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What my Cactus and Shakespeare have in Common

A Photo of my Cactus

This is my cactus. My wife picked it up at Home Depot and gave it to me for Valentine’s day, pointing out how I like strange and exotic things. I had never seen a cactus with such a bloom, and I loved it.

As I was watering it the other day, I noticed how crisp the flower felt. I took this as a bad sign, and gave it an extra drink. But then I noticed something unusual where the flower was sprouting from the greenery…

I looked closer… 

...and discovered that the flower had been hot-glued onto the cactus, and was in fact just a paper blossom. Apparently this is a “thing.” Certain cacti distributers have been doing this for years. Some people are upset when they figure this out.

It reminds me of how certain Shakespeare sonnets were once held on a pedestal, but then discovered to have been misattributed, and subsequently stricken from importance, regardless of whether they were actually good poetry.

So here’s my question: how much should a poem’s or a cactus’s (or anything’s) origin be a consideration of how much joy it provides? And of its inherent value? What is true beauty? I still love my cactus even though the flower is fake, just as my opinion of From Russia with Love would remain unchanged if we discovered it was actually penned by a no-name author instead of Fleming.

On the other hand, appreciation and understanding of an author’s style can create a richer experience when reading subsequent work because it sets up your expectations. If Shakespeare sounds trite, he’s probably making fun of other writers. And if John Locke introduces a new character, there’s a decent chance that character will die soon, and often in a spectacularly interesting or gratifying way. And I admit, when I found out that James Frey had made up most of A Million Little Pieces, I suddenly cared a lot less. They were the same words on the same pages, but being mostly fiction rather than an autobiography changed its meaning to me.

Our perceptions can actually affect our enjoyment. In a Stanford study, a wine was labeled with various prices, from low to high, then given to participants to drink. It was all the same wine. But the people who drank the bottle with the highest price tag showed in brain scans that their brains actually enjoyed it more (check out the related, super-interesting TED video).

So maybe I’m just being stubborn when I say that I love my cactus just as much now as before.

Or maybe I’ve convinced myself that it’s even more special this way.

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