Around this time, as the old year tilts downward into darkness and chill, the human brain compensates with tinglings of novelty. This isn’t science, you understand: This is just the way it works. The eye of day opens onto winter bleakness; the shape of a leafless tree at evening disturbs us; and so we incline, quite naturally, in the opposite direction—to thoughts of new buds, thrilling debuts, burgeoning trends, and upward curves.
In America these things absorb us perennially, of course, but late December gives our need for new beginnings a special keenness. We arouse ourselves, with perhaps disproportionate zeal, at the news that Katy Perry is launching another fragrance (her third). Or that the pope has opened a Twitter account—he’s started tweeting! Hooray! We might even dream, in feeble audacity, of greeting the new year with a new self: a self that eats fewer doughnuts and reads a better class of book.
But in the gate of the year stands the two-faced god Janus, looking back as well as forward. An ending has more life in it, more story in it, and is far more instructive than a beginning. When people end—that is, die—we know what to do: Obituaries, appreciations, the rituals of retrospection kick in. Patterns are discerned and meanings are ascribed. We are remarkably confident, in fact, in our judgments: It was a good life, it was a sad life, and so on. No such certainty attends the passing of things—of ideas or moods or symbols or places. Their significance is disputed, their message vexed, if we are even sure that they have ended at all. Here the analyst treads carefully—but tread she must, for these are the endings that usher us into the future.
So what were some of the more poignant or tutelary endings of 2012? Lance Armstrong and Philip Roth both quit the field, the former felled beanstalk-like by the tiny ax of Truth, the latter exiting voluntarily, to cheers.
From Armstrong we learned that a dedicated cheat—if his brand is strong—can hoodwink us almost indefinitely. “Give a man a reputation as an early riser,” observed Mark Twain, “and that man can sleep till noon.” Armstrong, between his cancer foundation and the gasping, pop-scientific stories about his oversized heart and ultra-low lactic acid levels, had constructed a market identity that touched on the supernatural. Even after it was revealed that he’d been doping like Jeremy Renner in “The Bourne Legacy,” money continued to pour in to his charity Livestrong—indeed, in the days following his decision to stop fighting the charges leveled at him by the US Anti-Doping Agency, the rate of donation went up 25 times. His fall is a disaster in many ways—a disaster, certainly, for the sport of cycling. But do not suppress that frisson of Lancenfreude: You are simply responding to the fairy tale physics of the ending.
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