22 June, 2006

Time's best jewel

Moses B. Cotsworth, The Rational Almanac (1902).

Men have worried about time-cycles and chronology since the dawn of history. The Egyptians had a story about Thoth playing the moon at senet for five intercalendrical days, so that Isis could conceive Horus. Aristoxenus of Tarentum and Apollodorus of Athens recorded dates for the purpose of a chronological synthesis of Greek history; Eusebius of Caesarea, one of the early stars of the Christian Church, produced a monumental effort of comparative chronology, upon which a great deal of subsequent historiography was based. Anthony Grafton's own mammoth study on Joseph Scaliger demonstrates the huge interest in chronological studies following the discoveries of Copernicus, on which Gregory's 1582 calendar reform was founded. Then things died down a bit until the French Revolution and the temporary instauration of the metric Jacobin calendar—marvelous stuff, incidentally, with its five extra days marked off as feasts to Genius, Labour, Noble Actions, Awards and Opinion. After that was ushered in the Age of Reform, the reform 'from a general comprehensive view of the whole'. Webster, the first of many, pressed for spelling reform—my favourite reason being that his proposals 'would diminish the number of letters about one sixteenth or eighteenth', and thus 'would save a page in eighteen', for an overall saving 'of an eighteenth in the expense of books'—Saint-Simon and Fourier pressed for utopian political reform—Bentham pressed for reform in political ethics—countless Victorians pressed for practical social reform—Ruskin and Morris for methodological reform in the arts—Zamenhof and others pressed for linguistic reform—August Comte, like the Jacobins, pressed for a reformed new 'positivist' calendar—and by the end of the century, the first wave of proto-Modernists were pressing for reform in artistic style.

In 1902, Moses B. Cotsworth would follow in Comte's footsteps, proposing his own Reformed Calendar in The Rational Almanac, an extremely rare volume which I purchased at a small store on Fossgate, York, for only 25 pounds, though abebooks lists copies for hundreds of dollars. It's an odd and beautiful volume, a tall octavo in gilt-tooled cloth with profuse illustration. Cotsworth, a local Yorkshireman, begins the work with his proposed calendar, dividing simply into a year of 13 months (the extra month between June and July, called 'Sol'), each with 4 weeks (28 days), for a total of 364 days; Christmas Day is an extra day, not corresponding to a day of the week, as is Leap Year Day. Easter and other moveable feasts on a lunar cycle are to be fixed by date. Cotsworth offers a chart showing the benefits of this system:

The second part of the book consists of a history of ancient time-keeping, covering Egyptian, Celtic and even American systems ('almanacs'). Cotsworth writes with a charmingly personal style:
When, therefore, my medical adviser ordered me abroad to the sunniest climate available, to get rid of serious throat illness, I promptly started for Egypt, though that meant a serious tax on my limited means.
The Great Pyramid, Cotsworth claims, is essentially a huge sundial, measuring year-cycles by variations in the length of its shadow; Cotsworth demonstrates exactly how this might have been done. Not until the pyramid was constructed (and he notes that similar structures exist all over the world, including most importantly the Tower of Babel) could men reckon time accurately by the year. Before that, he argues, men calculated in terms of months, five months, six months. This explains the outlandish longevity of the Biblical patriarchs—as the 'year' modulus became longer in the period between Noah and Moses, the patriarchs' apparent lifespans diminished accordingly.
I am convinced that the true length of the Year was never found out until after the Pyramids were built to solve that greatest problem early communities had to solve, for until that gave the measure of apparent yearly motions of the Stars it would be quite impossible for star observers to locate the Seasonal positions of the Stars, whilst obviously, as they saw that the Sun caused the Seasons, they could not be expected to seek out the solution of the Year apart from the Sun as its cause.
This is powerful material, rich in suggestion and conviction, despite its uncritical reliance on religious texts. The Rational Almanac is not just a summation of history and a plan for the future, but a history informing that plan, a reform which enters into the fabric of history and furthers its progress—the book is thus the encapsulation of an entire world-view. Cotsworth makes an impassioned plea for the reader's support of his scheme:
May I ask readers who favour these suggested Reforms, to fill up and return to to me the enclosed post card, notifying their support, and follow that up by kindly using their best efforts to enlighten public opinion by bringing this question before Members of Parliament, Public Authorities, and their friends, to ensure practical reform.
It is this utopian spirit which I have always enjoyed so much—and which moreover forces something sharp in my throat. It fills me with the hope that things might change, at the expense of my inner sneering sceptic. This is the appeal of all those Victorian movements which wanted to change everything all in one go, the comprehensive view of the whole. If only the measurement of time could be reasonable, we might ourselves become reasonable. Mankind, after all, is governed by its understanding of time, as we can see by the cultural evolution of ancient races with their slowly-advancing chronometric technologies. It's the same thought that governs the language-reformers, who thought they could make men reasonable by making their grammar fit to neat rules. The most recent example of that was the Basic English programme of Ogden and Richards, damned by Whorf and lampooned by Orwell as Newspeak, despite transition's translation of Finnegans Wake into the language. Now this stuff is old hat, a relic of late Enlightenment superstition. What next: decimalization?

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