By GEOFFREY O’BRIEN, Opinionator Blogs, New York Times, March 2, 2013
Quotes are the mental furniture of my life. From certain angles my inner landscape resembles a gallery hung with half-recalled citations, the rags and tag-ends of a lifetime of reading and listening. They can be anything at all, the exquisitely chiseled perceptions of poets and philosophers or the blurts of unscheduled truth-telling by public figures caught in the spotlight (the former Jersey City mayor Frank Hague’s “I am the law” or Richard Nixon’s “I’m not a crook”); the punch lines of 1930s comedians or the curtain lines of Jacobean dramatists; or words of wisdom or anguish or ridiculous humor, or simply, for instance, M.F.K. Fisher’s recollection of “the potato chips I ate slowly one November afternoon in 1936, in the bar of the Lausanne Palace.” They are the dangling threads that memory can latch onto when everything else goes blank.
What is the use of quotations? They have of, course, their practical applications for after-dinner speakers or for editorialists looking to buttress their arguments. They also make marvelous filler for otherwise uninspired conversations. But the gathering of such fragments responds to a much deeper compulsion. It resonates with the timeless desire to seize on the minimal remnant — the tiniest identifiable gesture — out of which the world could, in a pinch, be reconstructed. Libraries may go under, cultures may go under, but single memorizable bits of rhyme and discourse persist over centuries. Shattered wholes reach us in small disconnected pieces, like the lines of the poet Sappho preserved in ancient treatises. To collect those pieces, to extrapolate lost worlds from them, to create a larger map of the human universe by laying many such pieces side by side: this can become a fever, and one that has afflicted writers of all eras.
Anyone, of course, might develop a passion for quotes, but for a writer it’s a particularly intimate connection. A good quotation can serve as a model for one’s own work, a perpetual challenge with the neatness and self-sufficiency of its structure laid bare in the mind. How does it work? How might a quotation be done differently, with the materials and urgencies of a different moment? Perhaps writers should begin, in fact, by inwardly uttering again what has already been uttered, to get the feel of it and to savor its full power.
Quotes are the actual fabric with which the mind weaves: internalizing them, but also turning them inside out, quarreling with them, adding to them, wandering through their architecture as if a single sentence were an expansible labyrinthine space.
There are days when a one-sentence aphorism by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg — say, “The most successful tempters and thus the most dangerous are the deluded deluders” — seems as substantial as a 300-page novel, or when a single line from a John Clare poem — “Summer’s pleasures they are gone like to visions every one”— seems as if it could stand in for half the poetry ever written. Quotations bring other people, most of them long dead, into the solitary realm of thinking and writing until there is a sense of sitting in the midst of a room noisy with passionate confessions and pointed interjections. It is one thing to look at a vast wall full of unopened books — more lifetimes than any of us has — another to have the effect of a whole book contained in one phrase.
So many of the people we quote — Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, T.S. Eliot, Jorge Luis Borges, Susan Sontag — were themselves obsessive collectors of quotations. Emerson, whose journals are filled with quotations, was alert to the ways a text could change by being taken out of its context: “It is curious what new interest an old sentence or poem acquires in quotation.” Robert Burton’s classic “The Anatomy of Melancholy” is essentially a compendium of quotes with commentary. Our modern encyclopedist Borges can create new meanings and dizzying perspectives merely by juxtaposing citations drawn from an unprecedented breadth of eras and regions. To enter the worlds of classical Chinese and Japanese and Arabic poetry is to enter realms of ricocheting quotation and counter-quotation. The old joke about the first-time reader of “Hamlet” calling it “nothing but a bunch of quotations strung together” isn’t so far-off. All literary culture in a way is nothing but such a string, down to its most random corners. How many little bits of Shakespeare are preserved in the titles of mystery novels?
In a real sense, we are what we quote — and what can any of us hope to be but a tiny component of that hubbub of voices distilled by books of quotations and epigrams? I have always found such volumes the most irresistible reading. They make it possible to channel-surf millenniums of cultural history, moving forward or backward at will, and plucking out whatever perfectly formed fragment turns out to be precisely what you were looking for. The endlessness of it all is enough to make your head spin, but that dizziness is arrested by the steadying compactness and solidity of the ideal quote — the one that stands there bare and isolated and unencumbered, tiny enough to be grasped all at once, yet unfathomably wide and deep.
At a certain point, in a necessary act of appropriation, you make it part of who you are, whether or not you ever quote it to anyone but yourself. Culture then is not a wall “over there” but the very tiles out of which your own thoughts are constructed. The tiles are variegated and of different ages and subject to every kind of manipulation and juxtaposition. They take their place finally among quotes of a different kind — the quotes that are quotes to no one but you, all the things that friends and lovers and family and strangers and random voices on radio or television have said that cling to your memory and come back at odd hours of day or night, the words that become part of an alternate canon of what has not yet been written down. Out of all that mixing, with luck, might come the rarest thing of all, a new thought or fresh insight that can take its place with all those other sentences, a quotation that waited until just this moment to declare itself.
Geoffrey O’Brien, the author of “The Fall of the House of Walworth,” is editor in chief of the Library of America and general editor of the 18th edition of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.”