Saturday, March 20, 2010

Cleopatra's Nose

This blog has not precisely been a beehive of activity in any case, but to fill the vacancy of Fridays I have decided to devote them to quotations. Since the plump tome of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations resides in the low shelf which is, helpfully, literally in arm's reach, most of the quotations will presumably originate in its pages. (If this is in contravention of copyright laws, I'd be grateful if said contingency is pointed out. The translation from the French, below, is scarcely any different from the dictionary's; but I quickly did my own without peeking at the other, just because.)


Blaise Pascal, 1623-62
"French mathematician, physicist, and moralist"

Le nez de Cleopatra: s'il eût été plus court, toute la face de la terre aurait changé.

As for the nose of Cleopatra, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have changed.


Pedantry, and the lasting effects of a middle school essay about the Egyptian/Macedonian queen, compel me to point out that Cleopatra's influence did not, in fact, derive from her beauty. It was her charms of manner and of mind that compensated for an ordinary, "matronly" appearance, revealed among other things by an unflatteringly incisive coin-portrait. So her nose had little to no geopolitical significance.

On the other hand, Pascal's observation, whimsical and endearing in its unpretentiously elegant formulation, does touch on the reality that appearance plays a confusingly major role in politics ancient and modern. There is always an Alcibiades or a Helen of Troy, and even if it seems ridiculous that we care if someone happened to have been born with a nicely aligned mug, thousands of years after that individual has croaked, we do.

(I wonder what would happen if Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi ever gave up on plastic surgery and cosmetic aids, "abdicated" in the French lady-of-a-certain-age sense, and settled down into being a man who, eschewing the trappings of the celebrity persona, does serious work and wishes to be taken seriously for it. At the risk of being cynical, I presume the leftists would come to power. Or there would be a rash of bizarre and super-creepy developments in the style of The Portrait of Dorian Grey.)


The quotation is originally from Pascal's Pensées (1670) and I'm taking it from [N.B.: Please excuse the unorthodox citation; after all, I've been out of university for years.]
The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (4th revised edition), Angela Partington, Ed. (Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1996)

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