As anyone who knows me will tell you, the only thing I love more than apocalyptic pop culture is a free book, and today I came across two of them.
Apparently we’ve all missed the boat. I’ve been counting according to the Mayan calendar largely because I’ve loved it ever since I bought a calendar pendant at a Cozumel market [mumble] years ago. They’re lovely pieces of art and culture and quite the thing these days. The Mayan calendar, if you believe in it as a definitive document (and why not?*), gives us 233 days left to enjoy ourselves before the end of all things (and conveniently gets us out of having to spend anything on Christmas presents this year).
Only today, while following a thread on a related topic, I learned that we may have less time than I previously thought. According to Ronald Weinland, the end times have already begun, kicked off in December of 2008 by the global economic crisis. The final, actual end will come later this month, on 27 May.
Of course, all of this immediately brought to mind the hysteria last year over the date set by Harold Camping, and my first thought was that perhaps Mr. Camping had returned to insist that he’d merely gotten the year wrong somehow. It seemed a perfectly plausible mistake, since we often have debates over how to count when discussing the calendar. And the failure of the skies to open and the trumpets to sound at dinnertime on the 21st did not stop Mr. Camping from revising his reasoning and calculations.
But no, this is an entirely different individual, with an entirely different argument to put forward, and he does so in two books that he’s offering for free at his website. I have downloaded both, and now I know what I’ll be doing this weekend!
* I’ve nothing against taking the calendar as a given example of cultural meaning, but I’ve never been sure why people are so insistent that because it ends with a particular day that must, by definition, mean that the Mayans believed all the universe ended that day as well. If we were to disappear as a species sometime this year, would the descendents of the cockroaches examine the fact that all of our calendars ended with 31 December 2012 and take this to mean that we, as a culture, didn’t believe in the possibility of life after the end of our current calendar? As a society, we have (largely) agreed that a year has 365 days (plus just a little bit) and that every time we come to the end of one we get a fresh new one to replace it. If we plotted our own calendar as a wheel, would anyone really believe that when you came to the end of the space allotted on the plate, that meant time as we know it would cease to exist? No, we all understand that you’d then go out and buy a new plate.
Even if you bought one of those fancy ‘perpetual’ calendars and it ran out of numbers because it didn’t have the space for more, would we assume that our inability to manufacture an infinitely variable and open calculating system mapped onto a perfect, closed form of necessity meant that time would end when we no longer could measure it with such tools? I think we’d chuck the old ones in the bin and go buy a new one. Don’t believe that a sophisticated people could make such a mistake unless they believed that there was a finite end to the time allotted for humanity? Have you forgotten that lots and lots of really smart people overlooked the fact that eventually we’d need more than two digits to indicate the year when coding software?
I’ve always firmly believed that the Mayans must have thought of their calendar as a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional structure. Picture a spiral staircase. We know when we see it in the ‘real world’ that it is a three dimensional structure which the motion is circular horizontally while also moving a person in vertical space. The structure is a helix, a three dimensional curve that is potentially endless, but when you look at it in plan, it looks like a simple, closed circle.
The Mayans may have been aggressive and more than a bit bloodthirsty, but they were mathematically quite sophisticated. You would have to be, in order to develop the elegant graphical equations they based their calendars and their architecture on. Refusing to credit the Mayans with an understanding of calendars and the dual cyclical/linear conception of time that we take perfectly for granted today is as pernicious a chauvinism against past civilizations as the Flat Earth Myth. It says more about us and about our attitudes toward non-Western and non-modern civilizations than it does about those civilizations themselves. As I always remind my students, don’t confuse ‘ancient’ with ‘stupid’ or that is very much how you will reveal yourself.