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My father the quote-master

Non scholae sed vitae discimus, my father used to say. Or Les


traductions sont comme les femmes: lorsqu’elles sont fidelles, elles ne
sont pas belles. My father had many quotations, long and short, which
he sprinkled around him, liberally seasoning the hearty dish of his talk.
He quoted in half a dozen languages, with a special fondness for
proverbs and sayings, never losing an opportunity to inform us: Ein
bischen ungern ist man überall, (wherever you may be is a little
unenjoyable) or Wer spricht von siegen, überstehen ist alles (who says
anything about winning; survival is everything). At breakfast he would
quote the popular vernacular, after supper, he would entertain us with
long passages from the classical poets.
Quotations were the beginning for him, the primal matter that
laid the foundation for his wonderful store of knowledge, which we
lived and breathed. In truth, he loved to hold forth. Entertaining his
many and frequent guests, his voice carried into all the rooms of the
house, entering the pores of the walls and furniture and my own pores,
too, when as a child I drifted into sleep. I could not hear what he said,
but the bursts of constant laughter told me that my father, as always,
was making magic with his words.
The Viennese culture in which my father grew up prized learning
texts by heart, often doling out such assignments as a form of
punishment. How different this European discipline was from the
educational premises of my American childhood. We had to memorize
facts, but not the poems or passages from Caesar that my father knew.
Aside from a few patriotic salutes and the first line of the Gettysburg
address, we children never had to stand and declaim in front of an
audience. American educators no doubt believe that each person
should learn to shape their own thoughts. Regurgitating the exact

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words of some long-dead philosopher might well suffocate creative
impulses. The enemy of self-determination! But maybe the opposite
could also happen. Maybe these memorized passages provide a
template for exciting ideas and novel ways of phrasing them.
Quotations certainly served as building blocks for my father’s own
linguistic inventions and vision. Lacking the quotemaster’s habit, aren’t
we in danger not of being condemned to dull repetition, but of
remaining merely dumb?
Over many years of listening to my fathers’ quotations, I have
seen all the interesting ways they perform. I have seen these poems
and passages become old friends, such as the lines that open Dante’s
Inferno, arriving when needed to comfort and console. Nel mezzo del
cammin di nostra vita/mi ritrovai per una selva oscura/ché la diritta via
era smarrita.
I had a teacher once, a British poet, who knew many poems by heart
and recited them to us in class. I induced him to make me a of his
favorite poems. He recorded his sessions while walking his dog. I
cherish those poems, spoken not only by the heart, but from the heart,
the cadences of breath, walking and poetry, mingling as one.
Friends, too, who seal the bonds of love, the way Werther and
Lotte bond over the word “Klopstock.” And no matter that my father
enjoyed quoting the following mocking lines: Wer wird Klopstock nicht
loben?/Doch wird man ihn lesen? Nein!/ Wir wollen lieber weniger
erhoben,/Und dafür mehr gelesen sein. (Who doesn’t praise Klopstock?
But who actually reads him? No one! We’ll pass on being uplifted.
Instead, we’d rather be read). There are different quotes for different
folks, as they say. This jingle from Lessing and many other quotations,
became little love tokens my father slipped to my mother throughout
their married life. They were codes for their experiences together,
recalling a good laugh, or a secret hour. My mother told me she fell in
love with my father when he recited long segments of Rilke’s Duino

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Elegies for her. I would often catch them exchanging knowing, amused
glances as he quoted ballads of Schiller’s, my mother furnishing an
occasional line or refrain, the two of them in a dance of words, as
though swirling across the floor of their private romance.
Not all my father’s quotes were so life-affirming. Often they
conveyed, efficiently and painfully, his darker view of the world, and,
vulnerable children that we were, we sometimes felt them pummel us.
My father has been forever a displaced person. Patriotism is the last
refuge of scoundrels, he’d quote. Jede dumfe Umkehr der Welt hat
solche Enterbte, denen das Fühere nicht,und noch nicht das Nächste
gehört. (Each torpid turn of the world has such disinherited ones/to
whom neither the past belongs, nor yet what has nearly arrived). these
and other quotes, we learned that all is not well with the world, that
your neighbor can turn on you, that life is short, that our rulers are
corrupt, that no one is safe. Wenn nur einmal in der Früh, so ohne
sich’s weiter zu überlegen, anfing, das Richtige zu tun und so immer
fort den ganzen Tag lang das Richtige, so säße man noch vorm
Nachtmahl im Kriminel. (If in the morning, without thinking anything
by it, a person begins to do the right thing, and goes on doing the right
thing the whole day, by supper he’d be sitting in the slammer). Quotes,
with their slender, needle-thin points, entered our skin and taught us
the dogma of disappointment.
I still remember the sting of it, when my father said, after dinner
one day, “You know the Eleventh Commandment, dear: thou shallst
wash the dishes,” making light of my secret, shame-ridden religious
phase and targeting my hatred of this chore (from which my brother
was exempt) simultaneously. There were times like this, I suppose,
when the strength of his wit, and the pleasure he took in it, acquired a
momentum of its own without regard for its hurtful effects. Quotes,
after all—including those made from texts that have been satirically
altered—are weapons. They imply that the one who quotes speaks not

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on the basis of an arbitrary whim, but in the legitimizing voice of great
characters. Quotes boost arguments, the way references validate
scholarly writing. “It’s been said before, by someone wiser than you or
I,” they seem to imply. The good quoter indeed has a powerful tool on
his hands.
Good quoting is an art, and though I was exposed to it, I have
had neither the talent nor the practice to quote as my father did. Of
course I do find myself quoting his quotes. As a second-hand quoter, I
have a hard time leaving my father out of it. Why do I always begin,
“As my father always used to say, when he was quoting
Schopenhauer….” when I could just simply quote the original, “As
Schopenhauer says…”? It’s because I feel something of a fraud,
pretending I am one who quotes Schopenhauer, when all I really do, is
quote the quote-master himself.
That being said, I enjoy curling up with a good quote book, most
recently the edition compiled by Joseph Epstein, The Yale Book of
Quotations. Joseph Epstein himself has a knack for the relevant
citation, and his essays meander through quotable offerings as though
he were taking us for an agreeable walk in the woods. Nothing is so
much a testimony of his pleasure as the compilation itself, arranged
alphabetically by author, allowing me to spend my bedtime with the
quotations, say, of Dorothy Parker. “This is not a novel to be tossed
aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” Or, again Dorothy:
“Sorrow is tranquility remembered in emotion.”
Never, though, will these short quotes—not to mention the long
reflective poems and passages I have heard from the quote-master—
enter seamlessly into my conversation. I could, covertly, write them on
sticky notes applied to the soles of my shoe. Then, sitting in good
company, their flagrance would remind me to use them, and peeling
them off, I would know just how they go. A good quote-master must
have, along with an ample store of pithy quotes, a good memory, and

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my father’s memory always was, and still is, prodigious. When I search
for a piece of information on the internet (you can find many a quote
by typing in a few words, as well long lists of proverbs in multiple
languages), I feel as though I am sifting through my father’s brain.
My father, of course, did not live on quotes alone. They were
always merely one element of his persona, along with his excellent
memory, his knowledge of history and politics, as well as his personal
charm. I imagine the quotes as seeds, thrown early on into the well of
my father’s mind and flowering as he engaged with the world into
something much larger and more wonderful than any of the words
alone can convey.
Many witticisms my father liked to repeat had no attribution. “It
is important to know the correct mispronunciation,” he would say. Or
“My mind is like a sieve, it retains only impurities.” Or “Maturity is
wasted on the middle-aged.” It may be that he had made these up and
in repeating them, was quoting himself. So it is that the familiar
quotation gives rise to the new, yet one more bit of wisdom thrown into
the communal pot. I wish now that I could remember the thousands of
original clever formulations and repartees with which I have heard my
father delight his companions over a life-time: what a compilation of its
own that would make! If only in those childhood days, when my
father’s voice blanketed my sleep, I had stayed awake with pen and
paper, conscripting my father into quote history. Alas, it is too late.
That reminds me--“How do people go to sleep? I’m afraid I’ve lost the
knack…I might repeat to myself, slowly and soothingly, a list of
quotations beautiful from minds profound: if I can remember any of the
damn things.” Dorothy Parker clearly understood.

Caroline Wellbery