Albert Camus and the ventriloquists


“Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” Those lines are perhaps the most-quoted of Albert Camus’ online. They’ve most likely reached more people than his books have. The problem, aside from the diabolical triteness of the sentiment, is that Camus doesn’t seem to have written these words. They appear in none of his major works nor in any interview that I can find. To anyone who has read Camus’ work, this comes as little surprise. It just doesn’t seem his style to write something so simpering, a message with all the profundity of an episode of The Littlest Hobo, a kind of self-help post-Oprah drivel, the proliferation of which has made Facebook a place which the sound of mind should avoid as they would a leper colony.

Camus did have a talent for writing one-liners and epigrams though rarely as light-weight as the aforementioned one (which seems more akin to Footprints in the Sand god-bothering doggerel than any literary text). There was more than just his looks linking him to Philip Marlowe-era Bogart. His economy of setting and language, the continual question of complicity, the omnipresent threat of violence, the deadly inexorable clockwork of his plots, the unreliable narrator of The Fall and the narrative tension in The Stranger, The Plague and ‘The Guest’ (from Exile and the Kingdom) mark him out almost as much a noir writer as an Existentialist, the latter a title he always denied. Camus was manifestly hard-boiled; hair slicked, collar up against the wind, cigarette hanging from his mouth. Perhaps he did write those words but they were mistranslated. Perhaps his instructions not to walk ahead or behind was not some happy-clappy sentiment but an untrusting and untrustworthy narrator, afraid his follower might suddenly brandish a revolver or afraid he might do the same. Walk alongside me so I can look you in the eye and get the measure of you, friend. Robbed of Camus’ characteristic style or perhaps the context of a private letter (in which case it would have a touching personal resonance), the quote is just another platitude masquerading as wisdom (hence the vaguely religious connotations). Why it attached itself to Camus or who actually wrote it is unclear.

Let’s take what Camus really did write as an example of the depth of his writing. The words of the infernal barfly Clamence in The Fall, “I shall tell you a great secret, my friend. Do not wait for the Last Judgment. It takes place every day.” The startling admission that opens The Stranger, “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.” His evocation of Manhattan from his American Journal, “Sometimes from beyond the skyscrapers, across thousands of high walls, the cry of a tugboat finds you in your insomnia in the middle of the night, and you remember that this desert of iron and cement is an island.” In Return to Tipasa, he wrote exquisitely that “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” In Summer in Algiers he is equally life-affirming, “If there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.”

All very inspiring but only truly so when placed in context. To fully appreciate Camus’ humanism you must set it in the sense of godless post-Nietzsche post-Holocaust futility which he, and the Existentialists, wrestled with and following the very real and often grim experiences of his poverty-stricken childhood in Algeria and his time risking his life in the French Resistance during the Occupation. This is why he deliberately sets his observations within tales of murder, epidemics, betrayals, dictatorships and torture. When he comes to write his most explicit philosophical and political work The Rebel, he does so by examining the barbarities of the French Terror, Stalin and Hitler. To take this context away, to have a quote floating like a speck of dust in a vacuum, is to do him a disservice and change the very meaning of the quote itself. His glints of light only exist in any meaningful sense when they are located in darkness.

A maxim isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself. Some immensely fine, if occasionally infuriating, writing has come in the form of collections of them: Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, the writings of Nietzsche and Marcus Valerius Martialis, Wittgenstein’s mind-melting Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the Futurist’s magnificently poetic Manifestos, David Shields’ recent Reality Hunger. The crucial aspect is that these have been set within and to a context that gives it a deeper meaning. The epigram originated as individual lines and snippets of verse that could work as graffiti or carved into headstones. The setting gave it additional meaning. This is still where it works best, unexpectedly jolting us out of routine. The Poems on the Underground in London is a great idea because it can give us a stolen moment in the time that has been stolen from us by work, a chance for contemplation and lucidity amidst the gloom of the commute. With our own time however it seems we should live as deeply as we possibly can given there will be no second chances. We should read likewise. Trying to appreciate a writer based on individual sentences is like surveying a Van Gogh painting by examining a chart of the colour palettes he used. To use another example, if we know nothing about Philip Larkin and his misanthropic worldview, it’s difficult to detect the various layers of meaning in a line like “What will survive of us is love” (from An Arundel Tomb). The conclusion of a monumental death-haunted poem would be reduced to a greetings card banality. The reader, if not the poem, would be reduced to interpreting on face value alone. It would be like trying to imagine what is at the bottom of the sea by glancing at a puddle.


We could somewhat unfairly blame Oscar Wilde for the modern bombardment of quotes and soundbites given he was a master at making them. Wilde set them to the wider framework of a life lived as art and, in fairness, he lived extravagantly enough to convincingly carry this off. Yet it was a costly decision. It led him to write his life into tragedy, regarding very real dangers with rhetorical flippancy and a fatal seemingly-untouchable vanity. He realised what was happening and the forces gathering against him much too late to save himself. Additionally his skill with a witticism overshadowed his most important work (De Profundis, The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Soul of Man under Socialism). Like a grim bell tolling for a condemned man, his rise and fall also heralded the age and the nature of public celebrity for us all.

It might be reassuring to think that at least quotes serve as a signpost towards a writer’s work. It takes a discerning eye to know who to signpost to and how (the early albums of the Manic Street Preachers with their attendant literary slogans being a successful example of this). Such an eye is rare and brings us to the question of ulterior motives. I’m highly sceptical of those who claim that society is dumbing down, with its implication that some golden age of knowledge existed in the past, often unsurprisingly a draconian age where knowledge was the preserve of a cosseted and craven elite. Though I’m sceptical too of a view of human progress as ever-upward, we do know, in every field of inquiry, immeasurably more now than we ever have before. It may sound unromantic but the famed Library of Alexandria, regardless of its undoubted lost treasures, would pale in comparison to Wikipedia let alone the Library of Congress or the British Library. We have more ways to access this information and share it despite the considerable efforts of those who would happily shut these routes down for most people. The real issue of concern is not whether technology and social networking are rendering us ‘stupider’ (the contrary may well be true or equally the effect may be negligible as technology tends to only bring out and accentuate what is already in us) but the motives behind those who employ them.

Take the prevalence of websites where for your convenience you’re served culture as you might be served chicken nuggets in a drive-thru. You know who they are (but if in doubt try Flavorwire,, BuzzFeed, Huffpost’s book section or Brain Pickings). In the absence of imagination or depth and using the modern model, you could easily fire together a Top Ten Books/Films/TV Shows About Vampires/Zombies/Fashion/Love, preferably with each book on a separate page or their beloved “after the jump” to greatly boost the hits and thus advertising revenue of your site. You could make sure each book is dealt with in a cursory paragraph, perhaps lifted wholesale from its blurb or press release with a droll rejoinder tacked to the end. Or better still, just stick a quote or ten on there with images taken from other list-based culture sites who’ve in turn taken their image from other sites and so on forever and ever. Include endless ‘how to write’ articles written by writers so it has that familiar creative writing workshop feel. Don’t bother looking too closely or at too much length at anything. Feel free to share all of this via the widgets provided. Reiterate positivity, motivation, self-belief like Dr Phil if his moustache happened to be a permissably ironic one. Remember above all, your priority is clicks not culture. There’s little harm in any of this of course but there’s little substance to it either. It’s resulted in the elevation of the curator above the creator, taste above talent, pointing above doing.

Culture filtered through social networking (or more accurately the opposite) reaches its nadir with the tendency towards ventriloquism, the point at which it becomes damaging rather than just mildly irritating. Readers inevitably project their own views onto the writers they love (and loathe), it takes a curator or a critic to truly misrepresent a writer. In the past few months, I’ve seen writers whose work I adore be resurrected in horrifying forms. Gone are the edges, complexities and ambiguities that made them so interesting and unique. Instead we get a partially-pristine partially-malformed ventriloquist dummy replica. Worse still they all speak with the same voice. The words are theirs but the voices are not. Those have been changed in the editing process.

anais nin1

If I had first encountered Anaïs Nin by reading a quote of hers about love or dreams or fulfilling your potential or massaging your inner child superimposed on an insufferably twee image, I would never have picked up her wonderful remarkably-transgressive books. Perhaps this shows the shortsightedness of my own prejudices but it’s still not a fair or substantial representation of her work. What I want when I encounter Anaïs Nin is Anaïs Nin, not a therapist or a motivational speaker. The same goes for Susan Sontag or Henry Miller or David Foster Wallace or any of the other incandescently brilliant writers whose writing has recently been cherry-picked and repackaged as glorified self-help tracts. The quotes are certainly theirs, being culled from diaries, journals, speeches and interviews (with the double meaning of culled being entirely apt). The sentiments may well be true. Yet it seems to me duplicitous because the quotes have been carefully selected to fit a pre-existing agenda – us. I am a ludicrously solipsistic and selfish person but even I bristle at the idea that the only thing Susan Sontag or David Foster Wallace had to offer is advice for me. At the risk of impertinence, if I chance upon someone using the currently virulent “there is actually no such thing as atheism” quote by Foster Wallace out of context to bash atheists (ignoring its implicit ‘worship God precisely because He is so ineffectual He can’t harm you’ angle) with no further interest in his writing or life, I’m going to nail a copy of Infinite Jest to their collective forehead.

Perhaps it’s simply contrarianism or some innate desire not to make life easy for myself but maybe it’s something more significant. In a world which increasingly values speed, extroversion and convenience, being slow, introverted and awkward might well become radical activities. The more I encounter a particular modern mindset with its unholy trinity of second-hand Freud, New Age Buddhism and TED talk evangelism, the more I find myself thinking thoughts that flit between the hermetical and the tyrannical. The more filled with self-positivity things become (while everything to the contrary is happening politically, economically and socially), the more I long to live in an interminably long, turgid and depressing Russian novel that ends with me hanging myself from a burning cherry tree. Those are my issues and they are plentiful. What I do know are those quotes from Camus or whoever stuck onto images of children skipping along beaches or flowers blossoming are just a symbol of a deeper malaise. They’re not signs of contentedness or well-being or spirituality. They’re precisely the opposite.

Mercifully, there are lots of cultural places that give me hope on the net. Sites like The White Review have long heavyweight articles, The Paris Review long heavyweight interviews. Neither of them are fun-sized. They seem to respect writers enough to spend a degree of time and forethought examining their work and speaking to them. Occasionally sites like these risk going too far the other direction, appearing pretentious but sometimes that’s amusing in a strange way (and no more pompous than the title of this post you’re reading). And at least they assume their audience aren’t idiots and possess a concentration span larger than that of an amoeba. They are swimming against the tide but likely always have and always will.

If there’s a lesson anywhere in these ramblings, it’s that if you write anything once it’s released it’s not in your hands anymore. And once you’re dead, everything’s up for grabs. You can be misrepresented a thousand different ways according to the ambiguities of language, the distortions of editing and the intentions of the selector. The least we might suggest is for those doing so to go read the book before abridging it into a single line and superimposing it onto a jpeg of a fucking rainbow or waterfall. To respect the writer they’re quoting and the reader they’re addressing and themselves. The only alternative for a writer is to do as Socrates did and refuse to write anything down (though even that, as Camus has shown, is not a fail-safe). Whatever the outcome, it’s clear the writer-reader relationship is not as one-way as we might think and a degree of trust is required by both sides, precarious though it may be.

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45 Responses to Albert Camus and the ventriloquists

  1. davelordan says:

    excellent post darran. thanks for it.

  2. Biblioklept says:


    Thanks. I needed this.

    You’ve captured so much of what bothers me about blogging/tumblr/twitter culture—it bothers me precisely because I sometimes wonder if I’m simply perpetuating it myself, on my own blog or on twitter (I hope I’m not—but I’ve never pretended to be a “curator” or a critic).

    This is spot on: “I bristle at the idea that the only thing Susan Sontag or David Foster Wallace had to offer is advice for me” — I think the people (and we know who some of the major offenders are) who do this so frequently are so bothersome because they never actually say anything about the writing beyond some empty adjective (“brilliant” or, worse, “rare”)—They don’t make the audience want to, you know, actually *read* the work. These types of empty, “curated” posts are designed precisely to allow the audience to *neglect* reading the work they pretend to “discuss.”

    At the same time though, I think there is something pleasurable in the brevity of maxims, aphorisms, images, or even the creativity of fixed image memes, etc. What I find disgusting (and perhaps intellectually sinister) is the hucksters (with monetized sites, of course!) who re-represent authors (authors they clearly have not read) in the gross idiom of self-improvement.

    I don’t know if it goes against the spirit of your post, but I’m gonna share it on twitter and wordpress.


    • ditto, re: hucksters and fakes. I fear the internet is reducing all of us to quips, quotes, etc and what that portends

    • oh share by all means, I’m aware of the irony in that but I never claimed I have any integrity or consistency in my arguments haha. I gave those up when I took to the internet to rant about the evils of the internet.
      those are great points you make and my spleen was definitely not being vented in your direction at all. I think Biblioklept is superb and an example (along with the likes of ‘wood s lot’, 3:am’s Buzzwords and A Piece of Monologue off the top of my head) of curating as it should be done; with respect, a discerning eye and real critical commentary (even if it’s just subliminal from what is chosen). sites like those have opened my eyes to so many things I didn’t know about and added depth to those I thought I knew. this seems the precise opposite of a site like say Flavorwire which makes me hate what I thought I liked. take that particular site today, the top post is ‘Life Advice From Raymond Carver.’ in ten installments. it’s like grave-robbing the tomb of the pharaohs and returning with their toiletries.

  3. Wonderful, throught-provoking post and thank you for making it long and heavyweight! The trouble is, the proliferation of short soundbite-type pieces online is actually distracting and I often find myself skipping through many of these and not actually taking much in, rather than actually sinking into the massive Russian tome and living through it. Time to turn off the PC for a while, methinks….

    • thank you. I think there’ll be a backlash of some kind, with people seeking depth or authenticity. the only problem with that is it’ll soon co-opted into fashion, logging off will the new logging on, letter-writing the new twitter or whatever, which will miss the point. it’s not necessarily the mediums that are at fault but what use we make of them. there seems enough disposable things all around us (no harm themselves in moderation), I think that’s why I’m so defensive of seeing that mentality extending into literature and it being allowed to without resistance. ultimately it’s all about counteracting the unbearable lightness of being as the man wrote and not adding to it. a walk through the woods or a long Russian novel, they’re a yearning for something with weight and sustenance.

  4. Pingback: “I bristle at the idea that the only thing Susan Sontag or David Foster Wallace had to offer is advice for me.” | biblioklept

  5. Mark says:

    I think that line you started with must just be a widely spoken proverb in the English speaking world. I know I’ve read it on posters that have no literary association. I immediately thought it sounded like Jesus but he was all ‘follow me, follow me’ most of the time. It sounds like Jesus when he was in his one of his humble human moods as opposed to his ‘son of God’ attention seeking. He was a bit schizo like that.
    I know other people have seen and used it in circumstances with no Camus connection. One search finds sources labelled as diverse as Native Americans, George Sand and general Jewish aphorism (admittedly a Camus connection albeit loose).
    On the internet, though, the Camus attribution has seriously taken hold but I think that’s just what happens with social groups. In the wider world without interference of the web, it would still be going round with various names attached, in some places it maybe still is. But the internet can be clique-y.
    With search optimisation, it’s being streamlined. Bloggers and vloggers are always consolidating their assets (viewers, clickers, us) or rather the domain holders do so on their behalf, probably in a push to assimilate youtube into something resembling satellite television and turning blogs like something resembling the divisions of News Corporation. They gain a greater market share while diminishing the kind of environment that brought them into being.
    But even before that, I think we neglect to remember that it has always been and still is a fairly small number of people who are active on the web, with an even smaller number who contribute answers and articles that disseminate false references. After one attribution gets put out there, it gains hits and gets reblogged. It sucks focus so that even the alternative false attributions don’t get to weigh in, let alone actually putting the truth on a pedestal.
    I wonder if there is anything working to reverse the trend. Streamlining and consolidation can be good at filtering out irrelevant or uninteresting material but what about when it’s wrong? This probably can’t be helped.
    Anarchism becomes statism
    Free market becomes corporatism
    Competition becomes stagnation.
    Survival of the fittest becomes preservation of the enabled.
    There needs to be some kind of equal and opposite counter distribution from the lower rungs or else we’re just wallowing in false information. Something working outside the network, beyond the market of clicks and upvotes. A charity like wikipedia, an open forum, or an authority committed to education and not the spread of lies.

    • those are very interesting points. I think the only hope comes from a view of history as cyclical or perhaps a series of waves. we can be sure only of the fact that things will not stay the same. and while the internet at present seems to be coalescing into various corporate fiefdoms, with all the implications for free speech and thought that entails, oppositions will inevitably arise, innovations will come along that will undermine the great lumbering beasts and use their own weight against them. facebook will end up being as much a graveyard as myspace is, outpaced by some other newer entity. every time I feel depressed and resigned that the world is fucked and will remain so, I think of Francis Fukuyama and how daft his ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ prophecy now seems and how I’m succumbing to the same fallacy. things will change. we shouldn’t lose hope waiting for that to occur, we might even be able to assist it.

  6. Pingback: Albert Camus and the ventriloquists | Below Zero | Above Infinity

  7. Man, you are so right and so dead on. It’s great that people are finally calling out this raging quote-out-of-context as self-help crap. It’s insipid and disgusting, but that’s what happens when one writes and publishes. I can speak from experience. The writer lives in the world and writes for the world and his words are always stolen and disfigured by the ignorant or incompetent. It’s a fact one must accept. Let’s not even speak of misunderstood, etc. Thx for this.

    • yeah that’s the danger and beauty of literature I suppose, it’s all up for interpretation once it’s published. there seems no right answer even when a writer insists there is (perhaps there’s ‘less wrong’ interpretations). the problem with using snippets is that it doesn’t take the time or respect to fully engage with the writing and it’s not particularly interesting. one of the things I enjoy is reading revisionist analyses of popular texts, you know Jungian or Marxist takes on Shakespeare or whatever. they might seem outlandish and directed by their own beliefs and prejudices but at least they’re engaging in both senses of the word. and occasionally they can make an old book seem new to us, for example Ellen Moer’s take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a book exploring the horror of giving birth to another human being.

  8. When it comes to blogs yours is always full of real content, tremendous voice, an education, a find. Going to go back over your archives and get my brain ticking over.

  9. After Jaques Derrida died, his wife said, he regretted ever saying “there is nothing outside the text,” because it was misunderstood and misconstrued by the entire world. But I do think sentences can be appreciated and evaluated on their own. Some writers and works merit literary study by virtue of their words and sentences not as quotes, or maxims, but as form, viewed in addition to the context as a whole. I never preference form over content, but lately, have come to appreciate form more than I have in the past. When I look at a van Gogh, I see the painting in its entirety, but I also focus on his brushstrokes. I would argue that quotes work best when they reference work that most of the culture has read, otherwise it is as you say, “floating like a speck of dust in a vacuum.”

    • good points, I agree with you about Van Gogh’s brushstrokes. I remember seeing some of Leonardo’s sketches in a museum some years ago and being fascinated looking really closely at the individual pencil lines, just thinking to myself, “He did that.” it seemed like I was connecting with the actual person over a gap of centuries. a quote can be like that, to an extent, but suppose we didn’t know who Leonardo was or more appropriately suppose we didn’t care. it would have little if any significance. I think Derrida was right but it seems his quote was mistranslated and should have read “there is nothing outside of context.” like consciousness, it’s inescapable. but aside from that writing in a historicist, for want of a better word, way just seems more interesting and less restrictive than some of the other approaches.

  10. Pingback: Reducing Quotes to Self-help Advice | Electric Cereal

  11. This blog and conversation are amazing and have given me a glimmer of hope. One and all, the voices are authentic, intelligent and discerning. So rare online. What a find.

  12. Reblogged this on Margaret Langstaff and commented:
    This blog and conversation are amazing and have given me a glimmer of hope. One and all, the voices are authentic, intelligent and discerning. So rare online. What a find.

  13. Tyler says:

    Great piece. It brought to mind something Jaron Lanier said in an interview recently:

    “To me a book is not just a particular file. It’s connected with personhood. Books are really, really hard to write. They represent a kind of a summit of grappling with what one really has to say. And what I’m concerned with is when Silicon Valley looks at books, they often think of them as really differently as just data points that you can mush together. They’re divorcing books from their role in personhood.

    “I’m quite concerned that in the future someone might not know what author they’re reading. You see that with music. You would think in the information age it would be the easiest thing to know what you’re listening to. That you could look up instantly the music upon hearing it so you know what you’re listening to, but in truth it’s hard to get to those services.

    “I was in a cafe this morning where I heard some stuff I was interested in, and nobody could figure out. It was Spotify or one of these … so they knew what stream they were getting, but they didn’t know what music it was. Then it changed to other music, and they didn’t know what that was. And I tried to use one of the services that determines what music you’re listening to, but it was a noisy place and that didn’t work. So what’s supposed to be an open information system serves to obscure the source of the musician. It serves as a closed information system. It actually loses the information.

    “So in practice you don’t know who the musician is. And I think that’s what could happen with writers. And this is what we celebrate in Wikipedia is pretending that there’s some absolute truth that can be spoken that people can approximate and that the speaker doesn’t matter. And if we start to see that with books in general – and I say if – if you look at the approach that Google has taken to the Google library project, they do have the tendency to want to move things together. You see the thing decontextualized.

    “I have sort of resisted putting my music out lately because I know it just turns into these mushes. Without context, what does my music mean? I make very novel sounds, but I don’t see any value in me sharing novel sounds that are decontextualized. Why would I write if people are just going to get weird snippets that are just mushed together and they don’t know the overall position or the history of the writer or anything? What would be the point in that. The day books become mush is the day I stop writing.”

    • that’s really interesting Tyler, I would add the Shazam app takes care of identifying songs (I don’t have a phone or apps but that seems a useful one) but I understand where he’s coming from; art isn’t a singular event any more but part of a stream. the one disagreement I’d have is that he hasn’t pushed his thinking far enough. the mush, as he calls it, has always been there. think of the way artists are influenced, most of them bar the odd genius (and even they are not islands) have been inspired by a vast sprawl of what came before, consciously or unconsciously. I’m studying early sci-fi texts at the moment and it’s amazing how many have been stolen from and amalgamated into works we think of as stunningly original. everyone does it. you can call it the ether or cybernetics or whatever but it invariably happens unless you’ve been brought up by wolves (and even then you’d be mimicking howls). that’s partially why James Frey was a coward for backing down when he got rumbled. he had a golden opportunity to bring this idea into the public consciousness. instead he blew it. a great writer wouldn’t have.

      the only difference with the mush now is there’s much more of everything and because of the internet we’re explicitly seeing the process of influence and production as it happens. it began with sampling and has exploded. I have little problem with this at all. the DJ John Peel was asked what was the best year for music? (the question being put tellingly in the past tense). he said it’s always now because you have all the old stuff and the new stuff too. I feel that way towards music and literature. anyone who wants to go back to days when only an elite wrote and read or dinosaur rock bands made millions is fooling nobody. but this openness has to be tempered with the fact artists need to eat and art is too important to be just a playground for the rich. again these are not modern worries despite us thinking so. it’s always been a battleground. more than ever, we need discerning editors to search through the mush and find the great work when we don’t have the time or the money. then we need to support the people who make it. which is at the heart of my concerns. most prominent curators have really lazy approaches and they actually get celebrated for it. we don’t have heavyweight editors or if we do they’re extremely scarce. whoever it is we need, it isn’t the likes of Flavorwire or Maria Popova, who seem to me the Robert Christgaus of our times (that’s not a compliment).

  14. angela says:

    This excellent post has me questioning my misrepresentation of writers, and quotes in blogland…never, thou, to garner readership or to slickly present said writer, but to explore thoughts inspired by the writer’s work. Perhaps those of us who use WP as a platform to open discourse, but admit our ignorance, are not as bad as those online glossies that want you to believe they have Thanks for linking The White Review ~ was unaware – you may enjoy if not already aware.

    • yeah it’s not people’s blogs I have my sights on as such, i’m all for free speech and all that. or even the medium. it’s sites like Flavorwire and HuffPost and so on that set themselves up as arbiters of culture (and are celebrated and rewarded commercially for it) when really they present culture in such a lazy disposable way that it’s an insult to those who read it and especially those who create it. i’m all for curators in fact, we need them in this age of information overload, if they genuinely curate (maybe edit is a better word) but I get the impression that most of the people who write for these sites are hacks and dilettantes. I’d love them to prove me wrong but I wouldn’t hold my breath. thanks for the link by the way, I hadn’t come across that before, great stuff.

  15. Jeff says:

    Reblogged this on Recent Items and commented:
    Superb post about social media soundbiting literature into a culture of glib self-helpery that’s more concerned with the numbers of connections than their meaning.

  16. Jeff says:

    Great post. You mention Wilde, and of course there’s Churchill, Lincoln, Twain and many others who get turned into dummies when the originator of a quote cannot be remembered. The strangest one to be ventriloquised is Nietzsche. His aphoristic style has lent him to the 140 character format very well, yet his work is riddled with slippages that force you to consider where you stand as a reader and why you should look for answers from a writer. It’s hard to think of a less appropriate writer to quote out of context. He appears to have fallen foul of his Zarathustran affirmations in the age of self-help that you so refreshingly question.

    • thanks Jeff. I wholeheartedly agree regarding Nietzsche. I never thought I’d say this but I think Nietszche’s problem was that he had too much faith in people. he thought enough of himself and his philosophy to assume the aphorisms would find common usage but he made the mistake of presuming they would act as an introduction to his work, that people would think “that’s great line, I need to read this guy’s work.” he was sorely mistaken given there’s a tendency to think “I know a few choice aphorisms therefore I understand a philosopher’s entire work.” (I was guilty of this myself for many years regarding Wilde). while Nietzsche foresaw what would happen when his outlook was manipulated on a grand terrible scale (“I tremble when I think of all those who, without justification, without being ready for my ideas, will yet invoke my authority”), I don’t think he foresaw what would happen when they were manipulated for much more banal purposes.
      part of the problem is the modern (though it’s undoubtedly been around as long as we have) desire for short cuts- fad diets, idiots guides and so on. convenience and disposability have their place of course but some things have a power in their inconvenience, especially in reductionist times such as these. the short cut doesn’t seem to me a way of knowing anymore rather than a convenient way of sidelining and giving the appearance of knowing.

  17. erickuns says:

    “I long to live in an interminably long, turgid and depressing Russian novel that ends with me hanging myself from a burning cherry tree.”
    ~ Darren Anderson

    (I so want to put that quote over a picture of a unicorn, and I’m just the man to do it. Trust me on that.)

    About the “dumbed down” down thing. Sure, we have access to more information than ever before, but, the education system has gone to shit, so people don’t know how to cipher out the meaningless dreck from real substance. Years ago I read an article about how students majors have changed over the decades, and there’s been a shift from a slim minority majoring in business (to make their parents happy), to the majority of students all clamoring to money-making majors. Instead of getting an education to broaden one’s horizons, it’s all about making shit-loads of cash. Students learn how to be clever and manipulative, but not how to think or delve deep into art and literature.

    Yeah, the dumb-ass out-of-context snippets from authors make me want to gack up my muesli. Usually they are about love. Like this:

    Of course, one can make parodies and attribute them to imaginary living gurus, which people will not get the punchline to because they didn’t read far enough:

    Nice read.

    • “I so want to put that quote over a picture of a unicorn, and I’m just the man to do it. Trust me on that.” < haha that would be brilliant. we should bombard the net with bullshit made-up quotes and watch them go viral.
      you're right about education. I don't blame teachers or the pupils really, it's blatantly obvious that the political establishment (throughout the West and increasingly beyond too) has been infiltrated by corporate interests and this is now seeping through academia and directing government educational policy. they're shutting libraries and cutting arts funding and courses en masse here. in their place we are due to have banks, many of them essentially bankrupt and responsible for the unnameable depression we're languishing in, come in and teach financial education in schools. anyone with talent, intelligence or blind luck will be trained and gathered up for finance, all the rest will get retail or hospitality jobs (I fully expect these courses to enter schools) or join an ongoing ever-expanding lost generation (which in the longer scheme of things will itself be monetised through a process David Simon has described far better than I can ). the media are part of the dumbing down process but only the most blatant part and arguably not the most dangerous. if you permit the irony of quoting Oscar Wilde (from 'The Picture of Dorian Gray') but we are ruled over by people who "know the price of everything and the value of nothing." it's not that they simply don't see the benefit of people reading philosophy, studying literature, thinking for themselves beyond platitudes, it's actively in their interests that people do not do these things. the responsibility is on us to resist this process every possible way we can.

  18. Pingback: The Pressure Against Seriousness | The Echidna and the Fox

  19. Pingback: Provocative previously unknown quotes by famous artists, writers, and philosophers… (Part 1) | Art of Eric Kuns

  20. erickuns says:

    I could resist making this graphic, but didn’t:

    I included it in a post which takes off from the one another blogger did with faux quotes after being inspired by your post. Check it out if interested:

    Hope you’re honored and amused, but it you take umbrage just let me know and I’ll remove your out-of-context misquote.]

  21. Ekama says:

    The universe can be understood from a single atom, and I think one can understand the sea from a puddle, perhaps not as well as if you had looked at the sea, but the sea is alot bigger and forests were always my thing anyway.

    • that’s true Ekama, as William Blake said, “To see the world in a grain of sand, and to see heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hands, and eternity in an hour.” the only problem being most people don’t even attempt to see the world in such a way.

  22. Pingback: “Outsider” by Albert Camus | Random Musings

  23. randomkhaos says:

    As the bumper sticker reads, ‘If you can’t lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way.’ The other one I would have given Camus for his car is, ‘I feel so much better now that I have given up hope’. Like your article. It was long enough to teach me some thing – both about others and about myself.

  24. Pingback: I am profiled | Biblioklept

  25. Ryan Arnold says:

    This is a patently superb article. I stumbled upon it while plumbing the internet for an attribution within Camus’s work (and I really mean /any/ reference to /any/ text at all) of a quote popularly attributed to him: “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
    It’s a reductive drive-thru summary of what he claims in The Rebel, but, as you said, Camus tended to aphorize (something I’m sure he picked up from Nietzsche, which is probably not be the worst thing one could catch from Nietzsche). The Rebel is the book that gives us “It is better to live on your feet than die on your knees,” after all. But reducing the argument of that entire essay into a single sentence — especially considering, as you clearly emphasize, the historical context that The Rebel was written in response to — presents a dilemma that is absurd in its own right; even if Camus wrote it, it remains dishonest to the ambivalence and contradiction that drives his argument. “Oh, all I gotta do is get so fucking free that every breath I take is a rebellion? Shit man, why didn’t you say so!” It ignores the fact that this position is always at risk of devolving into the worst and most tyrannical nihilism that the world has yet seen, or that Camus distinguishes between different degrees of freedom in the text, and positions each one in an ordered degree of opposition to justice. The consequence of this, then, is the propagation of a maxim that, when made lonely and devoid of context, advocates for one to live as an agent of the sort of totalitarian negation that the quote is construed to oppose. Again, it’s an irony deserving of the absurd.

    I really liked your article. Sorry for blathering.

    • Ryan says:

      It took me a while to find it but it is actually in The Rebel; “Le seul moyen d’affronter un monde sans liberté est de devenir si absolument libre qu’on fasse de sa propre existence un acte de révolte.”

  26. jemargetts says:

    Just came across this, late I know. Fantastic entry.

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