Only One Who Attempts the Absurd Is Capable of Achieving the Impossible

Albert Einstein? M. C. Escher? Robin Morgan? Miguel de Unamuno? Miguel de Cervantes? Anonymous?

unamuno07Dear Quote Investigator: To fully succeed in life one must ultimately follow an audacious path that may seem nonsensical or reckless to ones colleagues. My favorite saying supports this idea. Here are three versions:

1) Only those who attempt the absurd will achieve the impossible.
2) Only she who attempts the absurd can achieve the impossible
3) Only he who attempts the absurd is capable of achieving the impossible.

This adage has been attributed to the famous scientist Albert Einstein, the brilliant graphic artist M.C. Escher, and the prominent feminist Robin Morgan. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive support for the linkage to Einstein or Escher. Robin Morgan did employ an instance of the saying with the word “she” in 1984; however, Morgan disclaimed credit and remarked that the origin of the phrase was uncertain.

The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in a 1905 book by Miguel de Unamuno who was a notable Spanish writer and philosopher. Unamuno’s work discussed the well-known characters Don Quixote and Sancho Panza who were constructed by the distinguished novelist Miguel de Cervantes. One theme of Cervantes’ opus was the intertwining of actions which were both absurd and noble. The explication and commentary by Unamuno embodied a personal and philosophical response to Cervantes. The following excerpt in Spanish is followed by a translation into English. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

¿Que es ello absurdo? decís. ¿Y quién sabe qué es lo absurdo? ¡Y aunque lo fuera! Sólo el que ensaya lo absurdo es capaz de conquistar lo imposible.

But it was absurd, you say? And who knows what is absurd and what is not? And even if it were! Only one who attempts the absurd is capable of achieving the impossible.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1925 a collection of “Essays and Soliloquies” by Miguel de Unamuno was published in New York with a translation by J. E. Crawford Flitch. The English text given above was from Flitch.
Unamuno described an enterprising man who had transplanted fish into a new location. Detractors considered the man’s behavior absurd, but it was very successful: 2

He who has the courage to face the jeers which are bound to be provoked by bringing the spawn of a salt-water fish to put in a pond in Castile, he who does that deserves his fortune.

But it was absurd, you say? And who knows what is absurd and what is not? And even if it were! Only he who attempts the absurd is capable of achieving the impossible. There is only one way of hitting the nail on the head and that is by hammering on the shoe a hundred times. And there is only one way of achieving a real triumph and that is by facing ridicule with serenity.

In 1935 the English version of the statement by Unamuno together with a precise citation was included in “The Home Book of Quotations: Classical and Modern” compiled by Burton Stevenson: 3

Only he who attempts the absurd is capable of achieving the impossible.
MIGUEL DE UNAMUNO, Essays and Soliloquies, p. 104.

In 1965 the tale of Don Quixote inspired the creation of a multi-award-winning Broadway musical called “Man of La Mancha”. The playwright Dale Wasserman wrote an introduction to the work when it was published in “The Burns Mantle Yearbook” series. Wasserman’s attempt to construct the play from the large and complex novel of Cervantes was guided by Unamuno’s powerful and poignant adage: 4

The motif of the attempt I found in a quotation from another brilliant Miguel, Unamuno, who said: “Only he who attempts the absurd is capable of achieving the impossible.” In that Quixotic spirit the play was written, a deliberate denial of the prevailing spirit of our own time which might be expressed as aesthetic masochism and which finds its theatrical mood in black comedy and the deification of despair.

In 1974 a member of the American Association of University Women gave a presentation about the organization at a luncheon meeting as reported in a Fort Pierce, Florida newspaper. The presentation ended with an intriguing concise variant of the maxim using “she” instead of “he”: 5

She concluded with the comment “Only she who attempts the absurd can achieve the impossible.”

In 1982 “Mother Jones Magazine” published an advertisement for T-shirts emblazoned with an extensive choice of slogans. A variant of the adage was listed that used neither “he” nor “she”. No ascription was specified: 6

ONLY THOSE WHO ATTEMPT THE ABSURD CAN ACHIEVE THE IMPOSSIBLE

In 1984 the poet and activist Robin Morgan led a group that published “Sisterhood Is Global: The International Women’s Movement Anthology”. She and her staff embraced the expression which Morgan categorized as a “feminist proverb of indeterminate origin”: 7

“Only she who attempts the absurd can achieve the impossible.” That feminist proverb of indeterminate origin was adopted early by the Sisterhood Is Global staff. We did so out of desperation, since the enormity of the task we had embraced kept dawning on us anew, and could have had a highly intimidating, even paralyzing effect. But we also adopted the proverb out of a sense of good-humored self-ridicule, since each of us knew that the work was less an individual than a truly collective labor—and a labor of love, at that.

By 1997 the maxim had been reassigned to the luminary Albert Einstein. For example, Drexel University in Pennsylvania held a commencement that year during which a congressman named Curt Weldon spoke and ascribed the statement to the genius physicist: 8

After quoting Albert Einstein as having said, “Only those who attempt the absurd will achieve the impossible,” Weldon told the audience about his humble roots as the youngest of nine children in a poor family.

By 2007 the maxim was being attached to the graphic artist M. C. Escher who was renowned for depicting impossible objects and scenes. For example, the book “101 Things NOT to Do Before You Die” by Robert W. Harris included the saying: 9

Only those who attempt the absurd will achieve the impossible.
—M. C. Escher

In conclusion, the original version of the adage was written in Spanish by Miguel de Unamuno who should receive credit. Different translations into English are possible including the one in 1925.

The variant expressions using “she” and “those” were derived directly or indirectly from Unamuno’s words. QI is not certain who constructed these variants. The linkages to Einstein and Escher are unsupported and appear to be spurious.

Image Notes: Don Quijote de La Mancha and Sancho Panza by Gustave Doré via Wikimedia Commons. Image has been cropped. Reduced-size low-resolution book cover of “Sisterhood Is Global”. Cropped portrait of Miguel de Unamuno circa 1925 via Wikimedia Commons with source specified as Bibliothèque nationale de France.

(Great thanks to Elizabeth Gilbert whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. Year: 1905, Title: Vida de D. Quijote y Sancho: Según Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: Explicada y Comentada por Miguel de Unamuno, Author: Miguel de Unamuno, Quote Page 175 and 176, Publisher: Libreria de Fernando Fe, Madrid, Spain. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1925 (Copyright 1924), Essays and Soliloquies by Miguel de Unamuno, Translated from the Spanish to English by J. E. Crawford Flitch, The Helmet of Mambrino, Start Page 99, Quote Page 104 and 105, Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1935, The Home Book of Quotations: Classical and Modern, Selected by Burton Stevenson, Second Edition, Section: Impossibility, Quote Page 971, Column 2, Dodd, Mead and Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View)
  4. 1966, The Best Plays of 1965-1966, Edited by Otis L. Guernsey Jr., Series: The Burns Mantle Yearbook, Man of La Mancha: Introduction by Playwright Dale Wasserman, Start Page 195, Quote Page 197, Published by Dodd, Mead & Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1974 October 17, The News Tribune (Fort Pierce News Tribune), Here & There Happenings: AAUW Aim To Strengthen Women Position by Sally Latham (Women’s Editor), (AAUW presentation was made by Mrs. Buena Meade), Quote Page 6, Column 8, Fort Pierce, Florida. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1982 August, Mother Jones Magazine, Volume 7, Number 7, (Classified advertisement with title “Free T-Shirt”, Mailing address: Image Designs, Berkeley, California), Quote Page 63, Column 3, Published by the Foundation for National Progress, San Francisco, California. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1984, Sisterhood Is Global: The International Women’s Movement Anthology, Compiled and edited by Robin Morgan, Section: Acknowledgements by R.M. (Robin Morgan), Quote Page ix, Published by Anchor Press/Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1997 June 15, Delaware County Daily Times, Curt gets honorary Drexel doctorate by Catherine Donaldson-Evans (Times Staff), Section: News, Primos, Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. (NewsBank Access World News)
  9. 2007, 101 Things NOT to Do Before You Die by Robert W. Harris, Chapter 28, Quote Page 50, Thomas Dunne Books: An Imprint of St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Google Books Preview)