Sailing into the unknown

 

"When I got my 1999 diary, I freaked. Saturday the 1st, 2000. It was weird, like reaching the end of time or something. All those noughts. It's stupid, I know, because we made up those numbers ourselves. They're our creation. But it still scares me. It's like approaching a chasm . . ."

"I worry a lot about the danger of all those dicky nuclear reactors going off if they're affected by the millennium bug. That scares me rigid actually . . ."

"I think of the new millennium as not being my century. It will belong to my children. Everything will be new. All change. A new beginning . . . I think of it as going through a gate in a wall. And then the gate will shut and the past will be gone. Behind it for ever, no going back. Kind of scary really . . ."

When I asked some people what they thought about the millennium, most mentioned the millennium bug first. Then, after a few desultory observations about the Dome and the Spike, they offered rather anxious views, replete with imagery of walls, ledges, chasms, bells tolling, unknowable dangers, and above all, feeling alone. Many seemed to reach a psychological wall, claiming they could not project themselves that far ahead. Some predicted a bright, shiny future, but in a rather alien landscape that belonged to somebody else, not to them. They echo the first line of the poem 2000 by the American poet Dave Smith: "It's always been nineteen something for me."

Each new year marks an end and a beginning - always psychologically fraught moments. Significant birthdays are a bit like that, provoking anxious fretting about the meaning of our lives: What have I achieved? Where am I going? What do I want? How much time do I have left? Is it all over or just about to begin? But this kind of questioning centres around us personally, as the centre of our own universe. The idea is to make our life even more significant in the greater scheme of things.

But, as the world turns on its axis, and the old year switches to the new, there is a consciousness that it is also turning for everybody else, that we are part of the larger, anonymous mass of humanity. We realise, like the Duchess of Malfi, that there are only the stars. There is a flash of uncertainty, an existential moment of dread: where will we all be this time next year? Buried in the wish "Go mbeirimid beo ar an am seo aris" is the fear that we may not be.

The millennium represents that annual unease magnified a thousandfold. So, it is inevitable that, for the foreseeable future, we will be individually and collectively preoccupied with the kind of "big" issues that the routines of life normally keep at bay: the passage of time, our place in the universe, and the fear of the unknown.

Surely it is not a coincidence that it was this year, as the millennium approaches, that the story of the Titanic resurfaced, as it were. It wasn't even a particularly significant anniversary of the disaster. Titanic is, of course, the ultimate millennium movie: a microcosm of society - young and old, rich and poor, world-weary and full of hope - all unknowing, sailing towards disaster in a liner that was at the time the ultimate symbol of progress.

And here we are, sailing uncertainly into a new millennium wondering: "Where's the iceberg this time?" After all, we reason, the symbol of our own century's progress, the microchip and the great worldwide Web may turn out to be just as fragile as that doomed liner. The notion of the millennium bug provokes everything from mild unease to superstitious dread. Of course, it is a real and practical problem, but it has also attracted a lot of surplus psychological meaning. Many people want to avoid travelling by plane for the first few days of the new year. If there are premonitions of disaster in the air, it seems, we prefer not to be left holding tickets for the White Star Line.

A new millennium is just too big to think about. We like to domesticate time, establishing a private, personal relationship with it, alternately treating it as "good-mother" (time will heal, time will tell, time will always be there for me) and a "bad mother" (there is never enough, time is my tyrant, time is leaving me behind). But the millennium is Big Time and forces the recognition that we will be long gone and almost certainly forgotten, by the end of the next century - not to mention the next millennium.

It is too big a unit of space. It conjures up images of the vast universe for the last million and the next million years. It dwarfs our own tiny place in the world. Little wonder then that people tend to think of where they will be for New Year's Eve, rather than primarily with whom they will be. We like to be part of a mass gathering, in a public place. It is as if we must be in the best location, have a ring seat to witness the possible rending of the heavens and the coming of the apocalypse. If the world is about to swing off its axis and comes to a fiery end, we unconsciously reason, we want to be anywhere but in our own beds.

The idea of the millennium forces us to step into history. For most of our lives, we remain in happy ignorance of the the enormity of our isolation in the cosmos. J.H. Holmes described the universe as neither hostile nor friendly, but simply indifferent. But we prefer to wrap ourselves in the comforts of culture and civilisation, in the familiar myths and social routines that transform the random, crushing forces of the universe into manageable, understandable patterns.

But at a transition point as significant as the millennium, we are confronted with a moment of existential dread: that, for all our individual uniqueness, we are, in the words of a 15th century writer, "poore inches of nature". Thankfully, for most people, the dread is quickly suppressed and replaced by a burst of energy to change their lives, to make plans for the future, and to do something that will leave a legacy of their brief sojourn in this world. At the very least, they plan to prolong their stay as long as possible. Hence, at an individual level, the rash of new year resolutions that can usually be reduced to doing something worthwhile (i.e. leaving a legacy) or getting fit or healthy (i.e. prolonging their stay).

At the end of the last century, many people were convinced that, thanks to their generation's heroic strivings, human ingenuity had finally conquered brute nature. Einstein had discovered the theory of relativity, Marx had discovered communism and Freud had discovered sex. Self-deception on a grand scale? Maybe, but such self-deception is part of the armoury of survival in an indifferent universe. Psychologists know that having positive illusions, an overly positive view of yourself and your capabilities, an exaggerated sense of control over events in your life and an unrealistically optimistic attitude about the future are characteristics not of hopeless neurotics but of well-functioning individuals.

In contrast, those who accurately perceive their own faults and weaknesses, who are acutely conscious of their poor performance and of their lack of control over the random happenings of their lives - these are the people who form the legions of the mildly depressed.

It is no accident that it was mainly poets (always notoriously susceptible to depression) and writers such as H.G. Wells who, at the end of the last century were preaching against the overly positive zeitgeist, and were (accurately) predicting war and woe in the next century. For the foreseeable future, the debate between the view of the new millennium as the Promised Land or as a cultural and environmental desert will intensify. Dolly the sheep, the feminisation of society, universal longevity, global culture, even more individual freedom and, of course, computers everywhere will be invoked as visions of paradise or hell on earth. We may not know what the future holds, but the debate, like the orchestra on the Titanic, fills the void.

Freud believed that as we become more sophisticated, more in control of the environment, we come nearer and nearer to our infantile ideal of omnipotence and omniscience. In the distant past we projected that ideal on to the gods. Freud believed that 20th century man is almost himself a god, or at least, what he memorably called "a Prosthetic God". When man, in this guise, dons all the accomplishments of civilisation, everything that can assist him against the forces of nature and fate makes him seem magnificent, invincible. But, warned Freud, the trouble with prostheses, no matter how technically proficient, is that they do not grow on us, they are not part of our organic nature. They sometimes break down or break off. Surely the ultimate prosthesis, the eponymous cuddly-blanket, as the century ends, must be the mobile phone. We may be sailing towards another hidden iceberg, but with the mobile phone firmly glued to our ears, every assistance will be at hand, right? Even with the millennium bug, right?

So, even as the bells peal at midnight on the eve of the new millennium, their sound will be drowned out by the screech of a billion mobile phones. "Are you there? It's me! Where are you? Happy new year. Isn't it amazing? The year 2000. I can't believe it. Happy new millennium." Prosthesis to our ears, existential anxiety at bay, we leap into the next thousand years.