“If I had no duties, and no reference to futurity, I would spend my life in driving briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman.”

—Johnson to Boswell
September 19, 1777

On the face of it, Dr. Johnson’s fancy seems to be another version of the much-touted ideal of “living in the moment,” sometimes rendered in the more mystical language of “finding eternity in the ever-present now.” His hypothetical cancellation of duty and temporality is what rings the bell. To translate the doctor’s statement into the best New Age language: If we could simply get rid of “should” and “shall” we could simply be, and what we would be is happy. The cult of the Eternal Now always gains currency when the crasser forms of currency are also gaining; that is, when times are good, when the odds are such that a bet placed on any given moment is likely to produce a winner. Not that bad times can’t give us compelling reasons for trying to think in the present tense.

A Zen master told a parable about a man pursued by a hungry tiger. The man fled for his life to the edge of a cliff, where he found a vine hanging to the ground below. Without a minute to spare, he grabbed the vine and began to climb down—only to discover another tiger on the ground below, leaping up at his feet. As he hung there wondering what he was going to do, he noticed that two mice had begun to gnaw away at the vine. Beside him a single wild strawberry grew in the cliff face. He picked and ate it. “How sweet it tasted!” the Zen master said.

I know of no more succinct expression of the meaning and value of momentary pleasure in this mortal life. But it’s a far cry from Strawberry Fields Forever. After the mice do their work, the only thing that’s going to taste sweet is the man. And the last thing he’ll want to find in the moment of his mauling is eternity.

Whenever I hear someone hold forth on the salutary benefits of living in the moment, I always think of torture. This is doubtless the result of a certain contrariness on my part. Tell me about finding eternity in the moment, and I’ll tell you about the pain that can seem an eternity. Although cruelty is probably as universal as art, I usually go for my examples to the Iroquois, who liked to start by slicing off the fingers used to pull a bowstring (thus precluding any chance of intervention by some merciful widow in search of a hunter-husband) and conclude by roasting their victims alive and eating the hearts of the more stoical. In this I am also being contrary because to my knowledge the torture rites of the Native American tribes are the only cases of sadism to be honored with apologetics by multiculturally reverent historians. We must understand, one of them will typically write, that these ceremonies were not of the sadistic orgies of popular imagination but occasions of great religious solemnity. So was an auto-dafé, Jack. So, too, are any number of outrages; all but the most privately criminal have some religious or nationalistic cant for justification, and even the atrocities of individual madmen are likely to carry some Sadean rationale: liberating the id or defying society’s repressive taboos or teaching bitches a lesson they’ve had coming for a long time.

And here I arrive at one of those paradoxical crossroads that inevitably stand in our way whenever we go off on some ideological trot. Flinging the history of inflicted pain into the perfect teeth of those who glibly counsel us to live in the moment, I am forced to remember how much of that pain was caused by persons who did no such thing; that is, by those so bloated with duty and futurity that they puked all over history. I must rein in my horses at the point of collision (and intellectual collusion) with the sacred obligations of victorious warriors, the glorious destinies of the proletarian state and the master race, not to mention the prerogatives of the one true faith.

Caught between these tigers, I catch a momentary glimpse of what I probably love most about what Johnson said, gleaming like a single wild strawberry just within reach. I mean its freedom from all malice and any agenda. Even the woman seems to be desired for her company alone; he has no designs on her except to ride and talk. What does a liberal-minded person such as myself desire most but to enjoy as much as he can of this life and to cause no harm. Give us an unfinished sentence that begins with the words “All I want . . .” and isn’t that how most of us would complete it? To have fun and to do no harm. And isn’t that enough? we ask, especially if we are of a certain age and a certain income and have just stepped, in a reflective mood, out of or into a nice warm shower.

To answer those questions respectively: apparently no and apparently not, else we would have started having fun a long time ago.

From “World Enough and Time: Driving Briskly in a Post Chaise with a Pretty Woman,” by Garret Keizer, in Harper’s Magazine, October 2003. Reprinted with permission of Harper’s Magazine.

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