Guilty Pleasure

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 or 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.

Still, all these quotations mean something to me—enough so that some have been kicking around in my head for decades:
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)

—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  in 
Soviet 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)
He was an embittered atheist (the sort of atheist who does not so much disbelieve in God as personally dislike Him), and took a sort of pleasure in thinking that human affairs would never improve.
—George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933)
Talent is nothing but a cheap trick.
—Mason Williams, comedy writer and composer (late 1960s)
The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful consideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that—well, lucky you.
—Philip Roth, American Pastoral (1997)
Who expects small things to survive when even the largest get lost? People forget years and remember moments.
  —Ann Beattie, “Snow” (1983)
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
  —Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself” (1855-1881)
There’s always something scandalous about the truth.
  —Florian Zeller, The Height of the Storm (original title: Avant de senvoler) (2017)
Ever since the world ended
I don’t go out as much.
People that I once befriended
Just don’t bother to stay in touch.
Things that used to seem so splendid
Don’t really matter today.
It’s just as well the world ended,
It wasn’t working anyway.
—Mose Allison, Ever Since the World Ended (1987)
How could I forget that every truth meant at least two things, that slogans were empty suits draped on the corpse of an idea?
—Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer (2015)
Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightening to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.
—Chuck Close, quoted in Chuck Close, Robert Storr, Kirk Varnedoe, Deborah Wye and Glenn D. LowryChuck Close (1998)
It is an undeniable privilege of every man to prove himself right in the thesis that the world is his enemy; for if he reiterates it frequently enough and makes it the background of his conduct he is bound eventually to be right.
—George Kennan (writing under the pseudonym “X”), in “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”, Foreign Affairs (1947)



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 could be said to celebrate 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.
—Paul Valéry

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.
—Benjamin Disraeli

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:
The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.
 —George Bernard Shaw
Again, Wikipedia claims this observation is to be found nowhere in Shaw’s published works.

God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.
—Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet)
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.

When we come to hang the capitalists, they’ll sell us the rope.
—Vladimir Lenin (Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov)
I’ve long considered Lenin’s quip to be a profoundly damning assessment of capitalism’s obsessive preoccupation with the profit motive.  But it appears that Lenin never said or wrote it—though sources have attributed it both to him and to Joseph Stalin. Oddly, however, according to the website Quote Investigator, during the Cold War American conservatives, including Barry Goldwater, appropriated its message to denounce Soviet communism.  Rather than see it as a pronouncement of capitalism's fatal shortsightedness—its need to make a buck even at the cost of its own survivalthey used it to remind the American public that communists remained determined to execute capitalists and destroy our freedom and prosperity.

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