Monday, 2 July 2007
There's a new (or arguably) ancient form of myth emerging thanks to the internet. The quotation that is taken as correct and/or correctly attributed but is actually a mistake, compounded by hundreds of thousands of repetitions. If anyone has a year or two to write an Umberto Eco style book on modern culture viewed through the lens of semiotics (you'd make liberal use of 'langue/parole'), this might be a good subject. Here are a few examples I have tripped over:
- the chinese for crisis consists of the charatcters meaning 'danger' plus 'opportunity'. This was apparently concocted by an american presidential script writer. Victor H. Mair, professor of Chinese literature link. attacks this "widespread misconception" of "oriental wisdom" noting that the second symbol really means something like "incipient moment or crucial point," meaning that someone in a "crisis" must be aware of both danger and its special point in time. The second symbol definitely does not mean "opportunity!"
- “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it." is attributed to Goethe. It actually comes from a very loose misquote by Scottish mountaineer W Murray. link (what Goethe actually said was "Now at last let me see some deeds!”)
- the text to "the sunscreen song" initially circulated for some time on the web attributed to Kurt Vonnegut and a speech he had given to the matriculating class at MIT. It was actually written for the Chicago Tribune by journalist Mary Smich. When Luhrman was working on the single he first tried to contact Vonnegut to get permission. link
In the time before libraries, academic references and so on it was very common to claim a work came from a famous author. It gave it authority. In the intro to many of the penguin classics are long essays explaining that it is doubtful who actually wrote what. The internet seems to reintroduce the same effect, because quotations are doubled and redoubled.
The moral is:
"If it sounds good on Oprah then it's not exactly likely to be Shakespeare." (please do quote this liberally, but attribute it to any to a.no.other famous person of your choosing)
Of course it doesnt actually matter who said what. What's interesting is the way we still seem to crave a mixture of textual authority vs the power of the free floating thought virus, which is well designed for transmission (fitting a common point others will want to make with a quotation, worded in an accessible, catchy, sentimental way...)