Saturday, November 28, 2009

If Winnie met Yogi....

A sampling of two great minds that think rather similarly:
  1. Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
  2. It ain't over till it's over.
  3. Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
  4. It's so crowded, nobody goes there.
  5. It’s not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what’s required.
  6. If you can't imitate him, don't copy him.

Nos. 1, 3 and 5 above are Winston Churchill; 2, 4 and 6 are Yogi Berra. Churchill, a scion of English aristocracy unhappily educated in British boarding schools, uses paradox with all the self-conscious deployment of Latin figures of speech that one would expect from a verbally gifted mind trained in that system -- though he considered the famous Latin orators overrated, insisted, "broadly speaking, short words are best, and the old words, when short, are best of all," and recalled proudly, " I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence, which is a noble thing."  Berra, a son of Italian immigrants who grew up in a poor section of Depression-era  St. Louis, left school after eighth grade and recalled late in life that he wasn't a good student because, "You see, I break up the English a little bit. I don't mean to do it, but it just comes out that way."

Churchill deliberately teases paradox out of counterintuitive observations that invert words' conventional connotations. Democracy seems "worst" because  its messy decision-making process is out on display; only reflection and experience reveal that more secretive and unaccountable systems produce worse follies. A motive imposed by external necessity pulls more out of us than our most earnest internally motivated striving.

Berra inadvertently uses one word or close synonyms to cover two meanings that he doesn't explicitly distinguish. The game is never effectively over  until it's literally over.  The restaurant is so crowded [with tourists, yahoos, late adopters] that nobody [cognoscenti, insiders, celebrities] goes there. 

Churchill's paradoxes call attention to themselves and their careful construction; Berra's sound as inadvertent as they are. But Berra's are none the less subtle or coherent for that.

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