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Quotation out of context (1): Epiphanic Stand-Alones

I've been thinking about quotations out of context for a long time: probably since Ray Bradbury made me fall in love with Yeats without my reading a word of him except Bradbury's quotations in title and epigraph. When such quotations are great -- and really that's the most fundamental reason for wanting to quote, or at least for remembering quotations, getting them by heart -- there are two ways they can be great:

as reminders or as epiphanic stand-alones. Reminders summon up the unquoted context, as a kind of attenuated presence in long term memory, an atmosphere or background, more or less the way the rest of a book is in long term memory when we are paying short-term, specious-present attention to a particular sentence or passage. Stand-alones are the kind of thing that great epigraphs (more properly, mottoes) do, especially for those who don't know the original: they don't remind us of but evoke an amazing context, one that partly is amazing because it is unneeded, because the only needed context is the experience of the elsewhereness of literature itself -- the other to all worlds, as Blanchot calls it. "What could have drawn me to this desolate land, if not the desire to stay here?" asks K. in The Castle: "Was hätte mich denn in dieses öde Land locken können, als das Verlangen hierzubleiben?“ And we can say that what drew Kafka to the desolate land of the writing of Das Schloβ was the desire to stay there, to stay in the bleak outside, that "fabled elsewhere," that "sagenhaftes Drüben" to which the sage points in the parable on parables. The sage points to it and so does stand-alone quotation out of context.

Enough so that Scott and Eliot and Hugo and Fitzgerald, among many others, would invent mottoes, ascribing them to "Old Plays" or non-existent poets (Fitzgerald). Cather does something related in The Professor's House, taking a line from one of her characters (though we can't know that yet), and ascribing it to him on the title page. J.G. Ballard sets a passage from the book to come as its motto (in The Crystal World, though without the ascription. These kinds of mottoes are all related because they point only to the idea of the literary, not to some other work for which they serve as reminders. These mottoes aren't prompts to memory: they are ultra-short pieces which stand out against the idea that they belong to an infinite context they sample, though no actual context could serve. When they come from the books that they head, their effect (like that of that subset of titles which will also appear as a phrase in the book they name) is to draw the whole book into an illustration of the stand-alone line, rather than the line or phrase merely contributing to the general effect of the book. Cather's motto thematizes this -- well they all do, but hers is particularly clear:

"A turquoise set in silver, wasn't it?...Yes, a turquoise set in dull silver."                                                                    

--Louie Marsellus

 I won't quote the line's second appearance, in context, because the whole point is that it's the motto (or title) that provides a context for the line -- the context of the purely literary. The motto is the turquoise, the narrative it heads and resurfaces in the dull silver. The best critical versions of this kind of prior quotation of a work come when a great critic quotes something so that when you (next) come upon the "original" the quotation stands out as a quotation and makes the original seem greater. This is one of the things that reading Longinus can do for reading Homer. Look there -- look there! That's the line, and it is great. So Longinus quotes and "recontextualizes" Homer in order

to show how characteristic it is with him in describing heroic greatness to attain heroic grandeur. He represents thick fog on a sudden and impracticable night coming over the battle of the Greeks, when Ajax in his helplessness exclaims, —

O Father Zeus, Achaia's sons set free
From darkness, and restore the clear serene;
Then in the daylight slay me if thou wilt.

Here in living force is the passion of an Ajax for he does not pray to live (such a request would be beneath the hero); but since in incapacitating darkness he could not turn his courage to any noble act, chafing at his forced inaction, he begs for light upon the instant, as though he could not choose but meet an end worthy of his valour, though Zeus himself should be his antagonist.

I say "recontextualized" because some critics have complained that Ajax is not attempting to fight in the passage Longinus quotes, so that Longinus interprets his words as better than they are (like an actor doing an amazing reading of less amazing lines). Maybe, but one could reply (many have replied) that everything in Homer sorts with the greatness of Longinus's version of the speech: Longinus saw how the speech was a context for all of Homer. This is the epiphany of the epiphanic stand-alone.

Even as I say this I am mindful of the apparent but not real contrary to be found in sixteenth and seventeenth century motto-theory. The rules of emblems and devices specify that the motto should be in another language from the language of the emblem (which gets an explanation in our language as well as a motto in another); and that the motto should mean something different from what it means in its original context. Thus Giovio did a bravura series of emblems using the first 80 lines or so of Horace's Ars Poetica as his texts, giving each one a different meaning from the meaning it has in the original. Similarly in various "Dance of Death" collections, Death warns that he "comes like a thief in the night." Is this wrong, since the Bible tells us that it's the Day of the Lord that comes like a thief in the night? Or isn't this rather a way of seeing that the line is a context for its speaker? We will one day all face that which gives us this warning, and which we can understand now only as that which gives us this warning.

The theory of typology works the same way.  When Jesus says the same thing that the speaker of Lamentations says, or the same thing as the Psalms, the point is the independence of the line to its context.  All great lines are Christ's, find their fulfillment in him, since he speaks for all.

I want to note a connection between this post and my previous one, about the moment when narrative omniscience comes to an end: both entries are about the way the word spoken specify the speakers, and not the other way around. This one is prompted by Sunjoo Lee's melancholy at realizing that James Duffy, whom Joyce gives the great line "Every bond is a bond to sorrow," is a sentimentalist. (The line is originally Stanislaus Joyce's; James swiped it partly to criticize Stanislaus for the mismatch between the melancholy of his language and the middle-aged complacency James already saw threatening him.) I would say that that story is about the truth of the line despite the shallowness of its utterer. Its utterance is the bond to sorrow that he will one day find himself unable to loose. The line is the context for the story.

Perhaps the best example of this claim is Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came". Under the title, which he puts in quotation marks, Browning tells us "See Edgar's Song in Lear". But Edgar's song is not a context: it is a moment of decontextualization, and the line is a snatch of some song that Shakespeare does not give us. Comes Browning, then, to write the song whose line Edgar has quoted. (In Kiss Me Kate Cole Porter does the same with the song hinted at by a single line in Taming of the Shrew: "Where is the life that late I led?") But how could he contextualize that line without ruining it? (As Stephen King more or less ruins it in his Dark Tower series, knowing that he can't live up to the sources of his inspiration. So he says in his introduction, and for this reason he quotes the whole poem at the end of the seventh volume.) The only answer has to be that Browning doesn't contextualize the line. Roland gets to the bitterly disappointing goal of his abandoned quest, the low squat tower, built of brown stone -- the pile of shit that it turns out to be, and yet...: "And yet: / Dauntless the slughorn to my lips I set / And blew. 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.'" Roland has failed in his quest but has succeeded in returning to the place where he can quote the uncontrollable, uncontextualizable line. ("Slughorn" is Browning's wonderfully apt corruption of "slogan" -- that is: motto, though he doesn't seem to have realized that.) The poem is a record of its own quest to return to the line which tells us only that the Dark Tower seems to be the end of a quest. The Dark Tower and the line it inhabits, and which inhabits it, are one.

Blanchot, in an essay on inspiration, says that the wrong idea is that inspiration is the route to the production of the work. No, he says, inspiration gets the work going, because the work is the writer's attempt to trace a route back to the moment of inspiration. ("What could have drawn me to this desolate land, if not the desire to stay here?") I think the same is true of the kinds of quotations I am calling epiphanic stand-alones. They stand-alone even in context (here I am, plumping for essentialism, again), and help us to see the work as the route to those lines.

William Flesch's picture
William Flesch is the author, most recently, of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard, 2008), and The Facts on File Companion to 19th Century British Literature.  He teaches the history of poetry as well as the theory of poetic and narrative form at Brandeis, and has been International Chair Professor at the National Taipei University of Technology (2012) and Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council and Visiting Professor at Princeton (2014-15).