Soup to Nuts
Life is full of beginnings and endings – and sometimes they are so memorable that we tend to forget what comes in between. For example, I could not quote you any other words of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities – but I know it begins with “It was the best of times – It was the worst of times” – and I know it ends with the hero, about to be guillotined, saying “It is a far, far, better thing I do than I have ever done. It is a far, far, better place I go to than I have ever known.”
Similarly, I must shamefully admit that the only words I can quote from Melville’s Moby Dick are its first three: “Call me Ishmael.” But I can also give you the first three words of the Bible in English (It is just one word in Hebrew): “In the beginning.”
As for last words, among my personal favorites are those of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel, Vanity Fair: “Come children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.”
Then there is the opening line of Paul Clifford, an 1830 novel by the British writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton – which has become famous for all the wrong reasons: “It was a dark and stormy night.” Somehow this line has been mocked into a cliché, and – rather unfairly to Bulwer-Lytton – it has become celebrated as the epitome of bad writing – so much so that a “bad writing contest” has been built around it.
We have many different ways of expressing the ideas of beginning and ending. Those interested in racing think in terms of “start to finish.” The gastronomically inclined may say “from soup to nuts.” The alphabet makes it convenient to say, “A to Z” or, if you prefer the Greek version, “Alpha to Omega.” But numbers tell a different story. You can start at One, but then, simply with the use of convenient “plus” and “minus” signs, you can go forward or backward – and, either way, there is no end in sight. “Infinity” and “Eternity” both mean literally “endlessness.”
Then, of course, there are good old Birth and Death. Depending on your Biological or Metaphysical predilections, these ideas can be hard and fast, or fast and loose, so it’s no good thinking of them, in Chess parlance, in terms of opening gambits or end-games. The truth is that, where such abstruse matters are concerned, nobody really knows what the truth is.
Let me get to safer ground, where I actually have some personal knowledge. As you may know, I have published 10,000 different epigrams – and occasionally people ask me, what was the very first one? Of course, when I wrote it, I had no idea that it was to be the first of such a lengthy series, and chose it to be number One, more or less at random, when I was publishing the first few on postcards. It is the one that says, “LET’S KEEP THE CHRIST IN CHRYSLER.” This was never a popular message, except in Detroit, where it had a certain local resonance. The idea came to me when I happened to see a sign saying, “KEEP CHRIST IN CHRISTMAS.”
What impressed me was that this message was on a car (probably not a Chrysler) as a bumper-sticker. So, the very primitive illustration I drew to go with it showed it on a car, seen from the rear, with a little Santa looking out backwards from the driver’s seat.
And now I feel obliged to tell you about Number 10,000 (created some 38 years later), which actually has the same little bearded figure, though not dressed as Santa. He is sitting and waving from the top of a billboard, which has the message: “YOU ARE NOW LEAVING THE UNIVERSE – Please come again!”
But why think in terms of beginnings and endings at all? What about a circle – or even a sphere? Only too obviously, they don’t start or stop anywhere. Steven Hawking, the great physicist and cosmologist, said that wondering what preceded the beginning of time was like asking what’s north of the North Pole.
Yet our minds, which, unlike those of cosmologists, are accustomed to dealing with the finite, still like to think in terms of openings and closings, even if the distinction between them isn’t always clear. That may be one reason why, at the ENDING of our college years, we have a ceremony called COMMENCEMENT.