Maybe you know the song; certainly you’ve heard the phrase. It started as a line of dialogue in a play about the man who wrote ‘Don Quixote’, a play that was later musicalized and became popular worldwide as ‘Man of La Mancha’. Now it’s a cultural cliché, used for advertising and punditry. But I just read the backstory of that play/musical from the show’s author, Dale Wasserman, and as often happens with history, we’ve gotten it all wrong.
“The odd thing about this little phrase is that everyone seems to misunderstand it. ‘The impossible dream’ is customarily applied to ventures that may be somewhat difficult but perfectly possible. A pennant for the Mets. A new spike in the company sales chart. An even faster computer (who needs it?) or possibly the latest burp in technology. When I see these references – and I see them every day – my impulse is to holler, ‘Pay attention, damn it, the operative word is not dream, the operative word is impossible!’
Of course, no one listens. But ‘impossible’ is exactly what I meant: the dream, to be valid, must be impossible. Not just difficult. Impossible. Which implies an ideal never attainable but nevertheless stubbornly to be pursued. A striving for what cannot be achieved but still is worth the effort. As, for instance, peace on earth. Or a gentleness for all who breathe, and breathing, suffer. Or a hope that we may mitigate the horrors paraded for us on the news every hour of every day of every week. That we may reduce the tidal surge of wars, crimes, cruelties to humans and to animals, and the orgies of atrocities that sicken the earth.
These are impossible dreams. Still, quixotically, they must be dreamed.”
(Dale Wasserman, “The Impossible Musical”, New York: Applause, 2003.)