calendars; why and how the dates of Easter, Ramadan, and Chanukah move, and why they move differently from each other; even why “millennial” has two n’s in the middle but “millenarian” only one. A severe judge might say that the book shows what you can get away with if you are famous and a good communicator. The second of its three parts has already been published, in different form, in another of Gould’s books, and even so it has required all the typesetter’s ingenuity to make the work seem long enough to appear between hard covers. But it matters very little: the unifying theme, insofar as one exists, is provided by Gould’s own personality and experience, prominently on display, and it is enjoyable to spend time in his company. There are moments when he treats us like fourteen-year-olds who need to be jollied along by a back-slapping uncle, and though the colloquial manner works well on the whole, at times the facetiousness can jar (“some really good (and noncarcinogenic) asbestos substitute for the forthcoming fire and brimstone,” “on the eminently reasonable assumption that God is a Yankee fan,” and so on). But the compensating virtues are the exuberant range of his curiosity and the clarity of his exposition.
The pages that may appear least relevant to the millennium are his last seventeen, devoted to the psychological puzzle of what used to be called the idiot savant, in Gould’s definition “globally retarded people with a highly precise, separable, and definable skill developed to a degree that would surprise us enough in a person of normal intelligence but that strikes us as simply miraculous in a person otherwise so limited.” (The label, he remarks, was “stunningly insensitive.” Historically, he may be wrong about that: we seem to have here one of those terms that has traveled a greater or lesser distance from description to evaluation, like “primitive,” “savage,” or “bastard.” The “noble savage” was originally no oxymoron; and Woody Allen’s alleged reference to his son as a bastard was a sign not of unkindness but of pedantry.)
The particular case with which Gould is concerned is that of an autistic young man who has the capacity instantly to calculate the day of the week of any past date. We may be wondering why he is straying so far from his subject, but he has a surprise to spring on us in the very last sentence of the book. It would be a shame to give this away, but perhaps it can be said that Gould’s consistent method is the open, warm-hearted invitation to come in, make ourselves at home, and get to know him (it is characteristic that he should mention that he is below average height), and also that his final twist is genuinely moving.
Gould’s powers of exposition are seen at their best in his discussion of the origin of our own method of year dating. The Anno Domini system derives from a sixth-century monk, Dionysius Exiguus (“Little Denis,” or “Denis the Short”). The system which he had inherited dated years AUC (“Ab Urbe Condita”), from the legendary foundation of Rome. He calculated that Jesus was born in 753 AUC, and started the Christian era in 754 AUC, which he called AD 1. However, his calculations, even if we suppose every word of the Bible to be literally true, were inexact: Herod the Great, crucial to Saint Matthew’s version of the Nativity story, died in 4 BC. That is why the margin of the Authorized Version dates the creation of the world to 4004 BC and the birth of Jesus to 4 BC. (In fact, his birth may have been earlier still; the indications in the New Testament itself seem to be internally inconsistent.) Dionysius’ historical inaccuracy matters very little; but a lasting inconvenience was created by the fact that Greek and Roman numeral systems had no symbol for zero. It was Indian and Arab mathematicians who developed the concept of zero, and the latter who passed it on to the West, too late, however, for little Denis, who was bound to start the Anno Domini sequence with the year 1. We reckon that babies reach the age of one after 365 days, but Jesus, on Dionysius’ system, has the age of one from the moment of his birth. That is why the bimillenary of an event which occurred (for example) in 9 BC comes in 1992, not 1991, and why the forthcoming millennial moment will come, as writers of letters to newspapers delight to point out, not as 1999 turns to 2000, but when 2000 turns to 2001.
Or will it? Is it possible to make a case for the millennium coming at the point when everyone will in actuality be celebrating it, at midnight on December 31, 1999? Gould devotes some pugnacious pages to this agreeably silly topic, which does perhaps have some minor sociological interest. He notes that in earlier times people—most people, though not all—agreed that the new century began in the ’01 year, not in the ’00 year. On January 1, 1701, Samuel Sewall of Boston hired trumpeters to proclaim the entrance of the eighteenth century. On January 1, 1901, The New York Times proclaimed “Twentieth Century’s Triumphant Entry” as its banner headline, beneath which it described the city’s festivities to mark the event. Across the Atlantic, the British periodical The Nineteenth Century added “and after” to its title in the same month. So why shall we all be marking the new millennium in 2000 rather than 2001? Gould suggests as one reason that “high culture” has a less dominating influence than it used to have, but though there may be something in this, the principal reason is surely one that he gives himself: “My dad once took me and my brother on a late night ten-mile ride around Flushing—just so we could see the odometer go from 9999 to 10000.” It is the simple drama of the number change that we shall be celebrating as 2000 comes in. And why not?
But Gould’s populist instincts take him further: he wants it to be a possible claim that the new millennium really might begin at the start of the year 2000. This gets him into a tangle, in which he makes two incompatible claims. The first is that there are arguments for starting the new millennium in either 2000 or 2001, and there is no way of adjudicating between the competing claims: it is simply a matter of taste. The second is that logical reasoning puts the new millennium in 2001, but logic can be overborne by aesthetic feeling or what he calls “common sensibility.” The second assertion is the correct one: in defense of the first he puts forward a couple of suggestions which he has come across. One of these is to declare that the first decade of our era was only nine years long: “So why don’t we just proclaim that the first century had ninety-nine years?” Gould calls this an elegant solution, but it is not; it is a rotten solution, both etymologically and mathematically.
A slightly better proposal is to allow the BC and AD sequences to overlap, so that the last year of the earlier sequence is denominated as 1 BC or 0 AD. “We can have a year zero any time we want,” says the author of this suggestion. But this does not work either: if we can overlap one sequence by another by choice, we can fix the millennium at any time and it loses all its significance. The whole fun of waiting for the millennium is that it is a grand moment independent of our control. If we can fix that moment to suit ourselves, we might as well put it in summer 1999, when the weather will be better. What Gould really thinks is that pop culture has defeated high culture, and he rejoices in it. To the insistence of the Royal Greenwich Observatory that the new millennium will start in 2001 he retorts, “No one now wields an imprimatur in our decentralized world…. Even once mighty Greenwich has been reduced to impotent tut-tutting!… Pop culture will have none of John Bull’s bushwa.”
Coming out of Harvard, this swaggering anti-intellectualism (now with new added Anglophobia) may strike some as mildly disappointing. But since Gould likes sentiment, here are two sentimental reasons why we might wish the new century to begin in 2001. Queen Victoria has stamped her name upon an epoch more effectively than anyone since at least Napoleon, and she died only three weeks after the end of the nineteenth century, in January 1901; her timing was symbolically superb. And if the Queen Mother (born August 1900) can make it to the age of one hundred and a half, she will become the first internationally famous person ever to have lived in three centuries. A testimony to the medical advances of our age, that would be a landmark to celebrate.
The complexities of calendrics are what Gould seems to enjoy best of all. The earth completes each circuit of the sun in 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 45.96768 seconds—just over eleven minutes less than 365 days and a quarter—with the well-known consequence that a calendar of 365 days rapidly gets out of kilter unless periodically corrected. It was Julius Caesar’s reform of the calendar in 45 BC which attempted to meet the problem by introducing an extra day every fourth year. Unfortunately, those eleven minutes start to make a difference as the centuries pass, and so Pope Gregory’s reform of 1582—the calendar that we use today—decreed that the last year of each century should not be a leap year. Even this does not quite suffice, and accordingly the Gregorian calendar restores the leap year each time the century ends with a year number divisible by 400. The year 2000 will therefore be a leap year. This arrangement is so close to exactness that no further correction will be needed for another two and a half thousand years.
We are lucky, in fact, that the fraction of a day at the end of a solar year is so close to a quarter, and thus comparatively easy to adjust; the lunar cycle is more inconvenient. The moon circles the earth in 29.53059 days, and a set of twelve lunar cycles comes to approximately 354 and a third days, so that there is no way of matching up solar and lunar calendars. Gould loves facts like these, and he is very good at conveying that love, but he also likes a bit of mischief, and he spices things up, once again, with a dash of pugnacity. Faced with the misfit between the earth’s rotation on its axis and its circuit of the sun, he exclaims sarcastically, “What hath God wrought?” And he describes the subject of day-date calculation (the technique in which his autistic savant displays such mastery) as illustrating “the interaction between human foibles and divine failure.”
To this village-atheist stuff there are at least two possible responses. One of these is aesthetic. Let him look out of the window: Are those trees and hills shaped with mathematical regularity? It is in their delicate and complex asymmetries that their beauty resides. Sometimes it is an evening sun that slants across the glistening sands of low tide, and sometimes low tide comes at noon; if the movements of the heavenly bodies all coincided neatly, that beautiful variety would not be possible. The other response is to observe that there is irregularity very deep in the necessary nature of things. What could be more geometric than a circle, what more simply immutable than the relationship between its diameter and circumference? Yet a Japanese mathematician has recently computed the value of å?, we are told, to fifty billion places of decimals, and still it is not exact. Likewise, the proposition in Fermat’s last theorem is very plain, its solution staggeringly complicated. Not only is the world incorrigibly plural, but the basic laws of any universe that we can conceive are fundamentally, incorrigibly, odd.
We shall hear a great deal more about the millennium in the next couple of years, but Gould has got in early; indeed, one suspects that his talk about millennial madness relates to what he expects to find in a year’s time rather than to his own present observation. Meanwhile, Mr. Mandelson has been traveling in search of inspiration for his dome. To Rome? To Jerusalem? No, to Florida, where he declared himself much impressed both by Disney World’s 1980s vision of the future and by its sentimental evocation of the past in Main Street. “There are only two organizations that can do this sort of thing and get it right,” he told the press. “Disney and Britain.” (And this man is supposed to be a genius as a spin doctor?) With any luck, he may give us a pretty good funfair, but it seems that we can hardly hope for anything more. A thousand years ago many of our ancestors thought that the world was going to end with a bang; this millennium looks to be ending with a bit of a giggle.
May 28, 1998