Despite wishing everyone I know, and many I don’t, a Happy New Year, I always find this a rather miserable time. There is no particular reason why this should be so: in theory, no day in the calendar is privileged over any other; but since we find it convenient to parcel out time in discrete entities rather than see it as a continuous flow, and since the traditions of the Western world have determined that January 1st should mark the beginning of each of these discrete entities, it is inevitable that, around this time, our minds are haunted, more perhaps than usual, by thoughts of the passage of time. And thoughts of the passage of time are rarely conducive to good cheer.
We try our best to disguise this. We party; we drink ourselves sometimes even to oblivion (Scottish readers will know what I mean); we tell ourselves with a tiresome repetitiveness that we are looking forward to a better and brighter tomorrow; and we join hands with each other to spread good cheer, and swear fellowship with all of humanity. But I can’t help thinking that we have picked the wrong Robert Burns poem for this occasion: for it is “To a Mouse” rather than “Auld Lang Syne” that comes to mind at this time of year … well, to my mind at least:
Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!
Perhaps one needs a close acquaintance with Scottish patterns of speech to feel the full force of that seemingly inarticulate “Och!” – so perfectly placed in the verse – but the meaning is fairly clear: backward cast your eye, and it lights only upon on prospects drear; and forwards, we can but guess and fear. (How strange, incidentally, that Burns should associate prospects with the past rather than with the future!) This is all a far cry from Auld Lang Syne (that’s just “Auld Lang Syne”, and not “for the sake of Auld Lang Syne”, as so many ignorant sassenachs will have it!); and no, there’s not much cheer in any of this. And, as we hear the usual tributes to those who have passed away over the previous twelve months – and think, inevitably, of our own friends and acquaintances in these ranks – we can but wonder how this same list will read in twelve months’ time. Not all the spectacular firework displays in the world can disguise this as a happy and celebratory time, and attempts to do so seem but a forced jollity. And there’s nothing quite like forced jollity to make one feel even more depressed than one had previously been.
Perhaps it is merely my nature that is excessively saturnine. But I doubt it: I know many who feel similarly gloomy about Christmas, and my saturnine nature does not extend quite that far. Possibly the New Year’s gloom is but a natural reaction, and, some may say, a corrective, to the excessive merrymaking of Christmas. Perhaps. Some may say that this New Year’s gloom is but a sign of advancing years; but even in my youth, I do not think I have attended a single New Year’s Party where I have not felt my jollity to be counterfeit. And, as Samuel Johnson reminds us in Rasselas:
Every man … may, by examining his own mind, guess what passes in the minds of others: when you feel that your own gaiety is counterfeit, it may justly lead you to suspect that of your companions not to be sincere.
If Johnson is indeed correct in this, then it seems there is an awful lot of counterfeiting going on around this time of the year.
There’s little cheer on this matter in literature: I cannot, off the top of my head, think of a single happy depiction of the New Year. Even when Dickens, that most genial of authors, turned his attention from Christmas to New Year in The Chimes, he produced a work so unremitting in its gloom that he never repeated that experiment again in any of his subsequent Christmas Books. What about films then? Not much cheer here either, I’m afraid: the two depictions of the New Year that come immediately to mind are far from uplifting. One is Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, in which the Tramp, ridiculous as always, has invited for New Year a beautiful lady and her friends to his ramshackle home, not realising that they wouldn’t even consider forgoing the bright lights of a New Year party for his homely fare; and as they enjoy the pleasures of the party, the ridiculous little man is left alone, nursing his prospects drear. And the other instance that comes to mind is in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, in which Joe Gillis (played by William Holden), desperate to break away from the curiously unreal world he has found himself in through his affair with the self-deluding and mentally unstable Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), attempts to re-enter the world of “normality”: he goes to a New Year’s party, with ordinary, normal people enjoying themselves in ordinary, normal ways. But the unreal world he has entered draws him back: the lover he thought he had left has tried to slash her wrists, and this he cannot walk away from. Normality is for others, not for him.
Perhaps I have just been reading the wrong books, and watching the wrong films. Well, I’ll break a long-standing rule and make, here and now, a New Year’s resolution: I shall, henceforth, be as happy and as cheerful and as optimistic as I possibly can. After all, there’s so many things that can go wrong with our lives, and with the world in general, that once one starts being pessimistic there’s no end to it. So one might as well be happy. Why not? After all, it’s less than twelve months now to Christmas!
A Happy New Year, everyone!