Saroyan’s Popular But Nonsensical Quote

Saroyan Poster Quote

By Vahe H. Apelian, Ohio, 9 January 2014

Saroyan Poster Quote“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.”

By Vahe H. Apelian, Ohio, 9 January 2014

Saroyan Poster Quote“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.”

Many, I bet most, English-speaking Armenians have seen William Saroyan's quote. Some may have also bought an inscription of the quote on a plaque. I was no exception. In fact, I ordered the larger size and hung it on a wall in our house. Saroyan looms larger than life, especially for Armenians. His image may have helped to bolster the impression. He was a bear of man with an oversized and  impressive mustache. That is how he remains etched in my memory.

Obviously, I had found the quote impressionable; otherwise I would not have done what I did. I would read the quote every now and then with some sense of comfort that our growing sons may read it, too, and over time establish some understanding as to who we are and where do we come from. Over time I established a familiarity with it. When novelty gives way to familiarity so do feelings give way to reason of varying degree. It is then that it occurred to me to ask myself: "What is this quote really saying?"

First and foremost I saw a pervasive paranoia in the quote: “I should see any power destroy this race”. “Go ahead, destroy Armenia, etc. etc. etc”. Surely we have had and have our share of enemies but I bet more people on this planet do not know us to ever bother to think of harming us.

Destroy, but who?

Destroy “this small tribe of unimportant people”. Is that what we are? Is this what I want our children to read growing up…that we come from “a tribe of unimportant people”? How would my son’s teacher and friends react, I thought, if my son took the plaque to school for a morning class show-and-tell? I felt aghast.

On further thought, I realized that there is more in the quote that kills the spirit than uplifts it. After all, we are speaking of a people “whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered”. Gosh, imagine trying to explain this to a child you are raising to be proud of his or her heritage.

Granted, that there are affirmative statements in the quote about Armenians coming together, laughing, singing and creating a new Armenia. All that is good and well, but offers little solace after all the paranoia, doom and gloom.

Eventually it occurred to me that the plaque did not cite the source of the quote. Internet search-engines were of no help. I started having doubts whether Saroyan had really said it.

Sometime later I came across a discussion in Armenian media which alleged that  Saroyan’s quote is a sanitized version of his utterance. The writer said that Saroyan started it with an obscene expression. If I were to use it in an article, more likely than not, editors will censor it. The commentator said that the original quote contains the word ‘mother’ but not as in the “Holy Mother of God” expression. It would not surprise me that Saroyan would use a foul expression. As I said, he loomed larger than life and had his way when it came to words.

I still don't know for sure if a foul expression precedes the quote. However, it makes more sense to me that it does. Saroyan, more likely than not, said what he said in rage. We are not supposed to sound rational when angry. Our rage is an outlet to express our frustration more so than to make sense. Surely what we say in our rage in not meant to be educational.

For all those who would like to display the quote in their homes, I suggest them to have it inscribed in verbatim and indicate the source once they find it. It’s the right thing to do. After all, words, even foul expressions, make sense and may even sound less offensive if they are used in context.  Otherwise, one may consider doing what I did with its sanitized version: I tucked it away.

 

10 comments
  1. Saroyan’s Popular, Nonsensical Quote

    For a comprehensive review of the poster (s), see:commentary in "The Armenian Weekly", Aug. 8, 2009, Mincing Words by C. K. Garabed.
     

  2. Intererting Points

    Interesting points, Vahe. Well done. I believe your interpretation has merit.
    -David

  3. It Says a Lot

    In the Armenian Reporter link mentioned above, there is the following paragraph that says a lot:

    "….Was the poster wording not quite a faithful reproduction of the original? Yes. But was the spirit of Saroyan's idea compromised by the poster version? Not at all. It is clear to me that whereas it was indisputably wrong to tweak Saroyan's original text, it was done only with the intention of making it even more powerful by the inclusion of the word "Armenia," and also securing non-time-specific resonance to the author's image. Within this context, Nakashian had thought that mention of the beer parlor was not a critical component of the image, and that the productive meeting of two Armenians did not hinge on the chronological proximity of an event like the Genocide."
    1. About Saroyan Quote

      I purchased the plaque inscribed with the Saroyan quote well over a decade ago, but the merit of that inscription remains a lingering thought. I take the liberty of sharing it with Keghart readers.

      I read Saroyan’s original text for the very first time thanks to C.K. Garabed’s comment. It is obvious that the inscription on the plaque is not only sanitized but also altered. I also read Zaven Khanjian’s article for the very first time.

      It is hard to accept that Saroyan alleges “the productive meeting of two Armenians did not hinge on the chronological proximity of an event like the Genocide”. His quote is dated twenty years (1935) after the Genocide and on the eve of what would be another catastrophic event–the Second World War. Saroyan references Genocide outright and hypothesizes “Let us say that it is again 1915. There is war in the world”.

  4. Saroyan’s Quote

    For many years I have displayed Saroyan's quote in my office, along with photos of Ararat, David of Sassoun, the St. Cross Church of Aghtamar, Sardarabad and a few others. I don't intend to tuck it away, despite having some reservations. First of all, we should not forget that the quote dates back to 1936, when we were still coming out of misery. So, from that background, we have come a long way and that's one point I bring to the attention of those who inquire about the plaque. The major reservation I have, however, is with the last sentence, "For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a new Armenia". Until a few years ago, I took it as a complement, an expression of nationalism. However, in view of Armenia's depopulation, I realized that we have been deceiving ourselves. We have been creating so many illusionary Armenias around the world that we are on the verge of losing the real one. Saroyan's quote should be reinterpreted as a call for action to strengthen age-old Armenia, in the spirit of David of Sassoun and Sardarabad.
     

    1. New Armenia

      Harut,

      In fairness to William Saroyan, he has never advocated creating a new Armenia, at least not in his actual poster relevant quote.

      His has been enjoyment in the company of an Armenian friend as the two mock the big ideas of the world in a beer parlor, surely as they sip a cold beer.

  5. Saroyan’s “quote”

    This supposed quote from Saroyan is an adaptation of his words on the last page of his book entitled "Inhale Exhale".

    I would like to know who created the poster and has profited from  the supposed quote.

    The quote never mentions "a new Armenia"

  6. Saroyan Quote

    Here is the original unedited quote:

    "I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose history is ended, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, whose literature is unread, whose music is unheard, whose prayers are no longer uttered.

    "Go ahead, destroy this race. Let us say that it is again 1915. There is war in the world. Destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them from their homes into the desert. Let them have neither bread nor water. Burn their houses and their churches. See if they will not live again. See if they will not laugh again. See if the race will not live again when two of them meet in a beer parlor, twenty years after, and laugh, and speak in their tongue. Go ahead, see if you can do anything about it. See if you can stop them from mocking the big ideas of the world, you sons of bitches, a couple of Armenians talking in the world, go ahead and try to destroy them."

    – William Saroyan
    New York, August 1935
    (From Inhale, Exhale: The Armenian and the Armenian)

    1. Absurd Quote

      I wish Armenians would toss this absurd, false, and damaging to Armenians quote in some dustbin and never repeat it. Any Armenian who thinks it's accurate and that it doesn't harm our reputation should read more carefully youthful Saroyan's nonsensical words. It's amazing that some Armenian homes, centres, and establishments have framed the quote and show it with pride. Whew.

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