Happy new year!
Why does the new year start on January 1? Why have a new year at all? Well, why not? It seems reasonable enough to measure time on the basis of revolutions of the planet (days) and periods of its orbit around the sun (years), and periods of orbit of its satellite (months). But of course we don’t always get it exactly correct (months!), and the decision where to draw the line is somewhat arbitrary. We say days begin at midnight (not exactly the nadir, necessarily, but approximated to the time zone, and perhaps adjusted by an hour), but they could begin (as they do for some) at sunset, or (as seems intuitive to many poets and singers, including the Moody Blues) at dawn. And the year, well, pick a time! Winter solstice? Summer solstice? One of the equinoxes? How about, um, ten days after one of the solstices?
That’s fine; it’s arbitrary, something we’ve settled on, just as we’ve settled on the word year to refer to the period it demarcates. As long as we understand that these things are arbitrary designations, cultural creations agreed on collectively, and not some natural law like, say, gravity, we’re fine. Our problems begin when we reify the distinctions we make, when we take the convenient illusion as reality. Jim Taylor (email@example.com) talked about this in his most recent “Sharp Edges” e-newsletter:
New Year’s Day reminds us that we humans tend to fixate on our creations rather than on natural phenomena. We set up systems – such as a calendar that fixes New Year’s Day on January 1 or any other date – and then treat them as immutable.
For example, David Suzuki speaks about living on a finite planet. There is only so much land, only so much water, only so many molecules of oxygen. Human effort and technology cannot increase those quantities.
But his detractors say, “What about the economy? David, you’ve got to face reality!”
The economy, retorts Suzuki, is not reality. It is an imaginary construct, an idea, a concept. We invented it; we can change it. But, like our calendars, the system takes precedence in our thinking over the reality that all life on this planet depends on a yellowish ball 93 million miles away. Everything else is secondary.
Going back to the calendar, we know we count by tens as a cultural standard, though other cultures have counted by twelves and twenties, and sixteen is a more important number for computers. But imagine if someone from a culture that counted in twelves and that started counting in the year 284 (for whatever reason – the ascension of Diocletian or the birth of Emperor Huai of Jin or who knows what, or maybe they miscounted) told you that this is the year 1728, which is the cube of 12, and so the world would end this year. Ha – seriously? That’s kind of like thinking the world would end in the year 1000, base 10.
Which, of course, many people did think at the time. And many thought it might end in 2000, too. And furious arguments erupted over whether it would be 2000 or 2001 (see “When does the new decade begin?” for a taste). Arrant silliness, of course. I mean, it’s nice to make special celebrations for arbitrary time points, such as anniversaries that are multiples of 25, or birthdays with ages ending in 0. Conventions can be quite fun. But they’re conventions. The mistake of believing our illusions – of thinking that our arbitrary divisions are real (and all divisions are in fact arbitrary; even what you think is your body is really changing all the time – a physicist can tell you you’re a very complex wave function – and the division between body and not-body can only be upheld if you don’t look too close) – has a nice name that we get from Sanskrit: maya, which in roots means basically “not that”. It’s a nice word for it: bounces from the lips and rebounds elastically from the body of the tongue. You could say it in endless cycles: “mayamayamayamayamaya…”
But isn’t that a charming coincidence? You know, of course, what I’ve been circling: the weird fantasy that some people have that because the Mayan long calendar starts a new cycle this year (on December 21), the world will end, or at least we will have a new Chicxulub. Somehow the Maya are thought to have known things we don’t. I recall happening into a Q&A session with the publisher of a local weekly newspaper a few years ago; she averred that something big was going to happen in 2012, because they Maya, “who were a very technologically advanced civilization,” had their calendar set to roll over then. I wonder if she thinks her car will explode when the odometer reaches 100,000 km… after all, the people who made it are way more technologically advanced than the Maya ever were, and the Maya no more said (or say; they still exist as a people) that the world will end then than the manufacturer of your car says it will blow up at 100,000 km (though maintenance every so many kilometres is advised). I also wonder if, in her advocacy of listening to their superior wisdom, she advocated returning to their cosmology and their incessant warfare and regular practice of human sacrifice.
But, ah, there it is: the foreign is an excellent target for projection. We have values we want to integrate into ourselves, but we must see them in others and bring them in that way; it’s what Jung called the transcendent function. I published a paper on this a while ago: “The Transcendent Function of Interculturalism” – you can read it at harbeck.ca/James/JH_trans.pdf. We have this idea of division, of incompleteness of the self, and in order to complete ourselves with what we already have, we have to say someone else has it. A prophet is without honour in his or her own country.
It’s just a handy coincidence, of course, that Maya of Central America and maya of Sanskrit sound and are spelled the same. It’s also coincidence that it sounds rather like Mandarin mei you (sounds like English mayo), which means “doesn’t have” or “have not” or “isn’t there” or “doesn’t exist” (literally “not have”). Another coincidence is the female personal name Maya, as in Maya Rudolph, Maya Deren, and Maya Angelou; in Angelou’s case, it’s a nickname taken from her baby brother calling her “maya sista,” but other Mayas generally get the name from the Roman and Greek goddess Maia, one of the Pleiades, the mother of Hermes.
Hermes? I don’t mean those very expensive fashion accessories (there’s a case of arbitrariness and agreed-on illusion: you know that the price and perceived value of such luxury goods has very little connection with their cost of production). I mean the god with winged feet, the one who communicates between the gods and humans (between you and the big Other, which may turn out to be not separate from you) and who is also associated with obscure mysteries and secret knowledge and so on. In some ways, then, a god of illusory divisions. It’s perfect that illusion (maya, Maia) should name the mother of illusory divisions.
But it’s also perfect that maya should name the mother of enlightenment. Indeed, the mother of the Buddha – of Siddhartha Gautama, the original enlightened one – was (we are told) named Maya, and that is the same maya that means “illusion”. Illusion may be a movement away from truth, but while that may lead to further movement away from it, it can also lead to returning to it to see it with fresh eyes: as T.S. Eliot wrote in “Four Quartets,”
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Yes, and returning is the motion of the Tao, too. And of the years. Meet the new year: same as the old year, but also completely different. Make of it what you will.