“For [Dr.] Johnson, to know a civilization is to know its quotations. To write and speak one’s language well, one needs to be familiar with important models of its use. In Johnson’s view, language is in part made by important things said in it. Just as the actions of individuals or peoples do not just express but also create their character, so their utterances do not just illuminate but also change the medium.”
Originality is a myth. Attentive readers know that good writers are in the recycling business. It has all been said before. No one starts from scratch. The best a writer can hope for is to freshly illuminate something already said, and often said better. Novelty is the adolescent’s (or mediocrity’s) way of getting unearned attention. We don’t value a writer because he makes it new (as in Pound’s pernicious diktat), but because he makes it good. In literature, unlike science, there is no progress. One can even make the case that it’s all been downhill since Homer and Isaiah (or Dante, or Shakespeare, or Tolstoy).
In the passage quoted above from The Words of Others: From Quotations to Culture (Yale University Press, 2011), Gary Saul Morson is glossing Johnson’s observation as reported by Boswell in his Life. When John Wilkes condemns quotation as pedantry, Johnson says: “No, it is a good thing; there is community of mind in it. Classical quotation is the parole of literary men all over the world.” Morson, like Johnson, is an anti-Wilkes. He revels in quotations and quotes with approval The Anatomy of Melancholy by Burton, for whom quotations were oxygen: “We can say nothing but what hath been said, the composition and method is ours only.” Morson is among the great celebrators of thought and expression:
“Quotations live as long as they are used, and so long as they are used, they shape thought, language, and individual personalities. Collections inspire us with the muse of quotation, and encourage a special sort of reading as roaming. We get to make a new dialogue from words already spoken. We play, and grow wiser as we do.”