'[What] a subtle pleasure one can still experience when one can get his hands on an elegant and rare quotation!'Primo Levi, 'Sic!'
I first began keeping an online diary when I was sixteen years old, or thereabouts. I used it as a means to express my frustrations, publishing them online to appease the narcissist in me. (How little things have changed!) It provided a much-needed vent for my adolescent thoughts, and allowed me to feel a sense of community in others who felt the same way. The desire to write in this way persists even now, and I don't think I would be the person I am today without this lovely and convenient outlet.
One of the things that made my blog postings distinctive at the time was my use of quotes to introduce each topic. Whether the quote was from a writer I admired, or the lyrics of a song, I thought the quotation added a certain novelty appeal to my journal, and I would sometimes spend hours searching out the appropriate words.
I suspect now that my habit stemmed from a fundamental insecurity. Afraid to show myself in a public light, I would use the words of the great and good as a means to defend and sustain myself. The quotations became a means by which I could identify myself publicly, but also offered a convenient mask to hide behind; the words, after all, were never my own.
In a short observational essay by Primo Levi, the status of the quote is explored with a few insightful comments. To begin with, Levi confides the comfort and reassurance of a good quote, and the 'sincere enjoyment at finding oneself so completely in agreement with a great author as to be able to insert a shred of him in one's own fabric.' This is the enjoyment of identification, where we can read a book or a poem for what it can express to us about ourselves.
''What else have you underlined?'''What everybody underlines,' she said. 'Everything that says 'me'.''
Philip Roth, Zuckerman Unbound
Primo Levi suggests that this public invocation of the great names in literature can be interpreted as arrogant, or snobbish. Often, he says, it is 'a less noble pleasure; it is like saying to the reader, 'You see, I draw from sources that you do not know, I know something that you do not know, and so I stand a grade higher than you.' This is an excellent point, and I have no doubt it's the reason thousands of people have a Bartleby on their shelves.
But Levi goes one step further, and suggests that the act of quotation can serve just as much to undermine as to reinforce its author's position or argument. He states that including the expression 'sic.' in a quotation can have a 'striking effect' on its meaning and effect, and can destabilize the authority of its author. It undermines the quotation by presupposing
This is a wonderful point, but I think one can easily apply this observation to Levi's first opening passages. There is an enjoyment in an identification with literary texts, and it is pleasant to see in something external something of oneself. Levi mentions the habit of some respected critics to invent quotations from 'none existent books by noexistent authors'. I would argue that a true identification with a passage or a line or text is, in a sense, also an 'invented quotation', in that it invents a new context and a new meaning for an altogether new purpose.
'an error on the contender's part. It may be a venial error, a grammatical or even orthographic oversight, but the sic, this hiccup of virtuous and scandalised astonishment, blows it out of all proportion. [...] SIC: the man whom I quote and from whom I obviously dissent, is, my dear sirs, a dunce. [...] How can you trust him? He has put the subject in the objective case: thus every one of his statements is suspect, and every one of his opinions must be handled with tongs.'
In a sense, identifying with any part of a text is to tear it from its original context. This in essence interprets the quotation in 'an incomplete and inexact manner', pulling it from its source and placing it among alien surroundings. And so: repeating a text is not simply a reinforcement of its meaning, but an active destabilization. With this in mind, perhaps all of our quotations should come complete with a 'sic', notifying us of their incompleteness.
But, for me, one of the greatest joys of literature is the licence to quote at will. If it's not loyal to its original context, if it undermines the intentions of its original author, then so be it. I think quotes exist to be wrenched from their original contexts, and invested with new meanings and new possibilities at all opportunities. Words can be reinvested and reinstated with a different emphasis and a different significance, and they become our own. And, most importantly of all, it can be fun!
You can read 'Sic!' among a collection of Primo Levi's essays and short stories, entitled The Mirror Maker.