Dead Poets, Living Questions

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By Alistair Johnston

You should not ask, for it is a sin to know, Leuconoe, what end the gods will give to me, and what end to you; nor should you test astrology. How much better it will be to endure whatever proves to be, whether Jove grants us many winters more, or this is the last, which now wears the Tyrrhenian Sea against the opposing cliffs of pumice. Be wise, strain the wine, and cut back long-reaching hopes you entertain for this short time we have. Even as we speak, jealous time has fled us. Seize the day, therefore, trusting as little as possible in tomorrow.

–Q. Horatius Flaccus, Ode 1:11

So runs (more or less) Horace’s Ode 1:11, one of the most enduring poems in the Western canon. For a hundred generations, scholars and poetry lovers have puzzled over it, memorized it, analyzed it, printed it out and stuck it on walls. Two thousand years after it was written, its words still appear in our movies and books. Most people know two words of Latin, and they are from this ode: carpe diem. This poem strikes a chord deep inside us, but what is that chord, and why does it continue to sound?

I believe the answer lies in the fact that the poem poses an unresolved question. As much as it is a didactic ode, a mission statement in verse, it answers less than it asks.

What does it mean to seize a day? How can you catch hold of something that does not last? How will you try? Will you try to make the day as pleasant as you can? Will you lose your time in a happy stupor? Will you put it to use? Will you gape like a tourist, ogling the day, trying to take it in? Will you chase a flaming high?

What Does It Mean to Be Alive?

Horace offers clues to the meaning he intends. The poem as a whole is much more languid than the phrase “carpe diem” might suggest when taken without context. Indeed, carpe is an agricultural term that means “pluck” more than “seize.”

Horace does not advise us to bulrush the day and take it like a fort but to lie back, strain the wine, and let the day come to us. Forgive the past; quit racing towards the future. Let the day ripen and drop its blessings like blossoms around you.

We all know the feeling of being fully alive. We remember moments—the warm light at sunset, singing too loud in the car, falling in love, walking alone beneath streetlights on a spring night—moments when all the tension seemed to melt away. Life opened, we fell in, and were absorbed.

We do not seize the day as much as the day seizes us, and something feels right. In such moments, we learn to dance. We discover the equilibrium of our souls.

If we pay no attention, the moment is lost. If we pay too close attention, scrutinizing with our minds, the moment slips away. Share the moment and it multiplies; explain it and it is reduced.

Always these moments leave us with soft eyes and sweet questions: What does it mean to be alive? What is sacred? What is this feeling of fullness? How can I live truly? How can I be happy? Such questions are dear to everyone. They are living questions, for they were born from us, grew in us, developed and unfolded, and draw our attention to themselves as sweetly as love.

Living Questions, Sweet like Mangoes

Ramakrishna, the great 19th-century Indian saint and bhakti yogi, was forever chiding the jnana yogis (intellectual non-dualists) who visited him. He called them dry-eyed, over-serious chaps. He asked them, “Why does it matter what a mango is? And why on Earth would you want to be a mango? Is it not enough just to eat mangoes, and enjoy the sweetness?”

For Ramana Maharshi, “Who am I?” was a mango: the question was sweetness. But for most of us, all too often, it is reduced to a mental exercise: at best, a practice; at worst, a chore.

Occasionally, something jolts in our minds, and we find ourselves contemplating the question from a different angle—it seems to come alive, and we are curious to find its answer. But if we only ask it because that is what one does in morning meditation, “Who am I?” is a dead question. It did not come from ourselves, so it does not lead us to ourselves. We end up mouthing the words like carp.

Jean Klein encouraged his students to question, but stressed that their questions must be living. “You come to the ultimate question,” he said in The Book of Listening, “when you have explored all the relative questions. By relative questions, I mean those questions that do not fully express what you are looking for. Any question that has a residue of book-knowledge is relative. Any question which comes from memory, from past conditioning, is relative. Any question founded on an emotional desire is relative. So question your questions and you will see their limits. This seeing brings you nearer to the nearest: the ultimate question.”

The Ultimate Question Is a Wordless Longing of the Soul

But the ultimate question is not a question. It is a yearning of the soul, a longing empty of words.

Jean Klein said, “The question is the answer. Before the question was formulated, the answer was there. The answer was there before you were conceived.”

The ultimate question is a private thing, the scent of jasmine, faint nighttime music floating through the windows of a soul. I fear that, sometimes, the sound of our own question is lost in the din of the questions we have been prescribed. We ask ourselves, “Who am I? Who am I?” and our voices drown out the answer.

So question your questions. Ask what you really want. Many of us dread that in our heart of hearts, we are not as spiritual as we would believe. So we carry on pretending to be Ramana Maharshi and leave our own lives unlived. But what is the hurry? What is the need for pretense? If all this spiritual schtick comes to nothing, what will we have lost? What did we ever stand to gain? What exactly did we think was our destination? It is our nature to search, it is our nature to question, and perhaps it is our nature to find.

Faith is not in edifices. It is not in scriptures or schools. Faith does not belong to the grand things of life; faith is tiny, smaller than sand.

It is the willingness to listen to silent voices. It is the willingness to live your own question and follow your own path, without detours, right to the end. If you do not ask your own questions, you will get other people’s answers, and they will never satisfy you.

Perhaps a good question to ask is not “Who am I?” but “What is my question?” We cannot tell where such a question will take us, except that it will lead us towards ourselves.


Alistair Johnston is a Hridaya student and new contributor to our blog.

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