Humor Is One of the Most Serious Tools We Have for Dealing with Impossible Situations

Erica Jong? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Humor is a helpful tool for understanding and accepting events that are difficult to process emotionally such as divorce or death. I think the U.S. novelist Erica Jong made an observation similar to this. Would you please help me to locate her comment?

Quote Investigator: In 1984 Erica Jong sent a letter to “The New York Times Book Review” because she was unhappy with the recently published critique of her latest book. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

In his review of my book, “Megan’s Book of Divorce” (July 1), Anthony Brandt makes a common mistake: that humor cannot be serious. On the contrary, humor is one of the most serious tools we have for dealing with impossible situations (like divorce).

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Humor Is One of the Most Serious Tools We Have for Dealing with Impossible Situations

Notes:

  1. 1984 July 29, The New York Times, Section: The New York Times Book Review, Letters: Serious Humor by Erica Jong of Weston, Connecticut, Quote Page BR27, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest)

Public Opinion: A Vulgar, Impertinent, Anonymous Tyrant

William Ralph Inge? Anonymous?

Social Media

Dear Quote Investigator: Every day brings a new social media uproar. I am reminded of the apothegmatic claim that public opinion is an anonymous tyrant. Would you please explore the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: The influential British commentator William Ralph Inge was the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London for more than two decades. He wrote an essay critiquing democracy in August 1919 which included the following passage. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

A more serious danger is that of vexatious and inquisitive tyranny. This is exercised partly through public opinion, a vulgar, impertinent, anonymous tyrant who deliberately makes life unpleasant for anyone who is not content to be the average man.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Public Opinion: A Vulgar, Impertinent, Anonymous Tyrant

Notes:

  1. 1919, Outspoken Essays by William Ralph Inge, (Third Impression), Essay 1: Our Present Discontents (August 1919), Start Page 1, Quote Page 9, Longmans, Green, and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link

Stupidity Is the Same as Evil If You Judge by the Results

Margaret Atwood? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Foolish actions can lead to disastrous results. It is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between the actions of a stupid individual versus a malevolent individual. The prominent Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood once made a statement of this type. Would you please help me to find it?

Quote Investigator: Margaret Atwood published the novel “Surfacing” in 1972. One of her characters expressed the notion under examination. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

But I admit I was stupid, stupidity is the same as evil if you judge by the results, and I didn’t have any excuses, I was never good at them. My brother was, he used to make them up in advance of the transgressions; that’s the logical way.

QI has also examined a thematically related saying that provides a distinct perspective: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Stupidity Is the Same as Evil If You Judge by the Results

Notes:

  1. 1983 (First Published 1972), Surfacing by Margaret Atwood, Chapter 3, Quote Page 31, General Publishing Company, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Verified with scans)

We Can Never Run Out of Energy or Matter. But We Can All Too Easily Run Out of Brains

Arthur C. Clarke? Gerard K. O’Neill? Apocryphal

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke was optimistic concerning the ability of human ingenuity to transcend current limitations. He believed that future technologies would overcome raw material shortages. The only constraint he feared was a lack of engaged human brains. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: Arthur C. Clarke’s 1962 collection of essays titled “Profiles of the Future” presented bold predictions about future capabilities. For example, he suggested that “translating machines” would be available by 1970. 1 Yet, the research prototypes constructed during the 1970s were severely limited and flawed. Nevertheless, Clarke’s underlying optimism has been justified. Machine translation today is still imperfect, but it is a valuable tool that is employed by millions online every day.

Also, in 1962 Clarke described a wide variety of speculative ideas including strategies for obtaining power from the sun and raw materials from the sea and asteroids. 2 He suggested that “space mining” would be possible by 2030. 3 His forward-looking approach helps to explain his exuberance: 4

This survey should be enough to indicate—though not to prove—that there need never be any permanent shortage of raw materials.
. . .
In this inconceivably enormous universe, we can never run out of energy or matter. But we can all too easily run out of brains.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading We Can Never Run Out of Energy or Matter. But We Can All Too Easily Run Out of Brains

Notes:

  1. 1967 (First publication 1962), Profiles of the Future by Arthur C. Clarke, Section: Chart of the Future, Quote Page 233 to 235, Bantam Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1967 (First publication 1962), Profiles of the Future by Arthur C. Clarke, Chapter 12: Ages of Plenty, Quote Page 141 to 155, Bantam Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1967 (First publication 1962), Profiles of the Future by Arthur C. Clarke, Section: Chart of the Future, Quote Page 233 to 235, Bantam Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1967 (First publication 1962), Profiles of the Future by Arthur C. Clarke, Chapter 12: Ages of Plenty, Quote Page 155, Bantam Books, New York. (Verified with scans)

No Matter What Happens He Will Land On Someone Else’s Feet

Who Made the Criticism?: Dorothy Parker? Blanca Holmes? Vincent Sheean? Sidney Skolsky? Anonymous?

Who Was Being Criticized?: Alan Campbell? Lloyd George? Orson Welles?

Dear Quote Investigator: A person who is tough and adaptable is able to absorb setbacks in life and continue onward. This capability is represented metaphorically by a tumbler who lands upright. I have heard the following joke based on this framework:

Resilient people will always land on their feet.
Opportunists will always land on someone else’s feet.

Apparently, the well-known wit Dorothy Parker delivered a similar line. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Dorothy Parker and her second husband Alan Campbell obtained a divorce in 1947. The 1970 biography “You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker” by John Keats included testimony from one of Parker’s friends about a quip she made shortly after the marriage dissolved. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

“I went to call on her the day the divorce from Alan became final,” Vincent Sheean said. “She was living alone in the Algonquin. The hotel had sent dinner up to her room, filet mignon, and she was sitting up in bed, the dinner uneaten, with no intention of eating, streaming tears.

“Thinking to make her feel better, I said I felt sorry for Alan.

“‘Oh, don’t worry about Alan,’ she said. ‘Alan will always land on somebody’s feet.'”

This remark fits into a family of jokes that has a long history which QI will explore below.

Continue reading No Matter What Happens He Will Land On Someone Else’s Feet

Notes:

  1. 1970, You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker by John Keats, Part 4, Section 1, Quote Page 249, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)

Shaggy Dog Story

P. J. Faulkner? W. Buck Taylor? Bennett Cerf? Eric Partridge? Mary Morris? William Morris? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A shaggy dog story is a rambling tale consisting of largely inconsequential events that ends with an anticlimax or an unfunny punchline. Would you please explore the origin of the shaggy dog story?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in “The Cincinnati Post” of Ohio in January 1906. QI conjectures that P. J. Faulkner who worked for the O’Dell Stock and Grain Company in Cincinnati presented the first shaggy dog story. Faulkner believed that his tale was hilarious, but his companions were angered by its pointlessness. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Faulkner was in a down-town cafe with some friends. He told them a story. “Did you ever hear the story of the shaggy dog?” he inquired.
“No!” they came back.
“No?” said he.
“No-o,” said they.

“Well, James Fernorten wanted a shaggy dog, and—Oh! but it’s funny!” (Much laughter by Faulkner. Friends glum.)

“So he went to his friend Mike, who, he had heard, had one.

“Gee! It’s funny!! (More laughter from Faulkner. Friends glummer.)

“But Mike’s dog. though shaggy some, was not so shaggy!” (Ha-ha-ha-he-he-ho-ho by Faulkner. Silence by friends.)

“Ain’t it funny?” he asked.
“We don’t see it,” said the friends innocently.
“Well, listen,” Faulkner went on.

“You see James Fernorten wanted a shaggy dog, and—Oh, but it’s funny!” (Much laughter by Faulkner. Friends still glum.)

Faulkner’s unhappy friends decided to creatively retaliate against him by placing an advertisement in a local paper. Details within the ad were carefully chosen to reflect the insipid story they found so aggravating:

WANTED
Dog—shaggy dog; must be either black or brown, but not too shaggy; will pay good price. P. J. Faulkner, 3229 Fredonia-av., Avondale.

The ad was remarkably successful in eliciting responses, and Faulkner’s home was overwhelmed with miscellaneous dogs:

Dogs big, dogs small, dogs mangy, dogs shaggy, dogs hairless, sightless and lame; dogs white, dogs black, dogs brown and dogs spotted, dingy and faded; dogs fat, dogs lean, dogs barking and dogs with tin cans tied to tails—dogs, dogs, DOGS. They came to his house all day.

In addition, many dogs were offered to Faulkner by phone, and the exhausted man eventually decided to flee his home.

This article appeared in other newspapers such as “The Denver Post” of Colorado 2 which acknowledged the Cincinnati paper.

The article presented two shaggy dog tales with one nested inside the other. Faulkner told the first humorless tale, and a journalist told the second tale of comeuppance. The combination of the dual narratives was memorable, but over time the text evolved into a single story as shown below

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Shaggy Dog Story

Notes:

  1. 1906 January 03, The Cincinnati Post, Advertises for a Dog and Gets One All Right, Quote Page 4, Column 4 and 5, Cincinnati, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1906 January 08, The Denver Post, Victim of Dog Trick, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Denver, Colorado. (GenealogyBank)

Churchillian Drift

Nigel Rees? Stephen Fry? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: This website contains numerous examples of quotations that have been reassigned from anonymous or forgotten individuals to famous figures. The general phenomenon has been designated “Churchillian Drift” because of the large number of sayings that have been incorrectly attributed to Winston Churchill. Would you please explore the origin of this term?

Quote Investigator: Nigel Rees is an English quotation expert who has authored numerous valuable reference works. He has also served as the host of a long-running BBC panel game about quotations.

He publishes a newsletter called “The ‘Quote…Unquote’ Newsletter”. In the April 1993 issue he penned a comically exaggerated remark about George Bernard Shaw: 1

Hence, Rees’s First Law of Quotation: ‘When in doubt, ascribe all quotations to George Bernard Shaw.’ The law’s first qualification is: ‘Except when they obviously derive from Shakespeare, the Bible or Kipling.’ The corollary is: ‘In time, all humorous remarks will be ascribed to Shaw whether he said them or not.’

Rees noted that Winston Churchill was another powerfully magnetic figure in the world of quotations. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:

People are notoriously lax about quoting and attributing marks correctly, as witness an analogous process I shall call Churchillian Drift. The Drift is almost indistinguishable from the First Law, but there is a subtle difference. Whereas quotations with an apothegmatic feel are normally ascribed to Shaw, those with a more grandiose or belligerent tone are almost automatically credited to Churchill.

Rees listed five big names that the popular mind had settled upon as the most likely source of quotable wit: George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Oscar Wilde, Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain.

QI observes that the wits, sages, heroes, villains, stars, and lovers of one era tend to displace some of the leading figures of previous eras. Thus, the list of magnetic figures in the quotation domain changes over time.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Churchillian Drift

Notes:

  1. The Quote Unquote Newsletter 1992-1996, Issue: April 1993, Volume 2, Number 2, Edited by Nigel Rees, Article: The Vagueness Is All, Newsletter Published and distributed by Nigel Rees, Hillgate Place, London, Website: www.quote-unquote.org.uk (Compilation 1992-1996 available as Kindle ebook)

You Killed My Brother. We Must Have a Duel

Donald M. Richardson? Olwyn Orde Browne? T. K. Steele? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: When I was a child I heard a circular story, i.e., a story that was designed to be repeated. The details are hazy, but I know there was a duel and a character named Zanzibar. Would you please help me to recover this tale?

Quote Investigator: In April 1952 the journal “Western Folklore” published an article by Donald M. Richardson of Berkeley, California that presented a circular tale. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

One night I went to a bar and there I met a man. He said to me, “What have you been doing lately?”
And I said, “Last night I shot a man.”
“What was his name?” said he.
“Zanzibar,” said I.
“Zanzibar?” said he.
“Yes, Zanzibar,” said I.
“And how do you spell it?” said he.
“Z-a-n-z-i-b-a-r,” said I.
“Not Z-a-n-z-i-b-a-r!” said he.
“Yes, Z-a-n-z-i-b-a-r.”
“Then you shot my brother and I challenge you to a duel!” And I, being the challenged one, had my choice of weapons, so I chose my rusty trusty pistol. Three times I fired. He fell. The next night I went to a bar, and there I met a man, etc.

Richardson did not create this tale. He was simply reporting that he had heard it. QI has also located an earlier citation circa 1941, but QI has not yet verified the citation with hardcopy or scans. The details are given in the addendum attached to this article.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You Killed My Brother. We Must Have a Duel

Notes:

  1. 1952 April, Western Folklore, Volume 11, Number 2, Section: Notes and Queries, A New Circular Tale or Round by Donald M. Richardson, Start Page 123, Quote Page 123, Western States Folklore Society, California. (JSTOR) link

Tell Us One of Your Famous Stories: ‘Twas a Dark and Fearsome Night

Antonio? Canfield and Carlton? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Experimental fiction and metafiction became influential in literary circles during the 1960s and 1970s. Yet, I recall a playful story from the beginning of the twentieth century that used recursion. A character named Antonio presented a comically nested tale to a group of brigands. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: A good example of this convoluted narrative appeared in “The Buffalo Times” of New York in March 1900. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

‘Twas a dark and fearsome night. Brigands great and brigands small were gathered around the camp fire. “Come, Antonio,” they called to the terrible chief, “tell us one of your famous stories.” And Antonio arose and said:

“‘Twas a dark and fearsome night. Brigands great and brigands small were gathered around the camp fire. ‘Come, Antonio,’ they called to the terrible chief, ‘Tell us one of your famous stories.’ And Antonio arose and said:

“‘Twas a dark and fearsome,” etc., etc., indefinitely.

There is strong evidence that this metafictional tale was already circulating a few months earlier. The following excerpt appeared in the “Buffalo Evening News” of New York in January 1900. The tale was referenced, but it was not fully explicated: 2

And then, possibly Gen. White, like Antonio, may be seated round the fire with brigands great and brigands small, and may tell us of one of his fa-a-a-mous victories.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Tell Us One of Your Famous Stories: ‘Twas a Dark and Fearsome Night

Notes:

  1. 1900 March 19, The Buffalo Times, Hazel Machine Is Knocking It: Source of the Opposition to the Mayor’s Harbor Commission, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Buffalo, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1900 January 8, Buffalo Evening News, The Lion’s Part, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Buffalo, New York. (Newspapers_com)

The Purpose of the Writer Is To Keep Civilization from Destroying Itself

Bernard Malamud? Albert Camus? Harris Wofford? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Having a grand mission to achieve with your life helps to generate a powerful motivational force. Apparently, one scribe asserted that:

The purpose of the writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.

This remark has been credited to the famous existential philosopher Albert Camus and to the prominent novelist and short story writer Bernard Malamud. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In December 1957 Albert Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and while delivering the Banquet speech he made a point that partially matched the quotation under examination. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Each generation doubtless feels called upon to reform the world. Mine knows that it will not reform it, but its task is perhaps even greater. It consists in preventing the world from destroying itself.

The above remark was not specifically about writers; instead, Camus referred to his entire generation. More information about his statement is available here. Camus delivered his speech in French.

In September 1958 Bernard Malamud was interviewed by the journalist Joseph Wershba of “The New York Post”, and he delivered a line that exactly matched the statement under investigation: 2

“The purpose of the writer,” says Malamud, “is to keep civilization from destroying itself. But without preachment. Artists, cannot be ministers. As soon as they attempt it, they destroy their artistry.”

Malamud may have heard the comment from Camus before he constructed a similar exhortation particularized to writers.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Purpose of the Writer Is To Keep Civilization from Destroying Itself

Notes:

  1. Website: The Nobel Prize, Article title: Albert Camus – Banquet speech, Speech author: Albert Camus, Date of speech: December 10, 1957, Speech location: City Hall in Stockholm, Language: English translation, Website description: Information from The Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden. (Accessed nobelprize.org on November 6, 2019) link
  2. 1991, Conversations with Bernard Malamud, Edited by Lawrence M. Lasher, Series: Literary Conversations, Not Horror but Sadness by Joseph Wershba (Article dated September, 14 1958; reprinted from “The New York Post”) Start Page 3, Quote Page 7, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Mississippi. (Verified on paper)