November 22, 2013

“The past is a foreign country...”


L.P. HARTLEY’S OFT-QUOTED APHORISM:

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
       Leslie P. Hartley (1895-1972)
       British novelist and short story writer
       The first sentence in his novel The Go-Between (1953)
       This is one of the most famous opening lines in modern literary history. It sets the stage for a story about class differences, sexual mores and love in England during the early Twentieth Century. The novel is written as the reminiscence of Leo Colston, a British man in his sixties. In looking through some of his old possessions, Colston comes across a diary he wrote in 1900 when he was thirteen. This sparks memories of the role he played as a fairly clueless “go-between” who carried messages back and forth for an older, upper class girl who was having a socially taboo affair with a “lower class” tenant farmer.
       The opening words of the novel have essentially become a modern proverbial saying.


THE NOSTALGIC VIEWPOINT:

“The past may be a foreign country where they do things differently as the L. P. Hartley line has it, but it is one to which many would readily immigrate given the opportunity.”
       Michael Sacasas
       American writer and theologian
       In a post about the Woody Allen movie Midnight in Paris (2011) on his blog “The Fairest Thing”


ANTI-NOSTALGIA VIEWPOINT #1:

“It’s easy to get washed along in nostalgia, to end up overshadowed by the past, because the past is a perfect country, a place we’ve made better in our heads through selective amnesia.”
       Todd VanDerWerff
       American TV reviewer and critic 
       Reflecting on the HBO series about mobsters, The Sopranos, in a post on the AV Club website


ANTI-NOSTALGIA VIEWPOINT #2:

“If the past is a foreign country, it is a shockingly violent one. It is easy to forget how dangerous life used to be, how deeply brutality was once woven into the fabric of daily existence. Cultural memory pacifies the past, leaving us with pale souvenirs whose bloody origins have been bleached away. A woman donning a cross seldom reflects that this instrument of torture was a common punishment in the ancient world; nor does a person who speaks of a whipping boy ponder the old practice of flogging an innocent child in place of a misbehaving prince. We are surrounded by signs of the depravity of our ancestors’ way of life, but we are barely aware of them. Just as travel broadens the mind, a literal-minded tour of our cultural heritage can awaken us to how differently they did things in the past.”
       Steven Pinker
       Canadian-born Harvard psychologist and author
       From his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2013)


THE BEAT WRITER’S VIEWPOINT:

“All of life is a foreign country.”
       Jack Kerouac (1922–1969)
       American writer and founding father of the Beat movement in literature
       In a letter he wrote on June 24, 1949, cited in the book The Beat Vision: A Primary Sourcebook

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November 7, 2013

Life is like riding a bicycle…or maybe a horse, a wave, or an escalator...


EINSTEIN’S POPULAR (AND SADLY IRONIC) QUOTATION:

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.”
       Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
       German-born theoretical physicist 
       In a letter to his son Eduard Einstein, dated February 5, 1930
       Since this famous bicycle metaphor appears on many websites and in Facebook posts without any specific date or source, I wondered if it might be another one of the phony Einstein quotes that float around online. So, I emailed one of my favorite quote mavens, Dr. Mardy Grothe, and asked him. He said it was indeed a real quote and told me he cited the source in his new quotation database, Dr. Mardy's Dictionary of Metaphorical Quotations (an amazing resource for quotation buffs).
       As documented there, the origin of the popular saying is a letter Einstein wrote to his second son Eduard on February 5, 1930, while Eduard was studying medicine at Zurich University. In the book Einstein: His Life and Universe, author Walter Isaacson notes some other less-famous pieces of fatherly advice that Albert passed on in the letter. Commenting on the fact that Eduard had recently become enamored with an older woman, Albert suggested he should instead have a dalliance with some younger “plaything.” He also told Eduard he should get a job, saying: “Even a genius like Schopenhauer was crushed by unemployment.”
       The line about keeping one’s balance turned out to be sadly ironic. In 1930, Edward became increasingly imbalanced. Not long after he received his father’s “bicycle” letter, he abandoned his studies and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. In 1932, Eduard was committed to a psychiatric sanatorium in Zurich, for the first of many times. He eventually died there in 1965, at the age of 55.


THE MOVIE TAGLINE VARIATION:

“Life is like riding a bicycle…As long as you keep pedaling, you won’t fall down.”
       Poster tagline for the movie Forest for the Trees (1998)


THE HORSE RIDERS’ VERSION:

“Life is like riding a beautiful, wild stallion. You either throw yourself up in the saddle and ride the wind, or you let him bronc and throw you to the ground.”
       Alice Collins  
       American newspaper columnist
       From one of the humorous “Cookies ‘n Chaos” columns she wrote for Chicago-area newspapers, collected in the book
Cookies ‘N Chaos: A Selection of Reader's Favorites from the Past 25 Years (2006)


THE WAVE RIDERS’ VERSION:

“Life is like riding a wave. One stupid mistake and its all over...but if u get it right it can be the ultimate high.”
       Anonymous Facebook post

       (Wikimedia Commons photo, from the page about “Big Wave Surfing.”)


INSCRUTABLE ESCALATOR ANALOGY #1:

“Sometimes, life is like riding an escalator. We stand fairly still and it just carries us along. Sometimes, though, it feels as if we’re trying to go in one direction and the path of travel is heading somewhere else.”
       Jonathan Cainer 
       Astrologer and author
       In the August 18, 2012 edition of his syndicated Daily Horoscope column. (From that day’s horoscope for people born under the sign of Leo.)

 
INSCRUTABLE ESCALATOR ANALOGY #2:

“Life is like riding a department store escalator which dismounts you on the floor of oblivion, which is right next to men’s shoes.” 
       Jimmy Jabroni 
       American humorist 
       In his book Everyday, Ordinary, Insane Life (2006) 
       (The “Escher Escalator” animated GIF is from
The Mighty Optical Illusions site)

      

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