The Ruricolist is now available in print.


I hate to quote. This is twice perverse. It perverse because I admire writing heavy in quotations; and it is perverse because quotations are basic to the essay as a form. The essayists of the age of gold (imperial gold, flowing and counted) were fluent in quotation. Montaigne quoted so widely from Plutarch and Seneca that they are regarded as the essay’s classical models as much for the force of Montaigne’s evident admiration as for the content of their works. Bacon, second essayist, in his first essay, of Death, quotes – no, misquotes – Montaigne. The essayists of the age of silver (mirror silver, clear and perspicuous) nucleated their untitled essays around classical quotations. 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 return to it in closing. The essayists of our age of lead (quiet lead, soldering microcosmic circuits) generally admit rhetorical effects into their essays only in the form of choice quotations. But when I quote, I feel like a parasite.

Sometimes quotation is necessary. Sometimes I owe a train of thought to a quotation, and the source must be acknowledged. Sometimes a quote embodies a thought so perfectly that any paraphrase would be a diminution. And sometimes borrowing a quote that has famously been used before, suggests a connection without having to dilute an essay with an explicit reference.

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 pre-Socratics, quoting Homer, show that they are doing something different than Homer. Socrates and Plato quote Homer and the pre-Socratics; Aristotle quotes Homer, the pre-Socratics, Socrates, and Plato; Zeno quotes Homer and the pre-Socratics and Socrates and Plato and Aristotle. Each new regress of quotation, turning background into foreground, expands what can be written about by an order of magnitude. And so we are arrived.

Still, for every good quotation can do, I perceive an equal bad. Literature can be concatenated from quotations – see Burton, Eliot – but if concatenating quotations were enough to make literature, theses would be worth reading. Quotations compress impossibly long arguments; quotations hide chasms with too 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 lost in saying what has already been said; quotations lose integrity. Quotations index large thoughts and subtle experiences, name them when they have no names; quotations substitute naming for understanding. Quotations, for the author, let reading propel writing to the benefit of both; quotations, for the author, restrict reading to what can be quoted without embarrassment, or conceal the real sources of thoughts with quotable ones.

The worst literary offense of quotation is the same as its scholarly benefit: it 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 weaker? An abstract argument, if it is precise and clear, can always be tested. Too many examples make an argument weaker, not stronger; every example suggests a line of refutation. Logically, refuting the examples should not affect the argument; rhetorically, it is fatal. If your quotation is not representative, if it does not mean exactly what you think it means, if the attribution is false, if it comes from a source that has fallen into disfavor, your argument will go unheard.

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 writing “trephination”; I meant it. I write for the same reason people have holes drilled in their heads: to let off pressure, to drain superfluity. The image is extreme but then I find writing an extreme habit: intense, nerving-wracking, 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 in my indirect approach I never made it. Either way, I do not regret the lack.