Pulling from examples like Teju Cole and Albert Camus, Jeremy Klemin explores how some of the most memorable quotes from the giants of world literature were uttered by characters in their books, not the authors themselves.
A Man of the People, cover art by Edel Rodriguez
Not long ago, I was an intern at a literary organization that, among other things, specialized in publishing digital content. I frequently read and edited poetry, flash fiction, and interviews; many of the submissions were nothing short of fantastic. When it came to posting these pieces to our various social media outlets, however, they received varying amounts of attention. Compared to our weekly quote posts, these original pieces received relatively little attention. Indeed, these quotations are probably largely responsible for the organization’s considerable following, particularly on Twitter. Twitter, especially, is more or less the principle outlet for what both writers and academics like to call the “digital humanities.”
For a myriad of reasons, our fascination with quotations is not completely misguided. For casual and serious readers alike, quotes are great. They dispense with the heavy-lifting for the reader, of the often arduous process of sifting through a book for these small, poignant gems. They essentially distill the most beautiful, memorable parts of stories into digestible, poetic blurbs. Quotes also provide a means of shared experience. Not only that, they may occasionally succeed in convincing somebody to pick up a book. They’re memorable, and are one of the few truly literary devices that pervade in popular culture. Perhaps more importantly, they’re accessible. To be sure, some of my favorite quotations are from books that I have never read and have no immediate plans to read. Quotations become muddy, however, when we lose the context in which they’re written and become uniformly attributed to the author of the book that the quotation appears in. Stand-alone quotes not only lose their position within the arc of a story, they also completely ignore the very specific dynamic between the author’s voice and the rest of the novel.
That literary quotes can be taken out of context is not a particularly revelatory insight. Whenever a politician is caught saying something objectionable, the camp-response is usually something along the lines of “… grossly taken out of context.” Sometimes this is true, other times the context argument falls flat. In something as dense as a well-wrought speech, let alone a full-bodied novel, tracking the context of a quote can be a complicated process. There are worse quotation-related tragedies, such as completely misattributing or fabricating quotes where they do not exist (Swiss author Robert Walser’s “I am not here to write, but to be mad,” having no German antecedent being one of them). Likewise, quoting from books that blur the distinction between fiction, memoir, and autobiography is also complicated. The issue becomes most interesting, however, when quotes from antagonists in books get attributed to the author; if, for example, words uttered by Svidrigaïlov in Crime and Punishment were specifically attributed to Dostoyevsky, or if words uttered by Cathy Ames in East of Eden were attributed to Steinbeck. What about literature’s morally ambiguous characters and anti-heroes, then? Who are they speaking for?
Despite their appeal, most anti-heroes probably shouldn’t be emulated. Take this long and beautiful quotation by Julius, the main character of Open City by Teju Cole, which recently won the PEN/Hemingway award in 2012:
“Each person must, on some level, take himself as the calibration point for normalcy, must assume that the room of his own mind is not, cannot be, entirely opaque to him. Perhaps this is what we mean by sanity: that, whatever our self-admitted eccentricities might be, we are not the villains of our own stories. In fact, it is quite the contrary: we play, and only play, the hero, and in the swirl of other people’s stories, insofar as those stories concern us at all, we are never less than heroic. Who, in the age of television, hasn’t stood in front of a mirror and imagined his life as a show that is already perhaps being watched by multitudes? Who has not, with this consideration in mind, brought something performative into his everyday life? We have the ability to do both good and evil, and more often than not, we choose the good. When we don’t, neither we nor our imagined audience is troubled, because we are able to articulate ourselves to ourselves, and because we have through our other decisions, merited their sympathy. They are ready to believe the best about us, and not without good reason.”
This quotation is one of the most reproduced from the book, and I didn’t remember it after reading the book the first time. After a second read-through, the surrounding context of the book became a bit clearer. Our protagonist, Julius, is a psychiatrist on his last year of a Fellowship in New York. The character bears some superficial resemblances both to Cole himself and to the narrator of Cole’s other work Every Day is for the Thief, but the author is resolutely not Cole.
This long, poetic lamentation comes right after a woman from Julius’s past has just accused him of raping her when they were both teenagers, a shocking revelation in an otherwise floating novel relatively devoid of conventional plot. Julius claims that he doesn’t remember the event, but does not overtly deny the incident nor its possibility. Re-reading the quote in this light, Julius almost seems to be advocating for a kind of moral solipsism. He is speaking of the impossibility of being “the villains of our own stories;” of seeing oneself as an irreconcilably bad person. Making a case for the self being a “calibration point for normalcy” is akin to absolute singular moral relativism, which is pretty terrifying.
All this is lost when the quote stands alone. It is pretty, eloquent, and introspective, and to the quote-community, that’s what matters. In the wake of a rape accusation, such an argument (albeit incredibly well-written) is at the very least morally suspect, and at worst horrifying. When such a quote is nondescriptly attributed to Cole, not only is the context lost, but the entire meaning of the quotation is irrevocably changed.
Regarding the innate poetic value of a quotation, authors absolutely deserve credit. They did, after all, write the quote. There is a (partially valid) universalizing argument to be made, that because the authors created the quotation their name should be inherently and irrevocably attached to it, but writing the quotation (particularly through a character in a book) is not the same as endorsing the quotation, a distinction which is either lost or wholly unimportant to many readers. This is why quote attribution is about more than something simply being taken out of context, unilaterally crediting an author with anything they’ve written permanently changes the relationship between an author and what they’ve written.
Likewise, consider the following quote by John the Savage in Aldous Huxley’s masterpiece Brave New World: “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
I rarely go more than a few weeks without seeing this quote reappear on social media. It is instantly recognizable to anybody interested in British modern literature or “serious” dystopian literature more broadly and brilliantly condenses the way John the Savage feels, but completely hinders any alternative reading of the text. More importantly, it destroys the nuance that makes Brave New World such a fantastic work. The brilliance of Brave New World lies not only in the aphoristic predictions it would successfully make (see: electronic music), but, in some cases, how the universe in Brave New World isn’t all that malevolent. Mustapha Mond is not a dislikeable character, and his worldview isn’t wholly nefarious. Nor, for that matter, does the intellectual-exile world of Iceland seem all that bad. One need only look at Huxley’s utopian counterpart, Island (1962) to see that the distinction between utopia and dystopia is incredibly thin. If we take John the Savage’s quote to be the mouthpiece for the book, Huxley’s novel is far more proselytizing than thought provoking. A great novel, still, but a one-dimensional one.
Take another one of literature’s most pervasive anti-heroes, Mersault from Albert Camus’ The Stranger. A quote that I’ve run across with some frequency on some of the more depressing Tumblr’s I frequent reads as follows: “But, I reminded myself, it’s common knowledge that life isn’t worth living, anyhow.”
For many an-angsty high school student assigned to read The Stranger, this quote is appealing for some relatively obvious reasons. Whether or not it represents the viewpoint of Mersault (especially given his epiphany towards the end of the slim novel) is debatable, but whether or not Camus himself abided by this quote is pretty indisputable. Absurdism was supposed to be a liberating epistemology for Camus; he was firmly opposed to the project of nihilism. Camus found pleasure in things like football and the swimming in the ocean, (he was the goalie for the Algerian national junior team at one point) and even went as far as to denounce nihilism as the central problem of the 20th century. One can imagine my surprise when I asked an acquaintance who her favorite authors were, only to have her respond, “oh, Hesse, Camus, the nihilist stuff.”
By and large, quotations are the best way of attracting a general readership. Those brief moments where dedicated literary culture and popular culture intersect are usually achieved through the medium of quotes; nothing gets me as excited as literary reference in a movie or television show. That being said, they lend themselves pretty easily to being grossly misunderstood. Context is a very important thing (logically so), but the difference between writing something for the purpose of situating it within a larger work of art and writing something as a didactic, wholly linear argument is a very important distinction when it comes to books.
Jeremy Klemin studied Comparative Literature at the University of Edinburgh for his MSc. He was recently an editorial intern at PEN America, and is currently an editorial fellow at the Institute of Cultural Inquiry. He can be reached on Twitter @JeremyKlemin.