A Luminous Halo

"Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." --Virginia Woolf

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Location: Springfield, Massachusetts, United States

Smith ’69, Purdue ’75. Anarchist; agnostic. Writer. Steward of the Pascal Emory house, an 1871 Second-Empire Victorian; of Sylvie, a 1974 Mercedes-Benz 450SL; and of Taz, a purebred Cockador who sets the standard for her breed. Happy enough for the present in Massachusetts, but always looking East.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Thinking is Hard. No, Thinking Is Easy!

From an email newsletter I received recently (from one of those motivational writers): "Thinking is easy, acting is difficult, and to put one's thoughts into action is the most difficult thing in the world." - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Nice sentiment. Goethe never said it, though. Well, Goethe wrote in German, so even if he had said it, he wouldn't have said it quite like that. The German from which the above quote was taken is: "Denken ist leicht, handeln ist schwierig. Zu handeln wie man denkt ist das aller schwierigste." But Goethe never wrote that. What he did write (in 7. Buch 9. Kapitel: Lehrbrief of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-1796; Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship) is: "Handeln ist leicht, Denken schwer; nach dem Gedanken handeln unbequem." That translates to "Action is easy, thinking hard; acting according to the mind uncomfortable." Pretty big difference!

It's always been necessary to take what one hears or reads with a grain of salt. Just because somebody says something in print, doesn't mean it's accurate. But now with the World Wide Web, misinformation has become an epidemic. It's just so easy to spread information around--and most people are lax at fact-checking. The original (inaccurate) "Goethe" quote has been widely reproduced on quotations sites. Robert Ringer undoubtedly picked it up someplace like that and used it to preface one of his disquisitions. Will Bonner published it in his "Early to Rise" newsletter, and now thousands more people are doubtless misattributing it.

Not too long ago, I corrected a maverick Wikipedia entry on Jean-Paul Sartre that read: "Sartre had 5 brothers and sisters and was adopted and lived in Greenland." Someone else had to correct the photo over the caption, "Sartre pondering the existential crisis best embodied in Nausea," which showed Kermit the Frog in a contemplative pose. (I guess Sartre is a prime target for this kind of hanky-panky.)

When I was considering names a year ago for a newspaper column I was proposing (which column morphed into this blog), I thought to use a fragment of a quotation from Virginia Woolf. One quotation I had frequently seen was, "For most of history, Anonymous was a woman." That's appropriate, I thought. I'll sign it "Anonymous," and follow my signature with that quote. But when I looked it up (in A Room of One's Own), I discovered that Woolf in fact had said, "Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman." In both the Goethe and the Woolf example, the reworded quotes sound more quotable. And if they sound good and inspire people, what's the big deal? I guess I'm one of those twentieth-century dinosaurs with foolishly outdated standards. In the case of my column, I kept looking, and settled on "A Luminous Halo." I like it better, anyway.

It's a new world out there. A world with more people, more information, more reliance on programming and profiling; correspondingly less ability to think for oneself and to analyze with sophistication. A world in which thinking--which used to be hard--is now easy! Perhaps the slapdash, the cookie-cutter, the lockstep are evolutionary necessities. Who the hell was Goethe, anyway?

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