From Saturn Devouring His Son, Francisco Goya, 1819-1823
by Ed Simon
For when Truth battles against the lies of millennia there will be shock waves, earthquakes, the transposition of hills and valleys such as the world has never yet imagined even in its dreams… there will be wars the like of which have never been seen on earth before.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo (1908)
History is just one fucking thing after another.
—Alan Bennett, The History Boys (2004)
Friday can never be abolished, eternal and infinite, its multitude stretches on in seven-day sequences before time existed and long after it shall end; for calendars are a function of mathematics, and mathematics is the only thing that is simultaneously completely true and totally unreal, the purest form of poetry that there is.
Earth has its own liturgy of hours, the seasons which have not yet been totally vanquished, but Christ knows that we’re pumping out enough carbon dioxide to try. There is, or was, that objective rhythm born from the Earth’s axis, nature’s calendar of solstice and equinox, manifested in dread winter and humid summer, verdant spring and chilled autumn. Seasons may be divine and calendars may be of humanity, but the former lasts only as long as the planet rotates and revolves, the later as an invention of absolute math goes on forever both forwards and backwards, a fiction that in its absoluteness never ends because it never really began. As an anonymous aphorism put it, “God made the days and nights but man made the Calendar.”
The approach of a decade’s end draws the mind to those sorts of considerations, the way in which the arbitrary conclusion of a certain segment of calendrical time imposes order onto the disorder of human events. Our approaching decade’s conclusion is the rare variety of prediction that necessarily and by definition shall absolutely come to pass (even if all the missiles should go off before the Times Square ball drops).
Since it was always a matter of contingent decision, the arrival of January 1st, 2020 was foretold the moment that the Gregorian Calendar was adopted (1582 in France, Italy, and the Hapsburg lands; 1750 in Great Britain and her colonies; 1918 in the newly established USSR). Its arrival was of course foretold the moment the previous Julian Calendar had been established as well, albeit anyone still counting from that archaic system won’t see the new decade until the date of January 13th in our calendar. We can’t help but think in those decimal units of decades, centuries, millennia, and we assume that as an organizing principle they help us understand things about human alteration, about shifts and changes in culture, society, politics, technology, and so on.
Classicist Elias Bickerman wrote that “A calendar is a tool which cannot be justified by either logic or astronomy,” but I don’t believe this. Calendars justify themselves by pure logic beyond the dictates of the mere motion of the spheres. The day of the week on which any theoretical future date will take place was made certain the moment the Gregorian calendar was set. July 1st, 2047 will see the expiration of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, and with it, the obligation of the People’s Republic of China to govern Hong Kong as a special administrative region. That’s going to be a Monday. Haley’s Comet will reach its perihelion when returning to our solar system on July 28th, 2061. That’ll be a Thursday. The United States’ quincentennial anniversary will fall on July 4th, 2276. A Tuesday. We’ll see if we get there (seems increasingly unlikely). It’s almost stultifying obvious to point out that this simple trick of calculation is easily run backwards as well. The seventeenth-century Irish Anglican divine Bishop James Ussher, working backwards from biblical genealogies, calculated the date of the universe’s creations as October 22nd, 4004 BC (at 6 P.M.). A Saturday.
To diddle around with addition or subtraction to figure out what day of the week any theoretical date has or will be is hardly some savant-like ability. What’s interesting, at least to me, is that any date that could be has a day of the week. We mock Ussher’s calculation today, but the instinct isn’t wrong. The days of the week are mated to their respective dates before dates could ever exist and long after they ever will; the Big Bang has a day of the week (whatever it would have been) as will the Big Crunch (or the days will go forward like endless beads on an abacus as the heat death of the universe marches on to cold entropy). An immaculateness in this, the way in which our constructed, invented, arbitrary calendar has an infinitude that spring, summer, fall, winter never can, based as they are in the gross materiality of actual life.
Such a strange thing, oppressive almost, how there is no date that doesn’t have a day of the week, how even though it’s a construction of the mind (or maybe because especially it is) there is no escaping Monday. As writer E.G. Richards soberly put it in Mapping Time: The Calendar and Its History, “the calendar enables us to make or impose unambiguous commitments for the future; without a calendar, a diary would be a muddle…. a calendar is an almanac, a program of future events or a record of past events, each assigned to a day or a year.”
There is a sublimity to the calendar, a poetry of dates. The absolutism and universalism of how it imposes its mathematical abstractions upon naked reality has a certain admirability to it. Roman calendars in their earlier iterations, for example, though we appropriated our months from them, dated the years from the beginning of the current consul’s reign, the variability of years constrained by the rule and life of mortal men. A dramatic projection of the will of a human upon the calendar, but it’s impossible to figure out the day of the week that God created the universe.
There are other calendars of more intricate ingenuity than the Gregorian, the systems of Babylonians and Mayans, and there are calendars that move outward from fixed dates, like the Islamic calendar dating from the year of the prophet Muhammad’s migration from Mecca to Medina, or the Jewish system marking years from the creation of the world (and differing on dates from Ussher). What all of these rigorous, complex, machine-like calendars accomplish, which spool outward not from the ever changing birth of some politician, but rather from a fixed and immutable date in history, is that shared ability to see in past, present, and future the regularity of predicable days, months, years, decades, centuries, millennia.
If that wasn’t the origin of the idea of historical regularity, our willing of some kind of explanatory schema upon the affairs of humans, it must have certainly altered things at least. Predictions and divination are a basic human quality of belief, but I wonder how much of the art of prophecy, of historical prognostication and reading patterns about history drew their succor from the idea of a regular calendar? For futurists to exist as a profession (respectable or otherwise) at least depends on a future tense, whether or not in the embrace of linear, cyclical, or some other model of how time operates. That history operates in a regularized rhythm, a predictable sequence of subdivisions, whether or not they are to be singular or reoccurring, is a great chimera of human thought.
To survey the past and project into the future; to search for melody and counter-melody amongst the discord of events, to fashion theories and predictions about the transformation of the past into the present and the present into the future is an organizing principle of the human sciences. When paired too closely to the certainties of an actual calendar, it can take on the form of divination. And yet the idea that there is a discernable plot to history, a narrative of either eternal reoccurrence, perfect communism, or the technological Singularity, is intoxicating – and sometimes it may even be accurate. Historical typology is simply the narrative theory for the actual world; if you’re of a more apocalyptic personality, you can think of eschatology as being the literary criticism of collective life.
John Burrow writes in A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century that the “connection between narrative and divine stewardship lies in its explanations. That is to render an account, initially in the form of a list, can come to involve an explanation, which in turn may take the form of a more or less elaborated narrative.” More than simply a listing of one thing after another, historiography is the organization of those things into some kind of plot, and as the earliest chapters lead the reader to the middle, so may the reader anticipate the conclusion. Historical interpretation, whether it’s our intent or not, imposes a teleological understanding upon all that which has happened, and necessarily has us read accounts as if they were fictional narratives, albeit one written by God, or “Great Men,” or dialectical materialism.
Sometimes these schemata operate as if intentionality from some agent marks the very movement of history take on a rather literal form. The need to tame events into “History” is intrinsic to our status as “storytelling animals,” or rather “meaning-making creatures.” Writing about that old popular theory concerning the finite number of narratives, Christopher Booker notes in The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories that “So deep and so instinctive is our need for them that, as small children, we have no sooner learned to speak than we begin demanding to be told stories… we fail to see just ow strange it is: our ability to ‘imagine,’ to bring up to our conscious perception the images of things which are not actually in front of our eyes.” History is that same process writ large, the movement of aeon and epoch pushed around the map of the world, whether by God, or exemplary human beings, or abstract sociological forces. With the linearity of the calendar, there is not just the division of book and chapter, or stanza and verse, but century and decade as well; an organizational principle bringing structure to the anarchic sequence of events that define our otherwise scattershot existence.
Just as Booker, drawing from those other narratologists from Vladimir Propp to Northrop Frye who conceived that stories could only come in some sort of finite number of flavors, so too do our constraining models of history come in particular varieties. The exact number of different divisions a historical model may offer, what their designations are, and how the theorist sees them as being related to one another can be variable, even whether the philosopher conceives of history as linear or cyclical can be largely irrelevant, but there are two basic tales of historical development which exist. The first could be called the “Eden Model,” and the second could be called the “Utopia Model.” The first model fundamentally believes that there was a perfection in the past which we’ve degenerated from, and the later holds faith that there shall be a perfection in the future to which we ascend towards. The first is steadfastly pessimistic, the latter is vehemently optimistic; the operative genre of the former is the jeremiad, that of the later is the manifesto.
There can be no easy partisan or sectarian division that so neatly divides these two stories from one another; it would be easy to assume that the Eden Model is basically rightist and the Utopia Model leftist; the first religious and the second secular. None of that necessarily holds, however, for sublimated theology must by necessity define both concepts. Utopia is itself nothing but millennium rendered on Earth. Nor can one simply assume that Eden is a right-wing concept and Utopia a left-wing one, for sentimental nostalgia about past greatness marks much left discourse just as regenerative myths of remaking the world anew exist in some far-right rhetoric. For that matter, though these are the two poles of historical myth-making, many stories told are amalgamations of the two, or exist upon a spectrum between the extremes. Vulgar Marxist historiography, for example, holds to an Eden in the past and a Utopia in the future, functioning as a hybrid of both models. For that matter, it can be an issue of relative perspective to ascertain how we’re to classify them. Eden and Utopia exist alike a varied assortment of prophetic traditions, from that of the biblical “Five Kingdoms” to the Christian “Six Ages of Man.” In our everyday existence we toggle between those models as well, and as with all arbitrary constructions imposed upon naked reality, it would be a fallacy to discount their utility, significance, and meaning simply because they are the creations of humans.
The Eden Model sees its manifestation not just in the titular biblical story, but in classical works too, chiefly in the model relayed by Hesiod in his mytho-historical account Works and Days. Hesiod envisions a distant epoch whereby the “deathless gods who dwell on Olympus made a golden race of mortal men who lived in time of Cronos when he was reigning in heaven. And they lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief.” From this halcyon Golden Age, human history is to be an account of degradation and entropy; Hesiod follows the Golden Age with the Silver, Bronze, and Heroic Age, the poet himself living in the midst of the grubby Iron Age. Such Arcadian mythologizing is replete in the literature of Greece and Rome, evidenced in Virgil and Ovid, and a mainstay of conservative pastoralizing that envisions the past as a greater country than the present. The Eden Model is not necessarily linear at all, for as Virgil writes in the Eclogues, “Now the last age by Cumae’s Sibyl sung/Has come and gone, and the majestic roll/Of circling centuries begins anew:/Astraea returns.” Nor is the Golden Age of the Eden Model an explicitly Western concept; Hinduism’s division of human history into a complex arrangement of “Yugas,” with those eras defined as the divine Satya, the Treta, the Dvapara, and our current fallen Kali Yuga.
By contrast, the Utopia Model projects the Golden Age into the future; something that while related to the eschatological yearnings of millennialism isn’t necessarily reducible to it. As with the Eden Model, there are scriptural justifications for the Utopia Model as well, for any religious narrative that anticipates the high being raised low and the low being raised high tells a similar story. The primogeniture of the Utopia Model was arguably a heretical, mystically-minded 12th century Franciscan monk from Calabria named Joachim of Fiore, a hidden yet influential categorizer and analyst of how history operates, and a thinker who in a manner often obscured was responsible for constructing a progressive schema that interpreted and predicted history in a manner that still holds profound sway across the political divide, influential to both Marxist and fascist historiography, as well as positivist and neoliberal myths of future perfection.
Philosopher John Gray writes in Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia that Joachim believed “he had gleaned an esoteric meaning from the scriptures… where he experienced some kind of spiritual illumination,” turning the “Christian doctrine of the Trinity into a philosophy of history.” Joachim identified an Age of the Father with Judaism and the Law, with that first dispensation running until the incarnation of Christ; the second Age of the Son was conflated with Christianity and Grace. Finally, Joachim foretold the arrival of a new antinomian Age of the Holy Spirit, to be associated with a new creed and a new freedom (he wasn’t a heretic for nothing). With the coming of this new epoch, Joachim envisioned there being a “New People of God” whom “All those wonderful things written about Solomon and Christ will be completed in them in the spirit, because in this people Christ will reign more powerfully.” This Age of the Holy Spirit was anticipated as arriving at various points in the near future, with Joachim seeing its arrival in a 1260 that never came. His model was long ago secularized into a sort of cracked millennialism, with Grey writing that “Joachite prophecy inspired millenarian movements… [and] had a profound impact on secular thought.” Aquinas put Joachim in hell, and Dante placed him in heaven, but regardless of his current address, his endurance has been remarkable, even as his name has faded from all but the awareness of specialists.
Medievalist Norman Cohn provides a genealogy of Joachim’s influence in the classic study The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, arguing that the Spiritual Franciscan’s “speculations can be traced right down to the present day, and most clearly in certain ‘philosophies of history.’” He sees traces of Joachim in the “theories of historical evolution expounded by… Lessing, Schelling, Fichte and to some extent Hegel; in Auguste Comte’s idea of history… and again in the Marxian dialectic.” Joachimitism, and by proxy the Utopia Model, is not just a schema for the left, but Cohn notes “that the phrase ‘the Third Reich’… would have had but little emotional significance if the phantasy of a third and most glorious dispensation had not, over the centuries, entered into the common stock of European social mythology.”
We must consider that historical models, divisions of eras and epochs, arguments about trends and shifts in time, are themselves secularized from past theological categories and perspectives. Both the Eden and Utopia Model have aspects that are redemptive and aspects which are deeply revanchist, but they’re written in the poetry of myth before they’ve been translated into the prose of science. When we speak of the difference between the political polarities of “left” and “right,” what we’re really examining is the difference between secularized versions of “post-millennialism” and “pre-millennialism” (though that’s a topic for another day). What we’ve seen, in this decade now drawing to a close, is the return of such theological historical thinking, the dueling battle between partisans of Eden and Utopia. 1992 saw the publication of the historian Francis Fukuyama’s ill-considered The End of History and the Last Man, but the first decade of this century saw 9/11 and the financial collapse, and the second decade saw the hardening of authoritarianism and the harbingers of climate collapse. With the end of the Cold War we deluded ourselves into that neo-liberal fantasy of millennium, but her dark twin apocalypse is always threatening us with the chimes of midnight.
So how are we to consider this, the last month of the end of the second decade of the first century of the third millennium? How does the calendar transpose onto our prophecies, to the very idea of prophecy? In some ways the decade is a creation of the twentieth-century; not that the literal unit of division didn’t exist previously, but that the rapid pace of technological development, and thus cultural development, gave the decade a new prominence since everything suddenly moved so quickly. The twentieth-century inaugurated a rapid acceleration in differentiation whereby decades came to almost feel like centuries. “All that is solid melts into air,” Marx famously wrote about the vertigo of industrial capitalism, and by the turn of the twentieth-century such an effect had only been amplified.
While writers certainly distinguished between decades as distinct units of cultural experience prior to the twentieth-century, the innovations of things like incandescent light, air and train travel, and especially the technologies of cultural preservation such as photography, sound-recording, and film gave a thickness and speed to the experience of history which had not been there before. If there is an exponential quality to such things, than perhaps Thomas Edison marked the beginning of the post-millennial moment, but it seems like this decade, with its instantaneous digital communication, its “Fake News,” and its capitalist surveillance systems, is perhaps the moment when we finally realized that we’ve been living within millennium and apocalypse all along.
With the ability to record and replicate images, sounds, and ideas forever in a sort of (illusory) digital immortality, a grand shift occurred in human consciousness, one responsible for how fast everything now seems to be going. This decade coming to a rapid close is one that has seen a certain “return of history,” with the arrival of both fascist and socialist politics that had seemed dormant for generations, a direct repudiation of the neoliberal millennial triumphalism of a Fukuyama. But such a return to history was the inevitable conclusion of the unprecedented technological shift which then ensured a cultural and political shift. In the meantime, we’ve seen models of historical schema be resurrected after the neoliberal millennium was shown to be a mirage, first from the attacks of 2001, and then more importantly the financial collapse of 2008.
In this decade, the fascist elites have appropriated old templates of universal historical determinism in the form of the Kali Yuga, or white supremacist pustule Stephen Bannon’s obsession with the Strauss-Howe Generational Theory and the supposed “fourth turning” we’re in the midst of. On the left, there has been a similar reimagining of those old Marxian theories of historical development, of some sort of inevitable confrontation with the forces of reaction as being presaged in the coming years and decades. Then there are those who seem helplessly lost, the centrists who pine for a return to normalcy, to an end of history which seemed to abruptly start again and that not even Fukuyama believes in anymore. If there is to be any prognostication in this essay, any certainty, I must take it from the calendar rather than from any one model. Here is your only inviolate absolute that I’ll offer – January 1st, 2020 will be a Wednesday, all the rest is mere exegesis.
I can tell you what my feelings of apprehension are, however. If you can, remember the odd feeling of lightness that seemed to come in with the second decade, the ways in which the “Global War on Terror,” and the financial collapse seemed to some as mere hinks on the road to a fairer, just, free, and equal future. Barack Obama had been elected only two years before, there was an illusion for those who could afford it that ours was a “post-racial” future. Demographers assured us that the mere presence of right-meaning folk was enough to weigh the arc of history towards justice. Maybe we didn’t have full-time jobs (and still don’t), but bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, and maybe we didn’t have health insurance (and still don’t), but to be young was very heaven.
Something a little on the nose in the metaphor: I was so drunk by midnight on December 31st, 2009 that I don’t even remember the ball dropping. Anesthesia as political allegory. There was an acid hope in that neoliberal paradigm, the idea that history could be skirted away from and that free markets and free-ish people pointed us towards another American century, but better. What did that decade actually portend? The unleash of dark, Dionysian energies that were barely concealed in the id of the voting public, a rise in authoritarianism not just in the United States, but throughout the world. There are concentration camps in America, in China, in India. There are totalitarian demagogues in Moscow, Beijing, New Delhi, Budapest, Rome, Brasilia, Istanbul, London and Washington. Any progress on our climate catastrophe has been reversed, and the scientific reports seem to portend only worse news as we move forward into this century. Like a neon hum through all of this has been the explosion of technology that has so altered our lives. In 2009, social media was glorified; LiveJournal, Facebook and Twitter simple gleams in our eye. The smartphone wasn’t yet omnipresent as a veritable cyborg technology, the reign of the Cambridge Analytica algorithm and social media face recognition not yet upon us.
The Age of the Holy Spirit, the fourth turning, millennium, or apocalypse – I’ve no idea what vocabulary we’re to use. What seems clear is that regardless of which schema you prefer, we’re clearly at some sort of hinge moment as 2019 turns to 2020. If normalcy was ever a place, it now seems like a country towards which we can’t go back. What do I see in the following decade? More authoritarianism and increasingly draconian violation of rights, more conflict between nations and more refugees, higher temperatures and more invasive technology, deep fakes and dark matters, and resistance, resistance, resistance. As the authoritarians march into power, there has been a global protest against the demons of this world in places as varied as Paris and Santiago. Our predicament seems similar to that of a century ago, when the radical theorist Rosa Luxemburg would write shortly before her assassination, that “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.” Perhaps history is cyclical after all.
About the Author:
Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018.