Quoting gone Wrong (or Why Voltaire Turns in his Grave)


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The problem with quoting nowadays comes down to the dreary, headless over-decontextualisation of  lines whose extraction from a specific frame of meaning or obliviousness to it results in the type of (ludicrous) misunderstandings such as the words above pictured could produce. For what best justifies this point than the uninspired association of Voltaire, the ever so witty cynic, with that exceedingly optimistic stance he ultimately did write, but only, solely, to prove its sheer imbecility?

I’ll tell you in a moment.

But thing is, I can already see it posted on Facebook in the modern man’s good habit to update his status using the wise words of some famous character found a click away under the ‘love/friendship/motivational quotes’ category. And if I suppose nobody would take the ‘all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’ nonsense seriously, I’m afraid there are high chances Voltaire’s reputation, albeit irrelevant to the man himself, will have much to suffer.

Because in our culture, illustrated quotes are the equivalent of Twitter bios, veritable labels of their writer. So if to Voltaire you attach that sentence without also explaining it’s a mocking leitmotif in ‘Candide‘, a most derisive novel which seeks to emphasise by exaggeration the idiocy of positive thinking before absurd misfortunes, you practically define him through something that couldn’t be less representative of his real worldview. You completely distort him.

And to fully grasp why I consider this absurdly unfair, let’s attempt to do it to none other than the Marquis de Sade, the very icon of sadism and debauchery- decontextualise him.

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Pretty contradictory, isn’t it?

The complete quote, which concludes ‘Justine‘, one of our libertine’s best known creations actually fashioned to recall ‘Candide’, absurd, ridiculously hyperbolic in its optimism and certainly not to be taken literally, goes as follows:

May you be convinced, with her, that true happiness is to be found nowhere but in Virtue’s womb, and that if, in keeping with designs it is not for us to fathom, God permits that it be persecuted on Earth, it is so that Virtue may be compensated by Heaven’s most dazzling rewards.

Definitely not in keeping with his reputation and character, right?

So what do you think now about this ‘quotation issue’?

A writer friend of mine got quite scared this might happen to her work too – get chopped down and condemned to blatant misinterpretations. What’s your opinion on the matter?

fleuron

Patricia Beykrat – the Roving Aesthete

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16 responses to “Quoting gone Wrong (or Why Voltaire Turns in his Grave)

  1. Ms. Beykrat,
    What a pleasure it is to finally have the opportunity to comment upon a post of yours! Yes, this quoting madness is simply out of control, and will one day, no doubt, be looked back upon with pity and embarrassment, or, possibly, though I shudder to think of this bleak future, looked back upon as the dawning of an age when words could be used, well, if you’ll excuse my use of a quote, as Edmund Halley wrote in Miscellanea Curiosa, “And though this be not to be esteem’d as an Argument, yet I may take the liberty. I see others do, to quote the Poets when it makes for my purpose”. Oh, well, I guess if Mr. Halley did it, what’s going to stop those others from doing it. We’re doomed. We are surely doomed, and you can quote me on that. Ha ha.
    Coincidentally, just this very morning I created a post in which I made use of a few quotes completely out of the context of their original meaning, and then, I realized, as I typed away happy with my finding of these clever quotes to use for my own purposes, that I could use “Quote the poets” as an insult! For example: If I saw you just sitting around looking out the window caught up in some day dream of some sort (the details of which I don’t need to know) I would blurt out (in order to scare you I admit) “Get off your ass, you’ve got no time for quoting the poets”! or, if you made me angry, I don’t know, say you told me you didn’t like my shoes, I could say, “Go quote a poet”! Alright, that’s enough, I think you get the idea. Thank you for the post and for the invitation to comment

    -The President and Founder

    • What a witty insult you’ve found, ‘quoting the poets’! I actually consider using it from now on, it’s really quite richly tinted with irony.
      But I don’t think we should altogether deplore this incessant quoting that goes on, not if it’s done properly, that is. I myself have a series of posts called ‘art quote of the week’ so it would be blatantly hypocritical to say I don’t enjoy using someone else’s words to make a point. I even consider it necessary in certain instances. What I do find preposterous, though, is sharing someone’s aphorisms without the slightest attempt to actually understand what they really mean to them and not merely interpret yourself. And if you do, well, just drop the quotation marks – it’s probably not what they wanted to transmit, hence not their quote.
      All in all, I really enjoyed your comment & you’re welcomed to express your opinion here whenever you want.

  2. I really enjoyed your post. It is thought provoking.

    I agree that context is very, very important. It is as important in this instance as it is in reviews of art, literature, reportage of news, and in the representation of images. I have never been a fan of the “feel good” quote trend that was prevalent long before the internet (albeit less intrusively) in the form of toliet and kitchen posters of the 70s onwards. Having been brought up with religious quotations on every school-room wall, this type of communication always smacks of preaching and a “I’m so clever to think this profoundly” smugness. That people use these quotes without really understanding them makes them all the more ridiculous.

    • Hmm… I think you’ve just underlined an interesting thing about the origin of this quotation-‘mania’ going on: it might actually originate in sunday ceremony at church, when the priest would pretty much quote the apostles and more often than never misinterpret their words… perhaps people picked it up somehow and extrapolated because it occurred to them this is the thing that makes their priest sound so clever 🙂 Because otherwise quotes have only been largely used by authors to criticize/argument/justify different thesis or theories or ideas or whatever – and most of them at least seemed to understand what the people they quoted actually meant.
      Thank you for the comment!

  3. This reminds me that the oft-quoted statement, ‘Money is the root of all evil,’ is actually, ‘The love of money is the root of all evil.’ But, how many times have we heard politicians say, “I was misquoted”? With the current trend of social media tidbits, it shouldn’t be surprising if more classic statements get twisted, or worst, essentially circumcised from the original verbiage.

    • That’s perfectly right. And the worse thing is that it happens with religious quotations inclusively, which leads to a number of dangerous misunderstandings of the original text – see the radical Islamism.

  4. The action of taking something out of context is like a golden rule for people who don’t know exactly what to say or just want to be heard. It’s sad. Very good article.

  5. Well, I am thrilled to have this be the first blog post of yours that I have read, so thank you for visiting my site. I am thrilled because it is very rare that I find anyone recognize something as evident as this common misperception and misuse of people’s words in modern society. Unfortunately, this has been a common theme for centuries before even the modern world had its information revolution. It is quite entertaining when you start breaking down other works (even the Bible) and find that many quotes are actually from other works taken out of context and misconstrued by the masses. I applaud you! Thank you for sharing.

    • and I thank you too for paying a visit!
      it is indeed amusing at times to observe the misguided use of quotes completely removed from their initial context, even interesting if you think that by doing that people try to appropriate a number of someone else’s words to in fact illustrate their own ideas… but when Voltaire appears as an optimist I think it has gone too far

  6. The bible (and other religious writings) is often purposefully misquoted and taken out of context to reinforce or justify a particular argument. Also I would hate to be a public person and have what I say ( or neglect to say) misconstrued and twisted by people who wish to use my name or my words to endorse or condemn.
    I saw this quote on a website somewhere…”you can trust anything that is written on the internet”…Shakespeare

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