A dying art….

Using a character or a description from a book, a poem, a play – well known or obscure – for someone or something or better still, an apt quote from the work  to stress a point or even make one is an art in itself…. albeit a dying art, I fear.

You do come across examples of it everywhere – the Economist is the best and even the names of some Hollywood movies – but the way it was used by people in common conversation is now a rare occurrence.

The reason is sadly obvious. The fondness for and the habit of an eclectic range of reading and a memory to remember most of what you read and cite are no longer considered desirable traits. I have myself seen some of the people i know try to dismiss them as “bookishness” or laughingly take pride in being unaware. The worst and the most common is the mystified look of uncomprehension.

The practice of literary references permeates European literature and culture, especially English, and quite a few other cultures around the world. In fact, any culture which possesses a sizeable corpus of  literature, which most of the populace is supposed to be familiar with, will definitely exhibit it.

The key sources begin right from the the Old Testament, which furnishes a wealth of proverbs, characterisations and other material – some of which has no doubt become cliched but some of it is still fresh and underutilised.  But I have no idea how many online repositories of quotations include it as a source.  A couple of examples:

The mark of Cain (Genesis 4)  is quite underated. It is one that could justificably by the “Superflous Man” of 19th century Russian Literature and his close cousin, the “Byronic Hero” in Continental Literature of the same epoch , as a badge that identified them from the rest of the world.

I feel I am going on a tangent here…. Coming back to the topic, another example.

“For he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land” (Exodus 2…. the later part was used as the title of a 1960s play dealing with the issues of immigration and alienation, and finds mention to in Billy Joel’s “We Did’nt Start The Fire”.

But the best example of using Biblical language – even if it is to produce humour,  is PG Wodehouse. “Mulliner’s Buck-u-Uppo” and “The Bishop’s Move” in “Meet Mr Mulliner” and “Gala Night” in “Mulliner Nights” are particularly good.

Take the first. The hero Augustine Mulliner’s first meeting with his eventual superior, the Bishop is when he rescues the worthy prelate from a dog chasing him and which the elederly churchman takes refuge from by climbing a tree. A cheery Mulliner strolls over, uses a stone to chase away the dog, terming the animal a “rude customer” but on overwrought Bishop says:

His eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated. (Deuteronomy 34:7)”

The original reference is to the Prophet Moses.

One more. In “Gala Night” , the Bishop, having largely ingested of Mulliner’s Buck-U-Uppo”, bursts in on Mulliner’s room and attempts to perform handstands on his bed. “Whoopee! How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel!” (Numbers 24;5…King James version).

Shakespeare is an other good repository. “Our revels have now ended” from the closing act of “The Tempest” I saw used by the Economist as the title of an article.  “A Daniel come to judgement” as Shylock terms the disguised Portia in “The Merchant of Venice” is from the Old Testament, coincidentally.

From my school days, I recall a disgruntled player, left out of the playing 11, remark in an undertone as the captain returned to the pavilion, dismissed for a duck:

“…..gone, and hath nothing?” (Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene 1)

As English expanded and works from other languages – not only European – began to be translated into it, the art widened.

“Denn die Toten reiten schnell (“For the dead travel fast”)” , murmurs a character in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as the Count’s “coachman” arrives to pick up Jonathan Harker. The quote is from Gottfried August Burger’s Lenore (1773).

The translation of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat…..

To be continued


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