Saturday, 3 February 2018

Be Yourselves

I was down in the town centre doing a bit of shopping and, as is my habit, looking at the same time for interesting bits of wall and what-have-you to photograph. The tiny inscription above caught my eye, written on the remains of a peeled-off poster stuck on a street utility box: "Be yourself, everybody else is taken". It made me laugh, but something about its concision made me suspect it was, in fact, a well-worn bit of folksy wisdom lifted out of some Little book of Empowerment, along with "tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life", "life is not a dress rehearsal", and the like. After all, as a general rule, very few genuinely original or witty folk lay their aphorisms before the public in such a discreet and inefficiently lo-tech way. You might say it did work for Martin Luther, but reading material was probably scarcer back then. Plus he had 95 theses, not just the one.

It turns out that I was right – unsurprisingly, as there is a certain vein of sound-bite, fun-sized, philosophical simpering which always says, "copycat"  – but, as is so often the case with this stuff, the original source of the sentiment proves impossible to identify. There's a good discussion of that here, if you care about that sort of thing. Which I do: it's always salutary to chase down a quotation to its original source – if necessary in its original language – and in particular to check out its context. You don't want to end up using a quote from Mein Kampf, just because you've never heard of this Hitler guy, and it sounds suitably motivational.

Hunting down quotes can be fun, like miniature adventures in scholarship. It is also almost always instructive. In one of my earliest attempts at a book-length sequence of photographs, I made extensive use of what seemed like suitable quotations to break it up a bit. I liked the idea of texts being used in a visual book in the way illustrations are used in regular, text-heavy books. One of these was a quotation from Goethe I had come across in John Berger's essay on the photographer August Sander: "There is a tender empiricism that makes itself so inwardly identical with the object that it thereby becomes true theory". Well, if you say so, Johann! Now, in fact, Berger is actually citing the Frankfurt School writer and critic Walter Benjamin who is also writing about Sander, and only incidentally quoting Goethe. But Berger doesn't identify his source, so I first had to identify the Benjamin essay: after a bit of hunting, it turned out to be his Kleine Geschichte der Photographie. OK! But Benjamin in turn fails to identify the source of his Goethe quotation. Doh! After much burrowing around in Goethe's work, it eventually turned out to be one of his collected Maximen und Reflexionen, which itself had apparently been extracted from his own novel Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre:
Es gibt eine zarte Empirie, die sich mit dem Gegenstand innigst identisch macht, und dadurch zur eigentlichen Theorie wird.(Maximen und Reflexionen 509)
Phew. I suppose a more thorough scholar might have (may already have) gone on to trace Goethe's source, and so on, receding into classical antiquity, but that was good enough for me; at least I knew who and what I was really quoting, where it came from, and what its context was. As I say, I care about this sort of thing.

To return to that little bit of graffiti, however. I like the way it's phrased but, honestly, "be yourself" has been recognised as sententious nonsense since at least Shakespeare's time, when he put "To thine own self be true" into the mouth of that pompous old twit Polonius in Hamlet. Again, context is crucial: how many times have you seen Polonius quoted as if this were Old Bill hisself preachin' eternal troof unto the world? Lord, what fools these mortals be!

Then I saw the latest Wondermark cartoon:

Now there's an original and witty person doing it the right way!


Anonymous said...


if I hear aphorisms, Georg Friedrich Lichtenberg comes to my mind. I believe he can be considered as the grandmaster of aphorisms in the German-speaking world. There's a book with his most remarkable aphorisms which is called, well, Aphorismen. According to Wikipedia, Penguin books has an English translation, but I don't know whether he is broadly known in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Best, Thomas

Anonymous said...

A correction to my previous comment: Mr. Lichtenberg's middle name was Christoph, not Friedrich.

Martyn Cornell said...

All of ten years ago now, I chased a particular quote down the footnotes, only for it to vanish into the undergrowth after six different books and 200 years - you can read about it here

Was the conversation about errors in Darkest Hour on your blog? Can’t remember .... anyway, if you haven’t seen it, Gary Oldman is very good, but one complaint is that his Churchill is heard saying to someone “lead on, Macduff’, whereas as any fule kno, and Churchill certainly would have, the real quote is ...

Mike C. said...


No, that was Mr. Leeke's Facebook posting. And I still maintain that "Lead on, Macduff!" was a knowingly "wrong but amusing" catchphrase of the pre-war period, of precisely the sort Churchill would have used, and which I have heard used by elderly upper-middle-class types of considerably greater erudition than either of us!


Mike C. said...


Sorry, just found your comments lurking in the Spam folder for some reason. Yes, Lichtenberg is reasonably well known (that is to say, hardly at all...). There was a nice compilation of his aphorisms in the "Cape Editions" series back in the 1970s which I have. That series was exemplary in its Euro-friendly scope -- it included selections of poems by the likes of Trakl and Baudelaire, as well as essays by Roland Barthes, Levi-Strauss, and many more. I tried to collect the whole set, but quite a few were very elusive!