. . . you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps its done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my own story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.
Samuel Beckett from The Unnamable p.382
In the beginning was the word, the always already there of the world we are born into. The story we are and are to become does not begin neatly with a question in French like War and Peace. Yet the novel does begin, as does our own story as well. What were they talking about before the topic of Napoleon, the quality of the tea, the taste of the madelines? Language is ongoing, yet simultaneously new. Eliot wrote that we only know how to say something when we no longer need to say it; is life a quest to to find the words we need to tell our story? Jimmy Britton said that reading and writing float on a sea of talk; language is the ocean we are flung into at birth. Who’s up for a swim?
I’ve thought for several years, at least since I was working on my Master’s , in the early nineties, that it would be interesting to write an essay that was comprised of only quotes. No linking bits of prose from me, just straight quotes; the reader could make the connections herself. It would be like Mortimer Adler’s great conversation except that I would be in control of who was invited to speak and who could say what when. A dinner party where I could pause and delete the conversation at will. A bit micromanaging, but then what writer isn’t an anal retentive control freak at heart. At least if they are honest. The necro-beat attitude espoused by Allen Ginsburg fans, “First thought, Best thought,” is true only if the first thought can lead to another and
then another in an endless chain of overleaping like dolphins in front of a ship’s bow.
This is where the quotes come in: I will be reading and a line or a phrase, or a paragraph, jumps out at me from the flow of prose sending my own thoughts in directions not followed by the rest of the passage. I used to be bothered by this, upset that I could not concentrate long enough to follow the complete thought pattern of the author, but I have grown accustomed to the tangential nature of my mind. It is not that I cannot follow other’s thoughts it is just that what they have to say makes me think of something else someone other than the original writer has written, or I think of something on my own. Although I am never sure if what I come up with is all that original. I must have stolen it from somewhere else; I felt a compulsive need to provide foot notes to my own thinking. Synthesis was not a virtue for me for many years. I remember wondering in high school how I could avoid plagiarizing when everything I wrote was not my own idea. Now as I have reentered academia the question comes up again as I read research articles where authors are cited seemingly at random since the writer’s themselves are never quoted. Perhaps I read too much, or have read for too many years, because I can’t remember where I read the idea I am pursuing. Like now, I am sure I have stolen this thought of stealing thoughts without knowing from where from somewhere but I do not know from where I have stolen it.
Of course nothing is original since the words I am using have all been used by someone else. The language is always already there, but at the same time it is always already changing to something else otherwise we would still speak like the Beowulf poet. My students, every year, when we start on a Shakespeare play complain about how they can’t read “Old English.” I tell them they are right, but Shakespeare is written in modern English. I show them Old English, Middle English, then a passage of Shakespeare: we do speak differently, but not enough. The language is still the language we speak, the language we were born into, the language in which we tell our story. You can quote me on that.