The Magazine

Who Said That?

Why certain combinations of words live in memory.

Aug 8, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 44 • By AMELIA ATLAS
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Sooner or later, all good dinner table debates reduce themselves to semantics. Yes, John Stuart Mill argued that your freedom only extends to the point where you do harm unto others, but what is harm? Sure, you can say that the Beatles were the best rock band of all time, but what do you actually mean by best? This kind of futile parsing is the raison d’être of Gary Saul Morson’s new book, a work devoted to the arcane matter of what is and isn’t a quotation.

At its heart, The Words of Others is a case for the quotation as a literary form: a self-enclosed unit of thought that identifies itself, as such, independent of context. If I may quote: “A quotation repeats the words (or actions or other defining features) of another as the words of another.” It must also have the ineffable virtue of “quotability:”

One reason that quotations must be quotable is that they function as complete, if brief, literary works and so, like all literary works, must be capable of standing on their own.

The fact of quotability, in turn, endows a quotation with literariness—“the ability to be understood and appreciated outside the context of
its origin.”

By this logic, none of what I have quoted here from The Words of Others is actually a quotation; they are extracts. They fail Morson’s essential test: These snippets hold no value stripped from the work of which they are a part. That John F. Kennedy may have borrowed his hallowed “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” from Justice Holmes is beside the point: He spoke the quotation. The fact of JFK’s having said these words is essential to the quotation’s inherited meaning and its circulation within American cultural memory. It doesn’t matter that Marie Antoinette never said “Let them eat cake!”
It’s hers.

With these rules in place, Morson gives us a tour of the use and abuse of quotation throughout the ages. His particular grievance is with the quotation police, the anthologists devoted to debunking the received wisdom of who said what when. The king of this apparently robust genre is one Ralph Keyes, author of (among other titles) Nice Guys Finish Seventh. Here Morson brings the snark: “Apparently,” he deadpans, “we are all victims of constant and colossal verbal swindles.”

His disdain notwithstanding, Morson’s efforts to debunk the debunkers draws forth some of his book’s more original lines of argument. What Keyes and his cohort fail to understand is that “authorship may be intrinsic to a quotation.” The very value of a quotation derives from the force of the personality who issues it. It’s irrelevant, then, that the phrase “iron curtain” can be traced to the Russian writer Vasily Rozanov in the 1920s: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.—Winston Churchill.” That dash constitutes an integral part of its legacy.

This kind of patient close reading redeems what occasionally feels like a thankless exercise. Morson is a Slavic scholar by training and The Words of Others becomes most interesting when he allows himself to indulge his more scholarly impulses. Having quoted a long selection (but not quotation) from Anna Karenina, he gives a thoughtful analysis of the ways in which the realist novel uses layered, indirect quotation to reveal how much individual consciousness relies upon borrowed language. Here is an extract of the selection:

And for all that, at the same point in her memories, the feeling of shame was intensified, as though some inner voice, just at the point when she thought of Vronsky, were saying to her “Warm, very warm, hot.” “Well, what is it?” she said to herself resolutely.

The liberties Tolstoy takes in intertwining his commentary with Anna’s own thoughts, which in turn borrow language (“Warm, very warm”) from a childhood game, show the extent to which the very fabric of thought is a function of quotation.

“Passages like these .  .  . depend on the fact that quotationality comes in degrees, and so the author can choose how much to use at any given point. They also depend on the possibility of quoting from more than one voice at the same time,” Morson writes.