Literary Graffiti Tells A Story

Who knew there was an entire world of what is called ‘literary graffiti?’ I’ve just discovered it, and I’m fascinated.

Look at the story behind these pieces:

Written on a sidewalk in a London park is the ending to Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by; and that has made all the difference.” 

Literary graffiti often features bust-like paintings of prominent and admired literary figures, like this one of Sylvia Plath. Known as a ‘confessional poet’ who wrote about taboo subjects such as suicide, postpartum depression, and death, Plath is probably most remembered for her own suicide, flamboyant as it was–she stuck her head in her oven and gassed herself. 

In a France subway station, this remark from French philosopher Voltaire: “Love is of all passions the strongest because it attacks the head, heart and body.” 

Walt Whitman, who aspired to be “the American bard,” is most remembered for being a poet of the people. 

In New York, Shakespeare in shades. 

In Paris, Edgar Allan Poe in some sort of hat monstrosity. 

Most appropriately, this portrait of Dickens is found in London. Dickens used novels as a force for social criticism and created one of the most memorable characters of all-time: Ebenezer Scrooge. 

A montage of lines from literary works, including one by Sylvia Plath, Leonard Cohen, E.E. Cummings, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Jan Zwicky. 

An Alice in Wonderland scene. Creepy.

The man is Albert Einstein but the quote, which reads, “A wise man is astonished by everything,” was said by Nobel laureate Andre Gide. Quite a thought provoking combination. 

The letters are bit eerie, but they read “John Steinbeck.” Somehow graffiti, coupled with the dripping letters, seems a fitting portrayal for a man who spent most of his life protesting government authority. 

Perhaps the most famous, and most thematic, line from The Little Prince: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” 

And my favorite! This is allegedly the entire first chapter of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone scripted on a bathroom stall. Gotta admire that dedication.

 

Gandhi’s Play on Words

The most famous, and most clichéd, Gandhi quote is without a doubt “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I wish there was an official count of how many organizations use that to “inspire” people.

In a close second, though, is this rather impish remark:

Reporter: Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of Western Civilization?

Mr. Gandhi: I think it would be a good idea!

The exchange always appears in searches of Gandhi quotes, but I haven’t encountered one that actually supplies the time and place where this back-and-forth is supposed to have occurred. In any case, the reporter is obviously seeking a good quote, and Gandhi basically dupes him. His reply is quite in character with the tongue-in-cheek sense of humor he is credited with having.

DOUBLE MEANING - Gandhi was famous for his impish sort of humor, evident here in his response to this reporter's question.

Western Civilization was a frequent theme in Gandhi’s writing and speeches. He did not hold it in high regard and firmly believed industrialized civilization to be a disease because of its materialistic, consumer-oriented focus.

In one of his speeches, Gandhi pounces on Western materialization, saying, “I wholeheartedly detest this mad desire to destroy distance and time, to increase animal appetites, and go to the ends of the earth in search of their satisfaction. If modern civilization stands for all this, and I have understood it to do so, I call it satanic.”

In several speeches, actually, Gandhi is quoted with comparing Europe to the spirit of Satan. More than anything, Gandhi feared India becoming a ‘westernized’ nation. In another speech, he expounds on this idea:

“India’s destiny lies not along the bloody way of the West, of which she shows signs of tiredness, but along the bloodless way of peace that comes from a simple and godly life. India is in danger of losing her soul. She cannot lose it and live. She must not therefore lazily and helplessly say, ‘I cannot escape the onrush from the West.’ She must be strong enough to resist it for her own sake and that of the world. European civilization is no doubt suited for the Europeans, but it will mean ruin for India, if we endeavor to copy it.”

But I digress. Back to the quote.

The joke relies on a sort of pun. When the reporter uses the word ‘civilization,’ he’s using it as a noun. In other words, “what do you think of the Western model of civilization?” When Gandhi replies, however, he uses the word ‘civilization’ in the verb form, ‘to civilize.’ In other words, “I think it would be a good idea to civilize the West.”

Gandhi makes his opinion of Western Civilization perfectly clear by implying that it doesn’t exist—the current model of Western Civilization cannot, in Gandhi’s opinion, be viewed as civilized at all.

Cleverly put. And the reporter can’t even complain. In the end, he got a better quote than he was hoping for.