Archive for March 21st, 2013

The quotation game

Recently, browsing through the net, as one does, I came across this quote:

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

This quote was attributed to William Butler Yeats. I must admit I was surprised. Yeats is one of my favourite poets, and I am reasonably well-read in his works; but I certainly don’t remember anything remotely resembling this. Of course, I haven’t read everything he has written, but this sounds so very un-Yeatsian: the sentiment expressed is fairly trivial, the imagery banal, and the sonorities and rhythms of the aphorism not of a standard one might expect from a supreme master of the English language. Of course, none of this proves that Yeats didn’t write it: he may have had an off day, or was tired, or was drunk, or whatever. So I decided to research this. Is one of my literary heroes responsible for so trite a piece of cod wisdom that might embarrass even a Paolo Coelho or a Deepak Chopra?

On googling it, I find that the quote has appeared all over the internet, and always attributed to Yeats. And always, suspiciously, without a reference. It seems I am not the first person to have harboured suspicions on this quote: the writer of this article has researched this matter far more extensively than I have done, and has failed to find any evidence to trace this quote back to Yeats. He does concede that this does not prove that Yeats never said it, but given that there is no reason to accept any attribution without a reference, it does seem to me a reasonable conclusion to draw. (Unless, of course, someone can provide a reference – in which case I shall be happy to eat my words.)

This kind of thing is quite common on the internet, of course. Make up a saying, and attach a famous name to it. Preferrably the name of someone who is not alive, so they can’t deny having said it. Why? Well, to confer some weight and gravitas on what would otherwise be unremarkable. And also, I think, to convince ourselves that the truth is really a simple and straight-forward matter, capable of being expressed in a few words. Take, for instance, education, the subject of the quote above attributed to Yeats: education is, in reality, a very complex and intricate topic, full of subtlety and nuance; is it really likely that anything worthwhile or profound about it may be said in just a few words?

Poets do not give us moral precepts; they do not give us wisdom that we may live by. Or if they do, that is not what confers greatness upon their work. The world is too complex for simple slogans: nothing that is worth discussing, nothing that deserves to be taken seriously, can be resolved in a few words, no matter how well-chosen those words may be. One should not come to literature to find pat answers to difficult questions: difficult questions don’t have pat answers; and the simpler questions that do are inadequate topics for serious literature.

All this makes serious literature a very troubling matter. It addresses difficult issues, and yet refuses to answer them, telling us instead that there is no answer; or, at best, that there is no easy answer. How much easier to reduce all these messy, intractable complexities to a few easily digestible messages! How much more satisfying to pretend that the unfathomable intricacies of our lives can be pinned down with a few pithy soundbites! Even if we have to make up these soundbites ourselves…

In the meantime, there’s nothing to prevent us joining in the fun, and flooding Facebook and other social media with a few invented quotes – the more trite and portentious, the better – and see how quickly they start spreading. Here are a few for starters that I have just made up off the top of my head – and do please free to add to them:

“A single act of human kindness is of greater value than all the science in the world” – Niels Bohr

“No matter how far the branches of the tree diverge, they grow from the same source” – Emily Dickinson

“The more advanced our means of communication, the less we have to communicate” – Ludwig  Wittgenstein

“Wisdom is more, far more, than merely the sum total of our earthly knowledge” – George Eliot

“There is no evil greater than the failure to see the divine spark in our fellow man” – Dietrich Bonnhoeffer

“Another double scotch please, barman!” – Mahatma Gandhi