It was painful to watch Dick Clark bring in the new year, wasn’t it? This guy was once the picture of unassuming, unaffected ease, a very democratic master of ceremonies. He is now diminished and laborious. At the stroke of midnight, he saluted us with "Happy Dew Year!"
We are a culture that is likes to move through time with dispatch. Most cultures think of time as a circle. We think of it as an arrow, whistling forward. The future interests us so keenly we are happy, actually eager, to say farewell to the past. Most cultures revere tradition. We practice amnesia. We like to keep moving.
So a new year’s ceremony is an important event in the ritual scheme of things. We acknowledge time moving with our only shared act of time marking. The world rushes together in unison for a moment before returning to the chaos that is our preferred condition. We rush together and then once more off in all directions. By Jan. 1 we have returned to our fractious, pell-mell, state of diversity, everyone careening off in pursuit of their very own 2008.
The ritual officer matters. We want someone who makes this liminal moment go smoothly. We want someone to bless our fleeting, uneasy, unlikely consensus with a certain grace. We want someone to bless our passage into a reckless, vortex-like future with a humor so reassuringly bland that peril seems unthinkable.
Dick Clark used to be perfect. Now he’s not. If I may anticipate the anthropologist of the 22nd century, this doesn’t look good. It might even be taken as a symptom. When a culture make its chief temporal officer a man who suffers diminished capacity, when it puts the ritual in the hands who someone who can’t quite discharge the ritual, this might be a sign of a new ambivalence.
And who’s to say this anthropologist is wrong. For myself, I am astonished by how fast things change, how responsive individuals and institutions have become, how hard and ceaselessly everyone works. The mid-century modernism of, say, 1950s America delighted in change. We were eager and optimistic. Fifty years later a certain exhaustion appears to be setting in. We head into a new years with the usual joy of anticipation, but there are notes of concern. If this is what the future looks like…wow, it’s really hard work.
So what do we do with the ritual, that relic of our unalloyed optimism? Small interventions will do for the moment. It reminds me of a Honda I saw in the 1980s. The factory had installed a decal in the back window that read, "Another Happy Honda!" The owner razored out the second word, so that now his car read "Another Honda!" Perfect. Maybe Dick Clark is just our man.
New Year’s by the numbers:
ABC’s combination of theatrical Shrek 2 and Dick Clark’s Primetime New Year’s Rockin’ Eve finished first in prime-time on Monday, with an average 7.8 million viewers and a 2.4 rating/8 share among adults 18-49. Comparably, that beat the No.2 network (CBS in total viewers; Fox among adults 18-49) by a hefty 2.7 million viewers and 71 percent in the demo.
[Sorry, I have lost my source here. It might be from Marc Berman’s The Programming Insider. Highly recommended.]
Thanks to Tom and Karen Guarriello for sharing new years with us, and to Karen for the "Happy Dew Year" spot.
Thanks to Alan Light for the image of Dick Clark.