Tuesday, August 04, 2015

`Joyful Friendship with the Great Dead'

A reader is unhappy with my use of quotations. He accuses me of laziness, of padding my words with the words of others, of trying to mooch off their authority and claim it as my own. Technically, I’m guilty, sort of, but I plead the precedent defense. Think of Montaigne, Robert Burton, Sir Thomas Browne, Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne, Herman Melville, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Jorge Luis Borges, Samuel Beckett and Geoffrey Hill. Passages in some of their works are virtual palimpsests of words drawn from other writers, sometimes unacknowledged, even verging on plagiarism (especially in Sterne’s case). No, I’m not mooching off their authority, elevating my status to theirs, etc., merely putting the practice, the temperamental proclivity to quote, in context.

I am rereading Petrarch and His World (1963) by Morris Bishop (the best friend at Cornell of Nabokov, no slouch when it came to artful quotation). Bishop notes that Rerum memorandarum libri (1343), “like Petrarch’s other books, is marred for the modern reader by his abuse of quotations. But we live in an age of reference books and of libraries [not to mention, anachronistically, the Internet]. Petrarch’s readers had no place to look up anything.” In Epistolae metricae (1347), Petrarch replied to his critics:

“I could use fewer [quotations]; I could even not write at all….But there is nothing that moves me so much as the examples of great men. It’s useful to uplift oneself, to test one’s mind to see if it contains something solid, generous, firm, and constant against ill fortune, or if one has lied to oneself about oneself. To do this there is no better way than to measure oneself against these great men.” [All translations by Bishop.]

Bishop approves: “His joyful friendship with the great dead moved him constantly to repeat their words. To quote is to recognize another’s wisdom and to share it.” Bishop then quotes another pertinent passage from one of Petrarch’s letters and adds, parenthetically: “(Does a critic reproach me for quoting too much? I quote Petrarch in defense of quotation.)”

What I most want to do at Anecdotal Evidence is share my enthusiasm for writing well and for reading good books. Often, the most efficient way to do that is to quote our betters, “the great dead,” those who came before us, whose works constitute the tradition in which all of us live. Call it writerly, readerly gratitude, an impulse Chesterton described as “happiness doubled by wonder.”

1 comment:

Dick Cornflour said...

I have to say that it's hard for me to believe this story of an unhappy reader. I think you've made him up as a straw man, and used him as an excuse to pad your writing with quotations. You lazy moocher, before long, you'll be using Cab Calloway lyrics as justification.