Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.
– Napoleon Bonaparte
The use of quotations from famous people long gone is an easy way to dress up a blog or other writing. It can be done as an epigram that frames the piece, as I did here, or something that inspires a work and sneaks in gradually. More often than not it’s an appeal to authority, a claim on the mind of someone long gone who is revered one way or the other. When it’s done well it crystallizes the point being made into an image that is memorable and mythical. That’s what makes quotations useful.
A good quote is a connection not only into the mind of the reader but across time as well. The use of a famous name borrows the mythology of that person, setting up an intuitive feeling in easy shorthand. The job of the writer is to make that image come alive and appear relevant, as if the famous person themselves spoke to the topic at hand just yesterday. The set-up is strong but the delivery can be a bit tricky.
In order to give examples of the process at work, I dug through my own memories of the more than 500 posts of Barataria to find 17 pieces that I remember were inspired by a quotation. Some are obvious meditations on a famous thought while others are the result a work I was reading at the time. Several issues immediately became obvious to me as I went through this exercise.
The first concern is that not every quote started with a strong image or mythology. It has been a standard academic practice in the western world for millennia to build on existing works, applying accepted knowledge to new information and situations. That doesn’t mean that you’re quoting someone famous, however. Dry old quotes can make a strong argument for the intellect to chew on but still leave the guts hungry for something more tasty. The job of writing is made more difficult in some ways by using them, or at least very different.
The second problem that you cannot avoid is that history, as recorded, is a long line of dead white guys. I have my own list of favorite quotations on hand which is reasonably well balanced, reflecting a list of personalities as much as famous sayings. When it comes to supporting an argument, however, there’s no mythology like the great ones already revered by the culture – and they tended to be almost as pale as marble statues even before they became myths. If you want to avoid this problem, you usually have to try hard.
The list of people that generated quotes which inspired pieces shows both of these difficulties. In the order in which I remembered them, I was able to compile this list: Suetonius, Aleksandr Pushkin, Aristotle, Adam Smith (and Smith again), Pablo Picasso, Lao Tzu (and again), Saul Alinsky, Thomas Jefferson, Simón Bolívar, Susan B Anthony, George Washington Carver, Ibn Khaldun, Yehudi Menuhin, Franklin D Roosevelt, and John Steinbeck.
If you can find any patterns in there you’re welcome to psychoanalyze me from afar. The point is that building on old works is, almost invariably, an attempt to borrow some of their glory and make use of it today. The practice might seem a bit old fashioned and stale in the abstract, but when it works the person long dead comes alive. That’s a lot more than just grabbing their shine.
A successful connection through time with a quotation always comes down to authenticity. A quote cannot just be ripped from a site full of them and stuck onto a piece like a gold frame around a kindergarten drawing. But a small amount of meditation on the quote can make it come alive and speak to a new generation through its own cultural resonance. When done well, it stays in the mind of the reader a long time and takes on a glory of its own.
Have a few favorite quotes that you find bubbling up in your mind fairly often? Those can be very rich with meaning and relevance. I’d love to know what they are in the comments.