Like Two Bald Men Fighting Over a Comb

Jorge Luis Borges? Phaedrus? Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian? Clarke Jervoise? Leo Tolstoy? H. L. Mencken? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following trenchant simile is the best description of a futile conflict that I have ever heard:

The clash was like two bald men fighting over a comb.

The prominent Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges employed this figure of speech, but I do not think he coined it. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: A precursor tale about two bald men has been ascribed to the ancient Roman fabulist Phaedrus who wrote in the style of Aesop. The translation into English given below was published in 1761. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

A Bald Man chanced to find a Comb upon the publick Way. One equally destitute of Hair came Up, and claim’d his equal Share. The first immediately produced the Booty, and withal added: “The Gods ’tis plain favour us, but envious Fate has made us find (as the Proverb is) a Coal instead of a Treasure.”

The Complaint of this Fable suits the Man who has been disappointed in his Hopes.

The two men did not fight in this tale. One man simply bemoaned their joint fate because neither could use the comb.

The Eighteenth century French writer Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian was best known for the fables he published. A tale of two bald men fighting over a piece of ivory appeared in 1792. The winner of the fisticuffs unhappily determined that the prize was a comb: 2

Un jour deux chauves dans un coin
Virent briller certain morceau d’ivoire:
Chacun d’eux veut l’avoir; dispute et coups de poing.
Le vainqueur y perdit, comme vous pouvez croire,
Le peu de cheveux gris qui lui restoient encor
Un peigne étoit le beau trésor
Qu’il eut pour prix de sa victoire.

In 1806 an English translation of the tale appeared in “Select Fables. Written for the Purpose of Instilling Into the Minds of Early Youth a True Sense of Religion and Virtue”: 3

On a certain day, two bald-headed men saw a piece of ivory shining in a corner:—each wished to have it; they disputed which of the two had the best right to it, and which had first perceived it. Both maintained their claims, and, from small words, came to blows; and the blows were so violent, that the battle was soon ended.

You will easily suppose, that the conqueror lost, in the contest, the few straggling grey hairs he had left. —

The object of the quarrel was brought forward to the light:—it was an ivory comb!

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Like Two Bald Men Fighting Over a Comb


  1. 1761, The Fables of Phædrus in Latin and English: The Translation as Literal as the Idioms of the Two Languages Will Admit by Mr. Hoadly and Several Other Eminent Hands, For Use In Schools, Book 5, Fable 7, Quote Page 137, Printed for John Exshaw, Dublin, Ireland. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1792, Ouvres de M. de Florian (Works by M. de Florian), Fables de M. de Florian: De l’Académie Françoise de celles de Madrid, Florence, etc. (M. de Florian’s Fables: From the French Academy of Madrid, Florence, etc.) by Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian, Livre 5, Fable 7: Les deux Chauves, Quote Page 172, De l’imprimerie de P. Didot, Paris, France, Chez Girod et Tessier, Paris, France. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1806, Select Fables. Written for the Purpose of Instilling Into the Minds of Early Youth a True Sense of Religion and Virtue, Translated from the French of Mons. Florian, Fable 28: The Two Bald Heads, Quote Page 90, Printed for J. Harris, London. (Google Books Full View) link

A Disordered Desk Is a Sign of Genius

Leo Tolstoy? Edwin H. Stuart? Elinor Glyn? Henry Traphagen? Art Buchwald? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: While I am working hard on a complex project my desk usually becomes messy, but I take comfort in the following sayings:

  • A cluttered desk is the mark of a genius.
  • A messy desk is the sign of a creative mind.
  • An untidy desk is a sign of brilliance.

Would you please explore the history of this modern adage?

Quote Investigator: A strong match appeared in the journal “Typo Graphic” in 1947. The editor Edwin H. Stuart sent a questionnaire to his readers, and he was disappointed with the low response rate. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

When you did not reply we assumed that you may have: Moved to another city. …

Or, that you’re one of those geniuses who have a piled-up desk and you threw the card in the pile and it got lost.

Tolstoi said that a disordered desk was a sign of genius and we see lots of littered desks in our rambles around Pittsburgh.

Stuart used the alternative spelling “Tolstoi” while crediting Leo Tolstoy. QI has not yet found support for this ascription; however, QI has not attempted the difficult task of searching for a Russian instance.

This website also has articles about two related expressions: “A disordered desk is an evidence of a disordered brain” and “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, we can’t help wondering what an empty desk indicates”.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Disordered Desk Is a Sign of Genius


  1. 1947 December, Typo Graphic, Page Title: Well Thanks, Brother, Article: Don’t Blame Us, Quote Page 36, Column 2, Publisher Edwin H. Stuart, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Verified with scans; thanks to the Library of University of Minnesota, Twin Cities)

I Can’t Understand How Anyone Can Write Without Rewriting Everything Over and Over Again

Leo Tolstoy? A. B. Goldenveizer? Apocryphal?

tolstoy10Dear Quote Investigator: November is National Novel Writing Month; a participant is supposed to commit to writing 50,000 words during the 30 days of the month. Sustaining that pace would be difficult for me because I am irresistibly drawn to rewriting. The brilliant Russian writer Leo Tolstoy once said something about feeling compelled to rewrite his own published words whenever he saw them. Are you familiar with this quotation? Would you please trace it?

Quote Investigator: In 1922 the diary of a Russian Music Professor named Aleksandr Borisovich Goldenveizer was published in Moscow. Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy and Goldenveizer had been friends for nearly 15 years, and in the pages of the diary Tolstoy was referred to with the initials L. N. In 1923 selections from the diary were translated into English and then published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf. Goldenveizer recorded a remark made by Tolstoy about his compulsion to rewrite. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Yesterday L. N. spoke of the process of creative work:
“I can’t understand how any one can write without rewriting everything over and over again. I scarcely ever re-read my published writings, but if by chance I come across a page, it always strikes me: All this must be rewritten; this is how I should have written it.

Tolstoy also made clear to Goldenveizer that he did not trust the judgement of his audience about the completeness of his work:

“I am always interested to trace the moment, which comes quite early, when the public is satisfied; and the artist thinks: They say it is good; but it is just at this point that the real work begins!”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Can’t Understand How Anyone Can Write Without Rewriting Everything Over and Over Again


  1. 1923, Talks with Tolstoi by A. B. Goldenveizer (Aleksandr Borisovich Goldenveizer), Translated by S. S. Koteliansky and Virginia Woolf, Chapter: 1899, Quote Page 26, Published by Leonard & Virginia Woolf at The Hogarth Press, Richmond, England. (Verified with scans)