Though it’s not one my top 10, a movie I greatly admire is Dead Poets Society. It was released when I was pretty young, but I was aware of it because my older sister loved the artistic passion it portrayed and the lightly angsty atmosphere it had floating above it. And that it had a bunch of hunky young guys in it probably helped her along. However, it stars a rather un-hunky guy, Robin Williams. He plays an English teacher at an expensive prep school who ignites his students’ passions to create and be bigger than they currently are, which motivate them to seize life and take some fantastic chances. Unfortunately for one of them, this also meant not knowing where to go when everything was pulled out from under him.
Williams’ character gives a speech to his students, the highlight of which is this: “We are food for worms, lads. Believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold and die.” A pretty morbid statement on the face of it, but he was explaining the Robert Herrick poem To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time. The Latin language can sum up that whole poem with two words: carpe diem.
That Latin phrase means “seize the day,” but if you didn’t already know that… well, nevermind. The sentiment means living life to its fullest each day, and never letting an opportunity pass you by. On the one hand, I see this as foolish. There is no better way to set yourself up for failure than to set unachievable goals for yourself, and carpe diem, in its most literal form, is impossible. One simply cannot take advantage of every opportunity because opportunities are split into two; for every road you go down, you sacrifice going down another. If you take the left fork, you’ll never know what’s down the right one.
On the other hand, that, I think, is not what carpe diem is supposed to mean. It’s not meant to be treated like a goal, but a platitude. In Dead Poets Society, the correct usage of carpe diem is summed up in a scene in which Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles) is at a party, a few drinks in him, when he sees the girl he’s madly in love with passed out on a couch. The room is filled with drunk people, she’s asleep and not gonna remember this anyway, so what’s the harm in giving her a little kiss? Big harm, apparently, because her burly quarterback of a boyfriend catches him in the act, thinks he’s doing a lot more than giving her a kiss on the forehead, and punches his lights out. But he DID kiss her, and set in motion a chain of events that ended with the girl dumping her boyfriend for Knox. Score!
Carpe diem is translated far and wide as “seize the day,” but that’s just a more poetic and less useful way of saying “don’t waste your time.” Pink Floyd understood this concept, and they fully explore it with “On the Run” and “Time.” “On the Run,” like “Speak to Me,” is not really a song. It’s just a collection of sound effects and a little dialog set over a frantic bass line. It might also be the first dubstep song. That bass line is made out of four notes being played on the keyboard of a synthesizer, sped up to about 50x speed, and then looped. It’s so fast that it doesn’t even sound like notes anymore.
But if one shifts their understanding and doesn’t think of it as a song, it becomes clear that it’s about hurrying. When we speed through life without even an occasional pause, we miss out on what could be most important. The frenetic pace of running at such a speed can only have one result, as the explosion that ends the piece makes clear.
After the explosion and long fade-out that ends “On the Run,” “Time” starts with just the quiet sounds of ticking clocks. They tick for a few seconds, then all chime the hour at the same time in a cacophonous flurry of noise that makes you cover your ears. The first time I listened to it, I was incredibly frustrated with Pink Floyd; we were 8 and a half minutes into the record, and they had only given me 2 minutes and 45 seconds of actual music! And this is one of the greatest albums ever made? It’s just frickin’ sound effects! I’m getting my money back…
But then about a minute into “Time,” a powerful note strikes, followed by its minor 3rd (I guess those music theory classes were worth something) and my ears prick up. This is slow, doomy, and standard Floyd. Then comes the first verse and chorus, delivered with much more oomph than Floyd listeners at the time were used to.
“Time” relates to the concept of Dark Side as the first idea that’s explored in this series of about Why People Go Nuts. “On the Run” communicates what happens when we go too fast, and here we have the opposite. Enjoying life’s little moments can become inactivity, and that’s taking it too far. All too often we realize too late that we haven’t actually lived, even though so much time has passed. Before you know it, as the movie Inception says, you’re “an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone.”
The guitar solo of “Time” simply blows me away, particularly with its volume and intensity. A prerequisite for a great guitar solo seems to be that the faster the notes come the better, but this one’s different. It’s not the number of notes that are packed into that tiny space, because “Time” doesn’t have a lot of speed to it. What matters are the sound and the force of the solo. David Gilmour is like Jimi Hendrix slowed way down; he plays with the same intensity, but he’s not in any hurry.
Next: the best things in life are free, but you can give them to the birds and bees… or some crap like that.