Author Archives: Alexander Atkins

Life Belongs to the Whole Community; It Is A Sort of Splendid Torch

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. “

“I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it onto future generations.”

The first paragraph is from the play Man and Superman (1903) by Irish playwright, critic, and political activist George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950). It appears in the eloquent, thought-provoking (and lengthy: more than 11,400 words!) dedication, “Epistle Dedicatory to Arthur Bingham Walkley,” of the play. The second paragraph comes from one of his speeches (found in George Bernard Shaw: His Life and His Works by Archibald Henderson). Interestingly, as the Internet has a tendency to do, the first and second paragraphs are erroneously combined, as if they were one thought written by Shaw. This cobbled-together quotation, taken from two completely separate works, appears in dozens of books, all — of course — without proper attribution. American actor Jeff Goldblum is quite fond of this quote and often recites it (most recently, for example, on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, February 15, 2019) as if it were one long paragraph, perpetuating the mistake.

The “brief candle” that appears in the second paragraph is an allusion to the famous soliloquy in William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (1606) spoken by Macbeth: ““Out, out, brief candle! / Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, / that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, /  and is heard no more. It is a tale / told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / signifying nothing.”

Incidentally, the complete paragraph, from which the first sentence is taken, reads as follows: “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. And also the only real tragedy in life is the being used by personally minded men for purposes which you recognize to be base. All the rest is mere misfortune or mortality: this alone is misery, slavery, hell on earth; and the revolt against it is the only force that offers a man’s work to the poor artist, whom our personally minded rich people would so willingly employ as pandas, buffoon, beauty money, sentimentalizer and the like.”

Shaw wrote Man and Superman because Arthur Bingham Walkley, who was the respected theatre critic for The Times, suggested that he write a play based on the theme of Don Juan/Don Giovanni, the archetypical womanizer. Shaw wrote: “My dear Walkley: You once asked me why I did not write a Don Juan play. The levity with which you assumed this frightful responsibility has probably by this time enabled you to forget it; but the day of reckoning has arrived: here is your play! I say your play, because qui facit per alium facit per se [from Latin: “He who acts through another does the act himself”]. Its profits, like its labor, belong to me: its morals, its manners, its philosophy, its influence on the young, are for you to justify. You were of mature age when you made the suggestion; and you knew your man. It is hardly fifteen years since, as twin pioneers of the New Journalism of that time, we two, cradled in the same new sheets, made an epoch in the criticism of the theatre and the opera house by making it a pretext for a propaganda of our own views of life. So you cannot plead ignorance of the character of the force you set in motion. You meant me to épater le bourgeois [from French, “to shock the bourgeoisie”, a rallying cry for French Decadent poets of the late 19th century]; and if he protests, I hereby refer him to you as the accountable party.” The dedication continues for 31 more paragraphs.

Shaw was a prolific playwright — he wrote 60 plays during his lifetime. His best-known works in addition to Man and Superman (1903) are Pygmalion (1912) and Saint Joan (1923). He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1925. Some literary critics believe that Shaw was the second most important playwright after Shakespeare in the British theatrical tradition. Shaw created the “intelligent” theatre that required theatergoers to think deeply about the meaning of a play, setting the stage, as it were, for modern playwrights like David Mamet and Harold Pinter.

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For further reading: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Man_and_Superman/Dedicatory
https://books.google.com/books?id=g6dEAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA512#v=onepage&q&f=false


Valentine’s Day by the Numbers: 2019

alex atkins bookshelf cultureDid you hear the story about the wife who sent her husband a text that read: “I’ve just got you the best Valentine’s Day present ever! xox” When he read it, he turned to his colleague at work and said: “I really hope she misspelled ‘Xbox.'” So what is Valentine’s Day without rampant, over-the-top consumerism?

Consider that this year Americans will spend $20.7 billion on Valentine’s Day — and that accounts for only 51% of Americans who actually celebrate it. (Apparently love is on the decline, since last year 55% of Americans celebrated Valentine’s Day.) And sadly, many gifts that will be purchased with the very best of intentions, will end up in the recycling bin: $9.5 million will be spent on unwanted gifts. What a shame — but perhaps an unwanted gift is better than no gift at all, since according to a recent survey, 53% of women expressed that they would end their relationship if they didn’t receive a gift on Valentine’s Day. Can you say “tough love”?

Ironically, about 41% of women in a relationship dread Valentine’s Day (perhaps they are afraid of getting those unwanted gifts or being disappointed by their partner). However, over on the opposite side of the love spectrum, singles really look forward to Valentine’s Day — with good reason — since about 9 million marriage proposals are made on that special day.

So how do Americans say “I love thee?” Let us count the ways:

Total amount spent by consumers in U.S.: $20.7 billion
Average amount spent by consumer: $161.96
Amount average male will spend: $229.54
Amount average woman will spend: $97.7

Amount spent on unwanted gifts: $9.5 million
Percentage of consumers that will purchase candy: 52%
Amount spent on candy: $1.8 million
Percentage of consumers that will purchase greeting cards: 44%
Percentage of cards bought by women: 85%
Amount spent on greeting cards: $933 million

Percentage of consumers that will purchase flowers: 35%
Amount spent on flowers: $1.9 billion
Percentage of consumers that will take their partner out to dinner: 34%
Amount spent at restaurants: $3.5 billion
Percentage of consumers that will give jewelry: 18%
Amount spent on jewelry: $3.9 billion

Percentage of consumers that will purchase gift certificates: 15%
Amount spent on gift certificates: $1.3 billion

Percentage of Americans NOT celebrating Valentine’s Day: 49%
Of those, 49% of women and 40% of men will treat themselves to jewelry, apparel, or a spa service
Of those 32% of women and 41% of men will plan a get-together with friends or family
Of those about 10% will purchase an anti-valentine’s gift

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For further reading: https://www.dailyinfographic.com/astounding-price-love-valentines-day?


There’s A Word for That: Torschlusspanik

alex atkins bookshelf wordsYou have to love the German  language. It has a single word for just about any idea that other languages, like English for example, requires several words — or sentences — to express or define the concept. Take this harsh-sounding, mouthful of a word: torchlusspanik (pronounced “TURSH luss pan ik”). Literally translated, it means “gate-shut panic” or  “fear of the gate shutting.” What a great metaphor. Thus, its more general meaning is: the sense of fear or anxiety, particularly by someone who is middle-aged, due to the profound realization that time is running out to achieve important life goals or seize great opportunities. It is a far more interesting term to describe what is commonly known as the “mid-life crisis.” The feeling is sometimes referred to as the “male menopause syndrome.”

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The Liberating Power of Music

alex atkins bookshelf musicHave you ever wondered what life would be like without music? Undoubtedly, it would be a drab and gray existence, where one monotonous day slowly fades into the next — a week turns into a month, months quickly turn into years. You blink, and a decade has slipped past. And that is exactly what the inmates at the Shawshank State Penitentiary experienced in the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, a profound allegory or preserving one’s integrity and self-worth in the face of adversity and hopelessness. But all of that changed for the prisoners on one memorable, transcendent day. That day Andy Dufresne, an innocent man who was framed for murder, locked himself in the warden’s office and played a song on the record player. The song, “Canzonetta sull’aria” (Italian for “A little song on the breeze”) is from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s famous opera, The Marriage of Figaro (1786). As the song was played over the penitentiary’s public address system, all of the prisoners in the yard froze mid-step, staring up at the speakers, mesmerized by the beautiful sound. It’s a remarkably beautiful moment as we listen to the two women singing, their voices both elegiac yet soaring. Dufresne’s friend and mentor, Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding, in a touching voiceover explains the profound impact that the music had on these weary, worn-down souls: 

“I have no idea to this day what them two Italian ladies were singin’ about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singin’ about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared. Higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away… and for the briefest of moments — every last man at Shawshank felt free.”

Ah, the liberating power of music that stirs men’s souls. Sadly, Dufresne pays a steep price for liberating the souls of his fellow prisoners — even if for just a fleeting moment — by serving two weeks in solitary confinement. But even in his cell, Dufresne felt the liberating effect of the operatic song. When asked if playing the record was worth it, Dufresne responds: “Easiest time I ever did… I had Mr. Mozart to keep me company. Hardly felt the time at all… The music was here [pointing at his head] and here [pointing at his heart]. That’s the one thing they can’t confiscate, not ever. That’s the beauty of it.”

Let us return for a moment to Red’s narration. He raises a good question: what were those two Italian ladies singing about? The song, a short duet (known as a “duettino”) occurs in act three of The Marriage of Figaro. The words to the song (known at the “libretto”) were written by Lorenzo Da Ponte, an Italian poet and opera librettist who collaborated with Mozart on two other operas (Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan tutti). In this duet, the Countess Almaviva dictates an invitation to Susanna, her maid. The invite, addressed to Almaviva’s womanizing husband, Count Almaviva, is for a romantic rendezvous in order to expose his infidelity. Almaviva speaks a line and Susanna repeats it while she writes it down. Here are the translated lyrics without the repetition:

On the breeze…
What a gentle little Zephyr
This evening will sign
Under the pines in the little grove
And the rest he’ll understand.

It is only when you understand the context and meaning of the operatic song that you can appreciate the irony of its selection, whether intended or not, by Dufresne: the opera singers are writing a letter to expose an infidelity, while it is the discovered infidelity that indirectly leads to Dufresne being framed for the murder of his wife and her lover and being convicted and sentenced to prison.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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For further reading: The Shawshank Redemption: The Shooting Script by Frank Darabont, New Market Press (1996), Roger Ebert: The Great Movies by Roger Ebert, Broadway Books (2002). 


Best Advice for Writers: B. J. Chute

atkins-bookshelf-literature

Beatrice Joy Chute (1913-1987), known as B. J. Chute, was an American novelist and shorty-story writer, adjunct professor of English at Barnard College, and a past president of the PEN American Center, a nonprofit that supports writers. In the 1930s she wrote short stories for several publications, including The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s. She is best known for her novel Greenwillow, published in 1956, about young love and self-discovery. The novel was adapted into a Broadway musical of the same name in 1960 by Frank Loesser. Regrettably, as of this writing, there is no article about Chute in Wikipedia — an editorial oversight that should definitely be rectified. Chute, who taught creative writing for many years, offered this advice to aspiring writers:

“Imagination is as necessary to a novelist or short-story writer as the spinning of webs is to a spider and just as mysterious… Imagination cannot be created, but it can be fostered, and this fostering is part of the writer’s duty. It is not enough to congratulate oneself on having been gifted (lovely word!) with imagination, though it is certainly a major cause for rejoicing. The imagination, like the intellect, has to be used, and a creative writer ought to exercise it all the time. There is no idea, however insignificant or vague it may be, that the imagination cannot touch to new beginnings, turning it around and around in different lights, playing with it, listening to it.”

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For further reading: Good Advice on Writing by William Safire and Leonard Safir
https://www.nytimes.com/1987/09/15/obituaries/beatrice-chute-writer-dies.html


The Struggle for Verbal Consciousness is a Great Part of Life

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“Man struggles with his unborn needs and fulfillment. New unfoldings struggle up in torment in him, as buds struggle forth the midst of a plant. Any man of real individuality tries to know and to understand what is happening, even in him­self, as he goes along. This struggle for verbal consciousness should not be left out in art. It is a very great part of life. It is not superimposition of a theory. It is the passionate struggle into conscious being.”

From Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence. In the novel, an introspective school inspector, Rupert Birkin, based on the author himself, attempts to achieve authentic selfhood by reconciling the dualistic struggle for fulfilling his passions and the struggle for self-knowledge (passion vs intellect). Lawrence had written Women in Love as part of a larger novel; however the publisher, Thomas Seltzer, decided to publish them as two separate novels. The first, The Rainbow, was published in 1915; the second, Women in Love, was published in 1920. Due to the sexual content of the novels that upset the delicate sensibilities of the time, both were considered very controversial and banned for several years. Despite that controversy, legendary literary critic Harold Bloom believes that Women in Love is one of the most important and influential in Western culture.


Adventures in Rhetoric: Adianoeta

alex atkins bookshelf wordsEver used an adianoeta in your writing or speech? The adianoeta is a wonderfully witty rhetorical device. A hint to its meaning is found in its etymology. The word is derived from the Ancient Greek adianoetos, meaning “unintelligible” or “not understanding.” Thus, an adianoeta is an expression that has two meanings, one obvious (often complimentary), and one that is subtle (the exact opposite of the first meaning). Or expressed another way, the adianoeta has two meanings: one that is literal and another that is ironic. Consider it a literary variation of that amazingly annoying puzzle that went viral in 2018: do you hear “yanny” or “laurel”? (And the follow-up question: does anyone really give a shit?) Unlike that useless puzzle, an adianoeta packs a real punch which explains why it is most often used in paying someone a clever back-handed compliment. Incidentally, the word adianoeta is pronounced: ay DEE ah no eta. Let’s take a look at some classic examples of an adionoeta:

You’ll be lucky if you can get this person to work for you.

Brilliant! Initially, the sentence sounds like a compliment, meaning: you would be fortunate to have this wonderful person working for you. Hire this person! However, if you ponder it for a moment, you realize it also carries a devious secondary meaning, as an insult, meaning: you would be lucky if you can get this lazy person to do any work. Don’t hire this person!

Another classic adianoeta occurred during a famous exchange between Clare Booth Brokaw, a writer and politician, and Dorothy Parker, a writer and satirist. Sometime in the 1920s, while holding a door open for Parker, Luce said:

Age before beauty.

The initial meaning of this is that older, wiser people should be given precedence over younger, less experienced people. But at the same time, the phrase means, let the older and uglier person go ahead of the beautiful person. Parker, who was known for her caustic wit, immediately understood the second meaning, and without missing a beat, replied, “Pearls before swine.” Touché!

A related term is a double entendre (from the French double, meaning “double,” and entendre, meaning “to hear” or “to understand). Both the adianoeta and double entendre have, ahem, double meaning. However in a double entendre, the secondary meaning is generally conveyed by puns and is sexual as opposed to being ironic.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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