I’m fascinated by writing that juxtaposes quotations, allusions, and citations, ceaselessly making connections to other texts.
Of course, a postmodernist would say that all texts do precisely this. Roland Barthes’ famous essay, “The Death of the Author” (1968) calls any text “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.” Similarly, Michel Foucault writes in The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) that every book “is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences … The book is not simply the object that one holds in one’s hands … its unity is variable and relative.”
Barthes and Foucault, in an early expression of the postmodern sensibility, were pointing out that intentionally or unintentionally, all texts are intertextual: Every text exists not in isolation or autonomy but as part of a vast ‘environment’ of texts.
But I’m after something a bit more specific here: I’m wondering about texts that literally collage together quotations and citations from a variety of sources. One example that leaps to mind is Lesley Stern’s amazing book, The Scorsese Connection (BFI, 1995).
Completely flouting every available model of the ‘director study’, Stern weaves her book around Scorsese’s cinema rather than writing narrowly or exclusively about it. All through, she interpolates passages large and small from a wonderfully diverse and stimulating set of writers and artists: Deren, Godard, Nietzsche, Proust, Benjamin, Irigaray, Roger Corman, Derrida, Robert Mitchum, Raul Ruiz, and many others.
These quotations are set off prominently in boxes throughout the book but in addition she draws in passing from the writing of scores of other writers. (The dense “Notes” section at the end of the book is a treat to pore over.) Her book does a whole lot more (like exploring the countless ways in which Scorsese’s films might be seen as ‘remaking’ other films) but I’m confining myself to a more narrow agenda here: the collaging of writings.
Robert B. Ray’s The ABCs of Classic Hollywood, which I wrote about last week, gathers together over a hundred entries; nearly every one of them draws upon formulations or observations made by other writers or artists. In the foreword to Ray’s previous book, How a Film Theory Got Lost and Other Mysteries in Cultural Studies (2001), James Naremore writes that Ray “sometimes aspires to a “readymade” or montage of quotations.”
At first glance the writing of Peter Wollen doesn’t appear to belong to this category, but in fact what powers Wollen’s writing is a furious erudition. Even his slender BFI Classics monograph on Singin’ in the Rain (a must-read) has a huge bibliography. He may not frequently interpolate quotations but it’s clear that the vast amount of writing he has read and digested stands behind his every line.
Wollen wrote a definitive short-introduction to Godard called “JLG,” a 20-page essay that can be found in Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film (2002). In it he remarked that in the period immediately following May 1968, Godard’s famous quotational impulse continued to flower: his quotes of Romantics (Poe, Dostoyesvsky, Lorca) were now replaced by those of Marxism-Leninism and Mao. I read somewhere that every single line spoken in Godard’s Nouvelle Vague (1990) is a quotation.
Writers usually keep a repository of interesting quotes they encounter in what is known as a "commonplace book." The Pulitzer-winning book critic for the Washington Post, Michael Dirda, has published his own collection of favorite quotes in Book By Book (2005), a light and delightful read that exudes wisdom on every page. In recent months, this is the book I've given most frequently to friends as a gift; it never misses.
Finally, the epic example and summit of this mode of writing is, of course, Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project.
I'd love to learn about other books or essays that make heavy use of quotations. Any suggestions or recommendations will be most welcome.
-- Chris Cagle's Film of the Month Club kicks off with its first film: I've just put up a post on Kazuo Hara's The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (1987). The discussion will continue for the rest of the month, so there's still plenty of time for you to rent the film and join the conversation at the site if you feel like it.
-- New issue of Senses of Cinema.
-- Jonathan's Rosenbaum's latest blog entry is an unpublished 2004 review of Brad Stevens's book Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision.
-- Film-blogger discovery of the week: Marc Raymond, a cinephile living in Seoul and writing his dissertation on Martin Scorsese.
-- David Hudson, the hardest-working man in the film-blogosphere, puts up his big and indispensable Cannes index post, which will be updated throughout the festival. We'll be bookmarking and returning to this post for all our film festival needs until next Cannes.
pic: Scorsese cites The Wizard of Oz in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.