For the last couple of weeks, when I’ve jumped out of the tube on my commute into work, I’ve been greeted by the poster which I’ve photographed here. I should point out that I know very little about Lily Allen’s music, and have no particular interest in commenting on it, but here was a really interesting use of Latin that I wanted to mull over.
The Latin in question is, as you will see, the motto Divide Et Impera, or ‘Divide And Rule’. Grammatically, three points occur. First, it’s a convenient fact that divide and the English divide look the same, so that anyone without a Latin background will probably get the general ‘divide and conquer’ gist. Second, divide and impera are in the singular imperative – that is, they are only ordering one person to do something (and, it has to be said, ordering them very directly rather than politely using the hortatory subjunctive, but that’s less by the by). Third, both divide and impera are transitive verbs – that is, they take direct objects, things to be divided and conquered. Those things are not specified here. So the grammar of the motto leaves us asking who is being ordered, and what is to be divided and conquered?
The obvious answer to the first question would be Allen herself, although if so, the command reveals a rather Machiavellian approach to the music industry. What is to be divided could range from the crude (her legs, positioned in the middle of the motto) to the political (the media) to the cynical (her listening audience). Of course, the imperative could be aimed at the individual viewer of the poster – given Allen’s recent comments on feminism, could this be a quiet encouragement to her female fan base not to let ridiculous things get in their way? Alternatively, you might argue that the use of Latin plugs into the wider image of privilege that the poster buys into – the language of wealth is present in everything from the corgis to the extravagant staircase bannisters and embellished flower pots, so the appropriation of Latin forms part of a broader discourse of ambition. If you’re feeling particularly picky, you might also pick up on the positioning of the motto – clearly photo-shopped on to allow for Allen’s legs to hang over the step, but are we supposed to imagine the missing objects of control hiding behind Allen’s kneecaps?
However, I think somebody’s having a laugh. Because look at the album cover for the Deluxe version of the album that Allen is promoting. You’ll notice the same use of Divide Et Impera, this time respaced as Allen is not sitting down, but there’s a second line – and it’s that favourite old chestnut, quidquid Latine dictum altum videtur – ‘whatever is said in Latin seems deep’. My guess is that somebody knew exactly what they were doing when they designed this poster – that Allen’s choice of clothing, of props, of staging, of presentation would be critiqued down to the last tiny element, including her use of Latin. So what do they do on the deluxe version? Stick two fingers up at us earnest pop culture interpreters by showing an awareness of the artificiality of the image and catching us out with our own pretentiousness.
Is it wrong to admit that this cheers me up immensely?