TODAY THE SUN crosses the celestial equator, and with that the great contest between light and dark comes into a moment's pause.
The vernal equinox means that day and night are more or less equal. Spring celebrates the possibility of rebirth, and also of balance. The long, uneven night of death is reversed. In the cycles of nature - green shoots responding to the movement of the sun - human beings have forever found reason to hope. But because nature is cyclical, of course, that hope is dashed as the sun moves on. The days will lengthen now only to shorten later.
In May 1913 this great contest between hope and despair was dramatized by Stravinsky's ''The Rite of Spring,'' a ballet in which a virgin's joyful dance becomes a dance of death enacted before ''the old men.''
Viewed across the ruins of the 20th century, Stravinsky's work has been taken as a marker of the modern. ''Rites of Spring,'' is the title of a book by Modris Eksteins, and the subtitle is ''The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age.'' What was The Great War, after all, but the dance of death in which a virginal generation was annihilated not only before the old men, but by the old men? ''They dance the spring dance,'' Stravinsky's stage directions read, ''Games start ... The people divide into two groups, opposing each other.''
In Europe, the two groups were divided by the continent-wide trench works, and from then on the ancient polarity of the human mind - light versus dark, east versus west - became armed.
The first great evil of the 20th century was the decision made by the rulers of Europe to continue sending wave after wave of young men into the maw of No Man's Land, even after the futility of such assault was clear.
The result of that trauma - it gave us Hitler, it gave us Stalin - was that armed polarity was now permanent.
In recent years, the human race has been offered a reprieve from all of this. The Cold War was the endless winter into which the very planet was plunged, and then - the Prague spring? - it was as if the long lost sun finally found its way across the celestial equator again, and the Earth was offered rescue, in Stravinsky's phrase, by ''the mystery and great surge of the creative power of spring.''
Now people began to hope that armed polarity was not necessary to the human condition; that history is linear, not cyclical. The ideal of peace was no longer the dream of virgins: It became the work of realists. Negotiation replaced confrontation. ''Peace process'' became a cliche. Equinox returned as a symbol of what was possible on the Earth.
Until now. This is the historical and mythic background against which to judge the truly radical policies that are being implemented before the world's uncomprehending eyes by the new American president. He has signaled his indifference to the peace processes that have been nurtured by the United States government for a decade. Ireland will be handled out of the State Department, not the White House. The Middle East will be treated with detachment. And last week George W. Bush repudiated the Clinton administration's positive engagement with North Korea, undercutting the strategy that had won South Korea's president Kim Dae Jung the Nobel Peace Prize.
What possible motive could Bush have for pushing the two Koreas back toward war? Indeed, one suggests itself: The threat from North Korea has been the main justification for Bush's embrace of Nuclear Missile Defense. Does he promote this deadly hostility for the sake of his program, as he stimulated the recession for the sake of his tax cut?
This week Bush is meeting with representatives of China. The sub-headline of The New York Times story yesterday was ''Collision Course Feared.'' That course is being set by Washington. If the suspicion that traditionally marks the relationship between China and the United States once again becomes the occasion of a major East-West arms race, then darkness once again will have come out of light.
Stravinsky's ''The Rite of Spring'' was proved prophetic when the old men squandered the young in a trench warfare that made no sense.
George W. Bush seems too boyish to rank with the fools who gave us the nightmares of the last century, but he is embarked on a course that threatens to repeat them. At risk are lives of new generations everywhere. Think of the young in China, Korea, Ireland, the Middle East, and here.
As Eksteins points out, the first title Stravinsky gave to ''The Rite of Spring'' was ''The Victim.''
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company