Over the past couple months, as I have told people about my new venture as editor of the magazine you hold in your hand, I have been met with two common responses. The first is enthusiasm from those who have read the original incarnation of Chronogram, which has been published in the New Paltz-Kingston area for 14 years, and are excited to have it available in our region. The other response, the more usual one among people unfamiliar with the magazine, has been a kind of halting curiosity—interest tempered by uncertainty springing, most often, from that word that is our title: “chronogram.” It’s one of those terms that seems at once vaguely familiar and utterly alien.
The fact is, you can’t tell from the name what our magazine is about. Its abstraction is far from the usual declarative intentions of most publication titles. There can hardly be any ambiguity in the content of a magazine that calls itself, say, Sports Illustrated or Better Homes and Gardens. But Chronogram? The computer’s language tools are clueless: “No results were found.” That old analog standby, the dictionary, explains that the word itself comes from Greek—khronos, for time, and gramma, for letter, “letter of time.” The definition in Webster’s reads as follows: “an inscription, sentence or phrase in which certain letters express a date or epoch.” It has to do with Roman numerals. In the past, if you were exceptionally clever, you might inscribe on the side of a building, tomb or other lasting monument a passage from the Bible or some other wisdom, and imbed in your inscription a date in Roman numerals. Here’s one from Wikipedia: “My Day Is Closed In Immortality is a chronogram commemorating the death of Queen Elizabeth I of England. The capitals read MDCIII when added together, which corresponds to1603, the year of Elizabeth’s death.” The Roman numerals are, literally, “letters of time”—M equals 1,000 years; D,500; C,100; and I,1. In the year 2000, the M&M’s candy company used the brand’s name as a chronogram in its millennial advertising. No doubt there exists somewhere the son or daughter of a classics professor whose middle name contains a chronogram of his or her birth.
I have digressed. None of this explains our magazine. Which, in a sense, does explain the magazine. As your lawyer would say, it goes to intent. The tagline beneath the title goes some way toward explaining things. “Arts. Culture. Spirit.” This is not exactly an inventory of content. This magazine covers everything any good general-interest periodical should—politics, business, health, environment, social justice, lifestyle matters such as food, fitness, gardening, design, and, of course, the arts in all their variations. The key to the magazine is not what we present, but how we approach it.
For contrast, consider the most famous slogan in journalism. “All the news that’s fit to print,” the promise and boast of the New York Times. Taken literally, it is, of course, hogwash. Not even the Times is that comprehensive. Rather, it is a claim to authority. Trust us, the paper declares each day, to adjudicate the fitness of all available information and pass on nothing that fails our test. Such a pledge requires a certain stance toward the world, one that is comfortable with the idea of dominion. Dominion—supreme power, control over the fate of others. It’s an old conceit, and one that, frankly, has fueled a lot of human advances. Dominion over animals gave us farming. Over gravity, flight. Over disease, medicine. The trouble with dominion is it blinds us with self-satisfaction. Conviction is the gleaming face of pride, but its shadow is hubris, which pollutes all it touches. The second you are sure of the infallibity of your information, system, or perception, you have taken your first step toward error. Something will come along—drug-resistant TB, Katrina, Judith Miller—and expose your vulnerability.
The Ideal is a moving target, if not a downright mirage. Nothing we make in this world is immutable. This is the essential truth known to artists and the spiritually enlightened since time began. Everything passes, everything changes. Every great artist in history has assaulted the notion of some exclusive truth, as each great spiritual teacher has perceived the unfathomable vastness of the divine. Seen in these terms, the “Arts” and “Spirit” on our cover are more than content. They’re elements of a larger holistic principle. “Culture,” in this sense, is the manifestation of these components in synthesis. Or think of the tag without punctuation, as an equation of dynamic flow: “arts culture spirit,” or, just as equally, “spirit cultures art,” using culture as a verb. One cultivates the other. Culture not merely as a thing, but as an action, an agent of change.
Chronogram exists as a product of such cultural energy, and as a catalyst for it. These pages are not an instrument of power, as both the mainstream media and alternative press strive to be. Chronogram is, rather, a place for the fluid exchange of thought, knowledge, observation, insight, pleasure, bliss, desire, imagination—all the active machinery of being human. It is a place to feed the life of the mind. A neighborhood where interesting people meet.
Chronogram—“time letter.” Alternately, the word is also used to name the record produced by a chronograph, a watch that functions as both a conventional timepiece and a stopwatch. What could better express the unfixed nature of time than an instrument that simultaneously measures it as linear and cyclical? You can’t step in the same river twice. Zen time is no time, the continuous present. Journalism measures everything in the past, which is why it’s been called the rough draft of history. Art builds forward into a future it causes to exist. To publish a “time letter” is to print dispatches from all these time zones, and more.
So the name of this magazine does explain its intent, not as information, but by inference. “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant,” wrote Emily Dickinson on the nature of the ineffable. “Success in Circuit lies.” Chronogram is a map of all the sweet, circuitious paths we take to know the world.