Bacchus commands that everything be hard
For him who abstains from wine, and Bacchus says
The troubles that wear away our days are not
Made easier by any other means.
This is Horace, translated by David Ferry, on the god of wine. Dionysus: god of fertility, harvest, ecstasy, god of “personal delivery from the daily world through physical or spiritual intoxication, and initiation into secret rites” (says the online encyclopeadia of myths). Who among us does not pray to Bacchus?
Horace speaks clearly to us from beyond the ages. His influence can be traced from Rome on down through Voltaire, Montaigne, Shakespeare. He gave us carpe diem.
I once sat opposite two young men in a café who spent hours on their phones loudly pushing hotel rooms in Las Vegas. They seemed to run a start-up based around selling short stays in fancy hotels. “Sure man, you can take her to the Venetian. You can spend the weekend in a 10 year-old hotel. I’m just saying I stay at the Cosmopolitan. They just built it this year.”
This young man had “carpe noctum” tattooed on his forearm.
He meant: Seize the night. Win it. Force it into submission.
But of course, Nicholson Baker and Wikipedia tell me that Horace’s invocation actually translates as “pluck the day.” As in, pluck life like a ripe grape off the sacred vine.
Pluck the Night! Pop it gently into your mouth!
I wonder who was on the other end of carpe noctum‘s call. Some up-and-coming mover and shaker in Hollywood, trying to impress a girl. What is it like to be that girl? What does she say when she steps out onto the balcony of the Cosmopolitan, with its view of mini-Paris? Does she run her hand over the stainless steel and glass and say, “yes, well, at least it’s new…”
Horace also gave us: Nunc est bibendum. “Now is the time for drinking”
or as David Ferry has it in his translation: “At last the day has come for celebration.”
The occasion of telling for this poem is Cleopatra’s defeat. It is the end of a threat to the Roman empire with the enemy queen’s suicide.
“Nor did she, like a woman, quail with fear
At the thought of what it is the dagger does.”
Nope. Cleopatra picked up her poison snakes…
“And handled them, and held them to her so
Her heart might drink its fill of their black venom.
In truth—no abject woman she—she scorned
In triumph to be brought in galleys unqueened
Across the seas to Rome to be a show.”
Somewhere out there, some young man has nunc est bibendum tatooed on his arm. He sells Absolut Vodka flavors. He means: Let’s get wasted! And his arm refers to a proud queen who chose death over the humiliation of being paraded through a decadent empire.
Now is the time when we drink, oh Girls Gone Wild, now! Let us drink to honor our victory over life. Let us relax into our relief that a dark queen won’t be coming for us in our beds. Let us chart the absolute distance between the vintage Caecuban wine that Horace popped open and The Absolut Suicide Shot™ with Sour Apple Schnapps.
Our contemporary views of alcohol seem to me to be too black-or-white. Alcohol is freedom or sin. Total luxury or total evil. Cholesterol-lowering health drink or addictive poison. But Dionysus is complicated. In Horace’s recognition of this god’s power, there is a gentle acceptance of human frailty. Horace writes, “I would not dare To stir you up, O Bacchus, against your will…”