Y2K anxiety keeping you up nights? "Prophesying catastrophe is incredibly banal," wrote French critic Jean Baudrillard. "The more original move is to assume that it has already occurred."
The Ennui of the End
Along with fellow imports Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, Baudrillard has tormented and delighted many a fin-de-millennium American graduate student with his socio-cultural analyses (discourses, paradigm shifts, what have you). Baudrillard and the Millennium, by Christopher Horrocks (Icon, $7.95), critiques the critic in a "discussion of [his] encounter with the millennium" -- "encounter" making it sound saucier than it is, but there's no denying that Baudrillard offers provocative interpretations of the impending (non)event.
Horrocks, who teaches art history and has written introductory volumes on Baudrillard and Foucault, kicks off the book with a look at his subject's views on history and historical progression: Baudrillard "argues that history has disappeared with regard to modern linear time, since the latter can be considered as `a purely artificial process.' In fact, history as we understand it is a simulation, for it presents itself as a model of time that relies on the concept of an end, yet holds it always in suspense. . . . And if our linear, progressive time is in doubt, then logically so too is the idea of the `end,' or the constant delay of the end. This end must be just as artificial. The `illusion' of the end is a more likely explanation."
So why are we in such a "millennial hurry," giving in to "the urge to anticipate, falsify and precipitate it through messianic beliefs, mass suicide or violent resolution"? Because everything has accelerated around us. At the same time, we're doing a number on the past. Horrocks quotes Baudrillard directly on the subject: "The fact is that, in a sort of enthusiastic work of mourning, we are in the process of retracting all the significant events of this century, of whitewashing it, as if everything that had taken place . . . were merely a hopeless imbroglio, and everyone had set about undoing that history with the same enthusiasm that had gone into making it."
No need here to dwell on Baudrillard's vision of the future post-2000: It's far too bleak for a Sunday's reading. Here's a brief, bitter taste: "The worst of it all is precisely that there will be no end to anything, and all these things [history, politics, ideology] will continue to unfold slowly, tediously, recurrently, in that hysteresis of everything which, like nails and hair, continues to grow after death."
Baudrillard and the Millennium makes up part of Icon's "Postmodern Encounters" series (perfect for post-everything 1999). Other po-mo Icon titles include: Foucault and Queer Theory, by Tamsin Spargo; Derrida and the End of History, by Stuart Sim; Einstein and the Total Eclipse, by Peter Coles; and Nietzsche and Postmodernism, by Dave Robinson, $7.95 each.
The Vikings Are Coming!
Not interested in whitewashing history is James Reston Jr., whose The Last Apocalypse: Europe at the Year 1000 A.D. (Doubleday, $14.95) thrillingly resurrects how things were on the last millennial go-round. Gritty? Yes. Violent? You bet -- swordplay, rapine and pillage galore. But the "apocalypse" Reston describes -- the contest, sometimes bloody, between Christians and heathens for control of Europe -- produced a new world as it destroyed the old.
"At the turn of the last millennium," Reston writes, "Europe Christianized, almost all at once. The various regions of the continent -- Scandinavia, Spain, Russia, and the Balkans -- all came to the new religion for different reasons, but some powerful urge bound them together. No more dramatic change can be imagined, not because it was Christian per se, but because Christianity in 999 A.D. represented civilization and learning and nationhood against the darkness of heathenism, illiteracy, and tribal chaos. The forty years before the end of the first millennium is a continuous, spirited, brutal dialectic between Christianity and heathenism. . . . The change was, in short, apocalyptic."
Faced with a paucity of "verifiable" facts -- the people of 999 A.D. weren't noted for their record-keeping, and a thousand years is a long time when it comes to preserving the historical record -- Reston decided to make like the Nordic bards of old and create "a saga of the millennium a thousand years ago . . . a narrative of a heroic time." He draws on old sources -- poetry, oral history -- and it pays off handsomely. Personalities leap off the page, brandishing swords and crosses: Norway's King Olaf Trygvesson, for instance, a champion athlete and ruthless convert who thrust Christianity down the throats of his countrymen (literally, when he had to). "His physical prowess was extraordinary. In climbing and swimming and leaping, he was unmatched, and it was said that he could juggle five daggers in the air, always catching them by the handle." Tolerance for the old Odin-loving ways was not Olaf's forte: "Once, at a place on the river Gota, he gathered all the wizards and the troll-wise high priests of the region in a longhouse for a great feast, then closed the doors and burnt the building to the ground. But their leader escaped through the smoke hole, and when he was caught, King Olaf marooned him and his fellow incorrigibles on a rock far offshore at low tide." Little wonder that Norwegians soon saw the light and embraced the Gospel.
Olaf has good and colorful company, including Sweden's Queen Sigrid the Strong-Minded, the Moorish warrior Al Mansor, Britain's aptly named King Ethelred the Unready and its early tragic hero Bryhtnoth, who died at the Battle of Maldon, trying to beat back the Viking invaders [see "Poet's Choice" on page 3 for more on Bryhtnoth]. Though there's plenty of hacking and slicing in Reston's saga, the book ends on a note of salutary hopefulness: "In considering the millennium, at least if we are to judge from the experience of the last time . . . people are looking for the apocalypse in the wrong place. It cannot be found in the thunderous arrival of ten thousand angels on a field of blood, in some final epic clash between the forces of good and evil. In 1000 A.D. when, by rights, the great battle should have happened, it did not happen. No frightened mobs raced through the streets on New Year's Eve 999 A.D. There is simply no evidence of it. . . . Hope and excitement about the future was the mood."
A Gallery of Worthies
Some of Reston's characters -- such as Viking explorer Leif Eriksson, who in 1001 A.D. became the first European to touch the soil of the New World -- turn up in 1,000 Years, 1,000 People: Ranking the Men and Women Who Shaped the Millennium, by Agnes Hooper Gottlieb, Henry Gottlieb, Barbara Bowers and Brent Bowers (Kodansha, $17). The late 20th century seems too much in love with making best-of lists (see our own contribution on page 13), but this book does a pretty good job with a suspect undertaking. Having a thousand slots to fill gives the compilers room to roam freely through history and across disciplines, collecting names.
Each of the chosen has a sometimes cheeky one-line tag identifying him or her, followed by a paragraph detailing his/her accomplishments. A random sampling of entries: At number 858 we have Francisco Pizarro, "conqueror of Peru"; at 581 is Mildred "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias, "the greatest woman athlete"; number 421 is Ferdinand de Lesseps, "ditchdigger -- but what a ditch!" (it was the Suez Canal); number 328 is John Lennon (Paul McCartney, number 327, just edges out his songwriting partner); at 218 is Basho, "high priest of haiku"; Jane Austen lands at number 168; number 148 is Akbar, "greatest of India's Mughal emperors"; number 94 is Phineas T. Barnum, "patron saint of sales and advertising"; number 91 is Queen Victoria; at 56 is Martin Luther King Jr., "minister to a divided nation." Coming in at number one is Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press, followed by Christopher Columbus, Martin Luther, Galileo, Shakespeare, Newton, Darwin, Thomas Aquinas, Leonardo da Vinci and, bringing up the rear of the top 10, Ludwig van Beethoven. If you disagree with their picks, the editors have provided a complaint card at the back of the book so you can send in your own nominees for bigwig of the millennium.
Save the Date
A quick note to timekeepers everywhere: David Ewing Duncan's Calendar: Humanity's Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year (Avon, $13.50) will give you all the information you need to wow 'em on New Year's Eve with your mastery of Babylonian, Egyptian, Chinese, Jewish, Julian, Islamic, Mayan and Gregorian methods of keeping track of the days. Surprise your fellow revelers by wishing them "Happy 5119!" (the year 2000 in the current Mayan great cycle).
Jennifer Howard's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.