We’ve imagined it for years. Now it’s here. What does the millennial turn of the Western calendar really represent?

Robert Sheppard November 1 1999


We’ve imagined it for years. Now it’s here. What does the millennial turn of the Western calendar really represent?

Robert Sheppard November 1 1999


We’ve imagined it for years. Now it’s here. What does the millennial turn of the Western calendar really represent?


Robert Sheppard

Must hurry, must hurry. There is no time. The millennium is upon us and there is so much to do, so much to make sense of. A thousand years. How do you mark something like that—a party, a monument, reflection? When did time begin anyway? Long ago in a galaxy far away? Or in the steady drip-drip-drip of the first water clock somewhere along the Nile in the dead of night? Shakespeare thought he knew. When he wrote in 1599 that the world was “almost six thousand years old,” he said it with the worldly certainty of an Elizabethan. But that

was before carbon dating, the extraction of DNA from long-ago fossils, and sky-borne telescopes that can detect the breakdown of exotic light rays from billions of years past. In other words, before the ground beneath us shifted.

Just as we think we know what is going on, some new discovery pushes the age of the world, of the universe, of humanity, back ever further into the mists of time. Todays day is almost a 1 Oth of a second longer than at the time of the pharaohs (slower rotation of the Earth). The stars in the night sky have relocated since the Babylonians invented the zodiac, rendering todays horror-scopes hopelessly out of date. “Ain’t it funny,” the philosopher-crooner Willie Nelson once sang, “how time slips away.”

Stop. Let’s not give in to nostalgia. There is too much of that just now. It is as if North Americans have stopped packing for tomorrow. The 20th century began with a burst of science and optimism. Successive world’s fairs sought to showcase the mechanical might-be of something called The Future. Early editions of this magazine, founded in 1905, were devoted to the buoyancy of what lay ahead, the onslaught of the automobile and highbutton shoes. A Macleans mid-century roundup in 1955 continued to peer mystically at moving sidewalks, gyrocars that would create traffic jams in the sky during rush hour, a 20-hour work week and robotic factories that “will practically run themselves.”

Who predicts the future now? Sure, science barges about like the Mad Hatter, burrowing inexorably into genetic codes, into women’s wombs. But the world most of us inhabit seems strangely cocooned. Is this just aging but ever-influential boomers taking stock, trying vainly to slow down their lives? Or might it come from the millennium itself approaching, like some distant road sign finally hoving into view?

Of course, The Millennium is a Western conceit. Why should we imbue it with any particular significance? There are other calendars still in use. The year 2000 will be 1420 in the Muslim calendar, 5760 in the Hebrew world, the year of the rabbit in China, which has an entirely different—cyclical—way of looking at time. The Western calendar has been rearranged on at least five major occasions, six if you count the relatively short-lived calendar of the French Revolution. Great whacks of days, occasionally years, have been lopped off with the stroke of a pen to make the thing sensible. So the notion of, say, one continuing line from the birth of Christ—whenever that was

exacdy—to Dec. 31, 1999 (a year early, if you really want 2,000 years), requires a singular leap of faith to begin with.

What’s more, nature knows no division by thousands, as Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould has noted. On the other hand, Gould says, nature does have its mathematical classifications and, more important, humans seem to have their own compulsive need to classify, to impose meaning. So a thousand years? A millennial moment? Why not? Even if it is just a pinch of time in a long, tangled and only occasionally noble skein.

Let’s set the table. The first millennium AD—or CE, Common Era, as the new classifiers would have it—belongs to China (the most cohesive state, the most technically advanced with a library to die for). It is also the realm of Arab mystics, the birth of Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, the forgiveness of sins, the evolving power of the printed word, hesitant cultures reaching out, mosdy to war, sometimes to touch. There was more, but it is our millennium (a modest conceit that would be unknown to our forebears) that is in

the spotlight. This is Europe in the ascendancy, the Crusades, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the age of nations, sea travel on a grand scale, the New World, the birth of the novel, the Industrial Revolution, Karl Marx, psychoanalysis, Albert Einstein, world wars, Auschwitz, penicillin, the bomb, Mao Tse-tung, rock ’n’ roll, the sexual revolution, space travel, AIDs, Chernobyl, the Internet and, of course, the computer chip—a piece of silicon, the world literally in a grain of sand.

This is the millennium where events really start to smoke. Time itself undergoes a transformation. By the 1700s, calendars and the Arabic zero finally become entrenched in Western consciousness. The 1800s witness the rule of the clock— schedules, the gold-fobbed pocket watch, mechanical time, the birth of the weekend. Time becomes a commodity, as Charlie Chaplin underscored in Modem Times, his satiric runin with The Machine. As modern humans, we develop Punctuality, enough at least to attend to secular anniversaries, to be able to recite how old we are (a relatively recent condition), to

From the earliest human civilizations, there has been a constant impulse to leave some lasting testament

mark even such trivial occasions as the change of decades. “In one era and out the other,” as Marshall McLuhan once said.

We also imbibe the sense of Time Marching On, arm-in-arm with Science, Progress (and its evil step-sibling Decadence). The fruits of this march are pretty impressive: democracy, human rights, the rule of law, near-universal education, the changing role of women in society. But there is a downside: environmental degradation, cultural and species extinction on a noticeable scale, children shooting children. And time speeds up, everything speeds up: cars, aircraft, computers that perform in nanoseconds, political discourse that is reduced to six-second sound bites, even the amount of time anyone is likely to stay in a job.

We are embarrassed now, at the tail end of the 20th century, with the North American economy ticking over as smoothly as a Japanese automobile, to be reminded that this has been the bloodiest century on record, that more lives have been lost to human hands in the past 100 years than at any other comparable time. “If I had to sum up the 20th century,” said the late British violinist Yehudi Menuhin, “I would say that it raised the greatest hopes ever conceived by humanity, and destroyed all illusions and ideals.”

Kilroy was here. And here and here. From the earliest civilizations five and six thousand years ago, there has been a constant impulse to leave some lasting testament that would outlive the puny human existence. The most reliably dated

manmade structure in North America is a 5,400year-old earthen mound in Louisiana. No one knows what it was for. It is almost a thousand years older than the Great Pyramid of Cheops, 1,600 years older than Stonehenge. To Gregory Benford, a physicist and time muser at the University of California at Irvine, these monuments reflect what he calls Deep Time—the attempt by humanity to communicate across millennia.

Stone, says Benford, is still the best deep-time investment. Stone lasts. That’s what the poet Lord Byron thought, too, and Giovanni Belzoni, a 19th-century circus strongman— both with a penchant for carving their names in the ancient monuments of Greece and Egypt. Hitchhiking across time. What are today’s deep-time commitments? Disney World (will ft last a thousand years)? The space missions, skimming merrily through lengthy interstellar darkness? The Pioneer space probes in the early 1970s, the first to leave our Solar System, carried modest aluminum plaques with a sketch of two humans greeting infinity with a hopeful wave. The Cassini mission to Saturn in 1997 contained a video disk with 616,403 signatures from members of the Planetary Society—Kilroyism run amok.

Those of us who can’t afford a monument might consider a time capsule, the more personalized deep-time fad that has become one of the great enthusiasms of this century. Begun in the 1930s, time capsules have been a regular feature of successive world’s fairs. In one, in Seville, Spain, in 1992, visitors

Gathering at Stonehenge; the Sphinx in Egypt: monuments that reflect 'Deep Time'

were invited to throw mementoes of their everyday lives into an open tar pit for posterity. There is a catch, though, notes the International Time Capsule Society: there are roughly 10,000 time capsules, some including everything from Pop Tarts and favourite toys to workout videos, buried around the world. But most of them are lost. People forget where they bury things. The cast of the MASH television show buried a set of tapes and artifacts somewhere on the 20th Century Fox parking lot in Hollywood in 1983. These now appear to be submerged beneath a huge hotel.

One candidate for deep-time consideration put forward by The Long Now Foundation, a San Francisco-based group devoted to thinking about time in a different (slower) way, is the Shinto shrine at Ise, Japan. A modest log structure on stilts, first erected in AD 4, it is deconstructed and rebuilt every 20 years. Unlike Stonehenge and the pyramids, the impermanence of the shrine has helped sustain the survival of its adherents. The lesson here: faith survives. And habit and storytelling.

Never underestimate the power of the story. In Christian mythology, the millennium refers to the thousand-year reign of Christ (or His church). At the end of that time, the Devil rises up from his lair and with the aid of a group of bad guys begins a monumental fight for supremacy, complete with debauchery, plague and pestilence, only to be defeated when a vengeful Christ comes down to earth on his white charger, smites his enemies, raises the righteous dead on the Day of Judgment and banishes the Devil forever to a “sea of fire and brimstone.” The Second Coming. The apocalypse. The end of the world as we know it.

This is a story that goes back at least 2,200 years, has echoes in other cultures—Muslim, Hindu, even the Mayan calendar, which predicts a return to earth of intergalactic space travellers early in the 21st century, according to some—and has resonated through the ages. It is the story of the “Outs,” some scholars say: the early Christians trying to establish their church; later the Protestant reformers and breakaway sects trying to establish their legitimacy. And it may even have had roots in a real event: an uprising against Rome by Jewish zealots around AD 70 that led directly to the sacking of Jerusalem and the levelling of Herod’s temple. Around that time, Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying Pompeii and filling the atmosphere in Europe and the Middle East with so much soot that the sun was darkened and the moon appeared to be red like blood.

Historians have tended to view millennarians (as end-ofworld believers are called) as part of the lunatic fringe. But that may be to miss the import of a myth that has often grabbed humanity by the throat. The Crusades were launched (AD 1095) in large measure to prepare Jerusalem for the Second Coming. In 1492—believing that the end of the world was “about 155 years away”—Christopher Columbus set sail to fulfil a biblical prophecy and set the stage for Christ’s return. Some historians believe that in the 1860s and ’70s, many North American Indians married these apoca-

lyptic Christian visions to their own (the revival of the Ghost Dance) in the ill-starred belief they would be immune to the white man’s bullets. Hider, of course, contemplated his own millennium—the thousand-year Reich.

Endings. Beginnings. Fresh starts. These are what the year 2000 represents. It is one of history’s ironies that the year 1000 passed with relatively little apocalyptic fervour, most scholars believe, save for some crazed peasant rebellions in parts of Germany and central France: calendars were not an everyday thing in those days; life had a brutish but comforting routine. Modern humans, whipsawed by incessant change and an almost pathologically short attention span, have no time for the Big Moment. Yet we live in a culture

that believes fundamentally in second chances, in late-life start-overs and the pure justice of the political or competitive comeback.

Mind you, ends and beginnings produce their own anxieties. We know from the health statistics that suicides, depressions and family violence spike upwards in December and January as the calendar makes its turn. Many of us are going to have a hard time coping with the weight of millennial resolutions. In the latter half of the 20th century, the year 2000 has come to represent The Future: it has been the target date for worthy goals and personal objectives. Successive generations of schoolchildren, probably from the 1930s on, have secretly calculated how old they would be when 2000 rolled around. It is one of those rare events that transcends generational angst. Yet it may not be the date itself that begs the celebration or the monument-builder’s hammer. The real celebration may simply be that the millennium is one of history’s little gifts, an excuse to indulge in some personal contemplation and revel in the notion that time does, well, march on. EE