Years ago I read a quote from a book. I liked the quote so much that memorized it. Since I no longer have a copy of the book, I cannot verify that I am quoting it correctly. But it goes something like this:
“Life is a sucking, swirling eddy of despair, bespeckled by brief glimmers of false hope in an ever-blackening universe.”
-Quote (as best I can recollect it) from “Late Night with David Letterman: The Book” (ca 1985)
Orality. I tried to verify the above quote by going to the Internet. That is usually a good way to verify most quotes, or at least find some opinions about attribution. I wanted to verify the wording, and I wanted to know who first said it. After all, the book I read it in may not be the original source.
The curious thing was that I could not find any good information on the Web. The closest one I found was actually on a comment list on a post:
The human condition is a swirling, sucking eddy of despair – filled with small moments of false hope, erroneous assumptions and tuxedoed clowns, in an ever-blackening universe. (https://bukowskiforum.com/threads/a-minor-tiff.4798/)
Sadly, that quote gave no source information. There is also a forum seeking to determine the source: https://ask.metafilter.com/8604/Find-This-Quote
They worded the quote as:
“Life is just a swirling, sucking whirlpool of despair, filled with brief flashes of false hope, in an ever-blackening universe.”
The one making the query said that he or she first saw the quote in a college newspaper ad in 1982. Others in the forum did not know who first came up with the quote. Their versions varied, like
“Life is a swirling eddy of despair in an ever blackening universe”
There are a number of variations on the Internet, but no clear original form. I would argue that I probably come close to the original form. First, in a literary (non-oral) society, one might expect the quote to shorten and its words to simplify. So “bespeckled by brief glimmers” can become “occasional glimpses” or ‘brief flashes,” or a whole phrase disappearing.
There is still a question. One individual above said he (or she) saw it in 1982. But since the book I quoted came out in 1985 and was basically a compilation of stuff from the show from 1983 until the book was finalized. It does make me wonder if the 1982 date listed above was incorrect. After all, an easy place for a quote to enter a culture orally (without being written down) would be on a daily/nightly TV show.
Key here, however, is that all of the versions still stay true to the basic quote.
As I have noted elsewhere, Just because we live in a literary society does not mean that oral transmission does not happen… it just means that oral transmission is just sloppier.
Theology. A more important question than attribution is “Why do people (regardless of its exact form) remember this quote? I think that it is because people believe it is false. They think it expresses a dismal attitude that the quoter does not actually believe in. The one who quotes it is, in fact, one who believes that the hope is not false but real. I am reminded about a quote of Moltmann that I have used before:
Hope alone is to be called ‘realistic’, because it alone takes seriously the possibilities with which all reality is fraught. It does not take things as they happen to stand or to lie, but as progressing, moving things with possibilities of change. Only as long as the world and the people in it are in a fragmented and experimental state which is not yet resolved, is there any sense in earthly hopes. The latter anticipate what is possible to reality, historic and moving as it is, and use their influence to decide the process of history. Thus hopes and anticipation of the future are not a transfiguring glow superimposed upon a darkened existence, but are realistic ways of perceiving the scope of our real possibilities, and as such they set everything in motion and keep it in a state of change.
Exegetical. Some people believe that not knowing the context or the author is unimportant to the meaning. The words are just words, and we provide the meaning(s) as the reader(s). There can be cases where this is true. However, the quote appears to need a context. After all, if it was created by a writer of the Late Night With David Letterman Show, then it appears clear that it is meant to be cynical humor, and the hyperbolic language makes sense. But since we don’t know the source, it is possible that the language is meant to be taken without irony or humor.
It is the same problem that one gets with SMS (text) messages. They come without non-verbal cues… so one really needs to have a firm sense of the context and the person writing it to know how to interpret it.