A WORD IN THE HAND: INTERESTING
Interest in Kennedy eclipsed the nonsense behind a curse
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
Eclipse chasing is not necessarily any odder a hobby than strapping a lawnmower engine to your back and jumping off a mountain to try and win the Icarus Trophy, as a bunch of amateur flight enthusiasts did in SA recently.
But if you ask me there is something singularly strange about spending one’s life (and life savings) travelling the world to watch celestial bodies hide themselves coyly away for a bit before popping out again as if to say “fooled you!” and carrying on as usual.
Those who chase moon shadows around the globe are also known as umbraphiles, coronaphiles, eclipsoholics and ecliptomaniacs. They were out in full force for last week’s lunar eclipse.I watched it too. It was awesome and amazing and all that, but I still don’t really get why some folks devote their lives to this arduous pursuit instead of taking up another hobby that is just as interesting but easier to achieve, such as collecting hedgehog quills or keeping a yoghurt diary.Having given it a lot of thought, I think eclipse chasers chase eclipses not only because an eclipse is interesting to watch, but because they, like all of us, get a bit tired of the daily grind.
The sun goes up and the sun goes down and the moon waxes and the moon wanes, and then they both do the same thing all over again ad infinitum.
So I do sort of understand the thrill of seeing the sun or moon do something different for a change. It makes life seem more interesting, and we all want to live in interesting times.
If I had said that last bit out loud in a crowded room I’d probably be drowned out right now by a chorus of voices telling me that “may you live in interesting times” is actually an ancient Chinese curse.
As a matter of fact, it isn’t.
“May you live in interesting times” is not Chinese, it’s not ancient and it might not even be a curse.
Cursed by a bit of nonsense
Two epistemologically responsible organisations, the Phrase Finder and the Quote Investigator, have conducted lengthy research into this. The Quote Investigator, by the way, has a wonderful website on which you can get lost finding out who really didn’t say what.
Anyway, their investigations found the earliest reference to this supposedly ancient saying in a 1936 speech by a British diplomat called Austen Chamberlain, who said: “It is not so long ago that a member of the Diplomatic Body in London, who had spent some years of his service in China, told me that there was a Chinese curse which took the form of saying, ‘May you live in interesting times’. There is no doubt that the curse has fallen on us. We move from one crisis to another. We suffer one disturbance and shock after another.”Apart from Austen’s speech being one that could apply to any nation at any time, further research by both Western and Asian archivists found no trace of any such curse or saying in any documented part of Chinese history.The phrase, however, was a catchy one and it spread like peanut butter. Over the next couple of decades it was employed in assorted forms by various people, including Albert Camus and Arthur C Clarke.
Then, in 1966, Robert Kennedy gave a speech in which he said: “There is a Chinese curse which says ‘May he live in interesting times’. Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind.”
Creative indeed. Once a Kennedy said it, the bit of nonsense made up in the 1930s by a minor British diplomat caught on like Velcro and refused to let go.Hillary Rodham Clinton referred to it in her 2003 White House memoir, Living History, in which she wrote “There’s an old Chinese curse, ‘May you live in interesting times,’ that became a running joke in our family. Bill and I would ask each other, ‘Well, are you having an interesting time yet?’”
Mrs HR Clinton had no doubt read all Senator RF Kennedy’s speeches so you can’t blame her for ingesting his words, particularly as the speech in which he invoked the so-called curse is widely regarded to be his finest oration. It was delivered at the University of Cape Town on June 6 1966, and came to be known as his “Ripple of Hope” speech.
I did not know this before I started looking into the question of interesting times. It was like the moon coming out after an eclipse. Well, no, it wasn’t really like that, but it was still interesting.