Quotations about   tragedy

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There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) British playwright and critic
Man and Superman, Act 4 [Mendoza] (1903)
    (Source)

See Wilde, eleven years earlier. More discussion quote: There Are Only Two Tragedies. One Is Not Getting What One Wants, and the Other Is Getting It – Quote Investigator.
Added on 18-May-22 | Last updated 18-May-22
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In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) Irish poet, wit, dramatist
Lady Windermere’s Fan, Act 3 [Dumby] (1892)
    (Source)

More discussion of this quote: There Are Only Two Tragedies. One Is Not Getting What One Wants , and the Other Is Getting It – Quote Investigator
Added on 9-May-22 | Last updated 9-May-22
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“What do you think is going on, anyway?”

Some horrible Wagnerian thing

koupit-pilulky.com

, I told him, full of blood, thunder, and death for us all.

“Oh, the usual,” Luke said.

Exactly, I replied.

Roger Zelazny (1937-1995) American writer
“Coming to a Cord,” Pirate Writings, #7 [Frakir] (1995)
    (Source)
Added on 27-Apr-22 | Last updated 27-Apr-22
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Heartbreaking things I saw with my own eyes
And was myself a part of.

[Quaeque ipse miserrima vidi
et quorum pars magna fui.]

Virgil (70-19 BC) Roman poet [b. Publius Vergilius Maro; also Vergil]
The Aeneid [Ænē̆is], Book 2, l. 5ff (2.5-6) [Aeneas] (29-19 BC) [tr. Fitzgerald (1981)]
    (Source)

Recounting the fall of Troy. (Source (Latin)). Alternate translations:

All that I saw, and part of which I was.
[tr. Dryden (1697)]

The woes I saw with these sad eyne,
The deeds whereof large part was mine
[tr. Conington (1866)]

The afflicting scenes that I myself
Beheld, and a great part of which I was.
[tr. Cranch (1872)]

I myself saw these things in all their horror, and I bore great part in them.
[tr. Mackail (1885)]

Which thing myself unhappy did behold,
Yea, and was no small part thereof
[tr. Morris (1900)]

The woes I saw, thrice piteous to behold,
And largely shared.
[tr. Taylor (1907), st. 1, ll. 6-7]

Which woeful scene I saw,
and bore great part in each event I tell.
[tr. Williams (1910)]

The sights most piteous that I myself saw and whereof I was no small part.
[tr. Fairclough (1916)]

Sorrowful things I saw myself, wherein
I had my share and more.
[tr. Humphries (1951)]

Most piteous events I saw with my own eyes
And played no minor part in.
[tr. Day Lewis (1952)]

I saw these terrible things,
and took great part in them.
[tr. Mantinband (1964)]

For I myself
saw these sad things; I took large part in them.
[tr. Mandelbaum (1971)]

And all the horrors I have seen, and in which I played a large part.
[tr. West (1990)]

I saw these horrors myself
And played no small part in them.
[tr. Lombardo (2005)]

What horrors I saw,
a tragedy where I played a leading role myself.
[tr. Fagles (2006)]

I saw the piteous events myself -- I played no minor part.
[tr. Bartsch (2021)]

All of which misery I saw,
and a great part of which I was.

Added on 23-Feb-22 | Last updated 23-Feb-22
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Who sneers at epigrams and feigns to scout them,
Believe me, does not know a thing about them.
The real bores are the dreary epic spinners
Who rant of Tereus’ or Thyestes’ dinners,
Who rave of cunning Daedalus applying
The wings to Icarus to teach him flying,
Or else to show what dullards they esteem us
Bleat endless pastorals on Polyphemus.
My unpretentious Muse is not bombastic,
But deems these robes of Tragedy fantastic.
“Such things,” you say, “earn all men’s commendation,
As works of genius and inspiration.”
Ah, very true — those pompous classic leaders
Do get the praise — but then I get the readers!

[Nescit, crede mihi, quid sint epigrammata, Flacce,
Qui tantum lusus ista iocosque vocat.
Ille magis ludit, qui scribit prandia saevi
Tereos, aut cenam, crude Thyesta, tuam,
Aut puero liquidas aptantem Daedalon alas,
Pascentem Siculas aut Polyphemon ovis.
A nostris procul est omnis vesica libellis,
Musa nec insano syrmate nostra tumet.
“Illa tamen laudant omnes, mirantur, adorant.”
Confiteor: laudant illa, sed ista legunt.]

Martial (AD c.39-c.103) Spanish Roman poet, satirist, epigrammatist [Marcus Valerius Martialis]
Epigrams [Epigrammata], Book 4, epigram 49 (4.49) [tr. Pott & Wright (1921)]
    (Source)

"To Valerius Flaccus." (Source (Latin)). Alternate translations:

Though little know'st what epigram contains,
Who think'st it all a joke in jocund strains.
He direly jokes, who bids a Tereus dine;
Or dresses suppers like, Thyestes, thine;
Feins him who fits the boy with melting wings,
Or the sweet shepherd Polyphemus sings.
Or muse disdains by fustian to excel;
by rant to rattle, or in buskin swell.
Those strains the learn'd applaud, admire, adore.
Those they applaud, I own; but these explore.
[tr. Elphinston (1782), ep. 48]

Thou know'st not, trust me, what are Epigrams,
Flaccus, who think'st them jest and wanton games.
He wantons more, who writes what horrid meat
The plagu'd Tyestes and vex't Tereus eat,
Or Daedalus fitting is boy to fly,
Or Polyphemus' flocks in Sicily.
My booke no windy words nor turgid needes,
Nor swells my Muse with mad smothurnal weedes.
Yet those things all men praise, admire, adore.
True; they praise those, but read these poems more.
[tr. May]

You little know what Epigram contains,
Who deem it but a jest in jocund strains.
He rather jokes, who writes what horrid meat
The plagued Thyestes and vex't Tereus eat;
Or tells who robed the boy with melting wings;
Or of the shepherd Polyphemus sings.
Our muse disdains by fustian to excel,
By rant to rattle, or in buskins swell.
Though turgid themes all men admire, adore,
Be well assured they read my poems more.
[Westminster Review (Apr 1853)]

He knows not, Flaccus, believe me, what Epigrams really are,
who calls them mere trifles and frivolities.
He is much more frivolous, who writes of the feast of the cruel
Tereus; or the banquet of the unnatural Thyestes;
or of Daedalus fitting melting wings to his son's body;
or of Polyphemus feeding his Sicilian flocks.
From my effusions all tumid ranting is excluded;
nor does my Muse swell with the mad garment of Tragedy.
"But everything written in such a style is praised, admired, and adored by all."
I admit it. Things in that style are praised; but mine are read.
[tr. Bohn's Classical (1859)]

He does not know, believe me, what epigrams are, Flaccus,
who styles them only frivolities and quips.
He is more frivolous who writes of the meal of savage
Tereus, or of thy banquet, dyspeptic Thyestes,
or of Daedalus fitting to his son melting wings,
or of Polyphemus pasturing Sicilian sheep.
Far from poems of mine is all turgescence,
nor does my Muse swell with frenzied tragic train.
"Yet all men praise those tragedies, admire, worship them."
I grant it: those they praise, but they read the others.
[tr. Ker (1919)]

You think my epigrams are silly?
Far worse is bombast uttered shrilly --
Like Tereus baking human pie.
Or Daedal son who tried to fly.
Monster Cyclopes keeping sheep.
My verse is of such nonsense free.
It poses not as tragedy.
But praise for those things does exceed?
Those things men praise -- but mine they read.
[tr. Wills (2007)]

Trust me, Flaccus, anyone who says it's just "ditties" and "jokes"
doesn't know what epigram is.
The real joker is the poet who describes the feast of cruel
Tereus, or the dinner that gave Thyestes indigestion,
or Daedalus strapping melting wings ot his son,
or Polyphemus pasturing his Sicilian sheep.
No puffery gets near my little books;
my Muse doesn't swell and strut in the trailing robe of Tragedy.
"But that stuff gets the applause, the awe, the worship."
I can't deny it: that stuff does get the applause. But my stuff gets read.
[tr. Nisbet (2015)]

Who deem epigrams mere trifles,
     Flaccus, know not epigram.
He trifles who describes the meal
     wild Tereus, rude Thyestes ate,
The Cretan Glider moulting wax,
     the one-eyed shepherd herding sheep.
Foreign to my verse the tragic sock,
     it's turgid, ranting rhetoric.
"Men praise -- esteem -- revere these works."
     True: them they praise ... while reading me.
[tr. Whigham (1987)]

Added on 29-Oct-21 | Last updated 29-Oct-21
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Only ambition is fired by the coincidences of success and easy accomplishment but nothing is quite as splendidly uplifting to the heart as the defeat of a human being who battles against the invincible superiority of fate. This is always the most grandiose of all tragedies, one sometimes created by a dramatist but created thousands of times by life.

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) Austrian novelist, playwright, journalist, biographer
Stellar Moments in Human History [Sternstunden der Menschheit] (1953) [tr. Sonnenfeld]
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Pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves.

[ἔλεος μὲν περὶ τὸν ἀνάξιον, φόβος δὲ περὶ τὸν ὅμοιον]

Aristotle (384-322 BC) Greek philosopher
Poetics [Περὶ ποιητικῆς, De Poetica], ch. 13 / 1453a (c. 335 BC) [tr. Butcher (1895)]
    (Source)

On the essential elements of tragedy. Original Greek. Alternate translations:

  • "Pity is occasioned by undeserved misfortune, and fear by that of one like ourselves." [tr. Bywater (1909)]
  • "Pity is concerned with unmerited ill-fortune, fear with what happens to one's like." [tr. Margoliouth (1911)]
  • "Pity for the undeserved misfortune, fear for the man like ourselves." [tr. Fyfe (1932)]
  • "We pity those who suffer undeservedly, and feel fear for people who are like ourselves." [tr. Janko (1987)]
  • "The one [pity] is to do with the man brought to disaster undeservedly, the other [terror] is to do with [what happens to] men like us." [tr. Whalley (1997)]
  • "One of these sentiments, namely pity, has to do with undeserved misfortune, and the other, namely fear, has to do with someone who is like ourselves." [tr. Sachs (2006)]
Added on 28-May-21 | Last updated 28-May-21
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The same distinction marks off Tragedy from Comedy; for Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life.

[ἐν αὐτῇ δὲ τῇ διαφορᾷ καὶ ἡ τραγῳδία πρὸς τὴν κωμῳδίαν διέστηκεν: ἡ μὲν γὰρ χείρους ἡ δὲ βελτίους μιμεῖσθαι βούλεται τῶν νῦν.]

Aristotle (384-322 BC) Greek philosopher
Poetics [Περὶ ποιητικῆς, De Poetica], ch. 2, sec. 4 / 1448a (c. 335 BC) [tr. Butcher (1895)]
    (Source)

Original Greek. Alternate translations:

This difference it is that distinguishes Tragedy and Comedy also; the one would make its personages worse, and the other better, than the men of the present day.
[tr. Bywater (1909)]

Tragedy and Comedy are at the Poles: for the former means to portray a superior, the latter an inferior being to modern man.
[tr. Margoliouth (1911)]

It is just in this respect that tragedy differs from comedy. The latter sets out to represent people as worse than they are to-day, the former as better.
[tr. Fyfe (1932)]

Tragedy too is distinguished from comedy by precisely this difference; comedy prefers to represent people who are worse than those who exist, tragedy people who are better.
[tr. Janko (1987), 1.3]

And tragedy stands in the same relation of difference to comedy; for the one tends to take as subjects men worse than the general run, and the other takes men better than we are.
[tr. Whalley (1997)]

And by this very difference tragedy stands apart in relation to comedy, for the latter intends to imitate those who are worse, and the former better, than people are now.
[tr. Sachs (2006)]

The very same difference makes the distinction between tragedy and comedy: the latter aims to represent people as worse, and the former as better, than people nowadays are.
[tr. Kenny (2013)]

Added on 30-Apr-21 | Last updated 30-Apr-21
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If you are a person who looks at the funny side of things, then sometimes when you are lowest, when everything seems totally hopeless, you will come up with some of your best ideas. Happiness does not create humor. There’s nothing funny about being happy. Sadness creates humor.

Charles Schulz (1922-2000) American cartoonist
“On Staying Power,” My Life with Charlie Brown (2010) [ed. Inge]
    (Source)
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Sometimes you laugh because you’ve got no more room for crying. Sometimes you laugh because table manners on a beach are funny. And sometimes you laugh because you’re alive, when you really shouldn’t be.

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
Nation (2009)
Added on 9-Mar-21 | Last updated 9-Mar-21
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Life is a tragic mystery. We are pieced and driven by laws we only half understand. We find that the lesson we learn again and again is that of accepting heroic helplessness.

Florida Scott-Maxwell (1883-1979) American-British playwright, author, psychologist
The Measure of My Days (1968)
    (Source)
Added on 25-Jan-21 | Last updated 25-Jan-21
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You know what the greatest tragedy is in the whole world? … It’s all the people who never find out what it is they really want to do or what it is they’re really good at. It’s all the sons who become blacksmiths because their fathers were blacksmiths. It’s all the people who could be really fantastic flute players who grow old and die without ever seeing a musical instrument, so they become bad plowmen instead. It’s all the people with talents who never even find out. Maybe they are never even born in a time when it’s even possible to find out. It’s all the people who never get to know what it is that they can really be. It’s all the wasted chances.

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
Moving Pictures (1990)
Added on 15-Dec-20 | Last updated 15-Dec-20
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What Mr. Howells said of the American theater is true of the whole American attitude toward life. “A tragedy with a happy ending” is exactly what the child wants before he goes to sleep: the reassurance that “all’s well with the world” as he lies in his cozy nursery. It is a good thing that the child should receive this reassurance; but as long as he needs it he remains a child, and the world he lives in is a nursery-world. Things are not always and everywhere well with the world, and each man has to find it out as he grows up. It is the finding out that makes him grow, and until he has faced the fact and digested the lesson he is not grown up — he is still in the nursery.

Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton (1862-1937) American novelist
French Ways and Their Meaning, ch. 4 “Intellectual Honesty” (1919)
    (Source)

Commenting on William Dean Howells' comment to her on American taste in theater and drama: "What the American public wants is a tragedy with a happy ending."
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I have changed my definition of tragedy. I now think tragedy is not foul deeds done to a person (usually noble in some manner) but rather that tragedy is irresolvable conflict. Both sides/ideas are right.

Rita Mae Brown (b. 1944) American author, playwright
Starting from Scratch, Part 3 “The Work,” “Plot” (1989)
    (Source)
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The tragedy of life is not that man loses, but that he almost wins.

Heywood Broun (1888-1939) American journalist, author
“Sport for Art’s Sake,” Vanity Fair (Sep 1921)
    (Source)

Reprinted in Pieces of Hate, and Other Enthusiasms (1922).
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She smoothed her hair back from her forehead and looked at herself in the mirror. She looked like she always looked. It was probably a truth about tragedy, she thought, while the tragedy is going on people look pretty much the way they looked when it wasn’t.

Robert B. Parker (1932-2010) American writer
Thin Air (1995)
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“It’s not funny.”

“No, it isn’t, no more than everything else. Laughing is better than crying, though. When you can.”

Robert B. Parker (1932-2010) American writer
Promised Land (1976)
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There is a difference between tragedy and blind brutal calamity. Tragedy has meaning, and there is dignity in it. Tragedy stands with its shoulders stiff and proud. But there is no meaning, no dignity, no fulfillment, in the death of a child.

Walter M. Miller Jr. (1923-1996) American science fiction writer
“The Will” (1953)
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I am weary of reading Newspapers. The Times are so full of Events, the whole Drama of the World is such a Tragedy that I am weary of the Spectacle.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Abigail Adams (27 Feb 1793)
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Tragedy plus time equals comedy.

allen-tragedy-plus-time-equals-comedy-wist_info

Steve Allen (1922-2000) American composer, entertainer, and wit.
“Steve Allen’s Almanac,” Cosmopolitan (Feb 1957)

Similar formulations have been made by Carol Burnett, Lenny Bruce, Bob Newhart, and Woody Allen. For more discussion see here.
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Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

Karl Marx (1818-1883) German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist
The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, ch. 1. (1852) [tr. Padover]
    (Source)

Often paraphrased: "History repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce."
Added on 29-Mar-16 | Last updated 29-Mar-16
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The pleasure arising from an extraordinary agitation of the mind is frequently so great as to stifle humanity; hence arises the entertainment of the common people at executions, and of the better sort at tragedies.

Jean-Antoine Dubois (1765-1848) French Catholic missionary in India [Abbe J. A. Dubois]
(Attributed)
Added on 22-Feb-16 | Last updated 22-Feb-16
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He who laughs
Has not yet received
The terrible news.

[Der Lachende
Hat die furchtbare Nachricht
Nur noch nicht empfangen.]

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) German poet, playwright, director, dramaturgist
“To Those Born Later [An die Nachgeborenen],” (1938) [tr. Horton (2008)]
    (Source)

Alt. trans.: "He who laughs last has not yet heard the bad news," and "The man who laughs has simply not yet had the terrible news."

The title is also sometimes translated as "To Those Who Follow In Our Wake" and "To Those Born After."

Oddly enough, the German is sometimes given in paraphrase (or back-translated from the English): "Wer jetzt noch lacht, hat die neuesten Nachrichten noch nicht gehört." This German only appears to be found on quotation sites.
Added on 17-Dec-15 | Last updated 9-Sep-20
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If you ask any police officer what the worst part of the job is, they will always say breaking bad news to relatives, but this is not the truth. The worst part is staying in the room after you’ve broken the news, so that you’re forced to be there when someone’s life disintegrates around them. Some people say it doesn’t bother them — such people are not to be trusted.

Ben Aaronovitch (b. 1964) British author
Rivers of London [Midnight Riot] (2011)
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Harder to laugh at the comedy if it’s about you, harder to cry at the tragedy if it isn’t.

James Richardson (b. 1950) American poet
Vectors: Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays (2001)
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If Afflictions refine some, they consume others.

Thomas Fuller (1654-1734) English writer, physician
Gnomologia: Adages and Proverbs, #2666 (1732)
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It’s not the tragedies that kill us. It’s the messes.

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) American writer
“The Art of Fiction,” #13, interview, The Paris Review (Summer 1956)
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When Carlini was convulsing Naples with laughter, a patient waited on a physician in that city, to obtain some remedy for excessive melancholy, which was rapidly consuming his life. The physician endeavored to cheer his spirits, and advised him to go to the theater and see Carlini. He replied, “I am Carlini.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
“The Comic,” closing words, Letters and Social Aims (1875)
    (Source)

This joke/anecdote has numerous variations over the last century and more. For example, see here and here.
Added on 26-Feb-09 | Last updated 22-Feb-22
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Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) American writer [Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald]
“The Notebooks” (E), The Crack-Up [ed. Edmund Wilson (1945)]
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To paraphrase Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear, and all those guys, I wish I had known this some time ago.

Roger Zelazny (1937-1995) American writer
Sign of the Unicorn, ch. 3 [Corwin] (1975)
    (Source)
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A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.

Josef Stalin (1879-1953) Georgian revolutionary and Soviet dictator
(Attributed)

Alternate versions:
  • "Death of one man is a tragedy. Death of a million is a statistic."
  • "One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is just a statistic."
  • "When one dies, it is a tragedy. When a million die, it is a statistic."
  • "The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic."
The actual quote (such as is supported) appears to be "When one man dies it is a tragedy, when thousands die it's statistics." It is found in David McCullough, Truman (1992), said by Stalin to Churchill in Tehran when the latter was concerned over the potential casualties of opening a second front in France prematurely. McCullough cites it to Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, The Time of Stalin: Portrait of Tyranny (1981).

On the other hand, Mary Soames (Churchill's daughter) said in a BBC interview with Andrew Marr (11 Nov 2011) that she overhead Stalin say this to her father at Potsdam, when Churchill was upset over the death of a family friend and then apologized to Stalin given the high number of Russian war casualties.

The earliest mention of the quote and Stalin is a 28 Sep 1958 book review.

Compare to Erich Maria Remarque, Der schwarze Obelisk (1956): "Sonderbar, denke ich, wir alle haben doch so viele Tote im Kriege gesehen, und wir wissen, daß über zwei Millionen von uns nutzlos gefallen sind — warum sind wir da so erregt wegen eines einzelnen, und die zwei Millionen haben wir schon fast vergessen? Aber das ist wohl so, weil ein einzelner immer der Tod ist — und zwei Millionen immer nur eine Statistik." [Strangely, I think we all have seen so many dead in the war, and we know that more than two million of us are unvalued -- why we are so excited because of an individual, and we have two million almost forgotten already? But that is probably so because a single death is always a death -- and two million only a statistic.]

Also compare to a 1925 essay on French humor, "Französischer Witz," by Kurt Tucholsky, German journalist, pacifist, and satirist. He wrote of a diplomat in the French Ministry of Foreign affairs, who said: "The war? I cannot find it to be so bad! The death of one man: this is a catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of deaths: that is a statistic!" ["Darauf sagt ein Diplomat vom Quai d'Orsay: «Der Krieg? Ich kann das nicht so schrecklich finden! Der Tod eines Menschen: das ist eine Katastrophe. Hunderttausend Tote: das ist eine Statistik!"]
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 22-Jul-21
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This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.

Horace Walpole (1717-1797) English novelist, letter writer
Letter (16 Aug 1776)
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Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy:
The wide and universal theater
Presents more woeful pageants than the scene
Wherein we play in.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) English dramatist and poet
As You Like It, Act 2, sc. 7, l. 136 (1599)
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 20-May-16
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Humor is just another defense against the universe.

Mel Brooks (b. 1926) American comedic actor, writer, producer [b. Melvyn Kaminsky]
(Attributed)
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 12-Jul-16
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