A Reputation Is Like a Death Mask. I Wanted To Smash the Mask

Graham Greene? Doris Lessing? Erica Jong?

Dear Quote Investigator: An artist who has achieved a distinctive reputation with critics and the general public is placed into a metaphorical strait jacket. Newly fashioned artworks are expected to be similar to previous artworks. Change and innovation are frowned upon. This notion can be expressed using a harsher analogue:

A reputation is a death mask.

A death mask is a rigidly fixed depiction of an impassive human face obtained via a wax or plaster mold after death. This vivid phrase about reputation has been attributed to three literary figures: Doris Lessing, Graham Greene, and Erica Jong. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: Graham Greene acquired a strong literary standing with works such as “Brighton Rock”, “The Power and the Glory”, and “The End of the Affair”. Yet, he did not want his creativity to be constrained by this series of successes. So he changed his style and released a light-hearted work titled “Loser Takes All” in 1955. He described this pivotal episode in his autobiography “Ways of Escape” in 1980. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

The mood of escape . . . took me . . . to Monte Carlo . . . to write what I hoped would prove an amusing, agreeably sentimental novella—something which neither my friends nor my enemies would expect. It was to be called Loser Takes All. A reputation is like a death mask. I wanted to smash the mask.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Reputation Is Like a Death Mask. I Wanted To Smash the Mask


  1. 1980, Ways of Escape: An Autobiography by Graham Greene, Chapter 7, Quote Page 224, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans)

Chance, Coincidence, Miracles, Pseudonyms, and God

Albert Einstein? Théophile Gautier? Alexis de Valon? Samuel Taylor Coleridge? Helena Blavatsky? Dr. Paul F.? Heidi Quade? Bonnie Farmer? Charlotte C. Taylor? Doris Lessing? Nicolas Chamfort? Horace Walpole?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following statement is attributed to the brilliant physicist Albert Einstein:

Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.

I have been unable to find any solid information to support this ascription. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Einstein ever made a remark of this type. It is not listed in the comprehensive collection “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press. 1

This topic is large, complex, and tangled. QI believes that the remark evolved from a family of interrelated sayings that can be traced back many years. These sayings did not have the same meaning, but QI believes that the earlier statements influenced the emergence of the later statements.

Below is a summary list with dates of the pertinent quotations. The shared theme was an examination of the connections between chance, coincidence, Providence, and God. The term “Providence” refers to the guardianship and care provided by God, a deity, or nature viewed as a spiritual force. Statements in French are accompanied with a translation.

1777: What is called chance is the instrument of Providence. (Horace Walpole)

1795: Quelqu’un disait que la Providence était le nom de baptême du Hasard, quelque dévot dira que le Hasard est un sobriquet de la Providence. (Nicolas Chamfort) [Someone said that Providence was the baptismal name of Chance; some pious person will say that Chance is a nickname of Providence.]

1845: Le hasard, c’est peut-être le pseudonyme de Dieu, quand il ne veut pas signer. (Théophile Gautier) [Chance is perhaps the pseudonym of God when he does not want to sign.]

1897: Il faut, dans la vie, faire la part du hasard. Le hasard, en définitive, c’est Dieu. (Anatole France) [In life we must make all due allowance for chance. Chance, in the last resort, is God.]

1949: Chance is the pseudonym of God when He did not want to sign. (misattribution: Anatole France)

1976: He defined coincidence as a miracle in which God chose to remain anonymous. (Dr. Paul F. of Indianapolis, Indiana)

1979: A coincidence is a small miracle where God chose to remain anonymous. (Anonymous in “Shop with Sue”)

1984: A coincidence is a small miracle when God chooses to remain anonymous. (attribution: Heidi Quade)

1985: Coincidence is when God works a miracle and chooses to remain anonymous. (attribution: Bonnie Farmer)

1986: Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous. (Charlotte Clemensen Taylor)

1997: Coincidences are God’s way of remaining anonymous. (attribution: Doris Lessing)

2000: Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous. (misattribution: Albert Einstein)

Details for these statements together with additional selected citations in chronological order are given below.

Continue reading Chance, Coincidence, Miracles, Pseudonyms, and God


  1. 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Examined on paper)

We Are Made of Star-Stuff

Carl Sagan? Albert Durrant Watson? Doris Lessing? Harlow Shapley? Vincent Cronin? Ancient Serbian Proverb? William E. Barton? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The chemical elements of life such as carbon, magnesium, and calcium were originally created in the interior furnaces of stars and then released by stellar explosions. This fact can be expressed with a beautiful poetic resonance. Here are three examples:

We are made of star-stuff.
Our bodies are made of star-stuff.
There are pieces of star within us all.

I think the well-known astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan said this. Would you please trace this expression? Was Sagan the first person to say this?

Quote Investigator: In 1973 Carl Sagan published “The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective” which included the following passage. Boldface has been added here and below: 1

Our Sun is a second- or third-generation star. All of the rocky and metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star. We are made of star-stuff.

Sagan was an important locus for the dissemination of this expression; however, it has a long history. An interesting precursor appeared in a North Carolina newspaper in 1913. A columnist pointed out that the Sun and Earth were made of star-stuff. This implied that humans were also made of star-stuff, but this was not directly stated: 2

The spectroscope analyzes the light if you please, and shows what it is made of. What was the surprise of the tireless searchers when they found common earth metals burning in the mighty sun!

There was once a little girl who cried out with joy when she realized for one little moment that the earth is truly a heavenly body, and that no matter what is happening to us we are really living right up among the stars. The sun is made of “star stuff, and the earth is made of the same material, put together with a difference.

In 1918 the President of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada delivered a speech with the phrase “our bodies are made of star-stuff”, and he seemed to be reaching for a quasi-spiritual interpretation for this fact: 3

It is true that a first thoughtful glimpse of the immeasurable universe is liable rather to discourage us with a sense of our own insignificance. But astronomy is wholesome even in this, and helps to clear the way to a realization that as our bodies are an integral part of the great physical universe, so through them are manifested laws and forces that take rank with the highest manifestation of Cosmic Being.

Thus we come to see that if our bodies are made of star-stuff,—and there is nothing else, says the spectroscope, to make them of—the loftier qualities of our being are just as necessarily constituents of that universal substance out of which are made

“Whatever gods there be.”

We are made of universal and divine ingredients, and the study of the stars will not let us escape a wholesome and final knowledge of the fact.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading We Are Made of Star-Stuff


  1. 1973, The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective by Carl Sagan, Produced by Jerome Agel, Quote Page 189 and 190, Anchor Press/Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1913 June 15, Greensboro Daily News, Star Land by Ellen Frizell Wyckoff, Quote Page 8, Column 5, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank) (“analizes” was replaced with “analyzes” in the passage above)
  3. 1918 March, The Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Volume 12, Number 3, Astronomy: A Cultural Avocation by Albert Durrant Watson, (Retiring President’s Address, Annual Meeting, January 29, 1918), Start Page 81, Quote Page 89, Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Printed for the Society in Toronto, Canada. (HathiTrust) link