Friday, December 12, 2008

quoter beware

a few days ago, i was traversing this internet thing for help using some music software, and i noticed that all the registered users on forums have little 'signatures,' or quotes below their respective posts. apparently, these sorts of things briefly and effectively explain your beliefs and who you are, even when they aren't your words. among the spattering of oscar wilde quips, painfully inaccurate lebowski references, and out-of-context nietzsche phrases was the following piece of brilliance:

"talking about music is like dancing about architecture."


i must admit, my brain's knee-jerk reaction was: 'that's a clever little ...'

but then i realized something -- it wasn't a clever little anything. in fact, at second glance, that sentence meant absolutely nothing to me. and it wasn't just an opinion. talking about music is NOTHING like dancing about architecture. and even if it were, why should that matter?

but to be fair, i'll try and offer what point the quoted (after a search or two, i found this quote has been attributed to steve martin, elvis costello, and numerous others who have denied ever saying it) may have been trying to get across.

the best i can come up with, is that the speaker was trying to criticize the act of spending one's time talking about an artistic endeavor, rather than simply making art. maybe i'm missing something, but that seems the most likely aim.

even with this projected interpretation, the quote fails to make a proper analogy. the statement is about as coherent as saying that 'reading about salmon is like painting about carrots,' or 'doing a walking tour of yankee stadium is like playing football in the ocean.'

this sort of analogy (or the attempted sort) is meant to make use of a comparison in which the second example mimics the first in form, but presents us with a shared quality of incoherence or logical absurdity. a good example would be: 'spending time and energy on this blog is like mailing letters to god.' the pointlessness of the second example is meant to highlight the not-so-obvious (in comparison) futility of the first action without saying it outright. in this case, it does so because futility is a shared quality here -- mailing letters to god is absurd because god does not exist (nobody's reading), and if he did, he would only bother reading letters from NFL players and attorneys. the first is absurd because there is no readership here (nobody's reading).

we all remember the tests in grade school -- 'mother is to father as sister is to _________.' if we had answered 'hedgehog,' the tests would have determined we were most likely to be ship-boat captains, and they would have called Social Services about some seriously messed up ideas about familial structure -- but apparently we'd also be quoted on nerd forums about vst inputs and latency control. such is the price for internet immortality, i suppose.

but the point i'm trying to make -- my most recent silent tree in the woods -- is that we love the tidy little morsels that quotes and sayings afford so much that we rarely care to inspect them further and address their actual worth or depth of meaning. our standards of logic and significance have somehow fallen to the level where NFL players and attorneys are worth listening to. "we just have to take it one game at a time, keep our focus on execution, and give 110%" and "if it doesn't fit, you must aquit."

when salvador dali said "i don't do drugs, i am drugs," he said nothing of value or meaning. he said the kind of thing that a hundred-thousand 18 year old stoners have thought up in the last seven months. "it's like we're not just listening to the music, but like we're really there, in the music, like we're in tune with it man." but because enough high people thought a dripping clock was worthy of praise, and this man painted a dripping clock, it's considered a great and famous quotation. and even i was fooled into liking that one until i was about18 and a half.

even truly great and intelligent people have certain phrases or words emphasized at the befuddling expense of other, more meaningful ones. the gettysburg address is a great speech. it's well written because lincoln was a well-read smartypants. but it's a 2 minute speech dedicating a piece of land after a battle - and i think most people i know, myself included - know more of the gettysburg address than of anything else lincoln ever said or wrote. his first inaugural address is a thing of beauty, much more historically informative than the g.a. -- and we've probably never heard a word of it.

and at the same time, more of us recognize hilariously cheesy movie lines, like "i'm the king of the world" or "they may take our lives, but they'll never take our freedom" than do passages from martin luther king's 'i have a dream' speech, or of fdr's first inaugural address (fear itself...). of course, this sort of phenomenon points to the reality that it isn't the content of the words we hear which determines their imprint on our memory, but the method and volume in which they are delivered. if the reverse were true, we'd realize that in fact, we actually need to be living to possess freedom. we could simply empty out that slot in our brains to store something about quantum entanglement, or equal rights, or advice on how to keep the dog from barking when we come home from work -- and then put down our rusty dagger and bent up shield, and head home to "either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing." and maybe even read a few things worth remembering.


Dan Hayes said...

this is your best post on the blog so far. it made me think about what quotes i have on my facebook page. after some examination, what do you think? are these stupid and useless? if yes, can you find some that are better for me please? thanks.

The deepest craving of human nature is the need to be appreciated.
~ William James

Today is the day to try something new.
~ Fortune Cookie

Smile and breathe.
~ Jared

Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.
~ Aldous Huxley

Joshua (who smote them) said...

i've since been notified that the actual quote is "writing about music..." - more on that later.

but dan. i'll act like i'm special, and tell you what i think of those quotes, a bit out of order:

w.j. : i actually agree with it, so that helps. but it speaks to both an observed fact (somewhere between opinion and truth), and hints at all sorts of implications about human behavior and motivation. quality.

f.c. : fortune cookies usually suck, but sometimes you get one that is just good advice. it's a good thought to have hanging around each morning. and you didn't quote it because someone everyone thinks is smart said it. that's one of my biggest complaints about famous quotes. so again, no complaint here.

a.h. : again, i agree - isn't trying to be cute for cuteness' sake. really saying something about human existence.

j. : the only thing i can say is that i might reverse that -- breathe and smile. i'm not sure if it was meant to say 'these are the important things to keep doing,' or, 'when shit sucks, take a breath, and think about what doesn't suck, and just relax.' either way - nothing pretentious or word-wasting here. simplicity is under-appreciated.

it reminds me of hemingway. both my brother and i, when we first read him, thought he wrote like a six-year-old. we couldn't understand why he was so revered. i don't know what changed my brother's mind, but for me - it was a tall glass of whiskey, and a passage describing an officer's party that was more real to me than anything i'd ever read. but i love hemingway's goal -- one true sentence.

"It was wonderful to walk down the long flights of stairs knowing that I'd had good luck working. I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day. But sometimes when I was started on a new story and I could not get going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, "Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know." So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut the scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written."

long, philosophical passages are for introducing debatable ideas. short quotes should be for simple, powerful ideas that are difficult to argue with, but still make us think.