LET US HOPE, if we are under scrutiny by the other planets, as some suspect, that they do not choose our New Year's celebrations as the anthropological events by which to judge us. No holiday is as dismal. No rituals are as dreary as the ones we concoct on New Year's Eve especially, when a near supernatural idiocy invades the species, telling us what a bright idea it would be to turn a cartwheel, toot a horn, get smashed and pinch Miss Fritz. Guy Lombardo is gone, but the music stays: the boy-faced crooner crooning "Harper Valley PTA" to a dance floor cast by Mme. Tussaud; the saxophones humming like drunks.

Odd that among the empty rituals there is actually one ritual of significance-the watching of the clock as the hands approach midnight. Even that looks nuts on television; but it doesn't only occur on television, or in Times Square. It goes on everywhere, in the quietest places, everywhere there's a clock to watch. The act carries a solemnity that overrides the horns and hats, as well it should. For in watching the clock as it moves from year to year, we are also acknowledging the existence of time; and to acknowledge time is to believe in it, and in history, too.

You may not think it much of a feat to believe in history. When Carlyle heard Margaret Fuller's remark, "I accept the universe," he said, "By God, she'd better." But not everyone believes in history, or in time, for that matter, because to believe in either implies that you think something actually can happen within them. In Richard Wright's story, "Long Black Song," a mother leading a dead life gives her baby a clock without hands to play with, explaining, "We gitterlong widout time." By that she means not only that the past and future have no importance, but also that her world is hopeless, since the ideas of time and hope are linked.

Of course, there's a way of believing in history that is a form of disbelief. This is sometimes dignified as the philosophy of cyclical history, which is merely a dressy way of contending that nothing ever improves. God knows, there's plenty of evidence of that, if that's the evidence you seek. For the cyclical-history crowd, the motion of tonight's clock will be merely a tick in the journey from ashes to ashes.

For most of us, however, that motion means much more, though we don't always say so. It means that we regard history not as proof that nothing changes, but rather that anything can happen, that in some ways at least next year can be better than this, as this was btter than last, as, thanks to our own peculiar dogged, clumsy ways, one century has proved better than the ones before, showing life to grow a little fairer, a little kinder. Watching the clock, then, is an act of faith in both time and ourselves, one astonished moment when we may observe, with a mix of fear and desire, the forward motion of a world we basically trust.