30 Days – Day #5: My Favourite Quotation

“I hate quotation. Tell me what you know.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson.

I can bang on about this quote in any number of ways. And I’m going to, so settle in.

We’ll start with the most basic: answering a question about quotation with a quotation that proclaims my hatred of them is, well, I think anyone that knows me would agree that that’s very much in line with my sense of humour. I don’t intrinsically hate quotation, but the circular nature of that response is sufficiently pleasing to me that I Iove to use that quote.

But further: I do hate over-use of quotation. It can be used as a substitute for one’s own thought, creativity and self-expression. I would far rather hear someone restate an idea clumsily, but in their own words, than have them use the most perfect and elegant quote in the universe. I also dislike the traits in people that lead them to use quotes from literature, or from other people, all over their internet profiles. It reeks to me of a bad combination of some or all of insecurity, false modesty, self aggrandisement, and a poor capacity for self-reflection. If you can’t talk honestly about yourself in your own words, then there’s something wrong, in my view.

And even getting away from the use of quotation as a crutch for creativity and self-expression, I particularly hate the trick of quoting some other source to shore up a weak argument. Religious arguments are particularly bad for this, referring to their holy books as if those books carry some intrinsic weight, but it can happen in plenty of secular arguments, too. But it’s in the religious context that I particularly love the seldom-seen full version of this quote.

“Immortality. I notice that as soon as writers broach this question they begin to quote. I hate quotation. Tell me what you know.”

If your argument is weak, referring to another, older, or cleverer source who appears to be saying something similar may make it sound stronger. And frankly, that’s cheating. Now, I’ll grant that if you’re caught by someone who is more familiar with the work you’re attempting to (mis-)use, then you might well find your entire argument being knocked down at a stroke. But if you’re not, then well, being deceptive like that in an argument is pretty shitty, and drives me up the wall.

So, when do I like quotation?

Well, one of the reasons most quotations survive is that they’re pithy statements of interesting ideas. They’re generally quite simple, clear, and memorable. That can be good. They’re a good way to make a theme or idea clear, in support of one’s own words. And yes, properly used in a debate, they can add some useful weight. And, as was pointed out to me in conversation over breakfast this morning, quotation is the basis of all satire. And we all know how I love satire. (I also like remixes, re-appropriations and re-interpretations. Can’t do any of those without quotation…)

But there’s another reason I like them, and that is that I like context. I like the fact that works and ideas exist in a wider web of thinking, expression and human experience that has gone before, or come after them. Quotations can provide a sort of cognitive hyperlinking, a means to indicate that if you like a particular line of thought, you can see where it’s born from and what was born of it. And I think that context for one’s thoughts is one of the most useful things one can provide as one goes.

For example: one of the other reasons I like that quote is because it is Emerson’s. I quite like Emerson. I’m a lot more of a socialist than he ever was, but his lack of socialism comes from his strong belief in “the infinitude of the private man”. He, in this case, is talk about the single individual being more important, and in many respects stronger than society. I don’t believe that’s the case, but I do believe very strongly in both privacy and individuality of thought, and the power of the individual when they stand up for they have come to believe for themselves, rather than been taught by some outside force. My socialism, I guess, comes from the idea that society is the place where our individual selves, and all our private thoughts come together for the advancement of all, to enable us to all go off and better be our private selves. I don’t think he’d have had a problem with that.