Calendars and Cultural Memory

Calendars and Cultural Memory October 17, 2017

Modernity’s reduction of time to clock-time is not socially or psychically healthy. As Rosenstock-Huessy puts it:

“We need the intersecting of many rhythms of time. Our stomach and our consciousness respond to a 24-hour rhythm. Our faith and our hopes respond to centuries. Our noble passions like the love of husband and wife, of veterans, of sects, rule time spans of 25, 30, or 40 years. The 24-hour day and the week, the month and the year, should not becloud the spheres of greater revolution. The chronology of family succession, of wars and peaces, has been destroyed by the heresy that the mechanical time clock revealed all there is to be lived in time, by time, and by timing” (“Time-Bettering Days,” 16).

The development of a calendar is a cultivation of memory: “A day introduced into the calendar or a day stricken out of the calendar, means a real change in the education and tradition of a nation. Mankind writes its own history long before the historians visit its battlefields; days, festivals, holidays, the order of meals, rest and vacations, together with religiously observed rituals and symbols, are sources of political history, thought rarely used by the average political or economic historian” (Out of Revolution [OR], 8).

Calendars reveal history as the “autobiography” of a people, ultimately the unified autobiography of the entire human race. According to Rosenstock, mankind would lack autobiography if human society had “always been like modern society: completely sensational, totally forgetful, and wonderfully devoid of memory.” But man has not always been so. Rather, “mankind has always, with the utmost tenacity, cultivated its calendar.”

Calendars are another social and political instrument for cutting alleys of time. Calendars give shape to time in two senses. First, the cataclysmic events commemorated on calendars are products of political and social action, and these events open or close epochs, just as rituals of investiture and commemoration open and close alleys of time.

Second, it is not merely the events themselves that give form to time, but the creative social decision to mark events on the calendar. The Battle of Waterloo was a chaos of slaughter and death, so complex and confusing that no individual within the battle could know what it was all about.

The significance of a change in the calendar is not always immediately evident, and may not be evident for several generations. Yet, nations mark days as a bride marks her wedding day as the day of new creation:

“It is not necessary to record the everyday life of a nation for a thousand years in order to know its aim and inspiration. The great creations of history do not reveal their deepest sense nor their soul every day. But each has its wedding day; and the words and songs, the promises and laws of this period of a nation’s life express its character viva voce and settle its destiny once and for all” (OR 9).

Waterloo became a name, an impression, and a reality long before the historians sat down to write of it. Some features, some actions, some human traits, tower above the mire of incomprehensible sufferings and hardships as the individual tradition of this particular victory and defeat. Fears and hopes, envy and generosity, collaborated to coin the names ‘Belle-Alliance’ or ‘Waterloo.’ Man is a name-giving animal. Conscious experience is the presupposition of a new name (OR 693). Similarly, “Gettysburg, Saratoga, Yorktown, Marathon, are not facts but the creations of a nation’s memory” (OR 694).

National memory is not built by scientific history or by literature, because “it is not an effort of the intellect.” Instead, “The whole being of the nation is at stake in a great event,” and this experience can only be memorialized in more formal ways, through monuments and ceremonies. At the end of this process, “The climax is reached when an event is incorporated into the calendar as a recurrent date. Memory is fixed by the calendar of a group or a nation.”

A day of memorial for Becket was added to the calendar, identifying him as a martyr of the church by putting his day on a day earlier reserved for King David, immediately after the day of St. Stephen. This occurred only two years after Becket’s death, and this dating “under the authority of the Pope in Rome, tells us more about the mediaeval relations between Gregorian Rome and a local kingdom than do many discussions of the Anglicans during the nineteenth century.”

The day of Thomas was “the ‘Fourteenth of July’ of the Papal Revolution, and the Magna Charta of the common man from 1174-1535” (OR: 694-5).

Attention to calendars makes for more accurate accounting of the periods of history. Rosenstock-Huessy complains that “Periods like that of Humanism or of the Industrial Revolution are afterthoughts, not born of original, contemporary experience.” Far more candid are “the historical calendars built up immediately in the way of revolutions.”

Secondary periodizations like “Renaissance” or “Industrial Revolution” “should not be allowed to dominate the Great Year of mankind as it is pictured in the creations of real holidays and traditions by monks, papacy, free cities, princes, parliaments, citizens and workers” (OR 705).

Holidays are moments of shared memory, and contribute to the rhythm of time. Modern man has turned holidays into occasions for mere leisure. In the past, the distinction was understood, but historians can no longer recognize it. He cites one historian who speaks of the “idle Sundays” of the Puritans, and rejoins:

“If [he] had entered Dochester, Massachusetts, and experienced the architecture of the First Congregational Church there – the church of the Adams family by the way – he would have learned that people definitely fulfilled a duty, their highest duty, on Sunday, in founding the perfect body of which the mighty republic of the United States is a poor week-day edition” (Christian Future [CF] 203).

Christianity is similar to other religions in this regard, since “all religions, and even more all pseudo-religions, aspire to rhythmical activities. Dance is sanctified; religious dance recommended; and dancing is rhythm on a short wave.” In the church, “we have liturgical movement to revive the rhythm of the individual service and of the whole year of the Church as well. Sermons grown into continuous chains over months and even years” (CF 207).

Calendars enshrine this rhythmic character of religion: “Calendars are rhythmical forms of memory and cycles of worship. The liturgical rhythm is expressed in terms of Sunday and weekday, Christmas and Easter, Pentecost and Advent” (CF 207). These rhythms are not identical to the rhythms of nature, and the church in particular defies natural time:

“The former is a calendar of 365 days. The latter expresses within the scope of 365 days the true infinity of all time from beginning of the world to its end. For the reasoning mind, time consists of separate units, days or years. For our faith, one year’s course inducts into the whole linear expanse of all history. The calendar of the Western World, with its Fourth of July, is independent from nature’s mechanism. So much so, that from Christmas to Easter, a whole lifetime of thirty years is remembered, and from Pentecost to Advent, the whole experience of mankind through the Old Testament and our whole era is remembered” (CF 209).

Philosophical systems are not rhythmical, but religions are. Religion is closer to life in this respect, in that life itself expresses itself in the rhythm of the “mutual begetting of opposites: weeping and joy, winter and summer, victory and defeat, birth and death, make up the rhythm.” Religion mimics this with a pattern of Sunday and weekday (CF 208).

Yet, religion does not imitate the rhythms of nature. Nature is rhythmic, but “our time rhythm is unhinged from the solar revolutions.” Human sexual rhythms are different from the cycles of the animal world: “Whales and horses may take their law of mating from the seasons. The human is made miserable because his appetites are unpredictable. Sex, politics, studies, work, and especially our worries and anxieties, make us exiles from the annual cycle Man as exile from nature’s cycles, perpetually creates new rhythms” (CF 209).

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