Words To Live By

Most of us can probably dredge up a motto, a maxim, an apothegm, a verbal formula by which we've been inspired, perhaps a quotation that's a distillation of what's been important in your own life. Often we still remember the moment of first encounter, at which you experienced what Melville termed "the Shock of Recognition" that the words applied to YOU.

any foundational or otherwise significant quotations in your life
that might enlighten or delight or challenge us?

Such word clusters don't have to have moral significance (though they might could) or portentious stage presence. They might be drawn from the wry wisdom of your grandmother, or the phrase muttered by your father whenever he was really annoyed. Or they might be the Wise Words of some sage or playwright or politician or novelist.


This morning (before I bethought the Question) into my head popped one of mine, Edith Sitwell's statement:

"I am an electric eel in a pool of catfish."

Considering what it means, and Means, and WHY it has stuck with me since the first encounter (Life Magazine, 1963 or so I think), has proved constructively diverting... And sometimes we realize that we don't have the iconic quote just right, though it scarcely changes its deep personal significance. It turns out that the whole quote was

"I am not eccentric. It's just that I am more alive than most people. I am an unpopular electric eel set in a pond of catfish."

(this prompts me to a small orgy of Informing on the delicious subject of Edith Sitwell (1887-1964), who may not be a household name out your way)

(here I'll link a page with more on Edith Sitwell)


And I'm reminded of another bit of text, which I pinned to my office door sometime in the 1980s:

"It was much pleasanter at home," thought poor Alice, "when one wasn't always growing larger and smaller, and being ordered about by mice and rabbits. I almost wish I hadn't gone down that rabbit-hole--and yet--and yet--it's rather curious, you know, this sort of life! I do wonder what can have happened to me!"
(from Chapter IV of Alice in Wonderland)

It seemed to capture exactly the feeling of being confined in a role (professor) and an institution (Acadia University) in which I was ...restive: the mice and rabbits were my supposed colleagues, and my real life seemed to me to be the work of reading and writing and preparing that I did at home. I wasn't very collegial, or even respectful of most of the other inmates. That problem was solved by the leap into librarianship...

The thing about office doors in academia (unlike office doors in business or legal or governmental venues) is that one can put anything on them, by way of claiming Personal Identity space (and of course some people had only their names), and nobody could or would try to constrain your chutzpah. I treated my office door as a canvas for self expression, and mostly went for the enigmatic and the cynical, and thus affected the appearance of being an electric eel. Quite possibly nobody took any notice.

I went to the archives in search of the texts I'd had pinned to my office door and found a lovely assortment; and then consulted my compendium of Quotations and found more. There are a few that are Important and Irresistable:

Omnia disce, videbus postea nihil esse superfluum
Study everything, you will see later that nothing is superfluous
[Hugh of St. Victor (1096-1141)]


Considering how dangerous everything is
nothing is really frightening
[Gertrude Stein]


To fashion stars out of dog dung,
that is the Great Work
[Alexandra David-Neel, quoting a Bhutanese naljorpa]


You can't let the little pricks generation-gap you
[Molly, in William Gibson's Neuromancer]


For fools admire and like all things the more
which they perceive to be concealed under involved language
and determine things to be true
which can prettily tickle the ears
and are varnished over with finely sounding phrase

In the same corner of the archive I found some images I'd affixed to that same office door, oozing interpretations and investigations of subtexts. A few of the more ... what?

(calligraphy by Kippy Nigh, ca. 1971)

(Jim Haberman 1982)

(William Hogarth 1736)

...and if I still had an office door, I'd probably display something like this:


Thinking about my own recurring phrases, I'll cite several that make frequent appearance:

Not my circus, not my monkeys
[from the Polish]

You Can't Make This Shit Up (YCMTSU)
[in daily use out our way]

If you see something you like, buy two
[New England maxim, from Darrell Root]

Eat it up, make it do, do without
Waste not, want not
[New England maxims, probably eternal]