And so we come to the end, again. Always again, or at least always until the end. Endings have been inescapably on my mind these last few days, especially provoked by Karl’s excellent post at ITM. And, as I'm sure everyone is aware, we are at year's end, with all the existential (and financial and personal and…) accounting that that entails. But, endings are opportunity for beginnings, and so there is some hope for optimism. Or is there? What does it mean to make a new beginning? Does the beginning of a new year mean anything outside of our collective agreement to mark this as the time in which we begin a new sequence of months?
It's also about time for all of us to begin making new resolutions as we look forward to the promise of a new year. In addition to Karl’s ruminations on plucking the grain from the little clergeon in Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale” (the dead body of the boy is miraculously singing, and he will only be quiet and restful once the grain is pulled from his tongue), I am mindful of another medieval text: Piers Plowman. More specifically, I’m thinking of D. Vance Smith’s reading of the poem in his Book of the Incipit. Smith gives us a way to grapple with the repeated new beginnings of Langland’s poem -- the poem can’t seem to quite fashion an end, but it continuously fashions new beginnings. Smith observes
the crucial importance of beginnings to the formal structure, theology, and political phantasmatics of the poem suggests the powerful presence of what might be called, rather, an inceptive animus, the epiphenomenon of beginning—the anxiety of beginning that is manifest indirectly as indirection itself, as the reluctance to make closure, or as the irrepressible remnant of what comes before the beginning, which is made to end. (19)
During New Year’s, we’re often possessed of such “an inceptive animus.” Already I’m seeing New Year’s Resolutions, both sincere and glib, all over my various social media feeds. The New Year's Resolution (NYR) is a curious speech act: through it we attempt to call forth a better tomorrow by attempting to dissolve the past. Common and recurring resolutions for myself include the desire to “get more work done” or “be better organized” or “write more,” etc. In each case, the hope for better future behaviors is predicated upon a negative evaluation of past behavior.
Smith again: “beginnings are a privation of the past in a larger sense: as the annulment of history, of what must become the outside, the exterior, of an event to make the event unique—which is to say, intelligible, initiating, and historical” (21). To make sense of this moment as new, to decide to make it different, we often attempt to annul the moments that gave birth to it.
Unlike Langland’s insistent re-beginning of the poem, we don’t necessarily have the same “reluctance to make closure.” Instead, the NYR expresses a deep desire for closure, but only as a way to redress and make right past experience. “Sure, I screwed up last year, but this year, this year, I’ll fix it all and be better.”
Inevitably, though, we make the NYR only to break it, often sooner rather than later. The past we seek to annul is indeed an “irrepressible remnant,” always ready to haunt us. We can't fully annul the past, and any gesture to do so only confirms it.
But, I want to be clear here: I’m not saying that the lazy are always lazy, or the overindulgent always so. Rather, I just think it would be good to remember that while 2014 is a new year, with all the promise that suggests, mostly it’s just the next year, another item in a series whose ultimate length we can’t know.
So, don't treat your New Year's as some new, final beginning. Remember that it's just one of many. Instead of conjuring away our past selves with futile speech acts, let's just go on, incrementally, with lots of small new beginnings.
Happy New Year's. So it goes. Etc.