You don’t need to strain your eyes nor ears very hard to be inculcated with a torrent of TED talkers and similarly shiny idiots, all espousing the seductive notion that what you’re missing from your life and your career is something called “passion” or “love” for what you do. Your heart is the truest voice in the world, we’re told. Just look at all the successful people out there, they all love what they do.
This is not only factually incorrect, the cause and effect between success and passion being conflated, it’s a particularly dangerous notion on several scores. To demonstrate this trompe l’oeil and its destructive power, I’ll take some support from a few seemingly innocuous “modernised” scripts from popular culture.
I. In My Fair Lady, the 1950’s reinterpretation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, a few changes from the original make all the difference in the world. Looking at the 20th century adaption,i we find that the “modern” take on Shaw’s magnum opus quite neglects the author’s crafty and most human twist on Ovid’s Metamorphoses and chooses instead to construct the story of the artist falling in love with the mud he turned into a human being.
In Pygmalion, Henry Higgins, the artist as phonetics professor, coldly places Eliza Doolittle, the mud as flowershop-girl-cum-canvas, in her correctly inferior place when she has the gall to ungratefully throw his own slippers at him after he’s just spent six months of his life shaping the poor guttersnipeii into a passable Duchess. Higgins is unwilling to be guilted into feeling responsible for the girl’s fate after bringing her up to a higher social station, while Eliza, entirely unappreciatively and quite begrudgingly, feels entitled to either more or less than she’s already been offered ; she’s just unhappy where she currently is because she can’t see through to tomorrow other than marrying the love-struck and penniless fool named Freddy who writes her thrice daily.
In Shaw’s original, at the end of the play, the professor holds his ground against his fiery and newly weaponised student, reminding her where she was before he decided to help her and, without the faintest whiff of sentimentality, entreating her to become the woman he knows she can be. Eliza, headstrong and ignorant as ever, rejects Higgins’ plea that she marry a well-heeled ambassador and instead promises herself to the vapid and impoverished Freddy, her doting love-slave.
This is a case of Eliza following her heart to her own detriment, as the post-script in Shaw’s original tells the story of her futile and pathetic efforts at professional success as a flowershop keeper. Eliza thought that her pride mattered, she thought that love mattered, she thought that she mattered, and in her delusions she found a lifetime of heartache and woe rather than a lifetime of bliss and happiness ever after. Shaw is all too ready to remind us of the risk of marriage for love, of paying the heart too much mind, of neglecting practical considerations, and of the poisonous power of conceit.iii
Conversely, at least as far as take-home morality goes, My Fair Lady gives the audience a bewitchingly sonorous soundtrackiv and a less-than-subtle transformation of phoneticist Henry Higgins from an adroit professor of notably fine breeding, affirmed in his position, into a googley-eyed puppy whose spine and heart melt simultaneously at the feet of his own artistic creation. In turn, Eliza gives herself to Higgins instead of Freddy. This difference is but a minor alteration to the script, barely a few words spoken and a few notes sung, but it’s incredibly significant for the take-home message that the audience is left with.
The difference is this : in the original, the moral is that following your heart will lead to suffering ; in the screenplay, the moral is that following your heart is not only noble but also profitable.v
II. The second example of an age-old story being re-told and “updated” with a new morality, is the story of Zhao Gao, which spandrell helpfully recounts :
Any decently educated Chinese knows what 指鹿為馬 zhi lu wei ma means. Letter by letter it is “point deer make horse”. It tells the story of Zhao Gao, one of the closest ministers of the First Emperor of Qin. [...] So Zhao Gao brings a deer into the palace. Grabs it from the horns, calls the emperor to come out, and says “look your majesty, a brought you a fine horse”. The Emperor, not amused, says “Surely you are mistaken, calling a deer a horse. Right?”. Then the emperor looks around at all the ministers. Some didn’t say a word, just sweating nervously. Some others loudly proclaimed what a fine horse this was. Great horse. Look at this tail! These fine legs. Great horse, naturally prime minister Zhao Gao has the best of tastes. A small bunch did protest that this was a deer, not a horse. Those were soon after summarily executed.
The contemporary equivalent is, as spandrell rightly notes, Hans Christen Anderson’svi “The Emperor’s New Clothes,”vii in which a young boy opens his mouth to question the pretenses that everyone else maintains.
In my humble assessment, the story of Zhao teaches the audience to study the context of the situation and behave accordingly. For example, if you’re having dinner with the Queen, don’t eat with your hands. Or if you’re at your in-laws for dinner, don’t tell your wife’s mom that her cooking tastes like it was scraped off the bottom of a homeless man’s shoe.
The story of the nude Emperor, on the other hand, tries to teach us that context doesn’t matter, that only virtuosity matters, and that good intentions will prevail, regardless of that pesky “reality” thing. This is a startling difference with considerable implications.viii
The difference is this : in the original, the moral is (again) that following your heart will lead to suffering ; in the rehash, the moral is that following your heart is not only noble but profitable.
The stories therefore being taught to our children is that “doing the right thing is always right” without also teaching them that “the right thing” is not a matter of words and wholly imagined etatist ideals, but a matter of might – that is, strength and resources. In doing so, we lull the next generation, like the last, into channeling their energies into social media blackholes and polling booths. Not that everyone is cut out for politics, but the idealistic whirlpool does more than just waste time, it brings down with it any meaningful productivity.
The “doing what’s right” morality is what keeps productive women out of the workplace, it’s what keeps pharmaceutical firms successfully hawking anti-depressants, it’s what keeps you from enjoying what you have instead of whatever it is that you imagine you’re deserving of.ix
So do what you must, whatever that may be, and say “yes” to opportunity.
Stop dreaming and start living!
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- The adaptation was written by Alan Jay Lerner, who also wrote An American in Paris. [↩]
- Shaw’s words. [↩]
- To quote Shaw via character Henry Higgins:
If you can’t stand the coldness of my sort of life, and the strain of it, go back to the gutter. Work til you are more a brute than a human being; and then cuddle and squabble and drink til you fall asleep. Oh, it’s a fine life, the life of the gutter. It’s real: it’s warm: it’s violent: you can feel it through the thickest skin: you can taste it and smell it without any training or any work. Not like Science and Literature and Classical Music and Philosophy and Art. You find me cold, unfeeling, selfish, don’t you? Very well: be off with you to the sort of people you like. Marry some sentimental hog or other with lots of money, and a thick pair of lips to kiss you with and a thick pair of boots to kick you with. If you can’t appreciate what you’ve got, you’d better get what you can appreciate. [↩]
- I’m particularly fond of “On the street where you live” and… that’s pretty much it. The rest of the musical score is a bit lackluster. [↩]
- It seems to me that the former is more honest and realistic while the latter is at best a nice idea and at worst a painful deception. [↩]
- 1805 – 1875. [↩]
- Published first in 1837. Surely enough, there’s a Disney adaptation too : as a storybook published in 1975. [↩]
- While I certainly appreciate that my calling out Gavincoin’s, Lanier’s, O’Brien’s, Terpin’s, and Bortzmeyer’s malicious idiocy is, in effect, calling those fiat emperors “nude,”* I do so in the full knowledge that they’re not only buttfucking naked but also completely powerless against me. That’s the context. They’re not only disrobed, they don’t have the armies needed to silence me. They’re broke, frail, and impotent, more like Anderson’s meek (and imaginary) Emperor and less like the forceful (and entirely real) Zhao Gao.
- To be perfectly clear, you are deserving of, at best, exactly what you have today, not a stray farthing more, and in all likelihood a considerable amount less. There’s more than a pretty good chance that your notions of your own self-worth are so far from being material to any discussion of the world as to be outright laughable. That’s the cold truth. [↩]