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What it really means to ‘seize the day’
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‘Seize the day’, we are told – but how exactly do we do this? Fiona Macdonald talks to the author of a new book about how carpe diem can be reclaimed.
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Leaning on the rail of a yacht in 1968, looking at the “rocky cliffs, rolling seas, dazzling sky” of the Dalmatian Straits, the writer and adman Jerry Mander had an epiphany. Or, perhaps, the opposite of one. “It struck me that there was a film between me and all of that,” he wrote in his 1977 book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. “I could ‘see’ the spectacular views. I knew they were spectacular. But the experience stopped at my eyes. I couldn’t let it inside me. I felt nothing. Something had gone wrong with me.”

Mander recalled “childhood moments when the mere sight of the sky or grass would send waves of physical pleasure through me” – on the deck, though, “I felt dead,” he wrote. “Nature had become irrelevant to me, absent from my life. Through mere lack of exposure and practice, I’d lost the ability to feel it, tune into it, or care about it. Life moved too fast for that now.”

That was nearly 50 years ago. The pace of life has been accelerating since – and what Mander described is increasingly widespread, according to the social philosopher Roman Krznaric. “Human beings have always had mediated experiences, ever since the invention of reading – but now things like TV have so removed us from direct experience of life that we’ve almost forgotten what it’s like,” he tells BBC Culture. He has a solution. “It’s vital to try and recover this carpe diem instinct which is in all of us.”

Films like Dead Poets Society (pictured) “give us a way of thinking about death which doesn’t feel too confronting,” says Krznaric. “There’s a kind of filter” (Credit: Alamy)

Films like Dead Poets Society (pictured) “give us a way of thinking about death which doesn’t feel too confronting,” says Krznaric. “There’s a kind of filter” (Credit: Alamy)

First coined by the Roman poet Horace more than 2,000 years ago, carpe diem – or ‘seize the day’ – is “one of the oldest philosophical mottos in Western history”, says Krznaric, who has written a book called Carpe Diem Regained: The Vanishing Art of Seizing the Day. Yet it’s a slippery idea to pin down. During his research, he found a range of definitions for a concept with great resonance in popular culture, one that has inspired songs by Metallica and Green Day and films such as Dead Poets Society. “There are different ways to thinking about it, from seizing opportunities, to spontaneity, to hedonism, to being in the present moment; as well as a collective political form of carpe diem,” he says. “They’re all different ways of having agency in the face of death, of feeling that you’re fully alive.”

Consumer culture has captured seizing the day – Roman Krznaric

Despite – or perhaps because of – its prevalence in culture, carpe diem has been sabotaged by the language of the advertising slogan and the hashtag: ‘Just do it’ or ‘Yolo’ (you only live once). Krznaric argues that this has helped strip the concept of its true meaning. “The hijack of carpe diem is the existential crime of the century – and one that we have barely noticed,” he writes.

“Consumer culture has captured seizing the day,” he tells BBC Culture. “That idea that instead of just doing it, we just buy it instead: shopping is the second most popular leisure activity in the Western world, beaten only by television. Instead of seizing the day, we’re really seizing the credit card.”

Carpe diem has also been hijacked by our culture of hyper-scheduled living, argues Krznaric. “‘Just do it’ becomes ‘just plan it’ – people are filling up their electronic calendars weeks in advance with no free weekends. In terms of cultural history, most people are unaware that their spontaneity has been stolen from them over the past half a millennium.”

The factory clock changed our view of time, says Krznaric: “although we think we lost spontaneity due to things like digital overload, there are deeper factors” (Credit: Alamy)

The factory clock changed our view of time, says Krznaric: “although we think we lost spontaneity due to things like digital overload, there are deeper factors” (Credit: Alamy)

People had more spontaneous lives in the Middle Ages – “partly of course because death was so much closer,” he says. But the idea that wasting time is a sin has become deeply ingrained, “due to the Reformation, which descended like a frost on Europe – where the church started banning carnival and summer fairs, and there were new laws banning public dancing and games. Then came the Industrial Revolution with its great weapon, the factory clock,” says Krznaric.

“We’ve still got the language that developed as part of the Industrial Revolution, where we’ve got to be productive with our days and get on with our to-do lists,” he says. “We’ve got quite a struggle ahead of us to reclaim that aspect of carpe diem.”

Eastern promise

One way to do this, Krznaric suggests, is to “appreciate that hedonism has long been central to human culture, personal expression and passionate living, and it is essential that we find a place for it in modern life.” But the pursuit of pleasure can be viewed with suspicion, he says, “due to the legacy of Greco-Roman moral ideals and hair-shirt Christian teachings that have slowly infiltrated our minds. For 2,000 years there has been a long war against pleasure.”

The Orient evoked fantasies of erotic sensuality and passionate carpe diem living that were the opposite of sober Victorian Christianity – Roman Krznaric

During one of the most seemingly pleasure-bashing periods in history, an alternative set of ideas advocating hedonism captured the popular imagination. A craze for ‘the East’ that emerged in Victorian Britain was a direct reflection of the moral codes of the day, argues Krznaric. “This was far more than the fad for Persian carpets and Japanese lacquer furniture,” he writes. “The Orient also evoked fantasies of erotic sensuality and passionate carpe diem living that were the opposite of sober Victorian Christianity.”

With lines like ‘While you live/Drink! – for, once dead, you never shall return’, the Rubáiyát of Omár Khayyám celebrated hedonism (Credit: Alamy)

With lines like ‘While you live/Drink! – for, once dead, you never shall return’, the Rubáiyát of Omár Khayyám celebrated hedonism (Credit: Alamy)

One of the key texts of that moment was Edward FitzGerald’s loose translation of verses by the 11th-Century Persian poet and mathematician Omár Khayyám – which took the form of a long poem called the Rubáiyát of Omár Khayyám. After a copy of the Rubáiyát was passed to the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who shared it with his Pre-Raphaelite circle, John Ruskin declared, “I never did – till this day – read anything so glorious”. According to Krznaric, “From there began a cult of Omár Khayyám that lasted at least until World War One.” The poem “was memorised, quoted and worshipped by a whole generation. Omár Khayyám dining clubs sprang up, and you could even buy Omar tooth powder and playing cards.”

The poem celebrated hedonism and was, according to Krznaric, an “outcry against the unofficial Victorian ideologies of moderation, primness and self-control”, in their place offering “sensuous embraces in jasmine-filled gardens on balmy Arabian nights, accompanied by cups of cool, intoxicating wine”. The Rubáiyát even appeared to be rejecting religion itself, suggesting there was no afterlife, its message one that “since human existence is transient and death will come much faster than we imagine, it’s best to savour its exquisite moments”. The writer GK Chesterton claimed that the Rubáiyát was the Bible of the ‘carpe diem religion’, while Oscar Wilde described it as a “masterpiece of art”, placing it alongside Shakespeare’s sonnets as one of his greatest literary loves.

The Rubáiyát of Omár Khayyám entreated ‘if you are intoxicated with wine, enjoy!/If you are seated with a lover of thine, enjoy!’, becoming a cult hit (Credit: Alamy)

The Rubáiyát of Omár Khayyám entreated ‘if you are intoxicated with wine, enjoy!/If you are seated with a lover of thine, enjoy!’, becoming a cult hit (Credit: Alamy)

Is there a danger that carpe diem could just represent a form of escapism, though – that savouring too many exquisite moments means leaving all your responsibilities behind? One of the risks of hedonism is that you can end up “doing Trainspotting-style heroin overdoses and binge drinking,” and that’s “not going to help you or anybody else,” says Kznaric. “But in the carpe diem tradition, something like hedonism has never really been so much about excess, it’s been about rediscovering the senses, rediscovering direct experience – whether it’s free love or gastronomic exploration.”

Life or death

Another thing that stops us from seizing the day is an aversion to facing our own mortality. “We live in a culture of death denial, because the advertising industry tells us that we’re forever young,” says Krznaric. “But one of the cornerstones of carpe diem thinking for the last two millennia has been that idea of having a taste of death on your mind – because how do we really take action if we think we’ll live forever? We’d never do anything.”

Philosophers have come up with lots of what I call ‘death tasters’ – thought experiments for seizing the day – Roman Krznaric

“Come to terms with death,” wrote Albert Camus. “Thereafter anything is possible.” Krznaric tried to put this into action while working on Carpe Diem Reclaimed. “One of the new habits I’ve adopted is what I call a ‘death pause’, which sounds slightly macabre but it’s about spending five minutes a day just thinking about death, bringing it into my life.”

In the Middle Ages “there was this connection with death that people had then, that we don’t have today” – this is from a 1485 edition of the Danse Macabre (Credit: Alamy)

In the Middle Ages “there was this connection with death that people had then, that we don’t have today” – this is from a 1485 edition of the Danse Macabre (Credit: Alamy)

“Philosophers have come up with lots of what I call ‘death tasters’ – thought experiments for seizing the day. A classic one, going back to the Romans, is the idea of living every day as though it were your last. Another one is ‘live as if you’ve got six months left’, which is a more long-term thinking. Then in the Buddhist tradition, live as if life is full of little deaths. That idea of impermanence: your children are only going to grow up once so spend time with them.”

It’s something we need to remind ourselves of today. “Most cultures today have lost the preoccupation with death that was so prevalent in medieval and Renaissance societies, when church walls were covered with frescoes of dancing skeletons, and people kept human skulls on their desks – known as memento mori, Latin for ‘remember you must die’ – as a reminder that death could take them at any moment.”

“We are better at talking about death than we were,” says Krznaric, “but it’s still a pretty taboo topic” (Credit: Alamy)

“We are better at talking about death than we were,” says Krznaric, “but it’s still a pretty taboo topic” (Credit: Alamy)

The 2007 film The Bucket List sparked a ‘Things to do before you die’ industry, and although Krznaric sees the phenomenon as “a result of our hyper-individualistic Yolo culture,” he says there is “an interesting existential question hovering behind the film and the frenzied online cult it has spawned: what would you do if you knew you had only a set period left to live?”

Krznaric cites Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru and the dark comedy Harold and Maude as powerful reminders of mortality, saying: “There’s the culture which distracts us, but there are encounters you can have that open your mind to death”. And these “can be extraordinarily powerful in awakening our awareness about the shortness of life”. As the writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre put it: “There is only one day left, always starting over: it is given to us at dawn, and taken away from us at dusk.”

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