During my walk this morning, I found myself thinking back many decades to my undergraduate days and the effect on me of studying, when I was so young, with Willard van Orman Quine. I have already told a number of stories about Quine in my Autobiography, so I shan't rehearse them here, but as I neared the end of my walk, I recalled the great opening paragraph of Quine's famous essay, "On What There Is," whose laconic style so perfectly captured Quine's character. For those of you who do not know the essay, here it is:
"A curious thing about the ontological problem is its simplicity. It can be put in three Anglo-Saxon monosyllables: 'What is there?' It can be answered, moreover, in a word -- 'Everything' -- and everyone will accept this answer as true. However, this is merely to say that there is what there is. There remains room for disagreement over cases, and so the issue has stayed alive down the centuries."
I wonder sometimes whether I was not influenced, as a young undergraduate, by this bare style in my own writing. Later in the same essay, when he is discussing the views of an imaginary philosopher whom he calls "Wyman," [to contrast him with Mr. X], Quine says that Wyman's "over-populated universe" [which has in it possible entities as well as actual entities] "offends the aesthetic sense of us who have a taste for desert landscapes."
This naturally reminded me of Eric Erickson's fascinating observation that people have styles in dreaming -- some of us always have Technicolor dreams stuffed full of images and events, while others have spare Black and White dreams, regardless of the meaning of the dreams.
The Quine opening paragraph also reminded me of other striking opening lines -- "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." And of course the most famous first line in all literature: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."
My mind, like that of Tristram Shandy, being prone to digression, I soon found myself thinking of favorite lines from movies, and since we leave in just seven days for Paris, I thought quite naturally of Casablanca. Casablanca offers not one but three immortal lines along with a fourth that does not actually appear in the movie. "We'll always have Paris" is the signature line of the movie, but "Round up the usual suspects" runs a close second, giving us the name of the great Kevin Spacey movie. And then, of course, there is the last line of the movie, "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." The line that does not actually appear is "Play it again, Sam."
Humphrey Bogart's closing remark to Claude Raines reminded me of my personal favorite last line of any movie. It comes from Men in Black. Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith have just defeated a giant intergalactic cockroach, played with brilliance in an over-the-top performance by Vincent D'Onofrio. Jones and Smith are getting ready to leave Flushing Meadow with Smith's new love interest and future Woman in Black Linda Fiorentino when a call comes in of trouble with some planet somewhere. Jones says, "Call Dennis Rodman." Fiorentino asks, "Is he from there?" and when Jones says yes, Fiorentino delivers the great throwaway last line: "Not much of a disguise."
Tha-tha-that's all folks.