Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 10 September 2009

21st century sound bytes

Anaxagoras According to Google Analytics the average time someone spends on my site is about 48 seconds. So, let's cut to the chase. If you're a writer – I don't care if you're a poet, a playwright or a novelist – have a think about this: if you were invited to submit an entry for the next Dictionary of 21st Century Quotations what would it be?

Hold that thought.

First let's go back a few years. To somewhere about the end of the 5th century BC to be precise. Okay that's not very precise but bear with me. That's when some bloke called Anaxagoras lived. Ever heard of him? Me neither. But if you google quotes by famous Greek philosophers you'll find this wee gem:

The descent to Hades is the same from every place.

Now, that's not too far away from Robert Burns' "A man's a man for a' that." It's a cool quote – so's the one from Burns – succinct, profound and to the point.

I pulled the quote pretty much at random from a website and all it said about him was that he was born in 500 BC and died in 428 BC. Oh, and he was Greek but that wasn't hard to guess. I did some digging and found that the quote actually comes from a work by Diogenes – now him I'd heard of. According to Diogenes, when someone lamented the fact that Anaxagoras would die in a foreign land, he replied, "The descent to Hades is much the same from whatever place we start." (Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, Book 2, 11)

Now Anaxagoras is certainly not the least known of the Greek philosophers but the sad fact is that to the man in the street he's just a name in a book of quotations.

Okay, let's jump forward a bit, say to the year 4509 AD. Do you imagine Anaxagoras will be remembered then? Assuming we've not succeeded in annihilating ourselves or Nature hasn't helped us on our way out of existence I suspect he will be. He's wangled his way onto a computer now so his chances have been improved considerably unless a computer virus wipes all the world's data overnight. I guess keeping oneself alive in the public consciousness isn't such an easy thing.

Fine, back 2500 years to the present day.

If you watch TV or pick up a glossy magazine you'll see how everything has been distilled to the sound byte. We have never been as interested in quotes as we are right now. There is so much going on that we simply don't have time to relish interviews any more. We get a few seconds kindly whittled down by the nice people at the TV channel or the magazine's editor. Most of the time there's little or no context, just a few words usually, maybe a pretty (or unflattering, depending on the magazine) photo to go along with. And then we're onto the next one.

Now let's slip back just fifteen more years. In 1994 Cees Nooteboom wrote a book called The Following Story which I read about a year ago. In it I made a note of these two sentences:

Time is the system that must prevent everything happening at once.

Conversations consist for the most part of things one does not say.

Now, what do you think the odds are of either of these quotes cropping up in the next Dictionary of 20th Century Quotations? None too high I'd say. I suppose he'd have a fighting chance of getting into the Dictionary of Modern Dutch Quotations but would it be either of these quotes? Who decides? Do you and I get to vote on what humanity ought to remember? And why shouldn't we?

In 100 years no one will remember me. Sniff. No, this is not me feeling sorry for myself. I'm simply stating a fact of life. In 100 years time my daughter will be dead and that will be it. I expect my writing will kick around for a while, there are copies of my novels all over the world and I suppose a few of them will knock around for a few decades after that but probably by then we'll be recycling ever scrap of paper we have lying around.

But what if I had the chance to get into one of them thar quotation-type books? Out of all the hundreds of thousands of words I've written what's worth remembering? Actually I can think of a couple quite easily:


I don't believe in destiny / but I do in inevitability. [Shadowplay]

Writers don’t have lives. They have ongoing research. [The More Things Change]

Of course I'm being generous to myself with two quotes but what the hell, it's my blog.

Modern Quotations My dictionary of modern quotations is old now, it's The Penguin Modern Dictionary of Modern Quotations, second edition (1980) edited by M and M J Cohen. Now they have The New Penguin Modern Dictionary of Modern Quotations edited by Robert Andrews and it's also into its second edition. I suppose the next one with be The Even Newer Penguin Modern Dictionary of Modern Quotations.

I found the introduction to my edition of the dictionary illuminating. In it the Cohens explain a bit about how the quotes were collated. Bottom line: they sat down and picked. They had plenty of help – the BBC allowed them to check programmes for accuracy, the Observer, the Sunday Times and the New Society published letters requesting memorable sayings and the Observer also allowed them access to the files of its Sayings of the Week – but, at the end of the day, it was as much down to chance as circumstance whether a quote found its way in or not. They freely admit that some sources (they cite as examples the radio shows ITMA and The Goons Show) provided more good lines than they felt they could include. They also admit to a "predominately English" bias.

titbits In the Foreword to the Second Edition they say they have culled all entries that they found to be "dated, forgettable or unfunny" but it also seems they have gone to much greater pains to seek out quotes deemed worthy of inclusion expanding the number of periodicals they placed ads in to over a dozen quality periodical broadening its reach to include the Radio Times, Gay News and Private Eye. So none in the Women's Weekly, Titbits or Melody Maker then.

Not every memorable quote can be attributed but just because we don't know who said them first shouldn't mean they don't get included. So, here's one from my childhood:


Can't means won't.

I'm sure there are loads of kids who squirm when they hear those three words. Personally if I never heard them again it would be too soon but I think they should be remembered too along with other slogans like "Better dead than red" or "Go to work on an egg."

I had a flick through my book to see what injustices I could find. The first was an obvious one:


Adults are obsolete children. [Quoted in L L Levinson's, Barlett's Unfamiliar Quotations]

Now, you tell me, is THAT the most memorable things Dr Seuss ever wrote? I asked my wife which line of his came to mind (without telling her why I was asking) and I got:

I do not like green eggs and ham.

I do not like them, Sam-I-am.

Okay it's not especially profound but then neither were many of the quotes included in the book, for example:


How tickled I am! [Running gag in comedy act]


Keeping Up With the Joneses [Title of cartoon strip]


Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be [Title of play]

Ken Dodd Memorable? Perhaps. Worth remembering? Well, that's another thing completely. But does everything we pass down to the next generation need to be meaningful and profound? Perhaps not. I mean Doddy's comment means something to me because I've seen him so many times. I get all nostalgic about it. But will it be assimilated into popular culture in the way that 'keeping up with the Joneses' has? Nah. In 50 years hardly anyone on the planet will remember Ken Dodd in just the same way as the old music hall performers have all but been forgotten.

It's a memorable and as funny as the Goon Show line: "Oh! Sausinges!" I heard Harry Secombe talk about how this line originated. It was to test a theory he had about humour He believed that basically anything could be made funny by pure repetition. And he was proved right. With a very short time audiences were waiting in anticipation of the line and delighting in it. Memorable? Yes. Worth remembering? As some footnote in the history of radio comedy, sure.

Favourite quotes? So many. So many. Here're four that jumped out at me just for the hell of it:


Life is rather like a tin of sardines – we're all of us looking for the key. [Beyond the Fringe]


A circle in the longest distance to the same point. [Every Good Boy Deserves Favour]


I am at two with nature. [Quoted in Woody Allen: Clown Prince of American Humour]


A memory is what is left when something happens and does not completely unhappen. [The Mechanisms of Mind]

But the big question is: What line of yours would you like to pass onto the next generation if you were only allowed one or perhaps two?

I asked a few of my friends to offer up some suggestions from their own writing. And do you know what? I got two back (you know who you are) and only one them actually met the preconditions. That doesn't mean that only two replied. Others did and were quite apologetic about their inability to provide me with what they considered a suitable quote.

And that puzzled the hell out of me. I imagined people would be falling over themselves to show off their wise and/or witty one-liners. So I'm throwing it open to all comers, let's be 'avin' 'em, or if you don't feel like sharing a quote then maybe a sound byte about our sound byte culture, eh?


Anonymous said...

Jim - OK - this is a bit risky but I'll pony up:

'there's only one kind of lie but there are two kinds of facts: those that are true and those that are too true.'

Perhaps it's not wise nor witty but, if nothing else, I think it's kind of in the spirit of your blog, which you know, I adore.

Jim Murdoch said...

Excellent offering, Koe - thanks a lot.

Mariana Soffer said...

Excelent post, really enlightening for me. I never thought what you said about quotations, it s true there are more popular than ever now, which is related in my opinion not to the lack of time that people have but to the short span of atention, people can only focus for 1 or 2 minutes at the most, in a single thing. And I think this quotation popularity is directly related to twitter, which is nowadays the social network that is used the most. And probably the fact that allows top 140 characters is the main cause of its popularity.
I guess the average length of a quote is slightly smaller than the maximum possible length a tweet has.

Thanks for this great post
Take care

Art Durkee said...

The first Nooteboom quite is a rephrase of something Einstein once said, actually. So it's a quote of a quote.

BTW, I happen to like Nooteboom. I've read two or three of his novels (or are they meta-fictions?) in translation, and quite like them. Thanks or mentioning him. The Following Story is a real fun reading experience.

I've written recently about aphorisms on my own blog, which I suppose dovetails with your thoughts about quotes here. I'm not sure I have anything to contribute, though. Except perhaps to quote my high school creative writing teacher, who was fond of saying to his students:

"The Kingdom of Boredom is within you."

Jim Murdoch said...

I should have thought to mention Twitter, Mariana. It's existence can only exacerbate matters through.

Jim Murdoch said...

You know saying something new and interesting is getting so hard isn't it, Art? I've never heard the 'boredom' quote before so it was new to me at least.

Rachel Fenton said...

"Now take out that Southern tooth and set in a turd" The Wakefield Second Shepherd's Pageant. Made me guffaw as an undergraduate. I've quoted it in a novel, too.

Jim Murdoch said...

That was a new one on me, Rachel, and I'm sure slipping into polite conversation isn't easy.

Dave King said...

Yesterday I came, read and wondered. Couldn't think what I would like to be remembered by. This morning I woke up knowing: I'd like to be remembered by a line or two from my latest poem - the latest one is always the best... in my estimation! A really great post.

Poet Hound said...

At least your readers spare 48 seconds, mine only spare 38.
As for quotes, I have two personal mottos I'll offer up:

"It's a sin to be boring"
"People are doing amazing things every day, don't you want to be one of them?"
Thanks for the insightful post.

Jim Murdoch said...

Actually, Poet Hound, I'm up to 59 seconds. I guess someone must have logged onto my site and then made a cup of coffee or something.

Love the quotes, especially the second one.

Jim Murdoch said...

Too true, Dave, too true which is one of the reasons I've never got round to bringing out a chapbook - I only ever seemed to like half a dozen poems at a time.

Art Durkee said...

"For a creative writer possession of the "truth" is less important than emotional sincerity."
—George Orwell

(For more Orwell quotes, click here.)

I can't sum up my life in one pithy quote. It just can't be done. I can sum up, perhaps, what I feel right now, but that summation would and does change over the years. I have no idea what I'm to be remembered for, if I'm remembering for anything. Probably future folks will perceive me a dabbler in too many artforms, which is wrong; but plenty of folks already perceive me that way, so what can you do? We can't really control any of it. If I'm lucky, one or two poems, a piece of music, the odd visionary artwork, probably not much more than that.

And you can quote me on that.

Conda Douglas said...

Was it Andy Warhol who said, "Everybody now has 15 minutes of fame."? And who added recently, "It's down to 15 seconds."?

rachel said...

wonderful stuff ... keep it up...

Scattercat said...

I've always been partial to a quote from an otherwise unrelated namesake of mine, a playwright some hundred years gone:

"They called me mad, I called them mad, and damn them, they outvoted me."
- Nathaniel Lee

Interestingly (or rather tragically) he reported said this upon being confined to a mental hospital as a result of a nervous breakdown.

Jim Murdoch said...

Art, it's hard to know what will persist. My gut reaction was going to be that in your case something physical like a piece of art might have a better chance than anything that exists only in a digital format but I guess that depends on who is paying the bills. If you dropped dead tomorrow, God forbid, how long would Blogger keep your words alive? And what of your comments on other people's sites? How long before they vanish? But I suspect that the quotes from those ancient Greeks will keep on being copied and kept alive for a long time after we're both forgotten.

What Warhol said, Conda, was: "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes." That was in 1968 and he reiterated it in 1979. I think had the Internet been around then he would have said: "On the Web, everyone will be famous to fifteen people" – apparently the Scottish artist Momus said that. I do like the idea that our 15 minutes is down to 15 seconds through and, when you consider the length of a typical sound bite, 15 seconds would be a lot.

Rachel, thank you for that.

And, Scattercat, love the quote. It's interesting – and an important point really – how context changes the significance of a quote. I should really do a follow-up some time on misquotes.

John Baker said...

What I am saying does not mean that there will henceforth be no form in art. It only means that there will be a new form, and that this form will be of such a type that it admits the chaos, and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else. The forms and the chaos remain separate . . . to find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.
Samuel Beckett

Jim Murdoch said...

I think that modern day chaosticians (to co-opt the title Jeff Goldbum's character in Jurassic Park gave himself) would agree totally, Dick.

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