I am not a quote person. It’s not that I don’t believe that there’s no wisdom in quotes or that they can’t be helpful or uplifting at times, it’s just that the majority of people who collect them do so blithely, without regard to context or, in most cases, the greater work or theme, especially when so many of these quotes are lifted from pieces of fiction.
It’s like if someone has a framed quote from Thomas Jefferson in their living room. As an example, let’s use one of my personal favorites because I think it’s accurate and chilling, although I admit someone would probably not keep it in their living room:
“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”
Again, probably not going to be on display in someone’s living room, but let’s assume that it is, or that any of Jefferson’s other wise and prescient quotes is on display.
It’s fine that you think the quote is wise and prescient because it likely is, but Jefferson has a whole lot of other aphorisms to his name, and not all of them are so illuminating. And let’s not forget that Jefferson’s legacy at Monticello – what with its environmentalism, scientific pursuits, and architecture – was only made possible by the work of slaves, of which Jefferson owned many. So Jefferson was not the greatest American in history, and considering that, one could agree that displaying his wisdom in a home so you can see and be affected by it every single day could be problematic.
And whenever I think of the people who let themselves be guided by famous quotes, I think of what Dan Savage wrote about his friend in “Skipping Towards Gomorrah”:
“ When my friend saw me picking through her little wicker basket of affirmations, she folded her arms across her chest, cocked her hip, and said “Go ahead, Dan, make fun of me.” She was asking for it. So I pulled out an affirmation, said “I’m Adolf Hitler,” and then I read Hitler’s affirmation. “I’m a good person, and I want good things.”
“That’s awful!” my friend said.
“I’m Pol Pot: ‘I strive to spread love and understanding.'”
“I’m Richard Speck: ‘I am respected and admired, and people want to be near me.'”
“I’m Trent Lott: ‘My inner beauty is like a bright light.'”
By now, my sensitive friend was, yes, crying. I know, I know, I’m a terrible person. Which is precisely my point. The problem with setting out a basket of affirmations is that you’re assuming each and every person who comes into your home or spa is a good person who wants good things. With all the respect due a basket of laminated affirmations, I beg to differ. ”
This is why I don’t consider the below to be quotes, but rather pieces of work, and why I don’t use them as guides, but rather points of interest that have been sticking to my brain lately. It’s the words themselves or the way they’re strung together that causes them to appear in my thoughts every day, and while no one should necessarily let them rule their lives (except for maybe the T.S. Eliot one because coffee), it’s nice to think of them every now and then.
“Let us toast to animal pleasures, to escapism, to rain on the roof and instant coffee, to unemployment insurance and library cards, to absinthe and good-hearted landlords, to music and warm bodies and contraceptives… and to the “good life”, whatever it is and wherever it happens to be.”
– Hunter S. Thompson, from “The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman”
“All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand Enemies, and when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you; digger, listener, runner, Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.”
– Richard Adams, from “Watership Down”
“I will bruise your lips,
and scar your knees
and love you too hard.
I will destroy you
in the most beautiful way possible.
And when I leave,
you will finally understand,
why storms are named after people.”
– “Katrina,” M.K.
“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”
– Neil Armstrong
“…I finished my plate and I still feel fine, several decades later. One must suffer to be beautiful, I am told, and since then I know that one must occasionally risk trouble to be happy, and I was very happy that day in the Swiss bar where all the best spies ate lunch.”
– MFK Fisher, from “With Bold Knife and Fork”
“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”
– T.S. Eliot, from “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock”
“At the Last, tenderly,
From the walls of the powerful fortress’d house,
From the clasp of the knitted locks, from the keep of the well closed doors,
Let me be wafted.
Let me glide noiselessly forth;
With the key of softness unlock the locks – with a whisper,
Set ope the doors O soul.
Tenderly – be not impatient,
(Strong is your hold O mortal flesh,
Strong is your hold O love.)”
– Walt Whitman, from “The Last Invocation” in “Leaves of Grass”
My problem with Jefferson quotes is that because he wrote so prolifically about so many things, you can find a Jefferson quote to support almost any position imaginable. So, if you quote Thomas Jefferson, I assume you Googled “Jefferson quote _fill in the blank_” and scrolled down until you found something you agreed with.
Exactly. You can with almost anyone, I guess, but most people searching for Jefferson quotes are (I imagine) trying to back up their own position as being authoritative. And it’s such a pick-and-choose-from-just-about-anything-while-ignoring-everything-else fallacy.