FOR WANT OF A SENTENCE.

An interesting jeu d’esprit at Waggish:

pick a work of literature or philosophy (or poetry, if you can make it work) and a sentence from that work that, if the sentence had been excluded from the work, would have made the greatest difference in the work’s interpretation/reception/history in the following years.

As david feil says in the comments:

It seems that there are several different types of sentences that can be turned up by this question. There are sentences which change the way you read the text, whether it is an explicit instruction (like your Wittgenstein) or a cryptic clue. There are sentences that are so eruptive that they anchor the rest of the text (Conrad’s “The horror, the horror” or Faulkner’s “I don’t hate the South, I don’t hate it” [from Absalom, Absalom—LH]). There are sentences where the text reaches its most crystallized coherence and turns into some sort of poetic easiness. There are sentences which for arbitrary reasons have been given a lot of critical attention (“My mother is a fish.” [from Faulkner's As I Lay Dying—LH]) but despite their immediate impression don’t really define the text as a whole at all. And then there are the sentences which an individual latches on to as their personal lens of the text, but might have nothing to do with the general reaction…

I think we can eliminate the last category as irrelevant to the spirit of the game (and with my irritating editorial nitpickiness I must point out that “I don’t hate the South” is as apocryphal as “Play it again, Sam”; after Shreve asks “Why do you hate the South?” Quentin responds “I dont hate it,” going on to think “I dont hate it … I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!“—right up there with “yes I said yes I will yes” in the Memorable Endings sweepstakes). In terms of the original formulation of the question, what comes to my mind is “‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’” (Through the Looking Glass, Chap. 6) Interesting thing to consider, no?

Comments

  1. Nathaniel says:

    Lots of Shakespeare would be easy pickings under this category, most famously “To be or not to be” and the sentence that springs from it, along with the soliloquy (although that’s just too much to cut to adhere either to the letter or the spirit of this exercise). I’m not too familiar with the details of the folio/quarto/whatever comparisons, though, so there are probably some lines people would consider defining missing from at least one of the versions. Not to mention the drastic edits made to performances.
    In fact, a lot of drama may be the easiest to use for this exercise, given the attention that can be put upon what is considered a pivotal line (whether from original force or because it has developed in that manner through performances)

  2. rootlesscosmo says:

    “Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”

  3. janes'_kid says:

    “For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.”

  4. jamessal says:

    “It is not.”

  5. “Reader, I married him.”

  6. jamessal says:

    “It is to be feared that with the union, so far from brilliant, into which she was about to enter, these were not the last she was destined to shed.”

  7. “I am the Lord, your god, who led you out of Egypt, the house of serfdom.”

  8. Lots of Shakespeare would be easy pickings under this category
    Too easy, if you ask me, since just about every line of some plays has been made the center of somebody’s exegesis.
    “Reader, I married him.”
    Excellent!
    “It is not.”
    OK, I’m gonna have to ask for help with that one.

  9. jamessal says:

    Beckett: “Dante and the Lobster”
    Cheating, I guess, since it’s a short story.
    (Also really cheating since I never read it cover to cover — just flipped through after hearing and reading about the ending.)

  10. How about the impotency line from The Sun Also Rises?

  11. Though, as I said there, the commenter Battiades got it dead-on with “Tu modo nascenti puero…”, Eclogues 4.8-10.

  12. Contrarily and curmudgeonwise, I have to say that I simply don’t believe in this game of sentences, to which I have the same objections that R.B. Myers so memorably rendered to modern book-reviewing practice in A Reader’s Manifesto. A sentence in a larger work draws almost all of its meaning from context; a sentence that truly didn’t, that itself constituted the key to the meaning of all the others, would be an interloper in its work.
    No one sentence is, can be, indispensable. (We have to except short poems here, as obviously an epigram with one line missing is no epigram: “Go and tell the Spartans, passerby, ‘Erm, I forget what.’”) Would all the multifarious meanings of Jane Eyre truly dissolve into air, into thin air, if the first sentence of the last chapter had been cut? I don’t believe it. How much has the book’s reputation suffered because most people don’t remember its actual last sentence at all?
    As Frye says in the “Polemical Introduction” to Anatomy of Criticism (there’s a work whose title, like Tom Shippey’s completely different book J.R.R. Tolkien: Poet of the Century, takes some of its meaning from the omission of an article):

    If we had the privilege of Gulliver in Glubbdubdrib to call up the ghost of, say, Shakespeare, to ask him what he meant by such and such a passage, we could only get, with maddening iteration, the same answer: “I meant it to form part of the play.” [...] [T]he relationship of the passage to the rest of the play creates myriads of new meanings for it. Just as a vivid sketch of a cat by a good draughtsman may contain in a few crisp lines the entire feline experience of everyone who looks at it, so the powerfully constructed pattern of words that we know as Hamlet may contain an amount of meaning which the vast and constantly growing library of criticism on the play cannot begin to exhaust.

    But if you really want an example, I point to the enacting clause, the “therefore be it resolved” bit, in legislative acts, without which the whole law would dissolve into a mess of backgrounded whereases, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.

  13. LH, can you explain why you think that Humpty’s magnificently descriptivist dialogue is such a critical component of Through the Looking Glass? It’s certainly a personal favourite of mine, but if the entire glory of which it s apart were removed, I can’t see how the reception of the book would have been different.
    On a tangential aside, when discussing the etymological fallacy, Dodgson’s rant against the belfry at his college is both very droll and wonderfully apt. How did a Victorian mathematician end up so untainted by prescriptivism?

  14. A personal favorite, although unknown to almost everybody: “Sit still or I’ll have to shoot you.”*

  15. The first line of Anna Karenina is surely remembered by everyone who’s read that tome, isn’t it? Your Conrad quote remains similarly ingrained in my mind.

  16. dauthie says:

    “Hier – traf er, da bald darauf ihre erschrockenen Frauen erschienen, Anstalten, einen Arzt zu rufen; versicherte, indem er sich den Hut aufsetzte, daß sie sich bald erholen würde; und kehrte in den Kampf zurück.”

  17. I can’t see how the reception of the book would have been different.
    Well, come on—if you take it too seriously, it is (as John Cowan so curmudgeonly points out) pretty silly. Obviously no single sentence is going to completely change the reception of a work. But I see that sentence quoted a lot in discussions of Through the Looking Glass, and I can’t help but think it plays a substantial (though obviously not determining) part in people’s image of the book.

  18. Ah, Kleist’s infamous pregnant dash.

  19. I obviously have a special fondness for that line because it has a hat in it.

  20. dauthie says:

    Good one, Hat. This one is a huge spoiler for those who haven’t read the book:
    “‘Nee, niet daarheen, daar zitten joden.’”

  21. “Et avec cette muflerie intermittente qui reparaissait chez lui dès qu’il n’était plus malheureux et que baissait du même coup le niveau de sa moralité, il s’écria en lui-même: «Dire que j’ai gâché des années de ma vie, que j’ai voulu mourir, que j’ai eu mon plus grand amour, pour une femme qui ne me plaisait pas, qui n’était pas mon genre!»”

  22. jamessal says:

    A sentence in a larger work draws almost all of its meaning from context; a sentence that truly didn’t, that itself constituted the key to the meaning of all the others, would be an interloper in its work.
    Yes, but surely some pieces are more intricate to a puzzle than others.
    Also, this is strange argument for Myers to put forth, considering he’s so keen on sentence analyses and his analyses are so literal.
    (I’m not a fan.)

  23. “But I see that sentence quoted a lot in discussions of Through the Looking Glass, and I can’t help but think it plays a substantial (though obviously not determining) part in people’s image of the book.”
    Thanks. I think my excessively literal reading of your earlier comment was a sign that the defining sentence in my life is “give me coffee”.

  24. In mine as well.

  25. David Marjanović says:

    “He loved Big Brother.”

  26. jamessal says:

    There are sentences where the text reaches its most crystallized coherence and turns into some sort of poetic easiness.
    In that sense I think it would be hard to top:
    “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

  27. I think that’s the best one yet. It meets pretty much all the qualifications.

  28. jamessal says:

    Score!
    I’ll be expecting my prize no later than the fifteenth.

  29. SnowLeopard says:

    No one hides their insights in a fog of words quite like Kant. I’d probably pick the passage from the Critique of Judgment where he describes our perception of beauty as “disinterested satisfaction”. People tend to read that phrase, assume they know what he means by it, sneer, and close the book.

  30. “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.”
    Not a book, but a monument to human creativity nonetheless.

  31. jamessal says:

    Raymond Carver:
    “In this manner, the issue was decided.”

  32. I love this idea! I hesitate to participate because I can see my participation degenerating quickly into a game of “favorite sentences”; but here is a line from the first chapter of Snow (a work in which nearly every single sentence carries a great deal of weight), that really affected the way I perceived what was going on in the book as I began to read it: “After a lifetime in which every experience of love was touched by shame and suffering, the prospect of falling in love filled Ka with an intense, almost instinctive dread.”
    Also, the final sentence of The Heart of Darkness seems like a good, and fairly obvious, candidate. (Oh no! Am I remembering correctly, that “Mistah Kurtz, he dead.” is the end of the book?)

  33. Mmph. Not sure how that got in there; I am not now, nor have I ever been, a registered trademark.

  34. I hesitate to participate because I can see my participation degenerating quickly into a game of “favorite sentences”
    Yes, that’s why I had to think about it before posting it—I wanted to come up with something that wasn’t just a memorable sentence. Not that there’s anything wrong with a game of “favorite sentences.”
    And you’ve moved Snow higher up on the list of books I want to get to sooner rather than later.

  35. davh1006 says:

    yes I said yes I will Yes.

  36. But see, that’s not a sentence, and the sentence it’s part of runs on for at least a dozen pages—you could, I suppose, based on lack of punctuation, call the entire last chapter a single sentence—so it doesn’t seem a fair example. There must somewhere be a book consisting of a single gigantic sentence; sure, if you removed that sentence it would drastically affect the impact of the book, but… you see my point.

  37. “Et ce fut tout.”

  38. Is that “Un baiser, et ce fut tout” from Les Misérables? If not, what is it?

  39. This is the last meeting of the characters of “Education sentimentale”… Maybe this is just me, but the book would mean less for me without this ending…
    “Quand elle fut sortie, Frédéric ouvrit sa fenêtre. Mme Arnoux, sur le trottoir, fit signe d’avancer à un fiacre qui passait. Elle monta dedans. La voiture disparut.
    Et ce fut tout.”

  40. Of course—thanks!

  41. Dag Bladder says:

    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

  42. “Yet a tailor might scratch her where’er she did itch”, with another hat tip to Frye.

  43. johnshade says:

    “Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”

  44. Bruce Triplett says:

    Epur si muove.

  45. “Il faut cultiver son jardin” seems like an obvious one.

  46. speedwell says:

    John 3:16.

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