19/05/2013

Bullying the Coy Mistress throughout History (Carpe Diem poetry)


(c) Rubens, 'Pastoral Scene' (1638)

Prune back your long hopes.
As we speak, envious time
is running away with us.
Pluck the ripe day!
Trust the future as far as you can throw it.
.

- Horace



'Coy mistress', sir? Who gave you leave
To wear my heart upon your sleeve?
Or to imply, as sure you do,
I had no other choice than you
And must remain upon the shelf
Unless I should bestir myself?
Shall I be moved to love you, pray,
By hints that I must soon decay?
No woman's won by being told
How quickly she is growing old
...

- A.D. Hope



People who say "Carpe diem!" mean well. (We are running out of time, after all.) But you have to wonder if even the urgent affirmation of good life justifies the associated YOLO crap and emotional blackmail.
Premise: [Action x] looks pretty stupid.
Premise: But you'll die some day!
Conclusion: You may as well [x].
or, less ignobly:
Premise: Life is transient. (Memento mori)
Premise: You're in your prime now. (Sic transit gloria)
Conclusion: Get on with it. (Tempus fugit ergo carpe diem)


Popularly, 'carpe diem' is the lyrical form of saying "Lighten up, dude!". The prejudice here is that to read - or to have a child - or to talk to friends about tv - is seizing the moment less than having dead weird sex and drinking loads. Virgil:
But meanwhile it flees: time flees irretrievably,
while we wander around, prisoners of our love of detail.
Carpism tells us that risky business is our proper business, just because we will not get out of life alive.

This is stupid in several ways, not least because the actuarial odds of a young man dying from anything over one day is roughly 0.0003% - less likely than all sorts of things people rightly ignore, like being wrongfully arrested for terrorism or being audited by the Inland Revenue.

There's a large and ancient genre of poetry that tries to affirm the present with death in mind (premier among them, Omar Khayyam, a man as liberated - in the 11th Century - as anyone I know today). But modern carpists are stupider than the stupidest hedonist of old. (Baudelaire: Be drunk!... Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.") I get it: it's about affirmation; affirmation is cool. But if you really did affirm everything, then you would disappear. We are in large part what we stand apart from and decide against.
"Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk." - See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20258#sthash.NJlidPI4.dpuf



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Anyway we're going to talk about the subset of carpe diem poems called "Persuasions". In modern terms, this is Carpe diem as creepy Petrarchan destabilising tactic. "We'll die; hurry, have sex with me!":

The famous one is "Ode á Cassandre", a classic statement of the quintessential romantic proposition "You really won't be pretty when you're old":

Mignonne, come let us see if the rose
Which this morning opened
Her robe of crimson to the sun,
Has not already lost, at evening,
The folds of her crimson robe,
And her complexion, so like your own.
Alas, see how in such short a time,
Mignonne, she has, from above,
Alas, Alas, let her beauty fall!
O Nature, truly cruel,
That such a flower should endure
Only from morning till evening.
Now, if you would believe me, mignonne,
While your young age is in flower
In its verdant freshness,
Pluck, pluck your youth,
Since, as with this flower, old age
Shall tarnish your beauty
.

It gets worse. Contemplate his 'To His Young Mistress': "Give back the heart you stole from me, / Pirate, setting so little store / On this your captive from Love's sea, / Holding his misery for gain, / And making pleasure of his pain. // Another, not so fair of face, / But far more pitiful than you, / would take my heart, if of his grace, / My heart would give her of Love's due; / And she shall have it, since I find / That you are cruel and unkind. // Nay, I would rather that it died, / Within your white hands prisoning..."

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An early counterexample - a Dissuasion. Good, sad, negative stuff:
All these in me no means can move
To come to thee and be thy love.
But could youth last and love still breed,
Had joys no date nor age no need,
Then these delights my mind might move
To live with thee and be thy love
.
This was in reply to a limp and innocent pastoral by Marlowe, and is in fact an argument against rolling in the grass because time flies. It's a little obscure, but the point seems to be a mix of 1) not being an arse, seeing the obvious bad consequences of always completely seizing the short-term (particularly for women!), and 2) Raleigh's heartbreaking, Platonist, masculine refusal to love anything which will die.


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Small is the worth
Of beauty from the light retired':
Bid her come forth,
Suffer herself to be desired,
And not blush so to be admired.
Then die — that she
The common fate of all things rare
May read in thee;
How small a part of time they share
That are so wondrous sweet and fair!

i.e. "SHOW ME YOUR FACE IT IS A GOOD FACE WHAT'S THE MATTER." As usual for the Renaissance, contains a section blaming the object of desire for the desire, and an attribution of her lack of reciprocation to malice. Actually, let's look at that last stanza, bizarre excursion from the script as it is: Waller enlists a desperate flower to commit suicide in front of his inamorata, thus showing her that the world is cruel - but don't worry cos ol' Eddie is here, waiting.


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Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying...
Then be not coy, but use your time
And while ye may, go marry
For having lost but once your prime,
You may for ever tarry
.
Apparently picking flowers was the living end of symbolic hedonism in Roman times. (Rome was of course full of good morbid hedonism: "tempus fugit", "sic transit gloria", "memento mori", all that). It's easy to forgive this particular Persuasion - we are all maidens to Herrick; he never married himself (so he knows what he's on about); and he really does mean well.


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This, however, deserves sharp words and a cold shower - for all that it is the greatest piece of wheedling lust ever written. (Anyway my panties dropped for it.) Beautiful it is, but there's menace in there - check the bit where he sets maggots on her:
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honor turn to dust...

: "It's either my cock or insects, baby".




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(...)




Childish and hallucinatory novel which tries to reject everything, have no ideals. And it turns out that even when you give universal nihilism your best shot, aesthetics still remains, and death still remains, and so too does carpe diem:
In a little while, love, you will be dead; that is my burden. In a little while, we all will be dead. Golden lads and chimney-sweeps, all dead. And when dying, will you be able to say, I turn down an empty glass, having drunk to the full, lived to the full? Is it not madness to deny life? Hurry! Hurry! for all is soon over. Blown, O rose! in the morning, thou shalt fade ere noon... Have you thought of the grave? O love! have you thought of the grave and of the change that shall come over your fair body? ... Be not miserly with thy white flesh.


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  • "Summer of 69" (1984) - Bryan Adams.
This isn't a Persuasion at all, but it follows the contours of one, backwards - our hero feels the Sexy Peer Pressure of Death himself (And when you held my hand / I knew that it was now or never"). The song is anti-Carpediem because it takes place after the moment was seized long ago, when there's only nostalgia left ("Those were the best days of my life."). Mr Adams seizes the past (a far easier, emptier and more human impulse). The song's success says something about even zany teenagers' relationship to YOLO.


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  • "Forever Young" (1984) - Alphaville
Extremely muddled take on indeterminate themes, clutching, as it does, at both eternal recurrence and the passing of all things / the hubris of dreams of immortality. Let's be kind and say that the coherence was lost in translation. Wise man say:
It's hard to get old without a cause,
I don't want to perish like a fading horse,
Youth is like diamonds in the sun,
And diamonds are forever
.)


Popped up again in 2012, the most recent Year of Death in Pop. (2012 was also a Year of Fetishising Youth in Pop, but every year is that.)


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Cold War entry from Scotland's unluckiest man. "Universal death is around the corner; let's hide and screw!" Nursery rhyme ending his longish American scad:
Lady be mine, while there is still time
and there's a country made for two.
We can find its door if we know no more
than any man and woman do.
Before falls the fire from the blue blue sky
on some lunatic's launching day,
lady be mine, O lady be mind,
let's fuck our lives away
.


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Mortality really was all over the charts last year. This one is funny; the way I heard it, dying young is the plan ("Let's make the most of the night CUZ we're gonna die young!") - which completely undoes the quiet uncertainty and tension of the old trope. Also: Tee hee! (There was also "We Are Young" which wasn't about death, and managed to be superlatively sentimental without saying anything at all.)


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So bad! 1) Literally seize someone, literally mention the possibility of their imminent death:
Grab somebody sexy, tell 'em: 'hey,
give me everything tonight; 
for all we know, we might not get tomorrow;
let's do it tonight
.'"
2) Be here today, literally gone tomorrow
Take advantage o' tonight
Cuz tomorrow I'm off to Dubai
To perform for a princess
But tonight, I can make you my queen.

(See also the shockingly good Robbie Williams comeback 'Candy': "And if it don't feel good / What are you doing it for / What are you doing it for / What are you doing it for / What are you doing it for / What are you doing it for / What are you doing it for / What are you doing it for / What are you doing it for / What are you doing it for?")


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Of course, people were seriously repressed about all sorts of things when Marvell and Herrick were writing - and of course the tradition does carry a very important banner, namely "The present is important". But we have to be on guard; the "WHOOO! Let's smash shit and fuck!" crew have seized the day.

Questions, questions. Who feels carpe diem's pull most? (Either the unusually sensitive - or, as seen above, the ordinarily immature.) Does mortality more motivate men to action? Is that why they harass the coy mistress year after year? We should doubt it. The pursuit of sexual conquests is more often pathetic flight from mortality than principled enjoyment in the face of it.


But bid life seize the present?
It lives less in present
Than in the future always,
And less in both together
than in the past. The present
Is too much for the senses,
Too crowding, too confusing—
Too present to imagine
.

- Robert Frost

18/05/2013

summer miscellany

(c) Arcimboldo (c.1570) "Spring and Summer"


Deciphering corporate language:
  • "Manager" = Controller
  • "Executive" = Controller controller / King Simpleton / Capital's Metatron
  • "Administrator" = Cartesian demon.
  • "Supervisor" = Guard labour.
  • "... Officer" = Desk ballast.
  • "Analyst" = Cherry-picker.
  • "Advisor" = "Yes" Man.
  • "Consultant" = "It'll cost you" Man.
  • "Assistant" = monkey.
  • "Intern" = monkey's monkey.
  • "Technician" = nerd monkey.
  • "Programmer"= Code monkey.
  • "Developer" = Programmer.

(OK, so job-title inflation is an understandable process - you're trying to convince people that what they do is important - but you're doing so without changing their work or working conditions.)


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Here is the great joke of the humanities: "we shall wake you to the injustice and pain of the world - just in time to realise you've failed to equip yourself with the skills to do anything about it."

Shrinking away from this nasty state of affairs explains the popularity of critical theory and loud activism - because a quick and easy way to deny the joke's reality is to reassure yourself that introspection and radical chat are in the fact the real way to change the world.

(OK, so the ability to recognise the status quo as corrupt is itself a kind of skill - and ok, it is in theory possible for Critical theorists to work with engineers, politicians and financiers. But lots of things are possible in theory, and are never ever seen in this world of ours.)


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OK, so the humanities do supply one potent tool of social justice: redescription!
  • "atomisation of society" / "increase in personal freedom"
  • "average" / "normal"
  • "passivity" / "receptivity"
  • "giving him sex"* / "having sex with him"
Is it disingenuous to think of these as exactly the same phenomenon, just with different stances taken?


* Heard someone say this recently, in a truly awful sentence: "I'm nae givin him sex until he gets me jewellery."


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Recent addition to my canon Metal Places in England: Lychpit, Hampshire. That's Lich, coming from the Old Eng. lic - corpse - and today most commonly seen as a title for the undead king of necromancers.

(OK, that should be put in inverted commas, "commonly".)


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"The limitations of the ‘ethical’ are perhaps most obvious to the modern mind. The life of eternity is just an illusion, for we are all-too mortal, flesh-and-blood creatures. To believe we belong there is to live in denial of our animality. So the world has increasingly embraced the ‘aesthetic’. But this fails to satisfy us, too... No wonder there is still so much vague spiritual yearning in the West: people long for the ethical but cannot see beyond the aesthetic."
- Julian Baggini

I learn that Kierkegaard's name is derived from the Danish for severe graveyard! Ffs! It's as if Kant's family name were "Buchhalter", or Derrida's, "Jacasseur".

(OK, so it's probably quite innocuous in Danish - more like "Churchland", perhaps...)


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The rapper Danny Brown has a sociologist in his entourage.* This is such a fantastic, surrealist move! It begs a short story by Borges, or a short vignette by David Lynch: swaggering louts fuel conspicuous consumption of academia. Death Row back the Strong programme in Science studies; Def Jam pick up on pragmatic post-positivist computational sociology. Zygmunt Bauman is seen at Roc-a-Wear launch parties, bending Kanye's ear. Knowledge-bling. Postgrad physicists as Ill-ness Regulators and Flow Accelerators.

*(OK, she's a support act too.)

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In a hundred years we will mock the Scots, and the Russians, and the Svalbardans of today for living in literally lethal temperatures at often depressing light levels merely because their parents lived there.
(OK, so despite the energy burden, there were good evolutionary reasons to live in the cold - for example no malaria and suppressed infections. OK, so we saturate space with affect as we go, and it's this that gives the otherwise baffling and repugnant idea "tradition" its warmth and traction. OK, so things one sacrifices for are thereby elevated.)


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My obsession with Punk - a mostly unimportant social movement which receives a disproportionate volume of cultural representation - continues. This is because it stood at the very beginning of my development into myself: I got into effective altruism through philosophy; I got into philosophy through poetry; and I got into poetry through punk subculture. Though this is surely not your average punk's route, the move is potential in the scene. And Punk, or its modern dilutions, is generally available to Western kids during the great taste amnesty of our mid-teens, and as such can claim to be a force for good.

(OK, so subcultures hardly have a monopoly on virtue. But above-average levels.)


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Certain academics spend a lot of time "unmasking" certain practices, following Mr Freud and Mannheim. (Think science, sex and gender, sport.) However, microeconomists - those least humane of social scientists - are unmaskers too: they are just the right-wing counterparts of constructivists.

(OK, so they don't see themselves as doing anything particularly novel - though they are. They don't have much imagination when it comes to that sort of thing.)


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A poncey European pomo secularist, I hold that Nothing is above ridicule. What could justify this potentially heartless, libertarian attitude to speech?

Here is a nasty, 'realist' argument-from-consequences: if people are not permitted to mock you, my dear zealot, then all that's left to them are the sadly ineffective means of rational public debate; the slow, corruptible and dissatisfying political process - or the horrifically effective means of state or popular violence. So it's in everyone's interest to have humour as a valve on cultural difference.

(OK, so humour has sometimes been used as incitement to violence rather than a sublimation of it.)


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I think I shall save this from the digital void: my friend's sarcastic abusive links to his friends' blogs. (Guess which is me:)


05/05/2013

virtually yours

(c) Olafur Eliasson (2010), Your uncertain shadow


I sent out another one of those round-robins with which I fish for large identity statements from my friends. This time: "if you were a computer game, what computer game would you be?"

I meant the question metaphorically ("what game has features, broadly construed, that you also have?") but people took it literally ("what game world would you like to be in?") as often. Making this latter interpretation is itself a Statement of sorts.


CR: "On a good day, Grand Theft Auto - popular because fun to mess around with, but equally if not more more rewarding when engaged with more deeply. On a bad day, Metal Gear Solid - pretentious, talks too much." [Metaphorical, and received within 5mins of my sending the challenge.]


RM: "Haze. Never great, never popular, pseudo-intelligent, made by better people capable of great things. Desperately trying to escape its British origins. Not quite finished." [Metaphorical]


JH: "Zoo Tycoon with a bit of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass thrown in." [Both?]


MB: "Lineage 2." [Literal.]


CK: "A zombie RPG, defo." [Literal, unfortunately.]


SK: "Portal." [Literal.]


CW: "Ooh, dunno. Something dire that knows it's dire. Brütal Legend." [Metaphorical.]


BL: "A non-game, Vib Rabbit or Ecco the Dolphin." [Metaphorical.]


NS: Mystical Ninja Goemon. [Literal?]


NS on BL: "Any game with confusing inverted controls. Any game you play once but never again because it's so bad." [Metaphorical]


MJ: "Prototype." [Literal.] "You get amazing abilities to do anything, a blurred past, moral codex to choose to be good or evil, in a world in chaos where it only matters to you."


KU: "Some multidimensional version of Conway's Game of Life, perhaps." Asking which mode of reply this is meant as is "Irrelevant. Both [literal and metaphorical] fit in this case. In case of stetching it, metaphorical implies literal. Now that is interesting." [Aporetic polysemy, as usual.]


IL: "What are you even saying?" [...] "Super Smash Bros, N64. Both literally and metaphorically!"


MB: "All the Final Fantasies put together into an endless cycle." [Literal. This is actually what he does with his life, too.]


MR: "Minesweeper." [Metaphorical, presumably. maybe meaning dull, repetitive, lo-fi, which he is not.]


Me: I'd like to be Disgaea - a nested system of complex numbers and dick jokes obscuring a sincere core. But I am actually Fahrenheit: glitchy, contrived, and crudely experimental.

Also, the actual answer to the literal reading of the question is of course camp Japanese sticky ball sim Katamari Damacy.