Tuesday, January 2, 2018

On New Years and New Moons

THE NEW YEAR is over-valued. Properly speaking, it is not there at all. Properly speaking, it is not there at all. It is a whimsy; it is an imaginary; it is a fiction of the mind; it is a convention; it is a fraud. I wonder that the Jobbernols, that vast crowd who object to anything that is not tangible and cannot be tested by experience, have not protested against it before now.

The new moon is something real. She hangs in the sky a tender crescent, a sickle of ethereal silver magically transmuted under the evening gold. She lacks only a hammer of the same metal to make her a symbol of all that is best and noblest in the New Everything. She is (quite rightly) openly worshipped by many savages and secretly by most civilised men, at least, of those who inhabit the countrysides and have not been sterilised by girders and cement (to which let me add the daily papers, a highly antiseptic influence). The new moon has been hymned, and most deservedly so, for she is really there; indeed, I myself have seen her more than once. The new moon is worthy of our adoration because she is real.

Of course there is illusion even about her, as there is illusion about all her sex; for I am assured by the learned that the new moon is only a slice of the old one, and is there all the time; but, anyhow, the light on that lovely little, exiguous little, gradually brightening little arc is real, if, indeed, anything told us by our senses be real. We can hold on to the new moon firmly as something that we know (though we are not allowed to touch it), and the way in which the new moon, just at her virginal best, dies away into the western mist and disappears from our sight is admirably pathetic. It is a theme I should recommend to the poets had they not already got hold of it in herds and were they not still grinding it out by the pageful. It is true that I have seen none of her in what is called “Modern Verse”—but then, modern verse has nothing to do with poetry.

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So much for the new moon which has led me astray from my theme, fascinating me as is the habit of Goddesses. If you doubt this get someone to read you a textbook on mythology or to sing you the song in the “Belle Hélène,” which, though of the Second Empire, and, therefore, Victorian and until lately mixed up with the general curse of horsehair furniture and plush upholstery in general, is homely and human and so not to be despised. The tune is lively, but it needs to be sung with feeling and go. It is forgotten now, and those who still remember it are too old to sing.

It is my business to return to the New Year, though, to tell the truth, I see no reason why I should. A man writing on some strict subject, such as “The Morphology of the Cacchenidae in their relation to the Jurassic Formations,” must stick to his subject or be torn to pieces by infuriated pendants. But I am under no such obligation to-day, still less are my readers. If I like to wander at large, I may. Nor need they be fatigued by constraint to a particular path, though I fear it must be a little tiresome to be dragged through a mass of undergrowth. But no matter. If we do not begin to talk about the New Year we shall not get to it at all. So here goes.

I say that the New Year is a whimsy; an imaginary; a nothing. It is not there at all. You may receive it with all manner of ceremonies; you may treat it with solemn ritual; but all that is part of the myth-making of man. It is indeed part of reality that The Seasons do actually pass and return in a circle, a ring whence, if you like, the word “annual.” The days will actually grow longer after Christmas (thank heaven), and then they will get shorter again after Goodwood. There is a rhythm about all this which I do not pretend to understand but which is part of reality; and we human beings, bound in by reality and confined to it until we get away to better things (for I mean by “reality” all the business of this world), must set boundaries so as to know how far we have got along the round of the works and the days.

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For the moment we have fixed on a certain day, the first of January, which in its turn is not there. There is no January. It is one more of those imaginations, without which in our weakness we cannot live.  I would rather believe in a Janus with two faces (for I have met such people) than in a mere abstraction like January.

Moreover, any day out of the three hundred and sixty-five and a quarter—to be accurate 365 days, 5 hours, 49 seconds and a “snift”—which is the present length of the year (but that is changing and may change again if something comes to trouble us from outer space), would do for a starting point. Not so long ago, March 25, called by the old-fashioned and the rent-collectors, Lady Day, was the first of the year. And from what I have read the Chinese have yet another day altogether. And the Mohammedans and the Hebrews are said to have a calculation of their own, to which they are welcome. You would certainly find if you searched throughout mankind that New Years were almost infinite. So let us be grateful that we have a solid and rooted one of our own, on which there can be not doubt. Let us also withstand all efforts at changing our ritual, for by ritual men live. It must have been a dreadful wrench when the English suddenly lost eleven days rather more than two hundred years ago. And what good did it do anyhow? Except, of course, to debtors who were paying interest. Or to their creditors? I cannot be troubled to calculate which.

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A New Year has this useful thing about it, whether it be Mohammedan, Hebrew, Julian, Gregorian, Chinese, or Choctaw: it makes man remember and regret his follies and his sins. If we did not become familiar and conversant with these ultimate companions we should make very poor wayfaring with them at the end. And as, before the end, we lose all other friends and fellowships, let us at least be conversant with these and learn to know them each by name and to grasp them familiarly by the hand, turning to the right and saying, “Good-morning, my dear Folly Number 8! Let us talk over the matters that concern us. . . . . “Good-morning, Sin Number 367. Remember me to all the little sins.”

I say that at the New Year we enter into preparatory companionship with our follies and our sins. Wherefore idiots on this occasion make good resolutions. They had far better make money (which lasts) or hay while the sun shines. But the sun does not shine at the New Year, and there is no hay, except what is already stacked under its thatch in the rick outside the yard.

~Hilaire Belloc: in The Silence of the Sea and Other Essays

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