Look at us! Here we are reading and writing blogs, probably ephemeral words read today and perhaps forgotten tomorrow. But there are some words that have been written that will last forever, or have anyway already lasted over centuries, words that have often become so much part of our discourse we consider them clichés, words like the Mona Lisa, Leonardo’s famous painting, so familiar a face that it is almost impossible to see it objectively, words that we almost don’t hear any longer as a quote. Why have these words lasted?
Many of these famous words, though not all, come at the beginnings of novels: There is the famous beginning of Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness."
There is the beginning of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Or Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."
All these statements about life are given with comforting authority: Here is wisdom, we think, here is something to hold onto, here is a universal truth. At the same time these statements arouse questions in our minds: Was it the best of times? What time is he writing about, we wonder at the start of the book; how is the family unhappy, we want to know, and, of course, who will the rich bachelor be? Who the bride? In other words, these beginnings intrigue us by suggesting what is up ahead. They make us want to read on.
By giving us a blanket statement we are also likely to question it, to ponder its value in our lives. Am I living in the best or the worst of times? Was the French Revolution really the best or the worst of times? And is a happy family always happy in the same way?
Also, you may notice that these universal statements are filled with opposites: Best is juxtaposed with worst; happiness with unhappiness; the bachelor with the bride. We have in a way in these simple words all the conflictual nature of life: the good and the bad; happiness and unhappiness; man and woman.
But some of the most famous words in our language do not come at the start of a novel: They are embedded within a great work (and obviously because of the nature of this essay I can only mention a few).
Who does not know Shakespeare’s famous call to battle, from Henry V, words that however many times we hear them, make a shiver run down the spine, evoking such a strong emotion in us even today?
“This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks/
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."
Why do these words provoke such a strong emotion? Is it because they suggest what we would love to believe, that there are strong bonds between human beings, the bonds that make us, for better or for worse, willing to enter even into death for the sake of a cause we believe in?
Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including the recent Dreaming for Freud. Cracks
by Sheila KohlerOther Pressbuy nowBecoming Jane Eyre: A Novel (Penguin Original)
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