Welcome, year 2000!

January 02, 2000|By Fred Kaplan

NEW YORK — Scully: "But, Mulder, the millennium doesn't start until January 2001."

Mulder: "Nobody likes a math nerd, Scully."

-- "The X-Files," Nov. 28 episode

NEW YORK -- For the past few years, longer than Agent Scully, I have been grinding countless social occasions to a mirthless halt whenever somebody in the room says the millennium begins on New Year's Day.

On all historical and logical grounds, these people have got it wrong. The reason is simple: There was no Year Zero. Thus, the first millennium lasted from Year 1 to 1000, the second from 1001 to 2000, so the third won't start until 2001.

If mathematics didn't convince, there was history, including local lore. Consider, I would say, the Twentieth Century Club of Boston, which held its end-of-the-century bash not on New Year's Eve 1899 (as we'll be celebrating ours on New Year's Eve 1999), but rather in the final moments of Dec. 31, 1900.

"Twenty-thousand people gathered before the State House. Edward Everett Hale read the Nineteenth Psalm," wrote historian Hillel Schwartz in "Century's End." As the clock struck midnight, "the trumpeters trumpeted, church bells pealed, chimes rang," and "the assembled thousands sang one of the national anthems."

And Boston was not eccentric on this point. "Every major newspaper and magazine officially welcomed the new century with their first issue of January 1901," writes Stephen Jay Gouldin "Questioning the Millennium."

All told, it's clear we should not be celebrating the new millennium this week. And yet, in recent weeks, I've been changing my mind to the point where I even feel comfortable celebrating.

Why? A better question might be: Why not? For, sweep away the grand edifice of centurion or millennial time and it becomes clear that the foundations of time as we know it are mere daydreams.

Most units of time are grounded in nature. A day is defined by the rotation of the earth. A month is set by the phases of the moon, a year by the earth's revolution around the sun.

But the decade, the century, and the millennium have no basis in nature whatever. They do have one thing in common: They are all based on the number 10. And why is 10 the key number in human counting? Why is our numeric system a base 10 system? Because we have 10 fingers.

In other words, the measure and concept of centuries and millennia are rooted in the chance material of human experience.

This raises another question: Why should anybody care when a century or millennium begins or ends? Historian Schwartz, in surveying past century-ends, offers an interesting angle. He notes that the span of history was first laid out in terms of centuries in the 13-volume "Magdeburg Centuries," published in the late 1500s -- roughly coinciding with the propagation of the Gregorian calendar, another new way of viewing time.

Both of these tools, Mr. Schwartz writes, were "expressions of a new anxiety over the passage of time," set in motion by "Calvinist and proto-capitalist notions of thrift, economy, and efficiency."

The emphasis on objective time, and our impulse to connect it to the passage of personal time, solidified over the years (quite apart from the tendency, in apocalyptic circles, to link the end of centuries to the end of the world).

By 1700, people started to celebrate birthdays -- a product of the increasingly common usage of calendar-dates in business, reinforced by the spread of household clocks and pocket watches, which made possible and stiffened the demands for punctuality.

By the late 18th century, the measurements of time took on their own character. The German word Zeitgeist -- "spirit of the time" -- first appeared.

"Centuries were, so to speak, Doppelgangers," Mr. Schwartz writes, "coherent cultural entities in whose person and personality men and women might recognize themselves." In still another sense, then, time and its divisions -- especially the most arbitrary divisions, decades and centuries -- are thought of and visualized in terms of how they are experienced.

If the turning of a century is a profound occurrence, the turning of a millennium is a monumental one. It is arguably even an unprecedented one: In the 10th century, the last time this happened, the world had no uniform calendar, no sense of centuries, no agreed-upon New Year's Day.

And so, at the end of this century and this millennium, what will trigger the most palpably shuddering experience of a change taking place in the annals of human events?

Not the transition from 2000 to 2001 (except, maybe, for Stanley Kubrick fans). Rather, it's some cosmic blowup of the sensation that comes with the repositioning of all the bits on a digital clock, the rotation of all the numbers on a car's odometer: the transformation from 1999 to 2000.

That's the way the century should end, not with a whimper but a bang. Party on, Mulder.

Fred Kaplan writes for the Boston Globe.

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