Friday, 26 February 2010

Carpe Diem part 2

In part 1 I was worrying that maybe a fear of the dissolution of the self with no belief in an afterlife, or only a vague hope that there might be one, could be beneath some self-destructive and socially dangerous behaviour which otherwise I find hard to understand. The idea - which may be nonsense! - is that you may seize the day with a vengeance as a way of avoiding the truth about your own mortality. Blot it all out.

Here's a poem about a different attitude to "Carpe Diem." It's by a very popular Amercian poet, Billy Collins, and it seems to me eloquent and helpful in the way that good popular poetry can be.

Picnic, Lightning

It is possible to be struck by a
meteor or a single-engine plane while
reading in a chair at home. Pedestrians
are flattened by safes falling from
rooftops mostly within the panels of
the comics, but still, we know it is
possible, as well as the flash of
summer lightning, the thermos toppling
over, spilling out on the grass.
And we know the message can be
delivered from within. The heart, no
valentine, decides to quit after
lunch, the power shut off like a
switch, or a tiny dark ship is
unmoored into the flow of the body's
rivers, the brain a monastery,
defenseless on the shore. This is
what I think about when I shovel
compost into a wheelbarrow, and when
I fill the long flower-boxes then
press into rows the limp roots of red
impatiens -- the instant hand of Death
always ready to burst forth from the
sleeve of his voluminous cloak. Then
the soil is full of marvels, bits of
leaf like flakes off a fresco,
red-brown pine needles, a beetle quick
to burrow back under the loam. Then
the wheelbarrow is a wilder blue, the
clouds a brighter white, and all I
hear is the rasp of the steel edge
against a round stone, the small
plants singing with lifted faces, and
the click of the sundial as one hour
sweeps into the next.

You dig? as people used to say a long time ago - if you have a clear apprehension of your mortality it may make your life clearer, and the ordinary things you do filled with more meaning. Knowing your life will come to an end - I mean really knowing the truth of it, living with it, not just accepting it intellectually and theoretically - can help you to "look well to this day." And enjoy it.

That's surely the point of "memento mori." It was not to scare themselves that people had a skull on the desk, it was to make them realise the value of now. (Also of course to be good so they wouldn't burn in hell, but I hope you feel able, with me, to ignore that whole vicious bit of social control!)

Of course, it's perfectly possible simply to say "I'll worry about it when it happens, till then, sod it, mine's a double Jack Daniels on ice." That's saying a version of Woody Allen's joke "I don't mind dying but I don't want to be there when it happens."

Well, that might be OK if you go out like a light in your prime (though this may not be ideal for those who care about you...) but it won't help much if you decline slowly, and need some way to deal with it. It's ignoring and denying our mortality and it's a long way from Billy Collin's poem.

Whatever, we can only live in our days. Another poem for you:


What are days?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

Philip Larkin

What a trap he springs on us in this seemingly innocent and simple little poem. That final image I find the very stuff of a nightmare. It scares me back into today. Something to do with the long black coats, and they are running very fast and silently straight at you, over the fields. They aren't going to ring the bell and be shown into the lounge...

Carpe diem. Look well to this day. Be mindful of the present moment. Simple to say, hard to do.


  1. It's complex, isn't it? A strong sense of mortality can induce either a heightened sense of being alive or blind panic.

    I came across this in the Guardian recently, and it seems to embody a fine foundational principle. To lose oneself somewhat in others seems to enhance the heightened sense of being alive and take the edge off the panic.

    This is Vasily Grossman on Chekhov: "He said, let's put God – and all those grand progressive ideas – to one side. Let's begin with man. Let's be kind and attentive to the individual man – whether he's a bishop, a peasant, an industrial magnate, a convict in the Sakhalin islands or a waiter in a restaurant. Let's begin with respect, compassion and love for the individual – or we'll get nowhere."

  2. Thanks, Charles. What a great and wise man was Chehov. I daresay a Buddhist might say he was a Buddha, or rather perhaps (I think this is right) a Bodhisatva. Either way, he seems to have been a man of limitless compassion - the most lucid understanding of people, and the patterns of their thoughts and lives.

  3. Congratulations to Gloriamundi on an interesting and thoughtful blog. FWIW here is my two pennyworth. Larkin evidently had a thing about the Victorian fools in old-style hats and coats (black, no doubt) who fucked up your mum and dad before they, in turn, proceeded to fuck you up. Every bit as scary, though, is the thought of anonymous, unsmiling, godless professionals in white coats coming to cart you off. Have not given the matter a great deal of thought, but I think what most people would like at the end of life is a kind, humane, humorous person - preferably on the same intellectual wavelength - to hold their hand. GM would do for me, though I certainly would not close the door on someone like Trollope's Septimus Harding simply because he was wearing a clerical collar.

  4. Many thanks, Geriatriker, much valued comment, and welcome aboard the branch line slow train.
    Couldn't agree more about black coats and white coats, and absolutely agree that it wouldn't matter which way round the right person wore their collar, if s/he was the right person. Is it too sententious to say that a test of one's own maturity might be to ask oneself "Could I be such a person - for anyone, of any faith or none?"
    I'm reminded of the answer someone allegedly put on some damn silly questionnaire or nosy parker form to the question "Faith?" (not "religious faith," just "faith") and the answer was, "Absolutely!"