THE WORDS OF OTHERS.

A John Sutherland review of Gary Saul Morson’s The Words of Others: From Quotations to Culture makes it sound like an interesting book:

We think of our use of language as ‘fluency’. There are, however, congealed lumps floating in it and, if we look beneath the surface, often more lumps than liquidity. Put another way, most language is pre-owned. The previous owners are, as Gary Morson instructs us, often worth knowing about. Take, for example (not one of Morson’s examples), the indisputably most famous and quoted line in English literature, ‘To be, or not to be, that is the question’.
Most theatregoers would think the sentence spit new. But should they also go to a performance of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus they would hear the following in the hero’s magnificent opening soliloquy, in which he resolves to sell his soul: ‘Bid Oncaymæon farewell, Galen come’. The Greek Oncaymæon transliterates as ‘being and not being’. Where is Faustus a professor of philosophy? The University of Wittenberg. Where is Hamlet a student of philosophy? The University of – you guessed it. ‘To be or not to be’ is not a deeply original thought but a hackneyed sophomoric seminar topic. Hamlet is not thinking, he’s quoting.
Morson’s book is full of surprises on the baggage phraseology carries.[...]

The review itself, however, is quite irritating at times. The idea that ‘whether [the text] must be in the exact words of the respondent or whether it can be paraphrased depends on the precise objectives of the interview’ has, so far as I can see, nothing whatever to do with Johann Hari’s shameless passing off of other journalists’ work as his own, and certainly does not exculpate it. And all that “I don’t give a damn and neither does Gary Morson for such pernicketiness” stuff is faux-populist nonsense. What, either you damn people for misquoting or you damn anyone who cares at all what the real quote was—there’s no in between? (Thanks, Paul!)

Comments

  1. Uhm, does anyone actually quote “To be, or not to be,” except when parodying a ham actor? As opposed to dozens of other everyday phrases from Shakespeare? Definitely disputable.
    Moreover, the story of Oncaymæon is even more interesting than that. From 1609 until 1885, everyone thought it was Œconomy and a misprint in the 1604. And, of course, Marlowe got it from someone else, either Gorgias’ “On Not Being,” or “Being and Not Being” in the Ramist Alexander Richardson’s The Logicians School-Master. Which just shows how slippery such allusion sleuthing is.

  2. everyday phrases
    Make that household words.

  3. More evidence (for which thanks) that Hamlet was just a callow, self-dramatising twerp. The hero was Polonius. People get that play so wrong.

  4. @dearieme: Umberto Eco complained, in the Apostilles to The Name of the Rose, that even the most neutral titles, those that simply name a protagonist, direct the reader’s attention by artificially selecting a single one from the cast. His example was Balzac’s Père Goriot, but Hamlet also fits the bill.

  5. “Hamlet is not thinking, he’s quoting.”
    Hello, false dichotomy.
    “Johann Hari’s shameless passing off of other journalists’ work as his own”
    As little as I like JH and his endless stream of self-righteous hand-wringing, he was suspended from his tenure at the Independent specifically for replacing not-very-quotable interview snippets with very-quotable (and allegedly equivalent) snippets of printed books: so the issue of paraphrase is highly relevant, whether or not Sutherland’s view of the matter is correct or not.

  6. “Marlowe got it from someone else, either Gorgias’ “On Not Being,” or “Being and Not Being” in the Ramist Alexander Richardson’s The Logicians School-Master.”
    What bloody bollocks: it is hardly so specific a phrase. It goes to show how misguided some allusion sleuthing is.

  7. Johann Hari’s been found to have copied quotations made elsewhere by the people he’s interviewing and then using them in his interviews as if they’d been said to him. He’s said he did it in the interests of coherence, and he’s very sorry if… etc. But look at the examples in this New Statesman article and it really looks like total, disgusting plagiarism. I think he ought to resign from journalism and get a real job, like being a fireman or a gardener.

  8. R. W. Dent of UCLA, whose Neuphilologische Mitteilungen “Ramist Faustus or Ramist Marlowe?” Google only gave us snippets of, also wrote books of that sort.

  9. Umberto Eco complained, in the Apostilles to The Name of the Rose, that even the most neutral titles, those that simply name a protagonist, direct the reader’s attention by artificially selecting a single one from the cast.
    So the film title “Being John Malkovitch” is a calculated attempt to reinstate the artificial as artworthy ?

  10. Spam + Cliff’s Notes?

  11. Charles Perry says:

    dearieme: Exactly right about Hamlet being a callow, self-dramatizing twerp. Everybody ignores how young he is. The soliloquy owed its 19th century reputation for profundity to the fact that it allowed actors to chew the scenery, but it should probably be read in the manner of somebody holding forth at a bull session.
    I say this as the grandson of an English teacher. When my father came back from WWII, he made me memorize the soliloquy (at the age of 5) and repeat it back to Granddad to show him that the beat was going on.

  12. I don’t really accept Hat’s other criticism of Sutherland (the one about faux-populism), but he was certainly wrong to shoehorn Johann Hari, irrelevantly, into his ramble-on about quotations.
    But since he did, this is maybe the test case for Hari.
    http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/guy-walters/2011/06/afghanistan-joya-women
    A great deal of the article, as you can see, is taken from the Malalai Joya’s book. But the more I look at it, the less I’m convinced that Hari’s “she says” is really misleading, i.e. that it implies “she said during my interview”. On the contrary, I think you’d have to be pretty dim not to infer that for most of the article Hari is giving us highlights of the book – a very important and respectable part of a journalist’s work.
    I suppose my morals are degraded, I don’t believe much in deeply searching conversations between senior journalists and people from another world that they are meeting for the first time as part of a publicity tour. I do imagine that an interview does take place, that it is quite hard work because of language barriers, that a few simple things get expressed, and that the interviewee also indicates that what she thinks is all in her book.
    If the furore about Hari forces other journalists to be more explicit about distinguishing what was said in an interview from what was said in some other way at some other time, that’ll be a good result.
    But the inevitable political capital that was made by such as Guy Walters, along with some pretty dubious assistants (http://islamversuseurope.blogspot.com/2011/06/more-evidence-of-johann-hari-lifting.html) was more alarming to me than the behaviour they were chastising.

  13. But the inevitable political capital that was made by such as Guy Walters, along with some pretty dubious assistants … was more alarming to me than the behaviour they were chastising.
    Yes, that’s always a problem with this kind of hue-and-cry.

  14. I have now read the whole of Dent’s essay (on microfiche). To be fair, he is more specific and more conjectural in his statements.
    The one place he has seen that exact phrase (up to a printing error) is Richardson’s

    Now there is nothing in the world, but may be a cauſe, an effect, a ſubiect or adiunct; and therefore Logick is generall of ον κι μη ον: but in that he tells vs, that it is but adioyned, hee tells vs that it doth agree but quodam modo, that is, conditionally; but many adiuncts be remoued from their ſubiects, ſith their cauſes are in them.

    But has no idea why this particular place (Book I, Cap. 11, De adiuncto, p. 128) is in Greek when mostly the same work uses esse. And only makes “modest suggestions” beyond that these ideas were current at Cambridge in the 1580′s.
    I suppose in the intervening forty years more specific matches may have come to light.

  15. I hadn’t heard of this Guy Walters before now, so thanks for alerting me. Although he’s an obvious target I don’t buy that Johann Hari’s working method is nothing to worry about. I can just imagine what George Orwell would say about it, (not that I’d trust Orwell further than I could throw him either, but at least he wrote well about political bias). Anyone who’s prepared to fudge the truth in the name of what they think the truth ought to be is writing fiction, and that’s what I’d concentrate on now if I were Hari.

  16. Interesting blog, Michael Peverett. I especially like the pictures of wildflowers. You may know this already, but Små is only a plural form (the singular is liten). I laugh at the idea that Swansk and Norwegian are mere dialects of the same language. Haha.

  17. Heaven forbid I should seem to claim that, especially here – I’ll change what I wrote. My remark was a sort of memory from Chambers and Trudgill’s Dialectology, or the small part of it that I feel equipped to read, where they talk about placing political lines across dialect continua. They also give the example of Skåne dialects, once considered to be dialects of Danish (when it was part of Denmark), thereafter considered to be dialects of Swedish. And for much the same reason what we call Norwegian was considered a regional sort of Danish until the early 19th century. With the growth of literacy, standardized spelling, an agreed standard for educated speech, national literature and culture, there is of course every reason to treat them as different languages now. Even though Swedes and Norwegians can still understand each other quite well.

  18. That’s more like it, just add that.

Speak Your Mind

*