Unreal Nature

December 22, 2008

Objects In The Rear-View Mirror

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:08 am

As a shameless and prolific (heh!) user of  quotes, I can’t resist the delicious opportunity to quote from an entire article about quotes, within which there are many quotes, even quotes about quotes.  The bit below is taken from near the end of Notable Quotables: Is there anything that is not a quotation? by Louis Menard in the Feb 19, 2007 issue of The New Yorker magazine.

“You can get a happy quotation anywhere if you have the eye,” the younger Holmes [Oliver Wendell Holms, Jr.] once wrote. He thought that you could find wisdom and felicity even in advertisements if you knew how to tweak them properly. And when you start taking phrases out of context and recasting them as quotations, you begin to feel (Shapiro must have undergone this sensation) a little vertiginous. What is not, potentially, a quotation? The dullest instructional prose, with the right light thrown on it, can acquire the gleam of suggestiveness or insight. “Objects in the rear-view mirror may appear closer than they are”: that one has been appropriated many times. Whenever I take a plane, I am struck by “Secure your own mask before assisting others” as advice with wide application. And I have often found myself imagining ways of fitting tab A into slot B.

Public circulation is what renders something a quotation. It’s quotable because it’s been quoted, and its having been quoted gives it authority. Quotations are prostheses. “As Emerson/Churchill/Donald Trump once observed” borrows another person’s brain waves and puts them to your own use. (If you fail to credit Emerson et al., it’s called plagiarism. But isn’t plagiarism just the purest form of quotation?) Then, there is a subset of quotations that are personal. We pick them up off the public street, but we put them to private uses. We hoard quotations like amulets. They are charms against chaos, secret mantras for dark times, strings that vibrate forever in defiance of the laws of time and space. That they may be opaque or banal to everyone else is what makes them precious: they aren’t supposed to work for everybody. They’re there to work for us.

That last bit is especially true of song lyrics — often whether you like it or not. I find myself compulsively singing along with the radio all day long, and often get some inane refrain stuck in my mind after I’ve turned the radio off.

Addendum: Ray Girvan has an excellent post on the many ways that quotes can go astray, Hillfinger quotes, in the JS Blog.

-Julie (brain wave borrower)



  1. However, a problem is – and I didn’t realise the extent until recently – the sheer ease with which quotations acquire fake attribution, conscripting people like Einstein or Gandhi to act as appeal to authority. I think the Internet has particularly worsened it, since people no longer have to rely on mainstream published dictionaries of quotations that have at least some fact-checking. As I’ve said elsewhere, there’s a particular flow of garbage quotes from Wikiquote to other quotation sites that have no infrastructure for correction or even flagging dubiousness.

    Comment by Ray Girvan — December 22, 2008 @ 1:53 pm

  2. I had no idea — but now that I think about it, I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s good to be warned. I’ll have to be more careful when using second-hand sources.

    Books of quotations, and quote web sites give me a headache. I start to feel like I’m trapped in a jingle factory.

    Comment by unrealnature — December 22, 2008 @ 3:04 pm

  3. As the linguist Arnold Zwicky really did write – see Did Plato say this? – “There’s a huge tradition of folk quotation, almost entirely removed from scholarship”.

    If you didn’t see it, there are a few examples at Hillfinger quotes. The hidden attribution trail of these things would be interesting: for instance, the 1914 US radical trade union speech that vanishes from the record until the early 1990s, after which it gets a major reincarnation mostly attributed to Gandhi.

    Comment by Ray Girvan — December 22, 2008 @ 5:48 pm

  4. Thanks for reminding me of the Hillfinger post. I did read it back when you first posted it, but didn’t have time to follow all the links. I’ve just reread it and enjoyed following some of your leads. Trouble is, these language puzzles mushroom in all directions — which I enjoy … I’m not complaining, but there’s never enough time.

    I’m especially happy to have found, within that post, your instructions on doing Google Books searches on restricted dates. I’ve been trying to remember how to do that — and where I saw those instructions — for about a month. Thanks! (I think maybe you’re missing a closing quote after “say something” in the linked example).

    A somewhat related article that you may like is The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism by Jonathan Lethem in the Feb 2007 issue of Harper’s. It’s about copyright restrictions, but that ends up being about unattributed use of text/quotes. What you may be interested in is that the article itself is crafted out of unattributed quotes. He then gives a key (attributes, after all) at the end. Talk about a Hillfinger nightmare …

    Here’s a snip from within the article:

    “Any text is woven entirely with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages, which cut across it through and through in a vast stereophony. The citations that go to make up a text are anonymous, untraceable, and yet already read; they are quotations without inverted commas. The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances—is plagiarism.”

    You’ll have to check his key to find out how much of that quote was stolen from somebody else.

    Comment by unrealnature — December 22, 2008 @ 7:39 pm

  5. The Jonathan Lethem piece reminds me of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark that includes an extensive index of “plagiarisms” (Gray subdivides them into diffuse plagiarisms, block plagiarisms, and so on).

    I’m not entirely sure Lethem’s point is made, though. I think there’s something more than a little fallacious about lumping all text into plagiarism (because all text comes from somewhere) when it obscures useful distinctions between, say, intentionally structured texts using unique identifiable chunks from elsewhere, and texts that use word combinations so general as to be just features of the language.

    Comment by Ray Girvan — December 22, 2008 @ 8:26 pm

  6. I agree with you completely; the fact that text uses words from a common language does not make it plagiarism any more that a painting is a copy becasue it uses common colors or forms. Lethem does not make his point. I was hoping you’d be provoked by that quote …

    In fact, I don’t agree with any of the anti-copyright arguments. The artist deserves to retain the rights to his/her work; I am not convinced by any of the claims that this is harmful to the greater community.

    Patent law, on the other hand, should be reformed, in my opinion.

    Comment by unrealnature — December 23, 2008 @ 4:01 am

  7. I don’t agree with any of the anti-copyright arguments.

    I agree with some: mainly in the area of encroachment of copyright into areas it never used to cover.

    Firstly, the nasty precedent of companies like Disney lobbying (and getting) copyright extension every time their creations reach the time limit.

    Secondly, arguments to “integrity” (read territorialism) to extend copyright beyond the usual life-of-author-plus-x-years (I’m thinking of the recent attempt by Victor Hugo’s heirs – French court OKs “Les Miserables” sequels – to block sequels and re-use of characters after voe a century.

    And thirdly, encroachment of copyright into stylistic areas traditionally held as OK, particularly parody and derivative works – again, in order to either enforce the original author’s (or their estate’s) vision and/or to maximise their financial stake. Prime example: the (in my view) greedy and shameful treatment by Rowling/WB of Dmitri Yemets’ Tanya Grotter, a brilliant Russian contrafactum on the Harry Potter mythos.

    Comment by Ray Girvan — December 23, 2008 @ 5:05 am

  8. Okay, okay … [grumble, grumble]. I don’t want any extensions or increases, just no decreases of protection for the individual artists.

    The Rowling case is a surprise to me. I would not have thought that would be copyright infringement.

    Comment by unrealnature — December 23, 2008 @ 7:48 am

  9. It was a very peculiar case. If Maureen O’Brien, the main commentator on the topic I could find, is accurate, there were some problematic aspects to the hearings. Presumably Yemet’s lawyers argued what they thought was the best line to win – that it was a parody. But that appears to have been less than optimal, since it definitely isn’t, not in the extended-joke sense; they might have done better to show precedent (i.e. There and Back Again) for a work that’s the same basic story made into a different work by a radical change of setting. Secondly, Maureen said they appear to have done something very weird when they did a Dutch translation for the courts: reverted many of the distinctly Russian elements, such as references to Baba Yaga, back into Western European equivalents, thus giving the appearance of the Grotter book being more like Harry Potter than is the case.

    Comment by Ray Girvan — December 23, 2008 @ 12:37 pm

  10. I should have read your linked posting from your previous comment before responding with the assumption that the Grotter book was a parody. Interesting stories. I’m surprised at how strict the law is on derivative works.

    Comment by unrealnature — December 23, 2008 @ 7:14 pm

  11. I just ran across another related article, The Borrowers Aloft: The Strange Case of Rembrandt, Picasso, Schama, and Cohen by Peter Hellman in Forward (Dec 11, 2008). Here is a bit from the article:

    “What’s the tally of Schama’s indebtedness to “Etched in Memory”? Each of the nine Picasso works traced to Rembrandt had already been examined in Cohen’s monograph. Six quotations used by Schama, while out there for anyone to employ, just happen to all be in Cohen’s monograph. On a single page of her essay, for example, Cohen quotes Picasso’s mistress Françoise Gilot, Quinn and the Mexican artist and writer Marius de Zavas. Is it by chance that each of these quotes appears in Schama’s far shorter article? Numerous factoids have also been recycled from Cohen’s essay, such as this one referencing “The Night Watch”: Schama: “Sometimes Picasso would project a slide of the painting on his wall.” Cohen: “Picasso would project slides of Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’ against the wall.”
    Cohen was thrilled to see her old academic work reborn in the pages of The New Yorker. But with that thrill came pause: Schama’s essay, insofar as it concerned Picasso’s engagement with Rembrandt, clearly and heavily rode on the shoulders of her own. Schama admitted as much when, after publication, he invited Cohen to tea at Columbia University: “He introduced me to several colleagues, saying, ‘This is the woman from whom I borrowed heavily for my article.’ He told me that he couldn’t have written his piece without my ‘superb essay.’”
    That gracious and full acknowledgment is lost to the reader. An even more fitting tribute to Janie Cohen’s essay, however, might have been for Schama to have said to himself, “Wow, I wish I’d written this,” and then gone on to apply his brilliance to a fresh topic awaiting his own deep digging.”

    Comment by unrealnature — December 24, 2008 @ 7:50 am

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