Sunday, November 13, 2011

Quote Collecting

On Quotations and Their Uses

Somehow I think my actual education, so-called, began when I started remembering things people said and wanting to write them down. The quotation thing started, as most things did, with my mom, Lynne.  Here are the three I began with, and they are written as I remember them:

John Milton, Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and can make a hell of heaven, a heaven of hell.”

William Thackery, Vanity Fair: “The world is a looking glass and gives back to each man the reflection of his own face.”

Tagore: “Let your life lightly dance on the edges of time like the dew on the top of a leaf.”

I think it’s fair to say that I have lived by these lines since I first wrote them down during my freshman year of high school, on papers I taped into the front of the three-ringed binder I would use all four years, adding many lines from my first literary muse, Oscar Wilde, whom I learned about when I watched the 11-part Masterpiece Theater series, Lillie, about the life of Victorian actress and Wilde muse, Lillie Langtry. (Eat that, Run-On Sentence Police!)

Being drawn to quotations is by most accounts I’ve read a characteristic of eccentric people.  The people who hoard quotations the way others hoard seashells, or Singer sewing machines that don’t work, or carnival glass, are easy to spot by the way they reach for paper napkins in the restaurant to write down what someone next to them said. Not that I’d know from experience.

In my first years of teaching (at my first school), I challenged myself every day to come up with an apt quotation each morning and put it on the board—first on this square chalkboard on the left side of my (actual own) classroom by the bulletin board. (I later began collecting these quotes in The Good Book, added to lovingly by students, friends, colleagues, and my own discoveries all the years of my teaching life.) This room was “my” classroom only for that first year, when the principal recognized that as I 1) was a first-year teacher; 2) was a teacher with three preps; and 3) had two classes of students who had most all failed English 9 the previous years (that’s right, plural), maybe I could have a room of my own. The room of my own evaporated after that first year, and for the next two years (and for the first five at my next school), I changed rooms every single period, moving from downstairs, to upstairs, to across the courtyard, and back upstairs down the hall, giant canvas tote bag in tow (thanks, L.L. Bean!).

As I’d become “that crazy woman who writes quotes on her board,” I felt okay going around the school each morning (with the permission of the classroom owners) to put my thought for the day in a corner of each chalkboard, thereby increasing my audience substantially. The eccentrics, therefore, crept out in greater numbers, too: There were at least three types: 1) the kids who’d casually take out their notebooks, as if exhausted or annoyed, and copy the quote; 2) the ones who’d read it, comment out loud, and may or may not copy it, but wanted to talk about it; and 3) the quiet, confident little scribes, who’d happily admit to saving them up like green stamps they’d get to cash in for a big prize.

Quote Unquote

This morning I was awakened at 3:00 AM by the powerful ka-pow of a car backfiring five times in rhythm before starting, finally, and heading down this Queens block. I decided to follow the advice of my horoscope in the Village Voice (Rob Brezsny):

Taurus Horoscope for week of November 10, 2011

How's your relationship with your muse? Don't tell me that you're not an artist so you don't have a muse. Even garbage collectors need muses. Even farmers. Even politicians. All of us need to be in touch with a mysterious, tantalizing source of inspiration that teases our sense of wonder and goads us on to life's next adventures. So I ask you again: What have you and your muse been up to lately? I say it's high time for you to infuse your connection with a dose of raw mojo. And if for some sad reason you don't have a muse, I urge you to go out in quest of new candidates. (P.S. A muse isn't necessarily a person; he or she might also be an animal, an ancestor, a spirit, or a hero.)

To that end I looked up, first, Oscar Wilde, and here is what I found.


"A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

"Nothing succeeds like excess."

"There is no sin except stupidity."

"He hasn't a single redeeming vice."

And then there is this.

From The Soul of Man Under Socialism:

·      The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism – are forced, indeed, so to spoil them. They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence; and, as I pointed out some time ago in an article on the function of criticism, it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.
·      There is also this to be said. It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair.
·      In England, the arts that have escaped best are the arts in which the public take no interest. Poetry is an instance of what I mean. We have been able to have fine poetry in England because the public do not read it, and consequently do not influence it. The public like to insult poets because they are individual, but once they have insulted them, they leave them alone. In the case of the novel and the drama, arts in which the public do take an interest, the result of the exercise of popular authority has been absolutely ridiculous. No country produces such badly-written fiction, such tedious, common work in the novel form, such silly, vulgar plays as England. It must necessarily be so. The popular standard is of such a character that no artist can get to it. It is at once too easy and too difficult to be a popular novelist. It is too easy, because the requirements of the public as far as plot, style, psychology, treatment of life, and treatment of literature are concerned are within the reach of the very meanest capacity and the most uncultivated mind. It is too difficult, because to meet such requirements the artist would have to do violence to his temperament, would have to write not for the artistic joy of writing, but for the amusement of half-educated people, and so would have to suppress his individualism, forget his culture, annihilate his style, and surrender everything that is valuable in him.

·      On the whole, an artist in England gains something by being attacked. His individuality is intensified. He becomes more completely himself. Of course, the attacks are very gross, very impertinent, and very contemptible. But then no artist expects grace from the vulgar mind, or style from the suburban intellect. Vulgarity and stupidity are two very vivid facts in modern life. One regrets them, naturally. But there they are. They are subjects for study, like everything else. And it is only fair to state, with regard to modern journalists, that they always apologise to one in private for what they have written against one in public.
—Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism

When people agree with me I always feel that I must be wrong.
—OSCAR WILDE, The Critic as Artist

The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing. Journalism, conscious of this, and having tradesman-like habits, supplies their demands.
--OSCAR WILDE, The Soul of Man Under Socialism
There is much to be said in favour of modern journalism. By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community.
—OSCAR WILDE, The Critic as Artist


He was a philosopher, dandy, wit, man of the theater, and also a socially conscious being with a huge heart for the ills of the world. People know Oscar Wilde’s funny lines—such as “I can resist everything except temptation,” mostly from his plays and his one novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray—but the essays quoted above show a sober, reasonable citizen who while an artist first, was going after social questions (with love and with the soul of an artist). Wilde made me expand my world view (art is a political act, and isn't that a burden), and also made me aware of how the burden of political knowledge prevented me from pursing my theater arts life in full—the desire to be of use in a social contract sense took over (the opposite of what he intended). I have had more than a few friends think less of me for being politically noisy. Claire Booth Luce said, “Politics is the refuge of second class minds,” and I often worry she was right.


“Lock up your libraries if you like, but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”

 “As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.”
Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas

 “If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.”

 “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

 “When you consider things like the stars, our affairs don't seem to matter very much, do they?”

 “The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages.”


·        When a subject is highly controversial — and any question about sex is that — one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold. One can only give one's audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker.

·         Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.

—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own


Virginia Woolf wrote as I actually thought. Reading her novels Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando; her diaries; her criticism: Virginia Woolf’s words took paths that were a map of my own mind, if my mind had been capable of articulating and recording and depicting and expressing as brilliantly as her able, wild, imaginative mind had. Reading her was a relief, and a terror. The greatness of her empathy that was almost unbearable in my relative youth is a solace in my middle age.


Both were bisexual, both in the acting out of physical love and in their ability to get inside the heads of male and female characters. This is no small thing, I see now. Both were not only creative novelists and playwrights (he wrote mostly plays and stories, and only one novel; she wrote mostly novels and stories, and only one play), they were literary and social critics of the first order. They took their roles as geniuses seriously. They did not take themselves seriously. (Until they did, at the end.) Oscar Wilde used the past (as a Pre-Raphaelite) to show an unflattering mirror to the present (Victorian) age. Virginia Woolf, born only 13 years before Oscar’s ruin, sloughed off the Victorians, ever looking ahead and helping to create modernism. Yet both were of their times, loved their countries, loved life. Both were social snobs, living the paradox of caring about the poor and uneducated, truly, while being unable to co-exist comfortably with them, indeed, while disdaining them. Both were the victims and agents of their own tragic ends—he for bringing about the lawsuit that exposed his illegal homosexuality, leading to his imprisonment and destroyed health, dying at 46; she—living through yet a second world war, losing her London home to a bomb, married to a Jew and therefore both on Hitler’s blacklist, and a return of the “voices” and depression that she felt sure would hold everyone back from escaping England should an invasion occur—took her own life by drowning at 59. And still, they created so much, shared so much, lived so fully, in spite of it all.

While having no claim to genius or to the drama of these life stories, I do own that Oscar and Virginia give solace even to the lesser being. As an actor and director, as well as a writer, I have had to transform into genders that are not always easy to define as male and female. Oscar’s characters are virtually interchangeable in the play The Importance of Being Earnest. Virginia’s novel Orlando daringly grabbed the notion of gender and upended it to spoof not only biographers  (it’s a fake biography), but also property laws that excluded women from inheriting (this done for her friend Vita Sackville-West, who lost Knole, bequest of Queen Elizabeth I to her ancestor, because while she cared for it, cherished it, honored it, she was a girl, so the property went to a lazy, disinterested cousin, Edward, and eventually to the National Trust.) Both writers were and remain dazzling wits, Virginia shining not with the epigramic brilliance of Oscar, but with a slyness that penetrates to the heart more deeply.

Both forms of wit are indispensable.

The artist must be of her time and aware of her time if she is to be an artist. And yet politics always threaten to drown the art.

Oscar Wilde is one of my closest friends. Biographies of him were cruel and nauseating (I’d read two in high school) until Richard Ellmann’s appeared in 1987, rescuing Wilde from the black muck of the haters and scorners, to have his genius restored and placed up front. It’s his own words—his art—that matter, after all.

Virginia, too, has had her share of life interpreters, but has fared better (mostly) in biographies. Her writing is not easy going, but she goes in my direction. I have come to know her and to think of her not only as a great writer and thinker, but also as a great friend.

I think this is natural to do, when one is naturally solitary. And yet one must not live in this solitude. Oscar and Virginia are friends with whom I commune, and are not to be made substitutes for actual living.


Recently I came across this quote. I’ve read nearly everything VW ever wrote, from essays to diaries to novels to criticism, and never in my life would I imagine her saying, let alone writing, this:

“Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.”
Virginia Woolf (not)

As it turns out she didn’t.  Someone else queried the same thing, I learned, when I searched around and found a site called Quote Investigator—and while versions of it have been said by various artists for years, and even Woolf writes of losing her “virtue” by taking some writing jobs— that quote is so not my Virginia, and this attribution to her is a fairly recent mistake.

“A poet can suffer anything except a misprint.”  —Oscar Wilde

What is it about quotations that has fascinated and continues to send us off searching the Google and the Bartlett's? Quotations are companions, I think, for lonely people, or for moments when people feel alone. I was very much lonely in my youth, as are a lot of creative people, in that there are so few people we can actually share our thoughts with when we are young and our minds so wild and unwieldy and, well, terrifying. So until we meet our friends out in the world (our true friends), a kindred thinker’s words—and they were safe, Oscar and Virginia, because they were famous and revered, and, I later learned, controversial and complicated, and so much the better for me—can be a life-sustaining gift, wrapped up in tidy quotation marks, easily stored in the mind.

“Forget about quotations. Tell me what you know.” --Emerson

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