Tuesday, January 6, 2015
By MICHAEL WALSH
Like most folk, I'd heard the phrase "may you live in interesting times" described as "an ancient Chinese curse." That sounded right, and for years I never questioned its source.
Though I've no idea when or where I first heard it, I have often quoted it to others. Because it sounds right, no one ever questioned my source.
Recently, I've become deeply suspicious about such received wisdom. Since Google Search makes it so easy to seek answers, I asked about it, and discovered (in the words of University of Albany information science professor Stephen E. DeLong) "that it may be neither ancient, nor Chinese, nor a curse."
A dogged researcher, DeLong could find no credible evidence of the quote being Chinese. Robert Kennedy had said so — "There is a Chinese curse which says, 'May he live in interesting times.'" — in a widely reported 1966 speech. But Kennedy had not offered the source of his insight, and nobody bothered to ask him about it.
Intrigued, DeLong was determined to establish the provenance of the perplexing proverb. His two-year-long quest took him to page 137 of the April, 1950, issue of Astounding Science Fiction, a pulp magazine.
Using his Duncan H. Munro pseudonym, Eric Frank Russell had contributed a story called U-Turn, in which the protagonist says "For centuries the Chinese used an ancient curse: 'May you live in interesting times!'" He then goes on to add "It isn't a curse any more. It's a blessing."
So, the "ancient" curse goes back just 65 years, and appears to have been the invention of an English author with a gift for turning a memorable phrase. Russell, who was born on this day (January 6) in 1905, was among the first generation of popular science-fiction writers, and his work demonstrated a wry sense of humour throughout.
His creation of the famous "Chinese curse" — a variation on the old "Confucius say . . ." jokes of the 1950s — may be his most lasting cultural legacy.
For Reeling Back, of course, the times remain interesting. My ten most recent postings were:
SHOOT TO KILL — This 1988 pursuit thriller, in which Sidney Poitier plays an FBI agent involved in a shootout aboard a B.C. Ferry, was the result of Ottawa-born director Roger Spottiswoode's first working visit to Vancouver. (Posted January 5)
HEAVEN — An Oscar winner for her performance in 1977's Annie Hall, Diane Keaton may have intended this documentary feature, her debut as a movie director, as a message to her former co-star and paramour Woody Allen. (Posted January 5)
THE LORD OF THE RINGS — Before director Peter Jackson took on the task of producing a three-film live-action recreation of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy trilogy, the daring animator Ralph Bakshi packaged its first two volumes into this ambitious 1978 cartoon feature. (Posted January 3)
BATTLESTAR GALACTICA — The original version of the critically acclaimed sci-fi epic was a 1978 TV series, a project that was considered so special that its pilot episode was recut for release internationally as a theatrical feature film. (Posted January 3)
SOUTH OF WAWA — A late entry into the cycle of "Great Canadian loser" films, director Robert Boyd's 1992 drama was made the same year that the United Nations declared Canada the most liveable place in the world. (Posted January 1)
WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING — A romantic comedy that plays out over the winter holidays in Chicago, this beguiling 1995 feature was Sandra Bullock's second starring role, and the one that confirmed her status as the reigning American sweetheart. (Posted January 1)
HAVANA — With the goal of "normalized" relations with Cuba on the U.S. president's agenda for 2015, director Sydney Pollack's 1990 feature about the island nation's 1958 revolution becomes news again. The picture offers Robert Redford and Lena Olin as lovers caught up in historic events. (Posted December 23)
CALIGULA — Christian fundamentalists took to the streets to protest the opening of this 1981 historical epic, Italian director Tinto Brass's sexually explicit recreation of the reign of Rome's most notorious emperor. (Posted December 25)
THE LOST BOYS — Director Joel Schumacher's 1987 feature wasn't the first vampire comedy, but it was the first to connect with youth culture. It had the added distinction of offering teen audiences the first pairing of the two Coreys, Haim and Feldman. (Posted December 23)
SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS — On the 50th anniversary of the first Disney princess, guest critic Pauline Walsh (my 10-and-a-half-year-old daughter) provided a fresh perspective on the 1937 cartoon classic. (Posted December 21)