Some of you may have noticed that it has not been a great year. Disasters of disease and disruption; disasters violently compounded by our inability to temper our wishes and tolerate our differences; and, finally, death upon death of treasured talismans of better times.
Randomly, incompletely: Syria, Zika, Haiti, Orlando, Nice, Charlotte, Brussels, Bowie, Prince, Ali, Cohen. Not everyone was delighted by the results of important votes in the United States and Britain, either.
In such circumstances, Leonard Cohen was always one of our go-to men. But then, he checked out — just after the presidential election, and just after recording his last album, „You Want It Darker“. He left a typically bleak message behind — „A million candles burning for the help that never came” — to complement an older line, from half a century earlier: „Follow me, the wise man said, but he walked behind.”
Thanks again for that, Leonard. But there are those who would say that 2016 was not just darker, but their darkest ever. Or as they would more likely put it: Worst year ever!
Well, that is quite a contention, is it not? I can think of worse. There was 1958, for example, when that spark from the bonfire sent all our fireworks up at once.
To begin at the beginning, the year Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden could not have been an easy one — the ultimate reality show, one might say today. Nor did things improve much soon, what with one son murdering the other and the rest of it. At some point, about 75.000 years ago, any idyll our early ancestors were enjoying was rudely interrupted by the supereruption on Sumatra. (In modern times, the fallout from a smaller eruption, on Mount Tambora, produced in 1816 the Year Without a Summer, as it was known, in Europe and America — with crop failure, famine and a general gloom that was unabated even by the admission of Indiana to the Union.)
Fiddling nervously with one’s toga while awaiting the arrival in Rome of the Visigoths (in 410) or the Vandals (in 455) wouldn’t have suited me much. Some historians argue that neither sacking was as bad as it might have been, but that surely depends on your tolerance for rape and pillage.
A similar revisionism has been applied to the Vikings, who nowadays are mostly characterized as traders with a forceful negotiating manner. But a monk, around 800, wrote, „Since tonight the wind is high, the sea’s white mane a fury, I need not fear the Hordes of Hell coursing the Irish Channel“. And there was probably little time for ambivalence in 1200 when your neighbor ran over to tell you that Genghis Khan was coming.
The truth is that people in every age find reason to believe that their best times are behind them, and all that remains is decline and despair — that note of lament Cicero hit in 63 B.C.: „O tempora, o mores!” But far from uttering a generalized moan, the orator was castigating the corruption of his age as expressed in one man, Catiline, the author of a plot to seize power in Rome. The historian Sallust described Catiline as „reckless, cunning, treacherous, capable of any form of pretense or concealment. Covetous of others’ possessions, he was prodigal of his own; he was violent in his passions. He possessed a certain amount of eloquence, but little discretion. His disordered mind ever craved the monstrous, incredible, gigantic.”
Historians can be so judgemental. Be sure: Catiline just wanted to make Rome great again. I am sure to have heard this sequence recently somewhere else …
Catiline’s power grab, for example, was foiled by a brave lawyer: none other than Cicero. To beat off those 2016 blues, we should recall others who found themselves in seemingly desperate positions but still survived to triumph: Alfred the Great, Robert the Bruce, Washington before the Delaware. (My remorseless journalistic quest for balance, however, compels me also to mention: General Custer, the Light Brigade, and Laurel and Hardy.)
The best of times, worst of times thing also depends heavily on which side you’re on: Consider, again, 1776, and 1066, 1815, 1865, 1918, 1945 and, of course, 1492. I’ve often thought, as well, that it couldn’t have been much fun being either inside the Massachusetts Bay Colony or outside putting up with it. Which takes us to some more bad years, the Commonwealth in England under Oliver Cromwell: long on sermons, short on fun, with maypoles and general frolicking severely frowned upon. They even tried to abolish Christmas.
You know, on the whole: I think we’re probably better off with 2016!