“Of all the temptations faced by Saint Anthony, internet gambling was the greatest.”
– Gustave Flaubert, Kiss My Floppy Disk Interviews, 1477–2096
For a period of time in my early twenties, I had a great deal of difficulty shaving in the morning. I understood the process, I just couldn’t imagine with the impending demise of the environment, the futility of virtuous action in a primarily cruel and predatory world, and the rapid closing of some of my favorite record stores why it mattered, at all, if I got out of bed. Luckily, a neighbor of mine, a shut-in who baked delicious pies that he sold out of the apartment to a number of coffee shops and private households, had decided that the sure-fire fix for this type of depression was a book of inspirational quotes. Dubious as it may be to take mental health advice from an agoraphobic, I carried the book around with me everywhere like a hex master with his book of spells.
I don’t want to give the impression that I doubt the magical quality of words. When I was sad, some of the passages helped break my repetitive thoughts and weaken my psychological rigidity. One night on a bus ride back to Providence, the quotes gave me a plausible way to “mind my own business” while one man punched another man in the face a couple seats in front of me. Looking back, what most interests me now about that little book is the authority that I granted to those quotes because of their authors. Did any of those people actually say or write any of those things? Maybe. If they did, was a great deal of meaning lost by the passage of time, the cultural differences between me and them, or the simple lose of context provided by the greater work from which these, usually, single sentences were plucked? Probably.
There are plenty of quotes that are inaccurately transcribed or misattributed floating around. While these can be hilarious or just plain weird, I’m not particularly interested in them. What interests me is that quotes, themselves, even when accurately rendered from a legitimate source have a somewhat dubious role in our interactions with one another. From the coworker or friend who uses quotes to elevate themselves in debate to the well-meaning nut on the first floor who’s trying to keep you from creating a reason for the coroner to visit his place of business—Funerals and pies, whatever you’ve heard, don’t really mix—the goal is to get you to do what they want because Gandhi or Groucho Marx said so. So there!
If this is starting to feel like an argument against quotes, it isn’t. It’s an argument against blaming the source of a quote for its use. In the coming weeks and months, I will explore quotes, react to them, write about them. But, I invite you not to blame their authors for the ways in which I use them or the reactions that I may have to any of these given quotes. It’s exactly because I will rip quotes, like we all do, from their original context that their use will become a new thing.