PRINT October 1996

Q & A

Quotable Quoters

IF EMERSON REGARDED QUOTATIONS as lazy dross produced from an uninspired brain (“I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”), for some of us there is nothing more sublime than the purloined line. Repeating another’s words is more complex than not wanting—or being able—to tell “what you know.” In the hands of a true artisan, borrowed lines become bits of homage or love—thick parcels of new meaning. The chosen phrases dressed in quotation marks that sparkle one’s diary, clarify one’s argument, or dance in one’s head long after one has put down a book are less lazy moments of an infirm mind than instances in which bemused and epiphanic conversations occur between readers, histories, and texts. In this sense, I like to think of quotes as supreme flashes of conjugal bliss, bred of communion, irony, and insight. To quote is to converse, not to be spoken for.

I took this column as an opportunity to descend upon those whose work has been a source for my own quotaholically induced scrawls over the years or those for whom the quote is a crucial medium. My question—“What’s your favorite quote or phrase, and why?”—solicited responses ranging from an initial “Oh God, I can’t remember anything” to Raymond Pettibon’s probing reflections on the act of quoting itself. And yet all the respondents ultimately came up with something that had personal significance to them. So it is true that all “writing consists largely of quotations” (Walter Benjamin), clearly some phrases sustain or haunt us more than others.

CRAIG BALDWIN (filmmaker): I actually do live by a certain slogan that I repeat all the time to myself and to all my friends. It’s by Chairman Mao: “Criticism is an act of love.” You can quote me—or Mao—on that.

AVITAL RONELL (professor, Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, New York University): The mottoes I live with and by, depending on the internal season, are split between Goethe, Hélène Cixous, Thomas Bernhard, and country-western lyrics. Some samples: the song that says “you’ve got to know when to fold, know when to walk away, know when to run” (Kenny Rogers), and “It’s no great achievement to do what you love but to love what you do” (Goethe). And Nietzsche on Russian fatalism: “Know when to freeze in the snow until serious trouble blows over”—I guess that goes with the C&W lyrics.

MICHELLE CLIFF (writer): There’s a quote by Miles Davis that I use at the beginning of my novel Free Enterprise: “I always listen for what I can leave out.” It’s important to me because my work has a lot of absences in it, and this phrase reminds me of what I try to do in my own writing: take out the familiar and mundane in order to find the unusual and startling.

RAYMOND PETTIBON (artist): The quotes I use in my work are tangential and broken up. It’s not that I avoid definitive quotes, but probably the reason I choose to “quote” in the way I do is because I’m reading between the lines and working against the context the writer originally intended for the quotes to have in the text.

I like the preface to Tristam Shandy’s “marble page”: “Read, read, read, read, my unlearned reader! read,—or by the knowledge of the great saint Paraleipomenon—I tell you before-hand, you had better throw down the book at once; for without much reading, by which your reverence knows, I mean much knowledge, you will be more able to penetrate the moral of the next marbled page (motly emblem of my work!) than the world with all its sagacity has been able to unravel the many opinions, transactions and truths which still lie mystically hid under the dark veil of the black one.” Some editions don’t have the marble page, which looks almost like an AbEx painting. In my edition it’s a marbled page backed by another marbled page. Earlier in the text Sterne also has two pages that are completely blackened. They seem almost like an Ad Reinhardt piece. There’s also a quote from Revelations 22:19 which sums up the whole issue of quoting: “And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.” I’d say it’s the first recorded copyright, not by the law of the state but through an appeal to people’s afterlife.

GREGG BORDOWITZ (filmmaker): There are two quotes I really like. One I’ve known for about ten years, and the other’s new to me. The first one goes, “Sometimes you have to let others be right. It consoles them for not being anything else.” I actually have no idea where this comes from but I believe it’s from the brothers Goncourt. The other comes from the Cabala: “Don’t succumb to evil, emulate it.” I like it because it’s really about relentlessness—telling us to admire the relentlessness of evil.

J. G. BALLARD (writer): Oh yes, I just remembered a quote of Oscar Wilde’s, which is, “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.”

YVONNE RAINER (artist/filmmaker): There’s a passage I underlined long ago in Patricia J. Williams’ Alchemy of Race and Rights that is still meaningful to me: “If one looks at documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, one can see how they marry aspects of consent and aspects of symbology—for example, concepts like the notion of freedom. On the one hand there is the letter of the law exalted which describes a specific range of rights and precepts. On the other hand there is the spirit of the law—the symbology of freedom which is in some ways utterly meaningless or empty—although at the same time the very emptiness provides a vessel to be filled with possibility, with a plurality of autonomous yearnings.” Williams’ passage speaks to me because it goes from the institutional to the individual unconscious in one fell swoop.

ANN DOUGLAS (professor, Department of English, Columbia University): I’m writing a book on the era after World War II and I’ve found the writers who best encompass the period of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s are Frantz Fanon and C. L. R. James. The quotes that have been on my mind are Fanon’s “Europe is literally the creation of the Third World” and James’ “People are always seeking self-expression, and where they find it they stay.” Fanon’s quote is just a reminder of how Europe was never independent of the Third World, while James, who was also on the Left and spent time in this country, went on writing about American civilization, as he kindly called it, even after being kicked out of the U.S. by the same forces engineering McCarthyism. He spent most of his life as a Marxist yet still found enormous happiness in writing not only about Stokely Carmichael and Black Power but also about the classics of imperial civilization—his interpretation of Lear, why Jackson Pollock is even greater than Picasso, and so on. In other words, he found his self-expression in the traditional canon of Western culture. Both quotes reverse everything we usually think and allow us to actually see the world more clearly.

CADY NOLAND (artist): In the movie The Fly, the scientist has made his cat—Danjello—disappear in the disintegrator-reintegrator machine, and he says to his wife, “A string of cat atoms floating forever through space. It would be funny if life weren’t so sacred.” I don’t even know why I like that quote so much.

ANN HAMILTON (artist): This is a quote from the chapter “Submarginalia” that I’ve been reading recently in Susan Howe’s book, The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History: “Unknownness did your sense of touch re-trace my own nothingness? Finger the way you imagined I am anything. Is your blind gaze sensible? Is my question a solecism? Is a poetics of intervening absence an oxymoron? Do we go anywhere? I will twine feathers, prickings, rulings, wampum beads, chance echoes, sprays of lace in the place of your name. No more apprehension this side of history. Look we are reading a false conception.”

JOHN BALDESSARI (artist): There’s a piece I did in the ’70s with the quote “I will not make any more boring art.” It’s been around for a while but I still try to live by it. Also, I just got back from teaching in Santa Fe and a student there wrote down a couple of things I said which were kind of enigmatic and fun. The first is, “The problem of art is art.” The other came after he asked me what direction young artists were going in now, and I responded, “Beauty is rearing its ugly head,” which I like, since it is a problematic issue and a large one today.

Thyrza Nichols Goodeve is a frequent contributor to Artforum.