What is it that we celebrate when one year descends below the horizon of time while the next is rising beyond it? In a sense, nothing. Nothing really changes at this point. Its signification appears to come from its convenience at the end of the calendar, rather than from some real (as opposed to artificial) event, like the winter solstice, or the first full moon of the Summer equinox.
Yet, there is something to be said, however briefly, about its very artificiality, a word we would be wise to remember, shares an etymology with artifice, and both of these with art; that is, with the creation of something new and symbolically powerful. The celebration of new years is an artifice of the human imagination, sure, but this does not empty if of meaning, but rather, opens a space where it can become meaningful.
What meaning do we grant it?
The new year is simultaneously requiem and ressurection.
New years is a requiem for the year, for dashed hopes, squashed aspirations, and unmet goals; a chance for us to bury our past failures, regrets, and disappointments, and let them sail off with Charon, heading for oblivion. We wanted to lose 10kg, build that deck, and become a more attentive partner, but our aspirations were not met with equivalent strength of will. No matter, that was then, and this is now. Now is the time to restart and not let these things hold one back.
New years is likewise a celebration of dreaming. It is the dream of all dreams, a dream we so ardently want to make a reality. In the new year, we celebrate the possibility of things being different. This time, we really are going to lose that weight, commit to that renovation, or become the partner our significant other deserves.
Just as new year is a requiem for a dead past, it is likewise a resurrection of hope. The hope that was trampled, beaten down, and left for dead from the trials and tribulations of the previous year is brought back to life with a renewed optimism that maybe, this time, we will succeed in the resolutions we have set ourselves.
New year’s is about recognising the person we have been in the current year and striving to be a better sort of person in the next. The new year is the metaphysical crossroad we traverse annually, where we look back at the person we were and then set our sights forth on the type of person we want to (and hopefully can) be. The new year is the juncture between a solid, fixed, and unchangeable past that refuses to budge, and a future still yet unwritten, undecided; pliant, and flexible enough for us to shape it. At new years we are faced with the inexorable tension between the questions ‘who am I’ this year and ‘who do I want to become’ in the next?
There are, as always, the naysayers, who seek to empty new year celebrations of signification. ‘Why wait’, they say, ‘until the end of the year? You can make changes now’. Strictly speaking, they are right. You don’t need to wait until the end of the year to try and become a better person. (Although, I don’t think anyone actually makes that claim). But they misunderstand why the new year is so valuable. The new year, strictly speaking, has no value. After all, it is just another arbitrary span of time. However, it has immense symbolic value. It punctures the calendar, delineating between one moment and the next. We are a symbol using species. The ring on the finger of an engaged partner and new year both are technically without value, but they remain symbolically valuable; both make real and visible to the world that something has occurred, that change has happened.
In the infinitesimally small magic moment separating this year and the next, we celebrate the possibility of a refresh; of cutting our losses and starting over in a way that allows us to make the past well and truly passed, and the future, well and truly upon us. The new year is a mourning for what we wanted to achieve but didn’t, a celebration of the chance to start anew, and a declaration that despite our failure to live up to our lofty aspirations, we are the architects of our destiny.
‘All action’, wrote Hannah Arendt in her meditations on what it meant to be human ‘presupposes a spectator’. Humanity is about seeing and being seen. This is not some idle commentary on the importance of Facebook friends or Instagram followers. It is a recognition that we are not fully alive until we are acknowledged by ourselves and our peers. Visibility is a precondition for feeling alive.
Writing, like other forms of creative expression, assumes the spectator. The painting is painted, the music composed and the words written in order to be enjoyed. Enjoyed by whom? Well, someone of course! The very act of creative expression assumes there will be someone there to receive and enjoy it.
The creative act is a revelation. ‘Revelation’ shares an etymological root with ‘reveal’, of removing the shroud/image/façade and seeing beneath. Revelation means literally ‘lifting the veil’. The creative act is a self-revelation where the artist bears themselves as they are on their canvas, music sheet or loose leaf. Art involves laying oneself bare in front of others.
This quality of psychological nakedness, of raw honesty, is fraught with ambiguity. Of course, the artist may be accepted and praised for what they have done. But they may also be rejected and tossed aside. This goes beyond mere pessimism or optimism but is a recognition of the fact that nothing is promised in advance but the artist perseveres, knowing a devotion to their truth matters more than its reception by spectators.
Crucial, for me, and perhaps for others, is recognising that in the creative act we open ourselves up to others. We allow others to peer into our soul and see what it is like. The book says as much about the world around as it does about the author who wrote it. The book says of its author ‘I am here. I lay before you something important. You may accept it or may reject it but you cannot help but recognise it. This is my offering to you. This is my truth’.
Depending on your position, your sight can be improved by moving closer or further away from the object of your attention. Coming closer to an object allows you to notice finer details yet come too close and everything turns into a blur. Yet, its opposite suffers from a commensurate defect. Moving away may allow your eyes to adjust and clearly see what was once a blur but, move too far away and distinctions melt and you fail to tell essential things apart.
Sometimes we are too close to something (our attachments, our fears, our relationships with others and ourselves) to be able to see clearly what is going on with them. But by moving back – not by severing attachments or pushing things away – but by observing your own thoughts, behaviours, and emotions; you may see something you couldn’t before.
I like to think of philosophy like a pair of glasses. Philosophy, like glasses, doesn’t show you anything new. All that happens is your vision is corrected. You once saw things one way and now you see them differently. And, like with glasses, you decide whether your vision is improved or not. But, not everyone needs glasses and not everyone needs philosophy. But there is no harm in trying to improve your vision.
I have been thinking considerably about rhythm lately. I appear to be stuck. I know what I want to write. I know the logic, the premises, the arguments and conceptions. But I can’t seem to write any of it down. It all just sits there, in the back of my mind, waiting. I too must wait, patiently. Each time I attempt to write down these thoughts, it comes out forced and fake. So, these thoughts remain lodged. I like to think they are like the inanimate objects in Fantasia, waiting for the right rhythm to bring them to life.
I believe we all have our own rhythm. That is why I think it is so dangerous and threatening to copy the text and style of other writers. That won’t make you good because what makes you a good writer is finding that rhythm, that inner harmony that resonates throughout your soul and your work. To mimic another is not only the cheapest form of flattery, but it is also to steal your voice away from yourself like Ariel in the Little Mermaid. Trading your voice for legs, or your rhythm for words is a devils bargain.
Everything in life is flow. The constant rotation of celestial objects; the stream that ripples over stones, later to cascade down cliff faces; the grace of a dance, the movement of notes in a symphony, and the rhythm that comes forth, as Ursula Le Guin said, like a ‘wave in one’s mind’. You cannot beckon the wave , you can only wait, patiently, and ride it to the shore.
David Bohm in his essay ‘On the Relationship of Science and Art’ wrote that a scientist (but really any of us), before he can verbalise his thoughts, will “feel” a new idea. “These feelings are like very deep and sensitive probes reaching into the unknown” which, if contemplated with a patient mind, will return with something creative and new. Virginia Woolf said it perfectly,
Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it. But no doubt I shall think differently next year.
Writing to Vita Sackville-West,
16 March 1926