We are what we quote

Speech is quotation. That is unless someone chooses to construct a language of their own and is content to be understood by no one else.

There is in practice only so far we can go in making words our own, since a word’s ability to possess meaning depends on it being shared. And virtually all of these meanings come used — rare is the word and meaning freshly minted. And yet from this supply of endlessly re-used terms, we can construct a limitless number of novel pieces of language. Duplication and uniqueness get wrapped together.

Out of this endless supply of new sentences however, some turn out so well-formed they demand repetition.

Geoffrey O’Brien asks: 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.

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1 thought on “We are what we quote

  1. BillVZ

    single memorizable bits of rhyme and discourse persist over centuries
    May I contribute? From my file:
    Einstein
    “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”
    “Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school”
    Mark Twain
    “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.”
    YogiBerra
    “You can observe a lot just by watching.”
    “A nickel isn’t worth a dime today.”

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