Friday, October 23, 2009

Carpe Diem

Carpe diem, “seize the day,” is the advice of both the sybarite and the stoic. It’s an excuse to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh, as well as an exhortation to enjoy the moment whether or not it gratifies the senses.
In reality, only a devout Buddhist monk could truly live in the moment, and his form of living would involve zazen, or sitting meditation. Those who are not so spiritually advanced are doomed to live in a world of either regret about past mistakes or expectations about future rewards. The present falls prey to the allure of that which is past or has yet to be. That which exists always comes up short when compared to what is missing. The sometime lover almost always wins out over the erstwhile companion for life. The fleeting image contains a world of possibility, whereas the known bears the weight of predictability. In short, familiarity breeds contempt.

Carpe diem leaves out so many imaginative possibilities, in particular those having to do with nostalgia and hope. What would The Winter’s Tale be in a world of carpe diem? Impossible dreams and hopes fall by the wayside if the object is to “seize the day.” And then there is the beautiful, sad world of nostalgia. Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement is predicated almost completely on the murderous grip of the past over the present—in this instance because of a false accusation with consequences that ripple through time.

The past is what catalyzes most human behavior. Lovers are more in the grip of the past then they might want to know. Love doesn’t come out of nowhere. The love object must have a frame of reference, and that reference is inevitably some idealized figure in the past, in most cases a parent.
How to subscribe to carpe diem and remain a fan of L.P. Hartley’s The Go Between (“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”), Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, and especially Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, the authoritative work on the magnetism of the past? Was it the past Eurydice was looking back at in the transgression that led her to relinquish her grip on the present? All Eurydice would have had to do was to continue looking straight at what was in front of her. She’s an example of a mythological figure with all too human traits.
“One day at a time,” “one day, one lifetime,” and “live in the now” have replaced the dirty jokes on the inside of bathroom stalls. But this devotion to the present is a little like the doctrine of passive resistance. It runs counter to the very impulses and longings that that make for both the horror and beauty of what it means to be human. To be spiritually advanced enough to live in the present requires one to turn the other cheek. In the end, carpe diem could (God forbid!) give way to the austerities of Opus Dei.

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