1999 and other new maths


by Emilio DeGrazia • New Year’s Eve is a solemn occasion for me. I’ve preferred to mark New Year advents close to my wife Monica, usually with a book in my lap or with my pen caught in the act of scribbling a few words on another blank page. My mind swirls round and round in such times, reaching for continuity and sense in another unfinished line swirling away into unknowns. If I’m lucky I sometimes achieve a sense of what’s recurrently valuable––white sheets flapping on a clothesline in a brisk, clean breeze, peasants returning at sunset from the fields, people around a table sharing wine and talk, red clay turned by a potter’s hands, the aroma of fresh baked bread. Those simple facts of life, which used to have something permanent and necessary about them, require renewal celebrations too, preferably quiet and serene. So when the New Year midnight moment approaches I make sure the kids are safely inside. Some neighbors, I know, feel the need to shoot off their guns at everything and nothing out there. I’m nervous about the fallout.

Emilio DeGrazia has authored four books of fiction, including Seventeen Grams of Soul, winner of a Minnesota Book Award, and Enemy Country, winner of a Writer’s Choice Award. A founding editor of Great River Review, he has co-edited (with his wife Monica) 26 Minnesota Writers and 33 Minnesota Poets. His most recent book is a collection of essays entitled Burying the Tree. He lives downstream in Winona.All Downstream blog entries ©2008 Emilio DeGrazia.

As New Year’s Eve, 1999, approached, I too felt the heartbeat countdown pulsing closer to the inevitable midnight beginning of an impossible next thousand years. Here I was on the verge of sleep, pen in hand, slouched in solidarity with millions of others in that final moment, our eyes heavenward as if in search of a comet visitation, minds wondering not what next but what sense we were to make of it all. And already we knew we would be left behind feeling somewhat blank, wondering how to remake ourselves, disappointed that nothing––and no horsemen––had arrived to save us from what’s been terrible in our past, our excitement dully expired in the New Year fireworks that Disneyfy our real dread of what lies ahead.

I keep thinking back: This time to good Dr. Joseph Irving, college Shakespeare professor who so obviously misread my verbal talents. “All I’ve ever tried to do,” he said in his retirement speech, “is teach people how to read.” How ridiculous, I mumbled to myself in revenge for the C+ grade he branded me with. Everyone here knows how to read.

As I survey the wreckage of the past century––the vast wastescapes, the hundred (give or take a few) million dead in our wars, the end of a natural world we prefer to image as timeless, restorative, and beautiful––I have an urge to put down that history the way I do a dreary and pointless novel, especially when there’s another on the shelf promising me an old and better plot. In the quiet of a mental space as dark as knowledge and memory I long for a fulfilling traditional tale, a story continuous and whole, at once big but so small it has room for me in it somewhere, and, above all, one woven in a design I can see and love and read. I have a lot of trouble making sense of what I read these days, especially in the newspapers.

I might have found some comfort in those days of yore when it was fashionable to read the stars. Then the firmament at least had a fabric of pictures woven on it––dippers, a hunter, twins, bears––few enough story lines to learn by heart, plenty of signs to guide the lovelorn, an occasional convergence to denote a destiny. One could learn to feel at home in such space, especially as the stories came round to be renewed. But Galileo burned vast black holes into that celestial script, and with each space probe NASA deepens the expanding bottomlessness of our wonderful ignorance. I turn my pages back to John Donne. All coherence is gone, he laments in his antique seventeenth century prose, announcing the birth of modernism.

To be modern (and postmodern) these days is to agree that a lot of things don’t add up. Particularly askew are the figurings of the alleged author of the Bible’s Book of Revelation, the apocalypse concocted by a self-anointed prophet who allegedly lived on the Greek island of Patmos two thousand years ago. Like Pythagoras and other ancient sages he manipulated numbers in an attempt to harmonize the discord of life. The Book of Revelation gives us a lot of numbers that result in a zero for planet earth. To heads, angels, bowls, plagues, churches and sacred seals the Patmos astrologer attached the number seven fifty-four times. He was fond of multiples of 1000 and twelve, concluding his arithmetic by insisting that only 144,000 of the world’s population would make it to heaven. Everyone else in the world, his enemies, would suffer the tortures of hell. Persecution time would be “time, times, and half a time,” forty-two months or three and a half years. And the number of the Beast in his brain was the weird and currently popular 666. He loved numbers indeed, without accounting for the hate in his heart.

Many of the earliest Christians expected his numbers to favor them rather immediately. Relentlessly persecuted, they had good reason to hope that apocalypse would even scores and make their beliefs add up to more than their own absurd suffering. Again and again they were left behind to be individually subtracted from life as they waited for the wholesale end of the world. As the first millennium A.D. neared, many recalculated apocalypse time. They too were left behind. And when Christians abandoned the Old World for the promise of prosperity and religious freedom on American shores, many groups––Millerites, Latter-Day Saints, and other evangelicals with diverse enthusiasms––fine-tuned their numbers again and again, only to be left behind.

We all have private fantasies and live by the stories we take seriously, and arguably it’s still a free country, even for those who see myth in the Bible and part company with its morally objectionable parts. It’s tempting to turn the other cheek to nonsense and secretly smirk at those who seriously expect to be spirited away from their bedrooms, cars and bathtubs by a cheerless God. But no humor is allowed when it comes to religious belief, especially in small towns. Instances of mass delusion are not uncommon, and there’s a price to pay for exercising common sense against them. The medieval witch-hunts, the Nazi era campaigns against Jews, homosexuals, and socialists, and the McCarthyite Red Scare occurred, it seems, when authority structures lost moral stature and the fears lurking in all of us targeted scapegoats to demonize, the delusions gaining converts as fears and frustrations increased but also when realists failed to speak out. If millions of Americans believe the hateful ravings of the Patmos poet to be literally true, do we dare call these people mentally ill, especially when they carry on at work and school so diligently? What are we to name people who appear normal while wholly given to grand delusions? Words fail.

It is not amusing that the fanaticism we like to ascribe to foreign extremists makes mortgage payments in our neighborhoods. Belief in the Book of Revelation has an increasing interest rate these days. The text has a made-for-Hollywood big screen quality––Evil monsters, mysterious secrets decoded as the drama unfolds, horrific scenes of violence, and a happy ending for the forces of Good. More than a few have swallowed the plot-line whole. The revenge-driven ravings have been re-packaged by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins in the “Left Behind” series, best-selling fantasies that promise tribulation and hell to those who don’t believe. The same message is commonplace on pulpits, on Christian TV and radio, and on internet sites, one of which features a doomsday clock.

Most of those who buy this religious fantasy have ordinary jobs, behave politely, and live next door. Like almost all atheists, they are very decent people. A lot of them have college degrees, most in business but many in technical fields requiring the application of narrow logic systems and statistics to specific tasks. They “know” the Bible makes sense, though few have really read it––certainly not in the Hebrew or Greek that would complicate their lives. Many––in worldly terms––are successful. They have a lot to lose by not being left behind.

Their scare tactics scare me. Their current rescheduling aligns Apocalypse to political events in the Middle East. It is not comforting to suspect that foreign policy is grounded on superstitious belief, especially when so many in the American military are evangelicals who seriously have identified the Middle East location where they insist the Armageddon battle is to be fought. These believers are not wholly unlike fanatical suicide bombers, who have little respect for this muddled earth and are willing to give their lives to see a speedy fulfillment of their fantasies. For some of them the year 2000—or was it 2001 or some other emergency date like 9-11?––was destined to be curtain time for humanity on the grandest scale. They again were wrong, so again they recrunch the numbers to get a better read, desperate to confirm the truth of their script by trying to make sure the show goes off as planned. Hi-tech hands will certainly be for hire to help them out. The rest of us will have to find somewhere to hide.

Emotions matter most, but the thoughts in our heads matter too. When Truth narrows to a dogmatic point civility gets stabbed in the head. The Book of Revelation calls for a revenge so self-righteously glorious that violence is legitimized as a cosmic norm for conducting the ordinary business on earth. If God approves war, torture and hell, then who are we to try peaceful programs and common decency? We’d just better let the world go to hell. For the first time in U.S. history government policy-makers have legitimized torture. Why not? God does it too.

At stake is the basis of rational understanding, conscientiously evolved (and evolving) over the past five hundred years by scholars, scientists, and a few theologians with profound commitment to intellectual honesty. Their influence erodes as the basis for progress, faith and public policy. If facts don’t matter because one has the only Truth, and when club membership in a church privileges one to this Truth, honest learning enters a new dark age.

I admit celestial scripts and math make no sense to me. I can barely make the numbers in my checkbook add up, and IRS instruction booklets leave me at a loss. My own written words often make no sense. But I still find the universe inclusive enough to contain a spirit as small-minded as mine, and I’m sure it’s God I see when I look carefully at a leaf, a bird, or the eyes of a starving African child. On New Year’s Eve I’m content to be alone with Monica, hoping that some sort of rapture is about to begin. Last year it was so quiet in the house she wondered if we had been left behind. I hope so, I said, because now maybe we can return to our senses.