Whistling in the dark?

2012-08-17 11:23



Whistling in the dark?

Reader question:

Please explain this sentence: “He knew at heart that he was whistling in the dark – but it is a brave whistle that provides the courage to go on.”

My comments:

He knew he was in trouble but wasn’t prepared to just accept defeat or a similarly undesirable outcome. And so he whistled to himself – in order to spur himself on.

In other words, he was being optimistic even though deep inside (at heart) he knew his optimism was not well founded.

Here, “whistling in the dark” is a metaphor. He did not actually purse his lips to whistle a melodic tune. It’s just a figure of speech. In other words, he was just putting on a brave face in face of adversity.

“Whistle in the dark” is a great phrase to learn here, of course. It is an American idiom and, as is the case with many nifty American idioms, you can probably figure out the meaning of this one.

Imagine yourself walking down a dark alley alone in the dead of a moonless night. Yes, soon you may find yourself whistling to yourself. The act may well be involuntary. You may not know why you’re whistling. You’re doing it aimlessly. Or perhaps subconsciously you may think whistling helps. After all, walking in an alley on a pitch dark night can be scary. Making a little noise by whistling may therefore make you fearless or fear less – if, indeed, there is anything to fear.

There might be nothing to fear our there in the dark, but who knows?

Don’t people often say that there is nothing to fear but fear itself?

At any rate you get the idea. We whistle to spur ourselves on, to be optimistic even without solid good reason.

Hence, when people say someone is whistling in the dark when he does something, such as making certain informed judgments, they mean to say that he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. He’s merely speculating, making wild guesses or, in the encouragement department, just trying to remain optimistic for optimism’s sake.

Okay. Here are old as well as recent media examples of people who “whistle in the dark” or are suspected of doing so:

1. SOON after Gustav Mahler died, on May 18, 1911, at the age of fifty, it became known that he had been working on a new symphony at the time of his death. It was clear that he had been unable to complete the work, but there were conflicting reports as to the state in which he had left it, and therefore as to whether it might someday be performed.


It is surely right to say that the serene and consolatory ending of the Tenth is different from the endings of Mahler’s two other late symphonic works. But to say that the Tenth thereby invalidates the popular image of Mahler as an egocentric, death-obsessed neurotic is to accord that image more attention than it deserves. For it has been transmitted to us not through Mahler’s works but rather through Alma’s memoirs. As even Kennedy argues, this image never did stand up well against the evidence of Mahler’s letters, of other people’s memories of him, or of his busy and highly successful conducting career. Its invalidation does not require the discovery (or invention) of anything so high-toned as an assertion of man’s spiritual victory.

Despite their endings, Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth no more support that image than the Tenth invalidates it. Like the Tenth, and like Mahler’s other mature symphonies, they are far too varied in emotional content to admit of so simple an interpretation. In 1907, on a visit to Finland, Mahler had a discussion with Sibelius on the nature of the symphony, in the course of which he told Sibelius, “The symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” Nowadays these famous words are cited to show that Mahler wanted to open the symphony to all the highly personal, disturbing, lurid emotions supposedly eschewed by classicists such as Brahms and Sibelius. Mahler’s words have been assumed to justify the popular view of him as an essentially confessional artist – the representative composer of our troubled century, the supreme purveyor of musical angst. Every apparently cheerful Scherzo must be heard as eerily grotesque, with Hitler’s jackbooted troops and the Holocaust lurking just around the next bend. The most beautiful slow movements are revealed as laden with pathos and bleak resignation. The gayest and most festive finales, closely inspected, show us that Mahler was merely whistling in the dark. It has been easy to forget that only one Mahler symphony, the Sixth, actually ends in the minor.

- Mahler’s Unfinished Symphony, Atlantic Monthly, December, 1998.

2. While an angry mob bayed for the culprits outside Molineux, Terry Connor intoned “We’re all in this together”, somehow managing to sound even less convincing than David Cameron.

Wolverhampton Wanderers had just lost their fifth home game in succession, have won only one of their past 14 in the Premier League, and are a Championship team in all but name.

Connor, their L-plated manager, is plainly out of his depth and the board clearly boobed by sacking Mick McCarthy a month ago without a decent replacement to hand. The fans, feeling betrayed by a potentially catastrophic mistake, vented their spleen before and after the dismal performance on Saturday when the club's owner, Steve Morgan, and the chief executive, Jez Moxey, had to run the gauntlet with police protection. The players, too, were abused, to which Jamie O’Hara tweeted his objection.

It is a sad state of affairs for erstwhile giants of the domestic game, who are learning the hard way that promoting from within hardly ever works – largely because most managers employ assistants who pose no threat to their tenure.

Wolves face Manchester United next Sunday, then Arsenal and Manchester City in April, and Connor was whistling in the dark when he said: “We spoke about the situation after the game and we still believe we are good enough to get out of trouble. One result doesn’t break a season and we’ll continue to compete.”

Continue? Starting would be nice for those suffering old gold supporters.

- Fans turn on board after Terry Connor fails to inspire doomed Wolves, Guardian.co.uk, March 11, 2012.

3. It didn’t take long for Mitt Romney’s Republican running-mate, Paul Ryan, to make the kind of impact on us foreigners which will delight his admirers and confirm the bookies’ hunch that Barack Obama may well win his second term in November despite an ailing US economy. Just two days on the job and some bright spark has just unearthed Ryan’s attack on the NHS.

It confirms the impression I got from reading the Fleet St Tory press on Sunday after Romney’s introduction of him as “the next president of the United States” (whoops). “Who says Romney is always risk-averse, eh?” and, “this will set the contest alight”. It sounded like whistling in the dark to keep conservative spirits up, knowing that the choice may well prove a Palin-esque mistake.

We can shrug and say that Congressman Ryan doesn’t know much about the NHS, either its strengths or weaknesses, so we needn’t waste much time on his views. That’s true as far as it goes. Very bright (so we keep being told) and charismatic (Mitt needs help in that department), Ryan is an ideologue who would look at a taxpayer-funded healthcare system and condemn it out of hand.

That’s what he did in the Wall St Journal (proprietor: R Murdoch) in 2009 when he warned that the Obama health plan would put the US on “a glide path towards European-style socialism” in which voters would become dependent on government, reluctant to embrace spending cuts which might hit their healthcare.

“We need only look to Great Britain and elsewhere to see the effects of socialised healthcare on the broader economy. Once a large number of citizens get their heathcare from the State (it’s always with a capital ‘S’ among the Ryan crowd), it dramatically alters their attachment to government,” he wrote.

OK, we can follow that and agree with it – or not.

What we do know is that the UK still spends less than 10% of its GDP on healthcare, as do most advanced EU healthcare systems, more or less, while the US spends at least 15%, and probably nearer 17%, a US health executive (private sector) told me recently.

Which system is both fairer and more efficient in terms of health outcomes? We all know the answer. Despite the brilliance of its hi-tech medicine and its restless quest for innovation, it’s not the US.

- Paul Ryan: conservative saviour or Republican albatross? Guardian.co.uk, August 14, 2012.



About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.


Last laugh?

IPhone is getting a bit long in the tooth

Want to decompress?

No strings attached?

(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑:陈丹妮)

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