Talking Movies

June 20, 2016

The Saddest Writing in the World

What is the saddest writing in the world? I think there are two answers to that question. The first consists of just three words -‘in happier days’. That phrase as caption pushes the photo below towards farce in the best Marxian sense of tragedy recurrent. But in this age of constant, nay obsessive photography there are surely vast digital archives, never printed out and never properly examined, which, when the selfie-stick snappers wade thru them some rainy Sunday afternoon in the future, will cause many a wince when the omnipresent applicability of ‘in happier days’ becomes apparent.

rummy-and-sadam

Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein, in happier days

Few photos will rebound as viciously as Rummy and Saddam’s handshake, but ordinary life has its fair share of unexpected transformations of friends into enemies over the long run. What when perusing old photos and running into any number of problems (graduation photos uncomfortably shared with colleagues who later attempted to plagiarise your work, wedding photos uncomfortably showcasing a guest who later became a reactionary lunatic, fun holiday snaps uncomfortably co-starring someone who cut you out of their life with surgical precision and zero explanation) is one to do exactly? The wonders of digital photography makes it ever easier to take the Stalinist approach, cropping in tight to cut people out of the past without any messy cutting up of physical pictures, hiding someone in a deep shadow without having to use Stalin’s patented airbrushing. Sadder still, especially if delving into pre-digital archives, are the snapshots of people who have simply done an unbidden Stalin purge and disappeared from your life. Each of those polaroids screams out to have ‘in happier days’ scrawled on the back.

The second answer to the question what is the saddest writing in the world isn’t a maxim, but a wide category – inscriptions in books in second-hand bookshops. It is remarkably depressing to pick up a book you’d like to buy and while checking the price scratched in pencil inside notice a careful, loving inscription by one person to another, and realise that the person receiving this gift obviously didn’t feel the same way or the book wouldn’t currently be residing in the suddenly melancholy hands of a perfect stranger. Buying a book and inscribing it bespeaks a volume of thought completely absent from sending someone a Kindle read, or a voucher. A voucher declares ‘I have no idea what you like, but would like you to have something that you like’. A specific gift declares ‘I have a very good idea what you like, know what you have, and think this is right up your alley; you just haven’t reached it yet so let me bring it to you’. And an inscription further nails that certainty by making it impossible to exchange the defaced book. But it also adds a personal note for posterity. If the discovery of writing enabled people to live on and impart their wisdom beyond the end of their own lives, then an inscription allows a friend to provide a reminder of their love even after they’re no longer physically present, whether by distance or death. You can trace a friendship by comparing the inscriptions on various books, and noting changes in tone, and even the calibre of book. You can shelve together entire mini-collections provided by one person for another. And you can notice how suddenly one inscriber can disappear forever and shed a tear at a friendship sundered.

And so to throw away a book with an inscription seems an act of unconscious callousness on the part of a relative getting rid of an unwieldy estate bit by bit, or an act of deliberate rejection by the inscriptee of all the inscripter’s aims: their certainty of familiarity, of second-guessing taste, and, most importantly, of reciprocal esteem and love. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee” and all that…

 

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