|Breakfast Food for Thought|
|Padding down the platform of my local subway station the other morning, I did a serious double-take at a phrase on one of the billboards lining the sooty wall. What stopped me in my tracks were the words "Seize the Day!®" emblazoned atop the advertisement for a new breakfast cereal. My reaction had nothing to do with the work of some anonymous copy writer, and everything to do with my own odd association with a similar phrase.|
Raised to be a good commie jew bastard I was exposed early on to progressive politics and the civil rights movement. Living in the D.C. suburbs, my parents went to all the marches and protests and brought me and my sister with them. I was too young to remember the '63 march, but I do have some recollection of sitting in my stroller hearing MLK's speech in '65. As a teenager I was totally into the Black Panthers. In high school I read To Die For the People: The Writings of Huey P. Newton, and my allegiance was cemented. I remember the time I came home from school and took down the Frederick Douglass poster my parents got for me at the Smithsonian and replaced it with that famous photo of Huey, the one with him sitting in that huge wicker chair, a spear in his left hand, a rifle in his right. As I grew older my interest in other liberation struggles developed as well. I found myself drawn to the literature and music of African revolution. I devoured Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth like it was a John Le Carré mystery thriller. I snapped up all those records of protest songs on Paredon, the left-wing sister label to Moses Asch's Folkways. I knew all the freedom chants like "Uhuru" from Kenya, "Amandla awethu" from South Africa, and "A luta continua" from Mozambique. From Oakland, California there was "All power to the people," which had become synonymous with the Panthers, along another phrase with which they traditionally ended their written communiqués. That signature phrase was "Seize the Time!"
Well to me, "Seize the Time" was the coolest damn expression since "Kowabunga" (which I used a dozen times a day throughout the sixth grade.) It sounded so deeply serious and grown up. It looked pretty cool, too, on the cover of an album I found featuring SEIZE THE TIME in big block letters and a drawing of a dude carrying an AK-47. It was a collection of radical folk songs by Elaine Brown, then the "Deputy Minister of Information for the Southern California Chapter of the Black Panther Party." It wasn't until I got to college that I found out the Panthers' clever phrase had been used before.
The earliest known use of the Latin phrase carpe diem has been traced to the Roman poet Horace (65 - 8 B.C.), who, in his first book of Odes delivered the line, Carpe diem, quam minimus credula postero ("Seize today, and put as little trust as you can in tomorrow.") This "live for the moment" ethos turns up repeatedly in literature. Many of Shakespeare's sonnets carried this motif, as did his own poem "Carpe Diem"
Some of the English Romantic poetry produced in the late 16th / early 17th centuries actually became known as carpe diem poetry. These works had a common theme: the promotion of impetuous love in the face of fleeting youth. In the hands of poets like Andrew Marvell ("To a Coy Mistress") and Robert Herrick ("To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time"), carpe diem became a pick-up line, a ruse to seduce the local nubiles. By the 19th century carpe diem had begun to enter the general lexicon. In 1819, Lord Byron wrote to a friend, "My time has been passed viciously and agreeably; at thirty-one so few years months days hours or minutes remain that "Carpe Diem" is not enough. I have been obliged to crop even the seconds, for who can trust to tomorrow?"
Here in the 20th century the basic existential message of carpe diem and its various translations became fodder for popular culture. In 1956 it took on an ironic tone as the title of Saul Bellow's popular novel "Seize the Day," the story of a schlemiel trapped in a downward spiral of failure and rejection. In the early '60s, the Panthers altered the phrase to "Seize the Time," giving carpe diem a newfound political dimension. Then, in the late '80s film Dead Poet's Society Robin Williams played a boarding school Lit. teacher who used a syllabus of "classics" and a G-rated interpretation of carpe diem to motivate his class of underachievers turning the phrase into a inspirational feel-good slogan. Conservatives read the film as a defense of traditional education over encroaching multiculturalism. Thus the appropriation of carpe diem had moved from one end of the political spectrum to the other.
Now it's ten years later and that ubiquitous phrase has been trotted out once again, this time in the name of a healthy breakfast and healthy profits for the folks at Kellogg's. The words that so impressed me as a kid turn out to be little more than an empty vessel. The ultimate promotional tool. I don't suppose Kellogg's ever considered donating cereal to the Black Panthers' Free Breakfast Program.