An Object Lesson in Greeting Cards
I’ve mentioned greeting cards before — and even suggested a few variations on the theme myself — yet I always find myself revisiting them around Valentine’s Day. The king of Hallmark holidays has always brought out the best (and the worst) in publishers, but I think we have the internet to blame for my favorite breed of card, the misappropriated quote.
This should not be confused with misattributed quotes. Simply getting the author or source wrong is one thing (as in the cards we sold last year that read “If music be the food of love, play on” — Hamelt, Act I). Misappropriated quotes get the source right and the context horribly, often hysterically, wrong.
Our winner this year (in my humble opinion) quotes Dostoevsky on the front of a Valentine’s Day card, which someone should have known was a bad idea right from the start. Russian novels, as a general rule, do not stir the hear to love so much as to drinking uncut vodka and staring bleakly at the snow. There may well be a market for Valentine’s Day cards along that theme, but this product, alas, is quite sincere in its effort to inspire romance, framing the quote in twining, heart-shaped garlands and even perching a few doves on top of it. The quote:
Only the heart knows how to find what is precious
- Fyodor Dostoevsky
is really very touching. You can see why some irresponsible idiot of a copywriter, whose research consisted entirely of Googling “quotes about the heart,” might have thought it would make a good card despite the ominous source (Pro Tip: He didn’t write ANY happy novels). But honestly, just putting the whole phrase in quotes and Googling that would have been enough to reveal that the quote isn’t even a complete idea as Dostoevsky wrote it, but rather a dependent clause in a rather grim reflection:
Indeed, precious memories may remain even of a bad home, if only the heart knows how to find what is precious.
The context is not overall that horrifying (mostly a reflection on childhood); it is the total irrelevance to anything romance-related that irks. This is a fraction of a quote talking about something quite different from hearts and doves. It has no bearing. It would be like putting “A great movie to take the family to — Roger Ebert” on your movie poster, if what Ebert had actually said was “If you hate your relatives and want to see them suffer, this is a great movie to take the family to” — and he’d been talking about another movie.
So we have our oddly-twisted Dostoevsky. Fine and well. I blame it entirely on the internet, which has thousands and thousands of pages listing “famous quotes about…” that any card-printer on a deadline can turn to. And if a Valentine’s Day card is a little silly, who’s really to mind? At the very worst it’s a good laugh for the recipient-in-the-know.
I feel less sanguine about our sympathy card (or bereavement, if you prefer) that borrows from Finnegans Wake – the novel by Joyce, not the quaint little Irish ballad about a corpse asking for a drink of whiskey. As the card says,
They lived and laughed and loved and left.
- James Joyce
I am not entirely comfortable with this. We are theoretically offering this to people, in good faith, as a soothing offering they might make to a friend or family in distress. It feels unfair to have picked (and edited — note the variant spellings in the original text) a somewhat appropriate-sounding phrase out of a muck which we simply do not understand, to whit:
Oye am thonthorstrok, thing mud.
(Stoop) if you are abcedminded, to this claybook, what curios
of signs (please stoop), in this allaphbed! Can you rede (since
We and Thou had it out already) its world? It is the same told
of all. Many. Miscegenations on miscegenations. Tieckle. They
lived und laughed ant loved end left. Forsin. Thy thingdome is
given to the Meades and Porsons. The meandertale, aloss and
again, of our old Heidenburgh in the days when Head-in-Clouds
walked the earth. In the ignorance that implies impression that
knits knowledge that finds the nameform that whets the wits that
convey contacts that sweeten sensation that drives desire that
adheres to attachment that dogs death that bitches birth that
entails the ensuance of existentiality.
I’ve mentioned before that literary critics still have no real consensus as regards what the hell Finnegans Wake is about (though many of them seem to view this as a merit, where I find it wholly to the work’s detriment). So while the quotation does indeed come from a passage about a funeral (we think), I find its use as a gesture of condolence suspect at best. Think of the hard feelings that might be caused if some well-intentioned relative were to give this to a professor of twentieth century Irish literature whose interpretation of the passage was less than favorable! It happens more often than you might think.
There is a simple lesson here, my darlings, and that lesson is FUCKING GOOGLE IT. However well you think you know your source, fucking Google it.
Because if you don’t, the person who gets your horrible greeting card just might. And then where will you be, hm?