Whatever Happened to Baby New Year?
We don’t see as much of the old New Year’s Baby as we used to. Remember how the covers of national magazines and editorial cartoonists used to show that happy little cherub entering the world as grumpy old Father Time left town with the worn-out year gone by?
I’m not certain what’s behind the fading of the old myth and its symbols, which some say might date back to the Dionysian celebrations of Ancient Greece. Maybe it just went the way of the Saturday Evening Post and there’s nothing more to it than that. Maybe I’m just not going to the right parties.
Whatever the case, I don’t think it’s the New Year’s Baby’s fault. I think it’s Father Time who won’t go away. Instead, he hangs around, a crazy uncle in the attic who shows up at the kitchen table to disturb the peace of the newborn year and its family.
How can we maintain faith in the possibilities of a newborn year when all around us are the demons of days and years gone by? Newt Gingrich is out again babbling like it’s 1994. Reactionaries are busy re-enacting poll tax-like barriers to minority voting. States Rights is once again a dominant theme of conservatives.
Back in 1951, William Faulkner wrote (in Requiem for a Nun), “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Barack Obama paraphrased it in his 2008 “More Perfect Union” speech, acknowledging that last year’s, last decade’s, last century’s crazy uncles never really left us.
Still, America ignored Faulkner’s advice, before and after he gave it. We’re the nation of progress after all, the nation of the New Century, the New Deal, the New Frontier. We paper over yesterday’s woes, probably out of anxiety that we can’t escape them and so don’t want to look at them.
Pointing to our undeniable techno-engineering achievements, we convince ourselves that the new almost hourly buries a troubled past. In a very odd irony, the New Year’s Baby is old hat.
There’s a difference between a fantasy of progress born of stubborn denial and the visions of truly creative spirits. Invention is never an isolated or arbitrary event. It incorporates the new. The human brain is a pretty good example of nature’s inventive ways. Our more complex, evolved brains still make use of our ancient little reptile brains.
If ever there was a time when humanity needed to think the new, it is now. Doing so requires us to accept yesterday’s mistakes and victories, not deny their presence.
“Damn everything but the circus,” E.E. Cummings wrote. He meant damn everything but invention, creation, and the divine play of the human spirit.
A few years back, a concept album of old Disney movie songs called Stay Awake included a haunting spoken word piece by Ken Nordine over the music “Hi Diddle Dee Dee.” It paraphrases Cummings’s circus line, teasing, “Wonder who said that?” (It’s from Cummings relatively obscure play, Him.):
Damn it all. Everything
But the circus
Wonder who said that?
Somebody told us what we wanted to be
It was candy for the mind
Look behind and
It was circusy
It was hi diddle diddle
It was cat and the fiddle
It was safe as can be
It was right down the middle
It was fantasy, fantasy galore
It was everything we ever wanted
It was that and so much more
Who was it that said, “Damn it all
Damn everything but the circus.”
Somehow the words speak at once about the dangers of untethered fantasy and the power of creation. When we do “look behind” we find the past “circusy.” It’s not nostalgia. It’s incorporating yesterday’s lessons into today’s actions.
I wish we saw more of Baby New Year and Father Time. The crazy uncle won’t exit the stage until we convince him he doesn’t need to fight for attention anymore.