Tuesday June 03, 2008 @ 12:13 PM (UTC)

It’s been said to me (to my shame, I forget where or by whom) that great works of art — say, Hokusai’s wave painting, or “Starry Night” — have been diminished by their popularity. They are pictured over and over, often in trivial form: tote bag, mousepad, dorm room posters. Through this repetition and even the contemptible familiarity of adorning mugs, placemats and magnets, they lose their original impact. They become symbols rather than art objects: in some cases, their meaning is as simple as “Mona Lisa = culture.”

I think the same thing can occur with literature. There is a passage I love in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets which is quoted often. I’ve almost not written this blog post because I don’t want to be part of the over-repetition problem. But let’s just say that the quote is about returning home and recognition. I’m sure you’ve heard it. It’s printed on posters of pretty landscapes, and on artsy greeting cards. It has probably appeared on quote-of-the-day calendars. If you need any more clues, it is usually quoted from “We shall not cease from exploration”.

This quote begin the first stanza of “Little Gidding” V, on the very last page of the long, beautiful, interwoven Quartets. Reading these poems is rigorous but rewarding intellectual and, for me, emotional work, and that quote is and was an arrival, a culmination. It isn’t merely ‘true’ or ‘inspiring’, in context it is a revelation, itself the recognition and the return it describes. I think I may have cried when I reached it in my first perusal.

But even then, enjoying the passage in context and as it was meant, I knew it was coming. The blow of realization was softened by the recognition of that quote, the memories of all the glurgy confections in which I’ve seen those words quoted. A host of associations alien to the poetry at hand crowded in, and while the thought of that reading, that moment, still gives me a shiver, it also carries a hint of annoyance at the companies and people that overused that quote and tarnished a little of its brilliance. It’s like playing two bars of the Moonlight Sonata in a music box. It’s bite-sizing and mass-marketing our cultural treasures. It’s tawdry and sad.


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