Day By Day

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Mis-quote of the day

"You see things; and you say 'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say 'Why not?'"

This quote, or something much like it, is often attributed to Robert F. Kennedy, but it is not original with him. He purloined it from George Bernard Shaw who wrote the line in his satirical play "Back to Methuselah" [here]. Usually it is presented as an inspirational urging -- a spur to reform, to remake yourself and society, and that is what semi-literate reporters and biographers took it to be. That seems to be how Kennedy understood it. But in the original the line means something quite different.

In Shaw's play the line is spoken by the Serpent in the Garden of Eden (Satan or his agent) and it is part of the seduction of Eve. [The stage notes state that the serpent is to speak in a "strange seductively musical whisper."] It is thus to be understood as a seductive temptation to sin. So there is a delicious irony here. By enunciating this, his most famous quote, Bobby Kennedy, purveyor of dreams to the sixties generation, put himself in the role of the serpent, luring his innocent young listeners into disastrous fantasies with false words and visions.

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