All Comedy Is Tragedy, If You Only Look Deep Enough Into It

Thomas Hardy? John Ruskin? William Stearns Davis? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Comedy and tragedy are sometimes intertwined. The prominent English novelist Thomas Hardy has received credit for the following remark:

Comedy is tragedy, if you only look deep enough.

This statement has also been ascribed to the influential English art critic John Ruskin. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match known to QI appeared in a letter Thomas Hardy sent to John Addington Symonds in 1889. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

I often begin a story with the intention of making it brighter & gayer than usual; but the question of conscience soon comes in; & it does not seem right, even in novels, to wilfully belie one’s own views. All comedy, is tragedy, if you only look deep enough into it.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading All Comedy Is Tragedy, If You Only Look Deep Enough Into It


  1. 1978, The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, Volume 1, 1840-1892, Edited by Richard Little Purdy and Michael Millgate, Letter date: April 14, 1889, Letter from: Thomas Hardy, Letter to: John Addington Symonds, Location: Max Gate, Near Dorchester, Quote Page 190, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. (Verified with scans)

A Man Wrapped Up in Himself Makes a Very Small Bundle

Benjamin Franklin? John Ruskin? Harry Emerson Fosdick? Mae A. Byrnes? Dan Crawford? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: An individual who is self-absorbed typically experiences a diminished life and does not achieve great renown. Here are four versions of a figurative saying on this theme:

  • A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small bundle.
  • A person all wrapped up in herself makes a pretty small package.
  • When a man is wrapped up in himself, he makes a very small parcel.
  • People who are entirely wrapped up in themselves make pretty small packages.

This expression has been attributed to U.S. statesman Benjamin Franklin, English art critic John Ruskin, and U.S. pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick.

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that this expression was used by Benjamin Franklin or John Ruskin. It was employed by Harry Emerson Fosdick by 1942, but only after it had been circulating for decades.

This saying is difficult to trace because it can be phrased in many different ways. The earliest instances located by QI were anonymous. A comical precursor evincing disdain for the self-absorbed appeared in a Nebraska newspaper in 1899. Emphasis added to excerpts: 1

People who are all wrapped up in themselves ought to be bundled off together.

In 1904 a match occurred for the saying in a Clarksville, Tennessee. newspaper. The anonymous statement appeared together with miscellaneous items under the title “Bubbles”. The word “small” was absent: 2

People who are wrapped up in themselves are bound to be bundles of self conceit.

Five days later the same statement appeared in an Okolona, Mississippi newspaper under the title “Gathered Gems”. 3

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Man Wrapped Up in Himself Makes a Very Small Bundle


  1. 1899 April 3, The Nebraska State Journal, Bulletin Bubbles, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1904 May 06, Daily Leaf-Chronicle, Bubbles, Quote Page 5, Column 5, Clarksville, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1904 May 11, Okolona Messenger, Gathered Gems, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Okolona, Mississippi. (GenealogyBank)

Most People Would Die Sooner Than Think—In Fact, They Do So

Bertrand Russell? Sheldon? John Ruskin? Woods Hutchinson? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Cantankerous individuals who believe they are surrounded by an ignorant and unthinking public sometimes proclaim:

  • People would rather die than think.

This statement has been enhanced with a funny addition that reinvigorates the cliché. Here are two versions:

  • Many people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do.
  • Most people would rather die than think, and many of them do.

The influential British intellectual Bertrand Russell has received credit for this saying. Would you please trace this saying?

Quote Investigator: Bertrand Russell did include an instance in his 1925 book about physics titled “The ABC of Relativity”. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

We all have a tendency to think that the world must conform to our prejudices. The opposite view involves some effort of thought, and most people would die sooner than think—in fact, they do so. But the fact that a spherical universe seems odd to people who have been brought up on Euclidean prejudices is no evidence that it is impossible.

Confusion has occurred because Russell’s book has been reprinted and revised several times over the years. The humorous statement above was omitted from the revised 1958 edition and subsequent editions.

Interestingly, Bertrand Russell did not create this joke. An elaborate version was in circulation by 1913. Below are additional selected citations and further details in chronological order.

Continue reading Most People Would Die Sooner Than Think—In Fact, They Do So


  1. 1925, The ABC of Relativity by Bertrand Russell, Chapter XI: Is the Universe Finite?, Quote Page 166, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans)

“The Labour of Two Days, Is That for Which You Ask Two Hundred Guineas!” “No; I Ask It for the Knowledge of a Lifetime.”

James McNeill Whistler? Pablo Picasso? John Ruskin? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: According to legend a famous painter once created a work of art in a very rapid and seemingly slipshod fashion. Yet the price assigned to the piece was exorbitant. The artist was asked why the price of the painting was so large when the time expended in its construction was so small. The reply was something like:

I am not asking this high price for a brief amount of work. I ask it for the knowledge gained during the efforts of a lifetime.

I have heard versions of this anecdote referring to James McNeill Whistler and Pablo Picasso. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1877 James McNeill Whistler exhibited several paintings including “Nocturne in Black and Gold” at the Grosvenor Gallery in London which was operated by Sir Coutts Lindsay and his wife. The famous art critic John Ruskin’s evaluation was extraordinarily harsh; the prices were absurdly high, and the technique was crude he maintained. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

For Mr. Whistler’s own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, Sir Coutts Lindsay ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of wilful imposture. I have seen and heard much of cockney impudence before now, but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.

Whistler believed that Ruskin’s remarks were libelous, and he initiated a court case against the critic. In 1878 “The Times” of London wrote about the trial and described Whistler’s testimony. The painter admitted that “Nocturne in Black and Gold” was completed quickly, but he believed it was still quite valuable: 2

Of course, he expected that his pictures would be criticized. The “Nocturne in Black and Gold” he knocked off in a couple of days. He painted the picture one day and finished it off the next. He did not give his pictures time to mellow, but he exposed them in the open air, as he went on with his work, to dry. He did not ask 200 guineas for two days’ work; he asked it for the knowledge he had gained in the work of a lifetime.

Whistler prevailed at trial, but the jury awarded him only the nominal sum of one farthing. In addition, the judge did not allow Whistler to recover the costs he incurred while arguing the lawsuit.

Whistler published a transcript of his remarks during the trial within his 1890 book “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies”. See further below to read that text.

A thematically similar anecdote about Pablo Picasso is also circulating, and information about that topic is available here. Another pertinent tale called “Knowing where to tap” is examined here.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading “The Labour of Two Days, Is That for Which You Ask Two Hundred Guineas!” “No; I Ask It for the Knowledge of a Lifetime.”


  1. 1879, The Annual Register: A Review of Public Events at Home and Abroad for the Year 1878, Part II, Remarkable Trials: Whistler v. Ruskin, Start Page 215, Quote Page 216 and 217, Rivingtons, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1878 November 26, The Times, Whistler v. Ruskin: Before Baron Huddleston and a Special Jury, Quote Page 9, Column 2, London, England. (The Times Digital Archive of Gale Cengage)