Sidebar: Get a(n interesting) Life!

[In June 1996, I posted a piece called "May you live in Interneting times!" It described my presentations to several large groups of people in the Albany, NY, area who wanted to learn what the Web had to offer their businesses or organizations and whether they should develop a Web "presence." Remember, this was 1996, so e-commerce and e-business were not buzz words yet. Most business people were simply thinking brochureware, if they were thinking about the Web at all. The surprising result of doing searches on my prospective audiences was that every individual, or at least the businesses or organizations that they represented, was already present on the Web in some fashion. Hence the notion of "Interneting times," which I adapted from the well-known ancient Chinese curse. Of course, when I tried to document its origin, I found that it may be neither ancient nor Chinese nor a curse. So I added a Sidebar describing that detective story. In May 1998, when the Sidebar had become more than twice as long as the original piece, I accepted that it had taken on a life of its own. Here it is in its current incarnation.]

If we really want to be fully human, computer technology offers us extraordinary power to get work done and share our work with humanity. It offers unprecedented ability to collaborate with the other people of the planet rather than fighting with them.
Ralph Lombreglia in
Atlantic Unbound

Despite its high visibility, I have not been able to authenticate "May you live in interesting times" as an ancient Chinese curse. Digital's search engine AltaVista has indexed over 1500 Web sites that mention the phrase. The ones that I looked at stated the phrase's origin as a simple fact, with no attribution. One of them, an electronic magazine called Biased Journalism, indicated that the longer form -- with the added phrase "and attract the attention of important people" -- had been posted on Usenet, a collection of subject-specific bulletin boards or "Newsgroups" on the Internet.

I contacted Tereze Glück, author of May You Live in Interesting Times, a collection of short stories published in 1995 by the University of Iowa Press. She did not recall where she first heard the expression, but thought it was Chinese and certainly not Jewish, as a friend insisted to her.

I also sent e-mail messages to the authors of a few of the Web sites. All of them responded but none had a citable source, although one person thought an old Doonesbury strip in the mid-1970s had used the phrase. That same person suggested checking the Newsgroup called "alt.quotations," so I posted a query there.

There are no guarantees on Usenet, because you never know if anyone will look at your posting. But over the next few days five people responded: two from the United States and one each from Canada, Germany, and Norway. One U.S. respondent thought there was a third part to the curse, "and may all your dreams come true," but he had no source. The other U.S. respondent, apparently a scholar of Chinese linguistic usage, was adamant that the curse is not of Chinese origin; he posted a reply to me and then a reply to one of my other respondents to be sure that everyone got the point.

The person from Germany referred me to the British science fiction writer Terry Pratchett, author of the novel Interesting Times. Although he gave me an erroneous e-mail address for Mr. Pratchett, I was able to track down the correct one (with AltaVista, of course) and learned from Mr. Pratchett that indeed his novel was set in "a 'mythic' version of China," but that "my gut feeling is that [the curse] was made up comparatively recently." And the respondent from Norway cited a speech by Robert F. Kennedy in Cape Town, South Africa, on June 7, 1966, in which he quoted the "Chinese curse."

The most helpful news came from Eben Watt in Ottawa. He responded to the Newsgroup that he had a "book of insults" in which two similar entries appeared, one attributed to Confucius -- "May you be born in an important time" -- and the other an "old Scottish curse" --"May you live in interesting times." Scottish? That was new!

I sent Mr. Watt an e-mail asking for a specific citation, and he replied that it was The Book of Insults by Nancy McPhee (St. Martin's Press, 1978). I checked the electronic catalog of the University at Albany library, and the book was there, so at about 10:30 a.m. I sent him this message:

From the time I first checked alt.quotations this morning through my message to you, your reply, and finding this citation in *my* library (about 150 yards from where I sit) must have been less than an hour! . . . Isn't technology wonderful?

To which Mr. Watt replied barely two hours later:

Indeed, who'd have thunk it? That some day a fellow in Ottawa might help out a stranger in Albany, NY(?) as though it were the most natural and easy thing to do - which some might argue it is, now.

Natural and easy indeed!

And that is where matters rest in mid-June 1996. Nearly twenty years ago Nancy McPhee asserted that the curse was really Scottish, not Chinese, and that it was merely old, not ancient. But she gave no source, and St. Martin's Press has no record of her whereabouts. If you know a source, please contact me. Say, by e-mail?

Or, more to the point, that is where matters rested until November 26, 1996, when I received an e-mail message (what else?) from Sam Hobbs, an engineer from Atlanta, who not only read this Sidebar but then found five "Nancy McPhees" in Four11, another people-finder. After striking out at St. Martin's and in long-ago book reviews, it did not occur to me to continue searching, all of the foregoing notwithstanding! So as a self-proclaimed The-Web-has-all-the-information disciple, I could not have felt sillier when his message arrived!!

But, recovering quickly, I started phoning down the list and reached:

  • A man who didn't want to be bothered: "No."
  • A Nancy who was mildly amused, but "No," it was not she.
  • An answering machine of a Nancy who is a realtor.
  • A man who listened with interest and informed me that the McPhees came from Scotland (hmmmm..."an old Scottish curse") to Canada and then to the United States. But, "No."
  • A Nancy who is not the Nancy, but her husband is John McPhee -- not the John McPhee, but her husband owns all of his books, so to keep up she owns her book. And less than 15 seconds later, this Nancy was graciously reading to me from the dust jacket of her copy of The Book of Insults about the Nancy: graduate of Trinity College, University of Toronto; mother of three school-age children; active as a political commentator and in broadcast television. Obviously she would know an insult when she heard one!
So off I went to the home page of the University of Toronto and the office of Development and University Relations, to whom I dispatched an e-mail in the hope someone would help. I did not relish the prospect of starting down the list of 29 McPhees in Toronto who turned up on Canada411. But once again, like Eben Watt's e-mail from Ottawa, "help" was the operative word! Kerry Dean of the U of T responded on November 27 that she was
Happy to help. Nancy McPhee is indeed a Trinity grad, and she even has an e-mail address. I am about to forward your message to her, so she can look up your Web page and respond to you.

"Stay tuned. . . .," I typed. But wait a minute. I gave up before without even realizing it. Although I searched extensively in June with AltaVista and a couple of other engines, I have another tool available now that I didn't have then, WebSeeker, a metasearcher that queries more than 20 engines and sorts the results. OK, one last shot. . . .

Now I know where Nancy McPhee is! It was the youngest of those three no-longer-school-age children who gave it away, a few levels down in her home page. But I won't tell for now. (I wonder if Fermat felt this same faintly-conspiratorial tingle when he wrote the marginal note about his "last theorem.") Please respond, Nancy. The world -- well, a few of us anyway -- wants to know about the Scottish origin of "May you live in interesting times."

It is now nearly a year later -- November 1997.

Leaving out the details of the hunt (which would only interest another Web ferret like me), Nancy McPhee indeed replied by e-mail to my importuning:

My "Insults" books were a long time ago, and my source material languishes in some long-buried file box. . . . I fear the whole thing is going to be anticlimactic, since I rather doubt I can shed much light on your query about "interesting" or "important" times. But I'll do what I can.

But she was off to sunnier climes for the winter, and I heard nothing more. So there it rested again, until late May 1997, when the above-mentioned Tereze Glück e-mailed me that she had

a kind of dim memory -- maybe it's more of a theory than a memory, which is this: that I first heard the curse in one of those old Sidney Greenstreet movies -- if not MALTESE FALCON, then maybe THREE STRANGERS. And Sidney Greenstreet recalls it and identifies it as a Chinese curse. For some reason, I keep HEARING it in his voice. . . .

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Ah, ha. The Web ferret kicked into action and found synopses of both movies by Ken Yousten of Blacksburg, VA, at The Internet Movie Database Ltd. His summary for "Three Strangers" certainly sounded promising:

According to a legend, if three strangers gather before an idol of Kwan Yin (the Chinese goddess of fortune and destiny) on the night of the Chinese New Year and make a common wish, Kwan Yin will open her eyes and her heart and grant the wish. In London 1938 on the Chinese New Year, Crystal Shackleford has such an idol and decides to put the legend to the test. She picks two random strangers off the street, and puts the proposition to them. They decide that an ideal wish would be for a sweepstakes ticket they buy equal shares in to be a winner. After all, everyone needs money and a pot is very easy to divide equally, right?

Ken Yousten responded to my e-mail with enthusiasm and helpfulness beyond my expectations, but alas without the hoped-for "answer":

I have both MALTESE FALCON and THREE STRANGERS on tape and ran through them (fast-forwarding to Sydney Greenstreet's scenes) and didn't hear the curse. I don't specifically remember it in any other of his movies, but it certainly wouldn't surprise me if it was, and I just forgot. He was type-cast as the kind of guy who would say that. :)

dejanews.gif - 5.5 K So, once more we're back to Nancy McPhee and her Scottish attribution. Her daughter's (ooops) Web site mentioned being in graduate school this fall, even naming the institution. But nothing showed up to help, even though I occasionally checked Deja News for postings to her previous favorite topics. Then a couple of weeks ago she turned up in one of them. OK, here are those Fermat-like sensations again. But will she help me importune Mom?

It is now May 1998. Every time I think the search has hit a dead end, something new materializes. In late December 1997, I received an e-mail from Mauricio Díaz of Colombia, who had found this Web page and offered the following:

I remember a book from Carl G. Jung (The Secret of the Golden Flower - that is the translation of the title in Spanish). In the foreword to that book, which is about Chinese alchemy, Mr. Jung quotes the same curse and makes some interesting reflections about it. Maybe you can find the book to go deeper in your search.

Profound, if true, since the publication date turned out to be 1931. That would predate the previous earliest reference -- Robert Kennedy's speech in Cape Town -- by 35 years! Of course, things are never as simple as they appear. When I retrieved the book from the University at Albany Library, I found that the German original would have contained Richard Wilhelm's translation from Chinese of The Secret of the Golden Flower: A Chinese Book of Life plus his explanatory and historical text, Jung's commentary on that translation, and a memorial speech delivered by Jung in 1930 after Wilhelm's death. What I had in hand was the English translation of all this, which I then went through several times. Three times for Jung's commentary, to be precise. No curse.

It seemed like a good time for some more importuning. So I sent an e-mail reply: Did Sr. Díaz still have the Spanish version in which he saw this discussion? Could mention of the curse have been in a translator's note or some other commentary that was not in the English edition? No response.

Perhaps more importantly, although Jung did write about alchemy, Golden Flower really does not touch on the subject very much, if at all. So I sent e-mail to several Jung discussion groups and listservs, including the Newsgroup alt.psychology.jung, asking if any devotees knew of another work in which he discussed the curse. Nothing.

Dead end.

Then, on March 31, 1998, Keith Henson, who was cited in Biased Journalism as the source of the second phrase in the longer forms of the curse -- "and attract the attention of important people" -- sent me a message:

I happened to find a very early reference to the "curse" in a collection of stories by Eric Frank Russell, Somewhere a Voice, Penguin Books, 1968, a reprint from Denis Dobson Ltd, 1965, which in turn is a reprint from U-Turn, a story in Astounding Science Fiction, April, 1950. . . .

So, the "curse" goes back to at least 1950. This use also explains why it is so well known in the SF community--Russell was very well thought of as an author. It is just possible that this is the origin of this saying, though since Russell is long dead, it might be hard to show.

A day or two later, there I was in Special Collections at the University Library looking at "U-Turn" by Duncan H. Munro, a pseudonym for Eric Frank Russell. Mind you, I wasn't simply looking at a microform image or even a bound volume. I was holding the original, unbound April 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction in my hand. It had been recently donated in that state. Astounding. (Click on the image to the right to see it in all its glory.)

As for the curse itself, it is on page 137. The main character of "U-Turn," Mason, has opted for assisted suicide to escape a regimented life in which Venus and Mars are civilized, life on the Moon is spent safely underground, and wild animals in Earth's jungles are as harmless as if they were artificial. We learn at the end of the story that Mason has correctly surmised that the death chamber to which he voluntarily goes is actually a Star Trek-like transporter which will irreversibly send him where he really wants to go -- to the current human frontier, Callisto, one of the moons of Jupiter -- assuming he is among the small fraction of those who survive the dissociation and reassociation process of the device. But before that, while one of the bureaucrats processes his "death wish," Mason complains about the order, regulation, and control under which everyone is forced to live:

For centuries the Chinese used an ancient curse: "May you live in interesting times!" It isn't a curse any more. It's a blessing. We're scientific and civilized. We've got so many rights and liberties and freedoms that one can yearn for chains for the sheer pleasure of busting them and shaking them off. Reckon life would be more livable if there were any chains left to bust.

So now the question is, did Russell simply invent the curse in telling the story, or was he perhaps a devotee of Jung, in whose writings he might have found a still-earlier reference? Stay tuned.

Original posting: June 12, 1996
Latest revision: May 5, 1998

Copyright © 1996-98 by Stephen E. DeLong.