Quotations are a guilty pleasure—what comedian John Oliver calls “the karaoke of ideas.” Reciting one is among the easiest ways to fool an acquaintance into believing you’re not only literate but a “deep” thinker. (A “deep” thinker in the same way Jack Handey used to express his profundity in the recurring segment “Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey” on Saturday Night Live.) The quotationally inclined seldom cull their pearls of wisdom by reading entire books—though I’ll testify I did indeed read every word of From Here to Eternity and, along the way, pulled the epigram below by James Jones. It’s so easy to browse hundreds if not thousands of witticisms on sites like quotationspage.com or bartleby.com that anyone can fob himself off as an urbane, well-read raconteur.
So no, I’ve drawn almost none of these bons mots from my sporadic reading. Weirdly, I haven’t even seen Renoir’s Rules of the Game and couldn’t tell you where I first encountered its deeply unsentimental observation about mankind uttered by one of its characters, the Marquis Robert de la Cheyniest. (I’d also like to be able to quote it in the original French.) On the other hand I can tell you exactly where I first encountered Virginia Woolf’s scornful comment about meaning: emblazoned on one of the months of a Quality Paperback Book Club calendar my father gave me when I was in my 20s. (There was another by Henry Miller: “I was against life on principle. What principle? The principle of futility.” Don’t remember in which of his novels he said it.) And I think I came across J.B.S. Haldane’s satisfying conundrum in Carl Sagan and I.S. Shklovsky’s Intelligent Life in the Universe, which as a teenager I asked my mother to buy me after spotting it in Stewart Brand’s original Whole Earth Catalog.
I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.
—J.B.S. Haldane, Possible Worlds and Other Papers (1927)
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
—Arthur C. Clarke, “Profiles of The Future” (1961)
All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.
—Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, Third Edition (1888)
(My corollary: All technology constantly aspires towards the condition of real-time.)
All professions are conspiracies against the laity.
—George Bernard Shaw, The Doctor's Dilemma (1911)
Whether it’s right or wrong I don’t know, but directly I’m told what a thing means, it becomes hateful to me.
—Virginia Woolf, in a letter to Roger Fry, after publication of To the Lighthouse (1927)
This is another experiment as to whose outcome we need not feel curious.
—Sigmund Freud, writing about Prohibition, in The Future of an Illusion (1927)
He had not the makings of that honest man to whom success comes naturally.
—James Jones, From Here to Eternity (1951)
These people seem to me stinking with national conceit; it pierces through all their courtesy.
—Alexis de Tocqueville, writing home to his mother about his first impressions of Americans, shortly after arriving in New York City (1831)
The terrible thing about this world is that everybody has his reasons.
—Marcel Dalio, as Marquis Robert de la Cheyniest, in
Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu) (1939)
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!
—Upton Sinclair, I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked (1935)
PLEASE ACCEPT MY RESIGNATION. I DON’T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB THAT WILL ACCEPT PEOPLE LIKE ME AS A MEMBER
—Groucho Marx, quoting a wire he supposedly once sent
to the Friar's Club of Beverly Hills, in Groucho and Me (1959)
I’m quite illiterate, but I read a lot.
—J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
The extermination of the past—by design, by neglect, by good intention—is what characterizes the history of our time.
—Tony Judt in the New Republic (1996)
I can’t remember anything. I remember only ideas and sensations.—James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole!
—Benjamin Disraeli, speaking of his election as prime minister of Great Britain in 1868, as quoted in Sir William Fraser's Disraeli in His Day (1891)
No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.
—James Boswell, quoting Samuel Johnson in The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791)
In the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes.
—Andy Warhol in Andy Warhol, the artist’s catalog for his exhibition at the Moderna Museet gallery, Stockholm, Sweden (1968)
The reason the mass of men fear God, and at bottom dislike Him, is because they rather distrust His heart, and fancy Him all brain like a watch.
—Herman Melville, in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne (1851)
How fading and insipid do all objects accost us, that are not conveyed in the vehicle of delusion! How shrunk is everything, as it appears in the glass of nature! So that if it were not for the assistance of artiﬁcial mediums, false lights, refracted angles, varnish, and tinsel, there would be a mighty level in the felicity and enjoyments of mortal men.
—Jonathan Swift, “A Tale of a Tub” (1704)
…every piece of entertainment, like every political speech or swatch of advertising copy, has nightmarish accuracy as a triple-distilled image of a collective dream, habit or desire.
—James Agee, writing in The Nation (1943)
When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.
—George Orwell, “Why I Write”, in the final issue of Gangrel (1946)
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)
There is no such thing as “the Queen’s English.” The property has gone into the hands of a joint stock company and we own the bulk of the shares!
—Mark Twain, chapter epigraph from Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar in
Following the Equator (1897)
It is true that democracy is precious—so precious that it must be rationed.
—Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb, quoting Vladimir Lenin inSoviet Communism: A New Civilisation? (1936)
The idea that everyone can have everything may be logically preposterous, but it is ideologically essential to the imagination of a country that seems to be living simultaneously in the Great Depression and the Gilded Age.
—A.O. Scott, “Gatsby, and Other Luxury Consumers”, New York Times (May 19, 2013)
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
—John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
—William Wordsworth, “The World Is Too Much With Us” (1806)
The crowd is untruth. There is therefore no one who has more contempt for what it is to be a human being than those who make it their profession to lead the crowd.
—Søren Kierkegaard, On the Dedication to “That Single Individual” (1845)
Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.
—Job 5:7, King James Bible “Authorized Version”, Cambridge Edition(originally published in 1611)
What was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about it if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there.
—Gertrude Stein, Everybody’s Autobiography (1937)
Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel.
—Bella Abzug, former congresswoman (1977)
You do what you think is right and let the law catch up.
—Thurgood Marshall, Supreme Court justice (late 1970s)
The result of having our history dominated by presidents and generals and other “important” people is to create a passive citizenry, not knowing its own powers, always waiting for some savior on high—God or the next president—to bring peace or justice.
—Howard Zinn & Anthony Arnove,
Voices of a People's History of the United States (2004)
Then there are the Apocrypha—bons mots supposedly tossed off by famous authors or historical figures, except no one can find them anywhere in the written record. (A variant of these could be “rehearsed quotations”, where the attribution is genuine but the author is suspected of preparing his remark well in advance of uttering it. An example might be the American journalist Lincoln Steffens’s famous observation, in 1919, after visiting the young Soviet Union, that “I have seen the future, and it works.” Some believe he devised this tribute during the voyage over to Russia and not on the voyage back.) These witticisms may be the guiltiest pleasures of all, because to pass them on unaltered or unannotated somehow celebrates middlebrow complacency.
Nothing so resembles virtue as a great crime.
—Louis Antoine de Saint-Just
This declaration, were it authentic, would attribute to Saint-Just a self-deprecating self-awareness he apparently did not possess. As one of the principal architects of The Terror during the French Revolution he seems never to have regretted his role, even after being sentenced to death himself.
A poem is never finished, only abandoned.
The Oxford Book of Modern Quotations quotes Valéry this way, citing the source as Littérature (1930): “A poem is never finished; it’s always an accident that puts a stop to it—that is to say, gives it to the public.” Here’s a prime example of the nameless coterie of anonymous editors who take it upon themselves to pare down and improve the wit of others.
Lies, damned lies, and statistics.
According to Wikipedia, Mark Twain popularized this cry of contempt (quoted in full: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”) and attributed it to the British prime minister. “However,” Wikipedia goes on to say, “the phrase is not found in any of Disraeli’s works and the earliest known appearances were years after his death.” The article goes on to note that the idea underlying this quotation has a relative in the legal profession concerning the three kinds of witnesses: liars, outrageous liars, and experts. To which I send readers of this page to the quotation by George Bernard Shaw above. And speaking of Shaw:Once again, according to Wikiquotes, Voltaire’s mordant observation actually originated with famed American journalist H.L. Mencken (“Creator — A comedian whose audience is afraid to laugh.”) in his Book of Burlesques (1920). Run this quotation through Google and you’ll find it abundantly misattributed.
The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.Again, Wikipedia claims this observation is to be found nowhere in Shaw’s published works.
—George Bernard Shaw
God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.
—Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet)