Monday, March 23, 2009

carpe diem

Tu ne quaesieris - scire nefas - quem mihi, quem tibi
finem di dederint, Leuconoë, nec Babylonios temptaris numeros.
ut melius, quicquid erit, pati. seu plures hiemes, seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,
quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare Tyrhenum.
Sapias, vina liques, et spatio brevi spem longam reseces.
dum loquimur, fugerit invida aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

Ask not - we cannot know - what end the gods have set for you, for me; nor attempt the Babylonian reckonings, Leuconoë.
How much better to endure whatever comes, whether Jupiter grants us additional winters or whether this is our last, which now wears out the Tuscan Sea upon the barrier of the cliffs!
Be wise, strain the wine; and since life is brief, prune back far-reaching hopes!
Even while we speak, envious time has passed: seize the day, putting as little trust as possible in tomorrow!

(Horace - Odes 1.11)

a useful reality check - to imagine that today might be one's last on earth, and to behave accordingly, the challenge being to identify and interrogate that behaviour that predicates on the anticipation of a future, and to determine how much that anticipation acts as a restraint on what might otherwise be a more spontaneous, possibly more honest way of living.

it's a challenge that assumes, of course, that we tend to the craven, being afraid to behave honestly and spontaneously, to live 'in the moment' as our hippy and Buddhist friends say, for fear of the consequences.

much of a human life, for better or worse, consists of developing a sufficiency of capital in the present to ensure some form of return in the future, and of weighing the odds of surviving to benefit from that return.

it is of no benefit to me - today - to replace that slipped roof tile. it will cost me time and effort and money. however, the next heavy rain will penetrate through the gaps and start rotting the woodwork in the attic, causing serious damage whose repair will cost much more sometime in the future than were I to attend to the slipped tile today.

similarly, it is of no benefit to me - today - to do this work that I hate, for this employer whom I despise. however, were I to quit and tell him or her what I really thought of them, I would not be paid, and would not then be able to afford the stuff I was looking forward to as future compensation for all this drudgery.

on the other hand, if today were my last day on earth, what's the point?

the only time in our lives when instant gratification of desire occurs without conditions or penalties is at our mother's breast. the norm, subsequently, becomes an increasingly attenuated period of deferment consequent on certain behavioural trade-offs, be they the good behaviour of childhood in return for a treat, the dating rituals preceding the fuck, or the eight-hour days of drudgery in return for a fortnight of family holiday hell.

our relationship to time is (unsurprisingly, since the Big Bang was responsible for both) ineluctably enmeshed in our relationship to space. however, whereas our spatial sense (this is bigger than that, this is further away than that, this surrounds us, this is inside us) is relatively easy to understand, because we come with a sensory array (eyes, ears, skin) that connects us with it, that with time is much less so. the notion of an individual existing in a moment of time (the now) which is subsequent to all else that he or she has experienced (the past) and which precedes all else which has yet to be experienced (the future) is as elusive and problematic as the notion of self-consciousness itself.

clearly, the universal understanding of 'now' is a flux, something fluid, not the fixed event that we suppose it to be. 'now' can range between the hundredth of a second that it takes to say it and the days, weeks, months, years, or more that encompass the event described, as in 'global warming is happening now'. this now I write in has long since become a then. the future that in this moment of writing I can only guess at has already moved into the past.

our personal journey through universal spacetime seems to be conducted in a sort of bubble, a flexible spacesuit constructed of the same spacetimey stuff that is continually adjusting itself according to our individual preferences, a bubble that extends around us, preceding us (our future) and trailing behind us (our past), a personal bubble of nowness that contains all we need of futureness and pastness to define ourselves.

any exhortation to live in the present rather than in hope of a better future - and, conversely, not to live, or to get stuck in the past - is as fundamentally meaningless as the challenge to describe the sound of one hand clapping. the present - this 'now' - is, to labour the koanic analogy, an infinitely tiny dot of nothing contained within the parentheses of the past and the future, so such exhortations can only be read as judgements, as implicit criticisms of the limits of another's temporal behaviour, the styling of their personal spacetime bubble.

we frown on an individual's bubble getting too large. its limits are deemed 'normal' only up to a certain extent. global memory naturally fades with distance in time, but certain memories, clearly, remain entirely recoverable almost at will - or, Proust-like, seem capable of ambushing us at some seemingly random stimulus, as often as not to do with our sense of smell. to 'dwell on' or to 'live in' the past, however, is universally regarded with disapproval, at a personal level. the only social grouping that consistently refers to the past (or rather, a selective view of the past) as an idealistic totem is the political right wing, whose chauvinism is always and definitively backward-looking.

it will always merit a certain cachet, the idea that we should unloose all those time-bound shackles and live a little, but in reality, only the extremely wealthy and the insane can get away with it, the former because the acquisition of wealth is a transparent attempt to cover all bases (the more options, the less exposure to the whimsical consequences of fate or personal irresponsibility), and the latter because the same neuro-chemical disorders that create a perceived exemption from the 'normal' taboos on, say, openly masturbating at a Girls Aloud concert apply to all other random, otherwise consequential behaviours.

this 'seizing the day' thing, then, is, like all poetic ideals, of little practical use except as a burr, an irritant in the comfortable cloth of our diurnal procrastinations. in common with all the jewels of wisdom in the QuoteMe™ canon it has become just another grain of grist to the dreary mill of corporate-speak, adopted, along with the bulleted hooks, the sound bites, the motivational powerpointations, as a utilitarian commercial mantra.

grave-horace-spin. any order.

all else being equal, there always will be a tomorrow, when, with stodgy certainty, the grand careless gestures of today will be called to account. all actions have consequences, which we can choose to ignore, but which, more likely than not, will return, in the fullness of time, to - in that wonderful american phrase - bite us in the ass. the analogous english maxim about throwing caution to the winds needs must be tempered with the Confucian caveat about pissing into it.

but o the temptation to say

fuck it ...

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