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Category - "Collective unconscious":

A Jug of Wine, A Loaf of Bread, and Thou (and Thou, and Thou)

To paraphrase Edward Fitzgerald‘s paraphrase of Omar Khayyam:

‘A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou, and thou and thou
Just add some brie, and we shall have a paradise enow’

In the 1970s I, like many others, lived a relatively bohemian life (it was, after all, the decade after we went to San Francisco, being sure to wear some flowers in our hair – see bch1_Ep5M1s – even if only in our imagination). One of the best aspects of life in that period is that hospitality was much simpler. People would drop in after work for a drink, perhaps bringing friends (and a bottle if you were lucky), and stay for a pot luck supper, sitting on floor cushions. Not that there was a pot. I used to buy a whole Brie, which looked impressive and fed an elastic number of people, and a couple of sticks of French bread. I don’t recall having plates or table napkins (probably we had paper ones) – certainly I don’t remember having to do any washing-up except glasses.

Fast-forward forty years. A few days ago, Robert and I had lunch with old friends, just the four of us. She is an excellent cook, and had prepared a delicious and elaborate meal, exquisitely served. However, it meant that she spent most of the meal in the kitchen ensuring that the food met her very high standards. Her husband spilt a glass of red wine, which meant that he spent most of the meal on his hands and knees under the table trying to mop it up and applying various home remedies to avoid a stain. My husband and I perforce made small talk to each other across the table. Everyone gritted their teeth not to show the irritation or discomfiture they felt, and we all kept smiling through. But we had gone to their house in the hope of enjoying a relaxed and convivial interlude – and we presume they had invited us for the same reason.

Social norms dictate that, after a short interval, we will return the invitation and we will all go through a similar exercise, the main difference being that it is in our house and not theirs. And so on and so on ad infinitum and ad , well not nauseam but perhaps to the point of exhaustion. It was even worse in the 1980s, when there was magazine after magazine urging people on to ever greater efforts to produce food that looked almost too beautiful to eat. In retrospect, it was all ‘wasteful and ridiculous excess’:

To gild refinèd gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

Now, anyone who has been paying attention knows that the next couple of years/decade/foreseeable future are going to be years of austerity in the West. While I of course feel for those who will genuinely suffer as a result, I have spent much of my life living in countries and cities, notably Calcutta, where many people lived a life of extreme simplicity, forced on them by circumstance. You might think that they were miserable? Well, I have good news for you. If you compared their facial expressions en masse with those of a rush-hour queue at a London bus-stop, it was the Londoners who looked miserable.

‘Faites simple!’, cried Escoffier.

Simplicity is relative – he was trying only to get away from the excesses of Carème, and would no doubt be horrified by what I am proposing. But, for at least some of the time, let us use the more austere times that apparently lie ahead to simplify the way we entertain each other.  If you want to recapture the simple joy of fellowship as you break bread with your friends, may I suggest a return to a jug of wine, a loaf of bread (and a crumb or two of cheese) as the only necessary fuel?






The illustration is a still life by Vincent Van Gogh, made available under a creative commons licence by Wikimedia.



Rioting And The Herd Instinct

‘Why?’ ‘Why are people doing this?’ These are the questions being asked in bewilderment over and over again, in the press and on television, on twitter, facebook and the blogosphere.

I don’t know the answer, of course I don’t.

But I have an idea for a way of looking at the question which may just help us understand something of what is going on.

It has been an extraordinary couple of days, of lows but also of highs. There is universal wonderment at the fact that ‘pray for London’ and ‘riot clean-up’ were the top subjects on twitter for several hours, now replaced by ‘operation cup of tea’. What does this mean? Well, I think it may be easier to understand the violence and looting if we first look at these extraordinarily positive reactions. It is a very practical solution to turn up at Clapham Junction with gloves and a broom. But if you had been the only person to do so, you would have felt a bit of an idiot. A self-righteous idiot perhaps, but an idiot nonetheless. The people who responded to the #riotcleanup tweets must have wondered at first if  they would be a tiny group who responded. In contrast, can you imagine the life-affirming feeling of being in the crowd below, waving their brooms together in the air? That must have been an exhilarating moment! Heavens, it’s exhilarating  just looking at the photograph. What  might have been regarded as a well-intentioned, but slightly dotty, reaction to the violence if carried out by one person becomes instead a heroic feat if carried out by a multitude, who have universally, if unconsciously, responded to Robert Lowell’s poem:

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,

And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied…

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.


So this is the good, the uplifting side of the events of the last few days. But if we turn to look at the looting and violence,  can an analysis of those who came to wield their brooms shed any light on the actions of the rioters? Well, to begin with, I wonder whether those who set fire to cars and buses, and threw stones at the police before smashing shop windows and helping themselves to the contents would have done any of these things if they had been alone? I suggest not. I think they too felt that being amongst a crowd who were doing these things as one was an exhilarating and life-affirming experience.

I expect you, like me, studied Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ at some point in your education. Do you remember how easily the crowd were swayed by Mark Antony’s ‘Brutus is an honourable man‘, so that by the end of the speech he had turned the crowd 180°? Have you ever had the experience of standing in a crowd and being swayed by the emotion of the moment? I have, and it was a salutary lesson. In 1977 Indira Gandhi had been prime minister of India for 11 years, but in that election she lost not only the leadership but her own seat. My friends and I joined what felt like millions of people congregating in front of the newspaper offices to hear the result. When it came, complete strangers were hugging each other with joy. I too felt swept up in the elation, my blood tingling, my pulse racing. In a calmer moment the next day, I wondered what I would have been capable of doing if a demagogue had called on us to act.

It is thus that apartheid, Stalinism and Nazism take root. Look at the Nuremberg rallies. Look at Kristallnacht. What one man or woman on his or her own knows perfectly well is an outrage to human decency becomes acceptable, the norm even, when you are one of a herd.




The main photograph is by Peter Galbraith via fotolia. The second is from Lawcol888 via yfrog

False Quotation Attributions and the Collective Unconscious

By now you will probably have seen the explanation by Megan McArdle in ‘The Atlantic’, (thank-you, Simon Sarmiento for the link):

Anatomy of a Fake Quotation
“May 3 2011 Yesterday, I saw a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. fly across my Twitter feed: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.” – Martin Luther King, Jr”. I was about to retweet it, but I hesitated. It didn’t sound right. After some Googling, I determined that it was probably fake, which I blogged about last night.

Here’s the story of how that quote was created… Jessica Dovey… a 24-year old Penn State graduate who now teaches English to middle schoolers in Kobe, Japan, posted a very timely and moving thought on her Facebook status, and then followed it up with the Martin Luther King Jr. quote. “I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.” Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” MLK Jr. At some point, someone cut and pasted the quote, and–for reasons that I, appropriately chastened, will not speculate on–stripped out the quotation marks. Eventually, the mangled quotation somehow came to the attention of Penn Jillette, of Penn and Teller fame. He tweeted it to his 1.6 million Facebook followers, and the rest was internet history. Twenty-four hours later, the quote brought back over 9,000 hits on Google. The quote also went viral on Twitter, and since the 140-character limit precluded quoting the whole thing, people stripped it down to the most timely and appropriate part: the fake quote.”

The Bible, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and now Martin Luther King Jr all seem to have quotations which strike a chord with us attributed to them. Somehow the ‘collective unconscious’ is not satisfied with a good quotation which comes from an unknown person, particularly an unknown contemporary. When Oscar Wilde is said to have commented on a remark he particularly relished ‘I wish I had said that’, James Whistler added ‘You will, Oscar, you will!’

The one that has always bothered me is the ‘Desiderata’, printed on endless tea towels and proudly displayed in many downstairs loos. This is usually attributed to a nun, buried in a Baltimore church in 1692, but the wording cannot possibly have been seventeenth century. For example:

“Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.”

I have now found the explanation at the splendid website, which I thoroughly recommend if you are the sort of person, like me, who is stupidly capable of spending hours in the middle of the night worrying about this sort of thing.

“The common myth is that the Desiderata poem was found in a Baltimore church in 1692 and is centuries old, of unknown origin. Desiderata was in fact written around 1920 (although some say as early as 1906), and certainly copyrighted in 1927, by lawyer Max Ehrmann (1872-1945) based in Terre Haute, Indiana. The Desiderata myth began after Reverend Frederick Kates reproduced the Desiderata poem in a collection of inspirational works for his congregation in 1959 on church notepaper, headed: ‘The Old St Paul’s Church, Baltimore, AD 1692’ (the year the church was founded). Copies of the Desiderata page were circulated among friends, and the myth grew, accelerated particularly when a copy of the erroneously attributed Desiderata was found at the bedside of deceased Democratic politician Adlai Stevenson in 1965.

I think these all come into the category of  ‘Si non e vero, e ben trovato’ or, freely translated: ‘If it’s not true, it bloody well ought to be’.

Does anyone have any similar quotations falsely attributed to add?


Post-script. ComRes published a survey on 13 May showing how many phrases from the bible are mis-attributed: “In one instance, an equal proportion (more than one in ten) believe that the phrase “a drop in the bucket” originates from Tony Blair (12%), Shakespeare (14%) or Charles Dickens (12%)”.

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