Tick-Tock

Malcolm Bull

  • Conversations about the End of Time by Umberto Eco and Stephen Jay Gould
    Allen Lane, 228 pp, £14.99, September 1999, ISBN 0 7139 9363 4
  • Apocalypses: Prophesies, Cults and Millennial Beliefs throughout the Ages by Eugen Weber
    Hutchinson, 294 pp, £18.99, July 1999, ISBN 0 09 180134 6
  • Messianic Revolution: Radical Religious Politics to the End of the Second Millennium by Richard Popkin and David Katz
    Allen Lane, 303 pp, £18.99, October 1999, ISBN 0 7139 9383 9

It was in 1982 that the artist then still known as Prince first invited us to ‘party like it’s 1999’, and in those days everyone quickly grasped what he meant. The Cold War made people edgy (‘Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb?’) and it seemed quite possible that we might wake up one morning and find that we were ‘out of time’. But now? Well, ‘it’s here and I like it,’ as Will Smith says in his greeting card to the new year ‘Will 2K’. There isn’t much anxiety in this song, it’s time to celebrate. What exactly? The ‘Willennium’, he helpfully suggests, ‘the party of a lifetime ... resolution: get the money’. Future historians looking for evidence of the ‘terrors’ of the year 2000 aren’t going to get much mileage out of Will Smith, or indeed any other area of popular culture. The Western world is unthreatened, some people are enjoying great prosperity, and governments are more popular than at any time in living memory. The End has become a marketing opportunity; it sells anything, even (in the TV ads) Uncle Ben’s rice.

Meanwhile, over in academia Prince is still the party tape of choice. Publishing ‘like it’s 1999’ may be variously interpreted, but whatever the resulting book is called, the assumption is the same: the end of the millennium is inextricably linked with apocalypse, the end of the world, and the messianic fanatics who seek to bring it about. And so although these three books are definably different, the thinking behind them is remarkably uniform. It is perhaps best illustrated by the circumstances behind Eugen Weber’s book. Invited by the University of Toronto to deliver a special lecture about fins de siècle, he soon discovered that there was not much to say. Centuries were an early modern invention, and it was only the end of the 19th that had attracted any special attention. Undeterred by his findings (or lack of them) about fins de siècle he nevertheless concluded that there is ‘a widespread demotic sense that the end of a calendric term somehow coincides with the end of an era, a culture, a civilisation’. Believing that ‘apocalypse is about the world’s progress to an appointed end,’ he fell back on the idea of talking about apocalypse instead. The result is an engaging and fast-moving survey, but the easy slide from fin de siècle to apocalypse is one that deserves closer examination.

The idea that a temporal end, however arbitrary, weights the time preceding it with a significance it might not otherwise possess is given its fullest expression in Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending. In this, perhaps his most influential book, Kermode argued that fiction, like apocalypse, gives shape to time by translating the relentless tick-tick-tick of bare chronicity into the tick-tock of a meaningful plot. By listening for the next tick as a tock, as the end of something that preceded it rather than the next in a meaningless and interminable succession, we invest time with shape and significance. And if tock is a tiny apocalypse, the end of a millennium ought to be a very big one.

Like much of Kermode’s writing, The Sense of an Ending is both extraordinarily lucid and strangely elusive. When I read it again recently, it often seemed like an extended response to a work to which it nowhere adverts – Eliot’s Four Quartets. This curious palimpsest was perhaps motivated by Kermode’s attempt to distance himself from Eliot while accepting the terms within which Eliot had formulated the question of time in ‘Burnt Norton’. Eliot’s premise is that ‘If all time is eternally present/All time is unredeemable.’ Humanity needs some kind of redemption from time, but, paradoxically, ‘Only through time time is conquered.’ This juxtaposition of chronological time and redemptive time, which critics in the Fifties were already interpreting in terms of the opposition between mere flux and the Christian kairos, is also the basis of Kermode’s distinction between the ‘reality’ of chronos (tick-tick) and a ‘time-redeeming’ kairos (tick-tock). And just as Eliot looked to the coexistence of ‘Time past and time future/What might have been and what has been’ in one end in which ‘all is always now,’ so, according to Kermode, it is in the ‘concord of past, present and future ... in the present of things past, the present of things present, and the present of things future’ that such redemption becomes possible.

However, Kermode was doing more than giving covert expression to an Eliotic soteriology: he was also democratising it. According to Eliot in ‘Little Gidding’, ‘A people without history/Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern/Of timeless moments’. Substitute ‘fiction’ for ‘history’ and you have Kermode’s theory in a nutshell, but that substitution is the crux of the matter. His argument with Eliot, both in The Sense of an Ending and, far more explicitly, in his T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures, The Classic, is that by identifying redemption with history, and history with a tradition that is ‘timeless and undesiring’, Eliot was offering salvation only to an elect. With his ‘persistent nostalgia for closed, immobile hierarchical societies’, Eliot was, as Kermode put it, ‘a poet ... of empire’. His idea of tradition was the continuity of empire, the timeless moments when ‘History is now and England.’ By suggesting that ‘in every plot there is an escape from chronicity,’ Kermode invested fiction with the time-redeeming potential Eliot found only in tradition. The effect was to liberate redemption from the past.

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