Oh, Christmas Tree!

December 25, 2008

So long, 2008.  Your time is almost up.

christmastreeAs a child, I read the “Golden Books” collection of children’s books. One of my favorites at Christmas was the book “The Christmas Tree that Grew,” a story about a live Christmas tree that grew so rapidly that its owners had to cut holes in their apartment building to allow it to continue. No one called the police or the EPA; instead, the family made new friends among their neighbors. It was a great story. 

It also bears a remarkable similarity to a 2008 phenomenon in the U.K. involving a 35-foot tree cut into sections to appear to be growing out of the house. Read the full story here

Take a look at these two pictures, the first from the news story and the second from the storybook. 


So in case you were wondering, if the power of suggestion no longer exists, the power of coincidental parallelism certainly does. 

And with that, have a truly Merry Christmas and a happy New Year! 


The Ghost of a Christmas Carol

December 6, 2008

Think fast:

  • Who said, “God bless us, every one!”?
  • Who is Jacob Marley?

If you can answer these questions effortlessly, then you too have been affected by the wide-reaching legacy of Charles Dickens’ 1843 A Christmas Carol. (See a tribute to the author’s influence here).

What does the Ghost of Christmas Present look like? is a much harder question. The answer depends on your source. Do you identify with the green-garbed, larger-than-life, milk of human kindness-drinking man from the Albert Finney musical Scrooge? Or has another picture been imprinted in your mind?

christmascarolAmong the famous actors who have taken on the role of Scrooge are… 

  • Patrick Stewart (1999 A Christmas Carol)
  • Albert Finney (1970 Scrooge)
  • George C. Scott (1984 A Christmas Carol)
  • Alistair Sim (1971 A Christmas Carol)
  • Michael Caine (1992 The Muppet Christmas Carol)

A full list of related movies is available from the Internet Movie Database. Themes from A Christmas Carol have appeared in scores of television shows, spinoffs, and spoofs. 

Photo by Howard Gold, The Great Dickens Christmas Fair

Photo by Howard Gold, The Great Dickens Christmas Fair

Around Christmas time, not only do productions of A Christmas Carol  on stage pop up overnight and films of Scrooge and A Christmas Carol (or A Carol Christmas) fill the television networks, but allusions to Dickens’ little book begin to emerge in other areas of popular culture, testimony to the lasting impact of a piece of literature. 

“God bless us, every one.”
Tiny Tim’s famous phrase has made him a poster child for charitable organizations during the holidays.  His name and motto have also been used to represent a spirit of religious universalism or just plain feel-good holiday spirit.

The word “scrooge” has become a synonym for a grumpy, uncharitable person who lacks Christmas spirit or compassion. It is used in as diverse situations as recommendations for thrifty shopping, discussions on religion and the holidays, and a contest celebrating the individual with the least Christmas spirit. 

Of course, Ebenezer Scrooge’s favorite expression, “Bah Humbug,” has become similarly famous. It has appeared in articles about holiday season depression (not a laughing matter by any means), expensive tires, and child safety.

And the list could go on…

One small newspaper points out that the Victorian era, when A Christmas Carol was written, is the time period in which many of our modern Christmas traditions were born. So maybe the fact that holiday celebrants of all ages, regions, and eras have turned to Dickens to find the spirit of Christmas is not so bizarre after all.

*For more usages of A Christmas Carol, try your own Google search!

Atlas Takes Up Again

November 17, 2008

Today, when the word “forefront” is used in conversation, its companion is very likely to be a variation on the word “economy.” And in many circles, the idea of unmoderated capitalism has become an associated whipping boy.

In the midst of the fray, proponents of both perspectives and political-economic leanings have turned to literature as a battlefield, a rallying cry, or a pointed, “I told you so.”

aynAt the forefront of this economic stichomythia is 1930s-50s author and philosopher Ayn Rand, “the novelist who is to blame,” according to a headline in the Business Standard in India. A symbol of extreme capitalism, Rand’s works are rife with characters like John Galt, of Atlas Shrugged, who preach Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, laissez-faire, and self-interest.

True, literature has great influence, but how does the Business Standard journalist take the connection to such a dramatic conclusion? Here’s a synopsis, from the article:

Alan Greenspan, who, first as chairman of the Council of Economic Affairs and later as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of the US, was at the center of economic decision making for two decades right up to 2006 was a great admirer of Ayn Rand and a true believer in the philosophy she espoused in Atlas Shrugged. […] When Greenspan took his oath of office at the White House for his first public policy job as the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, he had Ayn Rand standing beside him.

(Also see Kansas City StarAlan, like Atlas, shrugged)

Others, defending the free market (see Grand Junction Free Press and the San Jose Mercury News), argue that the US, not purely capitalistic, cannot name current economic conditions as the inevitable result of Rand’s vision. They take a dark view of a future that promises more government involvement. Neither is the Ayn Rand Institute silent on current affairs.

Still others find camaraderie in the pages of Atlas Shrugged. On this editorial page from the southwest Florida News-Press, the third letter down points readers to a re-creation of “Galt’s Gulch,” the capitalist sanctuary established in Atlas

A recent poll released by Zogby International informs politicians that 8.1% of Americans have read Atlas Shrugged. What does it mean? and why does it matter? Perhaps the only point is that, as a classic, Atlas remains potent; but perhaps, on a broader scale, literature dealing with the history and philosophy of the American economic system is back in vogue.

Is it any wonder that a film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged currently swirls around Hollywood?

In one sense, then, it does not matter if Rand’s writings are an example of a misguided system that has wreaked havoc in global markets or a manifesto detailing the consequences of excessive government intervention.

For whether Atlas shrugs or stoops again to the yoke, Rand’s revived prevalence in public discourse undeniably reminds us that strict boundaries between literature and society are like the “impenetrable” gateway to Galt’s Gulch – ultimately, an illusion.

What They Didn’t Say

October 26, 2008

The ability to quote is highly prized among conversationalists. Recognizing and appropriately using a subtle reference to a movie, book, play, or historical figure identifies the individual as someone who is well-read and culturally aware. 

Very few people consciously memorize a text word-for-word. Instead, familiar cues and repetition implant the words in our minds – and not always correctly. 

Sometimes a quotation is repeated incorrectly so often that it eclipses the actual quotation in popular recognition. Check out these websites, which list some oft-misquoted lines from literature:

Why does it matter? you may be thinking. Sure, it’s funny, but who cares if the road is “less traveled” or “not taken”?1 Aside from losing the subtlety of the author’s deliberate word choice, the day-to-day consequences are not immediately apparent.

But think about it in terms of translation. Sometimes the difference between two words or the use of “it” instead of “he” produces humor. Calling oneself a “jelly donut”2 was not enough to wreak havoc in international politics. However, in other situations, the results have been potentially serious. In 2007, remarks by a Syrian diplomat were mistranslated (Syrian’s comment on bomb target mistranslated: UN), causing a rush of rumors about the situation.

One of my favorite quotations comes from the 2005 film The Interpreter with Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman. The exchange is as follows:

Tobin Keller: How do you feel about him? 
Silvia Broome: I don’t care for him. 
Tobin Keller: Wouldn’t mind if he were dead? 
Silvia Broome: I wouldn’t mind if he were gone. 
Tobin Keller: Same thing. 
Silvia Broome: No, it isn’t. If I interpreted gone as dead I’d be out of a job, if dead and gone were the same thing there’d be no UN.

The creation of quotes is similarly significant to writers concerned with journalistic integrity. How much can a writer “clean up” a source’s quote before it becomes tampering? (See this article from CBC in Canada for more examples and thoughts.) 

Whether in politics, journalism, or translation, the details of words and quotations have more impact than you might think. The problem begins on a conversational level, but the practice bleeds into areas of greater significance. 

Uncovering misquotes may be, on one hand, an amusing form of comeuppance for those who seek to prove their erudition in conversation, but it also serves as a reminder of just how powerful words – the right ones and the wrong ones – can be.


1. The title of Robert Frost’s poem is actually “The Road Not Taken,” but it is often mis-referenced as “The Road Less Traveled.” The consequence is a shift in tone from questioning remembrance to celebration of independence.
2. In a 1963 speech on a visit to West Berlin, John F. Kennedy attempted to call himself a Berliner, but by adding the article “ein” in German, he actually referred to himself as a “jelly donut.” This gaffe has become a well-known cultural reference point (see Time Magazine: Wall-To-Wall Kennedy).

The Lady Lives

September 20, 2008

“The queen, my lord, is dead.”  

Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5, abruptly announced the death of Macbeth’s nefarious queen with these words spoken by Seyton.  But is she really dead?  

In the context of the play, yes.  In the context of literary and popular history, the answer is not so straightforward.  The spirit of Lady Macbeth continues to be a powerful image of ambition, subtle evil, and mental turmoil.

Allusions to Shakespeare’s Lady are widespread in popular culture and literature alike.  

For an example of the fascination of this character, check out the book Lady Macbeth by Susan Frasier King (2007). Read a review here.   

“Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t” (Act I, Scene 5) has become a catchphrase for treachery and seemingly innocuous evils.  The allusions range in topic from salary inequality in sports (see this forum thread) to book titles.  Consider the 1973 murder mystery The Serpent Under It, by Edith Taylor and The Serpent Under, published in South Africa by Rob Marsh.

Then there is the sleepwalking scene, with Lady Macbeth’s fixation on the blood she thinks she sees on her hands: “Out, damn’d spot! out, I say!” (5.1).  Apparently, she was not seeing age spots.  I might not have made that connection but for this article about skin treatments published in the Houston Chronicle.  This scene can also represent the idea of obsessive compulsive behavior, or simply seeing something that is not there.  A blog on the American Civil War battle of Bull Run uses this metaphor. 

The issue of gender is powerfully portrayed in the speech in Act 1, Scene 5 when Lady Macbeth begs the spirits “that tend on mortal thoughts” to “unsex me here” in order to allow her cruelty to run unhindered.  This article in The Harvard Crimson uses the image of Lady Macbeth to discuss the (non)role of gender in leadership.  In the U.K., to call a political figure a “Lady Macbeth” is a controversial act, at once labeling the individual strong and potentially “fiendlike”.

“The milk of human kindness” that Macbeth possesses in too great quantities (Act 1, Scene 5) has gone on to appear in dozens of places.  

It is nearly always used in a positive context, rather than that in which it originally appeared in Macbeth.  In the Albert Finney film Scrooge, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, the Ghost of Christmas Present forces Scrooge to drink it.  Charitable projects around the world have also used the phrase (see Google News). 

The list could go on.  Whether as a cautionary tale or an example of strength directed wrongly, Lady Macbeth’s brief, five-act life remains potent as a cultural phenomenon.  John Mullan of The Guardian says it well: “Subtle as well as baleful, Shakespeare’s Scottish queen is no cardboard character.”  Instead, she is a reminder that evil always leaves its mark, on the hand or on the mind, or on the heart.

[EDIT – 9/25/08] See? Once again, the age spots…

1984: the perpetual year

August 16, 2008

Allusions – subtle references to another work of literature or a cultural phenomena – are an integral literary device, showing that the author is well-read and able to make connections.  Allusions to literature are equally common in the non-literary realm.

Although you might find a different answer if you looked at allusions in religion or broad-based culture (the Bible and Shakespeare would certainly predominate), in politics, one of the most influential sources of allusion is George Orwell’s 1984.  Check out a few of these current examples:

On the education blog “Schools Matter,” Jim Horn writes with suspicion about teaching methods that involve creating “learned helplessness” among students.  He concludes, “Makes me want to snuggle up tonite with my old copy of 1984. Goodnite, Winston.”

Back in July, the Department of Education raised the ire of bloggers by creating a Truth Squad to monitor and correct invalid information on blogs.  Commentators across the blogosphere began using the term “Ministry of Truth” to describe the new position.  The Ministry of Truth, or Minitrue, as you will remember, is where Winston works in 1984, changing historical records to suit Big Brother’s official positions.

The Olympics, this year held in Communist China, have not escaped the Orwellian comparison.  See this article in the Quebec newspaper The Suburban.  Another article discusses at the age controversy in women’s gymnastics and sees an Orwellian image. 

“Orwellian,” “Big Brother-ish,” “Newspeak,” “Ministry of Truth,” and other terms based on 1984 have taken on a very specific meaning in political commentary.  …And don’t forget about the television reality show aptly named “Big Brother.”  Take a look at the following Google News searches and the many results that pop up:

Big Brother
Ministry of Truth

All of this just goes to show how powerful a literary image can be, especially in politics, where comparisons and ominous music are the norm.  I imagine that Machiavelli’s The Prince and More’s Utopia had similar power in Europe in the sixteenth century, as did Shakespeare’s tragedies in England in the seventeenth. 

In the essay “Why I Write,” Orwell talked about the meeting point of politics and literature.   “No book is genuinely free from political bias,” he said.  “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”  In his conclusion, Orwell argued that writing from a political consciousness is one of the greatest reasons for writing:

“I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a POLITICAL purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.”

We cannot know if Orwell himself would have welcomed or supported these comparisons, but we can see that politics and literature, so intertwined in Orwell’s mind, remain closely connected to this day.