Wednesday, April 1, 2015
Throwing stones from glass houses
Can an entire piece of writing running to over 150 pages be a series of quotations?
It may not be possible in many types of writing, but in a research thesis, especially one written for an MPhil or a PhD degree in English literature in this country, it is certainly possible.
Sometime ago, I received for evaluation an MPhil dissertation which was nothing if not a book of quotations. It was an impressive piece of work because the researcher, if she can be called that, had painstakingly put together whatever critics had said on the subject of her research, and even more painstakingly organized them into five chapters. I thought she shouldn't be given a research degree on the basis of her compilation, so I returned the dissertation unevaluated with an 'apologia' (‘Sorry, I am unable to evaluate the dissertation.’). Then I did something even more sensible: I requested the university, one of the oldest in this country, not to send me any more dissertations / theses for evaluation in future. Since then I have been happy.
Do I hate quotations? By no means. My Bartlett's (1961 edition) is a well-thumbed copy. But for it, my bifocals could have been postponed. But if I don't hate quotations, I don't love them either. Quotations have a role in speech or writing, but the role is not a leading one: you can't speak or write entirely through quotations.
‘I hate quotations,’ said Emerson. ‘Why should we borrow flamboyant expressions from antiquated writers instead of expressing our ideas in our own "penny plain" language?’ But even Emerson cannot deny that our everyday speech in English is crammed with quite a lot of phrases and sentences from writers like Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth as well as the Bible. It is because those phrases and sentences have become part of the English language. We commonly use expressions like 'green-eyed monster', 'bag and baggage', 'the primrose path', and 'more in sorrow than in anger' -- all these are from Shakespeare. The expression 'wheels within wheels', which is so common in our speech and writing, is from the Authorised Version of the Bible. So are 'holier than thou' and 'at the last grasp'. An old English lady who saw Shakespeare's Hamlet for the first time complained that it was full of quotations!
Imagine a conversation with a person who speaks only through quotations. One of my professors at the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages (now called ‘EFL University’), the late Dr K Subrahmanian, imagined such a person and wrote a brilliant conversation. It is worth quoting:
How are you?
Fit as a fiddle.
How is your work?
The less said the better.
I am at daggers drawn with my boss.
I don't dance attendance on the blighter.
How is your father?
He had had one foot in the grave. He kicked the bucket with the other foot three months ago.
I'm sorry to hear it. How is your son?
Merry as a cricket.
Nice to hear that. What does he do?
He makes my flesh creep tilting at windmills.
How is your wife?
She is down in the dumps, and wants to shuffle off her mortal coil.
Sorry to hear it. I hope and pray things will improve.
She, why, the whole family, is past praying for.
After all these quotations, this honest reflection is inevitable: Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.