In the Eye of the Millennium: Hope and Shame at the Crossroads of History

By Ventura, Michael | Family Therapy Networker, November/December 1999 | Go to article overview

In the Eye of the Millennium: Hope and Shame at the Crossroads of History


Ventura, Michael, Family Therapy Networker


"This is the charged, the dangerous moment, when everything must be reexamined, must be made new; when nothing at all can be taken for granted." -- James Baldwin

Everyone in America is preparing for New Year's Eve 1999 as an act of the imagination. We are doing that through the question everyone is having to deal with: "Where do I want to be, and with whom do I want to be, as the century and the Millennium turns? With whom do I choose to walk through the gate?"

It's safe to say that in the consulting room, as the year comes to a close, therapists will be dealing with this question as a major source of stress in their patients. Because, whether we want to or not, most of us can't help but feel New Year's Eve 1999 as emblematic, symbolic--a verdict on where we've been and a portent of where we're going. A night that, through no choice of your own, but simply by the press of history, you will never forget. So on that night you will be forced to know yourself by how you feel about the eyes into which you look at the moment the Millennium turns. And who will not approach such a moment of self-knowledge without at least a little anxiety?

There will be a lot of noise. Time zone by time zone, midnight by midnight, there will be more noise than there has ever been on any night in our noisy history. There will be music and explosions, kisses and dances, songs and speeches, fights and embraces, hoopla and brouhaha; but, within it all, there will also be a tremendous and all-enveloping silence. A silence into which all that noise and song and sex and prayer and talk and dance will disappear. There will be a hole, an abyss, in our wanting. In our desire. For every last one of us will feel some sense of failure, some fragment of the collective sadness of humanity: the longing for things to be other than they are.

And we will try to fill that hole with silly words. Y2K will distract many. Instead of waking to the first morning of the new Millennium wondering, "Who and what am I now? What should I be doing and why?" many will go straight to their machines to see if they still work. Y2K will be the "story," but it will be only a symptom of the reality.

The reality will be that on the first morning of the year 2000 we will be naked. Whether we know and admit that or not. Naked. For culturally and psychologically the 20th century has stripped us bare--stripped us of every raiment of certainty we ever wore, or ever imagined we wore. Once, only the Emperor had no clothes; now, everybody in the procession and all the spectators are equally naked.

Surf the Net and you'll see how naked we are. Here, we have a unique human invention--cyberspace--that both includes and envelops every other human invention, while dwarfing all previous inventions in scope; yet a massive amount of this technological marvel is devoted to one of the most primitive of human preoccupations: pornography. But this immense market for pornography has less to do with lust than with the compulsion of naked psyches to stare at the bodies of naked strangers. It is an inner nakedness compulsively seeking images of external nakedness in order to stare at itself. People who need to fantasize such contact, on such a vast scale, must feel profoundly and terrifyingly untouched. People who need to stare so hard and long at the bodies and acts of others (not only with porno, but with movies and television), must feel unseen--or why is the behavior required for today's "entertainment" no more than a constant mass stare? At the heart of our stare, with its lust for the predictable, is the nakedness of our uncertainty.

We began the 20th century in Victorian clothing, layered from head to foot, and the exposure of a woman's ankle was thought lewd. We end the century wearing next to nothing, with nakedness broadcast from every ad, every billboard, every screen. That is the true progression of the 20th century, and make no mistake, it's a progression of the psyche: a progression of how the illusion of certainty has been stripped down mercilessly to a state in which everything can be imagined but nothing can be known--nothing, that is, but the fact that our vulnerability has been relentlessly exposed. …

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