If You’re Interested in More, I Can Make You a Quotation
By Malcolm Sharps
Ever since I picked up advert jingles as a child, along with the theme songs from Mr Ed, the Pied Piper and Gilligan’s Island, and later at school I took in more weighty lines from poems and hymns and the pronouncements of the influential and famous, I’ve carried dozens of quotes around with me in my head. They are like a pocketful of pebbles that I play about with to calm myself when nervous or they are like sign posts with which I try to give myself some guidance in a world where there is no clear direction, and then again, their verbal cleverness is simply there to provide me with entertainment. After all, remembered quotes are not all serious in content; nor do they bring themselves to our attention with equal force and profundity. I cannot claim, like Stephen Spender, that (first quote coming up) ‘I think continually of those who were truly great’; just as frequently I’m drawn to the utterances of the petty, the thwarted and the acidly ironic, for these are qualities which create amusement as acts of defense. In the ideal, the quotes we remember are the distillation, out of the rambling and thinness of plainer language of, variously: wisdom, wit, clever observations, points of enlightenment, pronouncements of justice, simplifications of seeming complexities, paradoxes, and expressions of hope or resigned desperation compressed neatly into an arresting arrangement of words.
The Bible and Shakespeare form special categories in this area, as they do in so many others. Some parts, like 1 Corinthians or The Tempest, are virtually lexicons of quotations. For me, there is a special category of Bible quote which I like for its creative mischievousness: the Bible misquote. Here are a few. The race is not given to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet (Damon Runyon). The meek shall inherit the earth, but not the mineral rights (Paul Getty). The meek shall inherit the earth – whatever’s left of it. The meek shall inherit the earth, but only if the rest of you have no strong objections. I’ve sourced the first two misquotes but missourcing of quotes is even more common than misquoting; and correcting the incorrect sources is virtually a literary cottage industry by itself. The trouble is, the famous quote the famous and don’t always attribute the words to the originator. A much quoted reply of James McNeill Whistler to Oscar Wilde recognises this: ‘How I wish I’d said that’, Wilde responded to a witty remark of Whistler’s (not recorded?) To which, Whistler answered, ‘You will, Oscar, you will’.
Perhaps the most famous misattributed quote in my lifetime was assigned to Bobby Kennedy, ‘Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say why not?’ But, in fact, Kennedy was himself quoting from Back to Methuselah by George Bernard Shaw, another masterly deliverer of the deft pronouncement.
Some quotes are so apt that we wear them out virtually through their familiarity: A cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. I can resist everything but temptation. The truth is never pure and rarely simple. All three are reliably attributed to Oscar Wilde. If Oscar Wilde and Churchill come high on the list of quotes, they also come high on the list of misattributed quotes. In fact, if you strip Churchill of all the quotes misattributed to him, a good 70% appear to be by someone else. We can be sure, however, he did say, ‘Some chicken, some neck’, though this is one I’ve never found an application for myself.
Oddly, I’ve always found moral quotes very attractive, but usually when they show how morality plays tricks with us and we play tricks with morality. Mark Twain gave the perfect example when he said, ‘A clear conscience is often the result of a poor memory.’ And Alexander Pope saw morality through equally skeptical eyes when he said, ‘When men grow virtuous in their old age, they only make a sacrifice to God of the Devil’s leavings’. Romans 6 says, ‘The wages of sin is death’. But what is, sorry, what are the wages of virtue? Virtue has never been an easy proposition to sell. Is it all weighted on the debits side with only heavenly IOUs on the credit side? One view that I learned during a rather puritanical childhood states that: ‘Virtue is its own reward’. Victorian Christians learned that one from the Pagans and made it their own.
A line, just one line often, sticks out from a poem, it may be the curious manner of its expression which accounts for its memorability, as with the initial line of ‘On His Blindness’ by John Milton: ‘When I consider how my light is spent’. We stop and wonder for a moment if he really meant to say ‘light’. Or it can be through the emotional directness of the words as when John Betjeman speaks to his sick son in the poem A Child Ill: ‘Oh, little body, do not die, you hold the soul which talks to mine.’ The son, as it happens, did not die, but that one line, even if the rest of the poem had been dross, and it most certainly isn’t, finds its own immortality. How many poems must only be remembered for one line? Is that enough? we ask. Somehow the deviant richness of that one line has the power to outshine the drabness of the rest. This is what Browning spoke of when he said, ‘The little more, and how much it is; the little less, and what worlds away.” A great line seems to take us into another world. And maybe sometimes it needs to leave the other lines, the earth-bound ones, behind.
Political quotes had a great attraction to me when I was younger. Trotsky’s dark ‘You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you’. ‘Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one’ (Karl Marx). And much more whimsically, but it does reflect a certain common political viewpoint: ‘Whatever it is, I’m against it.’ (Groucho Marx). ‘Anyone who is not a socialist by twenty, has no soul, anyone who is still a socialist by forty, has no brain’ probably holds the English record for false attribution; once again, it’s not Winston Churchill, whose literary heritage stands further depleted.
Quotes in the form of definitions I find hilarious. Though no one wants to hear that a horse is an animal with four legs; they do want to hear that ‘a camel is a horse designed by a committee’. And definitions seem to cluster around certain words, perhaps as a corrective to our uncertain understanding of them. Take a word like ‘gentleman’ that produces many differences in opinion as to its true qualities, which hardly provide a unified consensus. So we have the widely diverging ‘someone who never unknowingly gives offence’, ‘someone who never disappoints a lady’, and most outlandish of all, ‘someone who can play the bagpipes – and doesn’t’.
Definitions of nationalities are often amusing and revealing about prevailing attitudes and prejudices, but are often racially offensive. So I’ll just confine myself to the kindest one I know, which happens to be about Hungarians: ‘A Hungarian is one who can enter a revolving door behind you and still manages to come out ahead of you on the other side’. It’s a great encapsulation of the driving ambition of many Hungarians, and how often that ambition has been realised by the Hungarians who came, frequently forced by political intolerance, to America. Think of Michael Curtiz, Houdini, Pulitzer.
I find there is a divide in popular quotes separating the two sides of the Atlantic – something brought home to me by the Dead Poets Society film. With us, there’s a lack of Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson, Millay, and even Emily Dickinson. So that fictitious construct, the average Englishman, is unlikely to speak of ‘lives of quiet desperation’, or to ‘march to the beat of a different drummer’, or to be burning their ‘candle at both ends’. At most, this not totally average Englishman can only come up with ‘zero at the bone’, when Emily Dickinson comes to mind.
Quotes often beget their opposites as well as variants and each can seem true at different times and in different contexts. In 1919, an American journalist, already well-disposed towards left-wing views, visited the Soviet Union and declared, ‘I’ve seen the future and it works.’ As time went on that claim began to seem less reliable, to say the least. But the quote outlived its times and later, in other contexts – I’ve heard it applied to America, Los Angeles, California, the Obama regime and others – someone else said, ‘I’ve seen the future and it doesn’t work’. So now we have two antithetical quotes in circulation. And we are at liberty to apply either as we wish, not confined by any original intention or context or specific meaning. Feel free to use them. You need not remember who said it first. You don’t even have to let on that you are quoting. For once copyright law is on your side. Don’t forget, ‘The main purpose of quotes is to be quoted’, as I think somebody surely must have already said.
I’d like to acknowledge two regular contributors to this blog who use lots of quotations in their works, Louise Peloquin and Stephen O’Connor. Louise brings back memories of an era with her lines from popular songs, and she knows a lot of them. O’Connor seldom writes a short story, an article or a novel without coming up with an Irish ditty or a line from Shakespeare or a piece of homemade sagacity, his characters have their private world of remembered speech that they look to for sanctuary from the larger one.
A Dozen of My Favourite Quotes
- In Capitalism man exploits man, in Communism it’s just the opposite (JK Galbraith)
- What we hold without love, we lose without sorrow. (unidentified Catholic priest)
- You’re not the missionary type, you’re a comedian. You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes. (from Starlight Memories by Woody Allen)
- The more I learn, the less I realise I know. (Socrates)
- I’ll never forget what’s’isname (title of a film 1967)
- I can walk away from anything but myself. (unknown)
- Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people. (Heinrich Heine)
- Now I know I’ve got a heart, ’cause it’s breaking. (The Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz)
- What is the difference between Dali and a madman? Dali is not mad. (Salvador Dali)
- What does it feel like to be 100 years old? Better than the alternative. (George Burns)
- The reason bouncing on your head isn’t illegal, is that no one wants to do it. (Reg Hughes, my old Criminology teacher)
- No man but a blockhead ever wrote for anything but money. (Dr Johnson quoted by a serial blockhead)