History -- visible and invisible
There's been all the usual agitation that occurs when the old year ends and the new year begins. We've been assaulted by every possible ten-best (and ten-worst) list from 1982 - and hark! more alarums! here come the obligatory predictions for 1983.
In January we go dizzy with entrances and exits, like the two-faced Roman god after whom the month was named.
It's as if we must prove to ourselves what an eventful year we just had. Has there ever been a time so . . . so . . . well, you name it. If it wasn't the best year ever, maybe it was the worst. At any rate, don't throw away the superlatives.
One chronicler announced almost proudly that 1982 saw more Americans lined up at soup kitchens than any year since the depression.
In January almost any distinction will do.
And you haven't seen anything yet. Next year will be even better, or even worse, or least more so in every way than 1982 was, with twice as many Most Intriguing People and Most Watchable Men, to pick up on just two of the lists currently in competition.
Do we heap up names and happenings because we fear that beneath this mob scene of history lurks chaos? Lech Walesa. ''E.T.'' John De Lorean. The defeat of ERA. The war in the Falklands. Everything and everybody get thrown into the catalogs we hurriedly compile, rather like a diary being filled retroactively on the last day of the month for a school assignment.
Must we measure history by its own kind of gross national product? Have we fallen into the trap of judging a year the way the television evening news judges a day? How many fires? How many stabbings? How many stalled cars in the breakdown lane at rush hour?
Nobody wants to kill the messenger. But does the messenger want to kill us?
A newsmagazine has been running a series of ads, showing the product being delivered under incredibly difficult circumstances. The latest issue floats in a bottle to a Robinson Crusoe marooned on a desert island, or arrives around the neck of a St. Bernard for a subscriber in a snowbound cabin. In January a lot of us may feel like crying: ''Cancel the dog sled. Do us a favor. We can live seven days without learning the very latest in catastrophes and trendy trivia. Really.''
No wonder end-of-the-year lists turn to parody - Dubious Achievement Awards and Non-Event of the Year competitions.
This history of dense-pack events (and non-events) is the nightmare from which James Joyce prayed to awake. Yet once a year we pack it all even more densely in this ritual of retrospect-and-forecast.
Is there no alternative? Do we have to accept history as a formless tragicomedy played out by an army of actors who do not quite know their parts, bumping into one another on a dimly lit stage?
In fact, there is another kind of history than the helter-skelter of 365 headlines recapitulated. This other history moves in slow cycles without frenzies of plot. A field is plowed. A rafter beam is raised. There are births and christenings and dances on the village green. The sun rises. The sun sets. Make a headline out of that.
This is history as day-to-day pageant, without the comings and goings of kings or the melodrama of who-fought-whom-on-what-battlefield. As unsensational as the four seasons, it is not the stuff that lists are made of. This is invisible history.
In a lovely little poem, ''Going to Sleep in the Country,'' Howard Moss celebrates invisible history. The moon rises over some flowering dogwood. ''In the distance, a waterfall . . . is weighing itself again.'' A whippoorwill sings. ''Each star, at a different depth, shines down.''
The poem concludes: ''The night comes into its own,/Waiting for nothing to happen.''
And that nothing - is it not just possible? - may be almost everything. That nothing may be the news.