Don’t seize the day

Analysts used to use the word “analyze” for what they do, but I’ve noticed that lately they have a new word they’re getting used to using — or getting used to utilizing — or getting utilized to utilizing. Whatever. They have a new word for “analyze.”

The word is “deconstruct,” and used as a synonym for “analyze” it simply means to break something down into its constituent parts or, in logic, to break a conclusion down into premises and assumptions.

So what’s wrong with the word “analyze”?

As my grandmother would say, some people are too big for their britches. Either they’re too sophisticated for a lowly word like “analyze” or they’ve failed to grasp the concept of analysis in the first place. Or maybe they’re just bored with such a humdrum, workaday word and get seduced by a sexier word like deconstruction. And sexier still, it’s French! — with the rarefied provenance of having entered contemporary usage by way of French philosopher Jacques Derrida.

But Derrida coined the term deconstruction to mean something quite different. Derrida argues that language is too unwieldy for any writer to control; words have meanings and functions that an author never had in mind but that are present nevertheless. Deconstruction is the process of discovering those unintentional meanings.

More fun than it sounds, deconstruction can show us things we never noticed about the words we use, about how language peeks into our closets and sees who we really are. My favorite example is the famous Latin motto, carpe diem, which, as everyone knows, means “seize the day.”

Only that’s not what it means.

Horace, the Roman poet who wrote the phrase carpe diem, was talking about the day as a grape on the vine. His verb carpe means to pluck or to harvest. “Reap the day” would be a more accurate translation. Horace loved wine and spoke of the present day fondly in those terms: harvest the day for making wine; let it age a little, perhaps, but not too long. He advises the friend to whom the poem was written: “in a short life, prune your long hopes.” And elsewhere he tells another friend: the wine has aged long enough — open the jar and start pouring.

Translating carpe as “seize” is like saying “seize the grape!” — which is okay, I guess, if the grape is trying to get away. But that’s not what Horace had in mind. He wasn’t that kind of guy. He liked hanging out on his farm, drinking wine, and chasing young men and women.

To deconstruct our modern translation of carpe diem as “seize the day,” we might ask how Horace’s gentle, agricultural metaphor in “harvest the day” got transformed into the violent, rapacious metaphor of “seize.”

Horace’s verb was first translated as “seize” by English poet Kit Smart in the mid-18th century, at the beginning of the industrial revolution and in the heyday of European exploitation of foreign peoples and their natural resources. Smart’s translation, “Seize the present day!” may reflect not Horace’s sensibilities but the modern period’s rapacious attitudes toward natural resources: grab ‘em, grab as many as you can, turn a quick profit, grab some more. Seize those grapes.

Smart’s own psychology may play into this too. He was confined to an asylum shortly after publishing his translation of Horace’s poems, and “seize” may say more about Smart’s mental state than Horace’s. But “seize” was then perpetuated in the 19th century by John Conington, an eminently sane Oxford professor who translated carpe diem as “seize the present,” and in the 20th century by American poet E.A. Robinson who gave us the phrase that stuck, “seize the day.”

But why “seize”? Is that the only or even the wisest way to imagine our encounter with the present? Sometimes we may need to seize the day, but sometimes we might think of it differently, a little more gently, a little more fruitfully, a little more like Horace.

In showing us how words unintentionally reflect culturally- and historically-determined attitudes, deconstruction helps us to examine those words and attitudes more critically — and maybe even help analysts be a little more analytical the next time they start to deconstruct.

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