Departments

Quotation

I hate to quote. This is twice perverse: first, because I admire writing heavy in quotations, and second, because quotations are basic to the essay as a form. The essayists of the age of gold (imperial gold, flowing and counted) were habitual quoters. Montaigne quoted so widely from Plutarch and Seneca that they are regarded as the essay's classical models more for the force of Montaigne's evident admiration than the contents of their works. Bacon, second essayist, in his first essay, of Death, quotes—misquotes—Montaigne. The essayists of the age of silver (mirror silver, clear and perspicuous) prefaced their untitled essays with classical quotations—the quotation being the kernel of the essay to follow. The essayists of the age of iron (plate iron, driving and bearing) often simply titled their essays with quotations, reserving the climax of the essay to address it. The essayists of our age of lead (secret lead, soldering microcosmic circuits) seem to think it indecent to admit concentrated literary effects to their essays except in the form of choice quotations.

Still I hate to quote and feel parasitic when I do it. My rejection is not absolute: when I owe a train of thought to a quotation, or when it embodies a thought so forcibly that any paraphrase would only suggest it—then I admit it. And sometimes borrowing a quote that has famously been used before, allows me to suggest a connection without having to dilute an essay with its explicit statement.

The above understates the case for quotation. Nonfiction begins in quotation—quotation is not just a mechanism peculiar to nonfiction, but the very means by which nonfiction split from fiction, the means by which what can be written about has become more and more. The presocratics, by quoting Homer, declare that they are doing something different than Homer. Socrates and Plato quote Homer and the presocratics; Aristotle quotes Homer, the presocratics, Socrates, and Plato; Zeno quotes Homer and the presocratics and Socrates and Plato and Aristotle, &c. Each new regress of quotation expands what can be written about by a new order of magnitude.

Still, for every good quotation can do, I perceive an equal bad. Literature can be concatenated from quotations—see Burton, Elliot—but if concatenating quotations were enough to make literature, theses would be worth reading. Quotations compress impossibly long arguments; quotations hide chasms with convenient bridges. Quotations let a piece of writing claim a place in a tradition; quotations shroud child thoughts in adult costumes. Quotations prevent duplication of work, save the time waved in saying what has already been said; quotations prevent the integrity of a work. Quotations serve as indices of large thoughts and subtle experiences, name them when they have no names; quotations protract naming until it passes for understanding. Quotations let reading propel writing to the benefit of both; quotations restrict reading to what can be quoted without embarrassment, and conceal real sources of thoughts with quotable ones.

The worst literary offense of quotation is the same as its scholarly benefit: its corroborates and exemplifies. "See! Someone else thought as I do. Someone else has felt as I do." Very good. You bring proofs with your argument. But let me ask: are you sure that all these proofs don't make your argument less provable? An abstract argument, if it is precise and clear, can always be tested. But the more instances and use cases an argument tries to apply to, the vaguer it becomes by the slight fudging each applicaton requires.

I write less to develop new thoughts than to clear out old ones. Most writers read to write; I write to read. Before I can start new trains of thought I need the old ones off the tracks. A few months ago I called the Ruricolist "trephination"; I meant it. I write for the same reason people allow holes to be drilled in their heads: to let off pressure, to drain superfluity. The image is extreme but then I find writing an extreme habit: intense, unnerving, time-consuming, consuming—yet not only worthwhile but necessary, devoutly necessary. Somewhere in the labyrinth that perplexed me into becoming a writer I lost the connection between writing and quotation; or perhaps in my indirect approach I never made it. Either way, I do not regret the lack.