Sunday, June 14, 2009

Any idiot can misattribute a quote

Today in a bookstore I saw a greeting-card for sale emblazoned with a quote from Chekhov: "Any idiot can face a crisis--it's the day-to-day living that wears you out." I think I ran across this quote a few weeks ago, too (can't remember where) and was of course struck by its utter Chekhovishness. The truth, the humanity of it. The scorn for the "idiots" who think that our true personalities are revealed only in extreme situations, rather than by the routine ways each of us spend our lives; mixed with a tender, if wry, sympathy for the problems of the "little man."

So when I got home I looked it up--to find out from what play or story or essay it derived. And I couldn't find a source for it at all.

So does this mean that the quote is just too good to be true? Too Chekhovian to be genuine Chekhov? Something that some other clever person once dreamed up, said "Hey! That sounds like Chekhov!" and pretended that it was Chekhov's own words?

I would love to know what the story is with this quote. Sometimes the history of how something gets falsely attributed--and how the lie gets perpetuated--is even more interesting than the quote itself.

My quest for the source of this quote did enable me to spend some quality time with the Wikiquote page on Chekhov--always a valuable undertaking. Two of the quotes there absolutely broke my heart: "I would like to be a free artist and nothing else, and I regret God has not given me the strength to be one" and "Lermontov died at age twenty-eight and wrote more than have you and I put together. Talent is recognizable not only by quality, but also by the quantity it yields." These come from letters he wrote in the late 1880s--by the time he died in 1904, had he changed his beliefs, or did he go to his too-early grave convinced that his output was too meager to qualify him for artistic greatness, still doubting his own ability?

On the other hand, I--who have still never written a one-act play that I consider to be any good--found this quote surprisingly heartening: "In one-act pieces there should be only rubbish—that is their strength. "


C Beth said...

Hullo. Found your blog when looking for a source for this quote, as well. I'm a nursing student, and have been asked to write an essay comparing management of chronic versus acute disease...and the "Any idiot..." quote came to mind. (Not meaning to be ungenerous to those who face a sudden crisis of health, but let's face it - there is more glamour in being a doc for the "suddenly, briefly ill" than for the "always and forever ill.") Is it possible that the best search-engine in the world will fail to turn up a real source for this phrase? Did someone else - an unknown putz - out-Chekhov Chekhov? Enjoyed your post. I will check back in teh future, I'm sure.

Marissa said...

Thanks for visiting, C. Beth! This faux-Chekhov thing is definitely mysterious. I just remembered that the Freakonomics blog sometimes finds the sources of quotations that readers send in--maybe we should submit it there?

haaseblume said...

It's from "The Bet."

Marissa Skudlarek said...

Is it? I just read "The Bet" (good little fable, by the way) and can't find any line that resemble the quote above, even allowing for the vagaries of translation.

Marissa Skudlarek said...

UPDATE: this same "Chekhov" quote stymied Professor Corey Robin, who used it in the lede of his article for the Chronicle of Higher Education about wrongly attributed quotations.

In the comments section, Garson O'Toole, the Quote Investigator, writes that he thinks he may have found the source and the reason for the misattribution: it's a line from one of Clifford Odets' '50s screenplays, and a textbook once cited it to show that Odets and Chekhov had similar worldviews. People then got confused and thought that the line actually came from Chekhov.

But then, WHICH Odets screenplay does it come from? The Quote Investigator doesn't know, and the mystery continues...

Mike said...

I have always been puzzled by that quote but I just finished biography about Chekhov and couldn't help wondering if he came up with that because of how hard day-to-today life was for him and many others back in that day. He had a lot of health and relationship problems! I actually just wrote this on my facebook page the other day:

Anton Chekhov was a Russian playwright and short story writer, who is considered to be among the greatest writers of short fiction in history. In Chekhov's day (1860-1904) it seemed like almost everyone was battling sickness and/or poverty. Day-to-day living was not easy. The good news is that we are much healthier and wealthier because of medicine, science and even government. The bad news is that there are still too many facing sickness and poverty every day. "Any idiot can face a crisis--it's day to day living that wears you out." ~ Chekhov