Originally created 02/21/99

The Toll of Modern Times



WESTPORT, Conn. -- I long ago ceased making New Year's resolutions for myself. But let me propose one for the entire culture: that in 1999, we prepare not for a big onward-and-upward blowout a year from now but for a chastened look back instead.

Toward this end, we are fortunate already to have settled what people 100 years ago were calling the "century question." In her new book, America 1900, Judy Crichton reconstructs international disagreement as to "whether January 1, 1900, was the first day of the new century or simply the beginning of the last year of the old."

We've had a bit of this argument ourselves, but the zero faction has clearly won. Insistence upon 2001 instead of 2000 is by now considered pedantic.

When a year from now some computers convince themselves it's 1900 and go into reverse, there will be a message in the sound of all those grinding hard drives. It will be telling us to look backward, too, at least for a few minutes and if only for a single century -- since that is all our imaginations can handle.

This millennium coming up, however ballyhooed with countdown clocks and White House gatherings, can only be about the change of one century to another. We humans in the year 2000 will have absolutely no sense of connection to people in the year 1000, which is why Ms. Crichton's book, like those wayward computers, quite reasonably decides not to go back any further than 100 years.

Still, a three-digit changeover is significant. Our historical consciousness (such as it is) will begin to bundle away 1999 with 1901. The 20th century will become a block of time, an island we are leaving instead of the ocean on which we sail.

We will seem to lurch forward. Important dates like 1945 will feel much more than just one year further in the past. Much of what we still think of as "contemporary" -- in literature, history and design -- will suddenly seem just "modern," which is to say, historical, if only barely so.

The difference will be fast and perceptible. Many phenomenons that more or less seemed here and now will recede behind a numerical veil. "Postwar" will become a useless term, and the Baby Boomers will at last, as men and women of the previous century, stop feeling brand new.

If you doubt the number 2,000's psychological power, wait and see how in the years just after the millennium, lots of big-ticket items are still selling for $1,999 and not $2,000.

If resolutions exist to be broken, predictions are mostly to be looked back upon. A recent purchase from my local remainder table, Our Times: The Illustrated History of the 20th Century, reprints some of the confident prophecies offered by the Ladies' Home Journal in December 1900 -- among them an American-ruled population of between 350 million and 500 million including much of Latin America, all of which would be eating "strawberries as large as apples."

What's interesting about these two forecasts is not so much their inaccuracy, but the apparently delighted spirit in which they were offered. "Imperial polluters!" we would now cry out upon hearing the first; "Carcinogens!" after the second.

It's the 20th century that did this to us. All the Napoleonic and civil and Crimean wars of the 1800s are nothing compared to what we later managed along with our "marvels" -- some of them quite accurately foreseen by the Journal. We have, in short, enough to answer for without making any bootless pledge.

This is why I've decided to regard whatever is left of the "Y2K problem" as a wholly positive phenomenon. During 1999, as we imagine planes falling from the sky and elevators plummeting away from all the millennial rooftop parties next Jan. 1, we will be keeping the focus on the techno-apocalypse, thereby avoiding too much enthusiasm about the thousand years to come.

The future, as a politician once thundered, lies before us. Better to slog into it than to sally forth, because even if the planes and elevators stay aloft in the first minutes of 2000, we shall have somehow botched this millennium by Jan. 2.

That is only human nature. And it's why I recommend we prepare, throughout 1999, to gather on the rear deck, not the bow, of spaceship Earth when the 20th century falls away.

We're an awfully loud life form. But as we embark on another thousand trips around the sun, we wouldn't be hurt by one season of retrospection and "kwiet" -- which is how the Ladies' Home Journal, in a brave q-less world, predicted we'd be spelling it by now.

Thomas Mallon's novels include Henry and Clara and Dewey Defeats Truman.