Every year at this time of the year my mind turns towards man’s creation of the calendar. Some months ago I came a fascinating discussion about the issue of measuring time in Jack Goody’s wonderful, if dense work, Theft Of History. I share with you here the paragraphs that I looked up last night as the clock struck midnight and signaled that finally 2010, a year that has tested me in ways I had never imagined, has passed and that I can look forward to new possibilities in 2011.
The very calculation of time in the past, and of the present to, as been appropriate by the west. The dates on which history depends are measured before and after the birth of Christ. The recognition of other eras, relating to the Hegira, to the Hebrew or to the Chinese New Year, is relegated to the margins of historical scholarship and of international usage…
…The monopolization of time takes place not only with the all-inclusive era, that defined by the birth of Christ, but also with the everyday reckoning of years, months, and weeks. The year itself is a partly arbitrary division. We use the sidereal cycle, others a sequence of twelve lunar periods. It is a choice of a more or less conventional kind. In both systems the beginning of the year, that is, the New Year, is quite arbitrary. There is, in fact, nothing more ‘logical’ about the sidereal year which Europeans use than about the lunar reckoning of Islamic and Buddhist countries. In is the same with the European division into months. The choice is between arbitrary years or arbitrary months. Our months have little to do with the moon, indeed the lunar months of Islam are definitely more ‘logical’. There is a problem for every calendrical system of integrating star or seasonal years with lunar months. In Islam the year is adjusted to the months; in Christianity the reverse holds. In oral cultural both the seasonable count and the moon count can operate independently, but writing forces a kind of compromise.
The week of seven days is the most arbitrary unit of them all. In Africa one finds the equivalent of a ‘week’ of three, four, five, or six days, with markets to correspond. In China it was ten days. Societies felt the need for some regular division smaller than a month for frequent cyclical activities such as local markets, as distinct from annual fairs. The duration of these units is completely conventional. The notion of a day and a night clearly corresponds to our everyday experience but once again the further subdivisions into hours and minutes exists only on our clicks and in our minds; they are quite arbitrary.
Have a wonderful New Year, where ever you may be, and when ever it may actually arrive in your life.
And for the conventional; A lovely 2011 to you all.