Erasmus’s work adumbrates an aesthetic of infinity. It seemed capable of growing indefinitely, at least in principle. In this way, the collection resembles several other Renaissance classics that dispensed with the need for an ending, from Montaigne’s Essays to Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. Montaigne and Burton were both fascinated with the same impulse to collect quotations that had inspired Erasmus. They also developed Erasmus’s insight that one could make a literary work out of quotations, a kind of patchwork interesting both as a reference work and as a special kind of creation all its own.
But how can a collection of other people’s words be creative? “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know,” Ralph Waldo Emerson observed. Ironically enough, this much-quoted line itself quotes (unwittingly?) from Seneca, who famously attacked quotations and assemblages of quotations in much the same terms. In his essay on maxims, Seneca refuses a request to put together a collection of wise stoic counsels. He explains that learning simplistic sayings is suitable for children capable of no more, “but for a man advanced in study to hunt such gems is disgraceful; he is using a handful of clichés for a prop.” Still more important for Seneca, one ought to learn to think for oneself rather than quote others, and create new thoughts rather than act as a “clerk” for earlier thinkers…Burton and Montaigne, mindful of Seneca’s contrast of creativity with mere compilation, indulged their sense of irony with a list of suitably chosen tropes, clichés, and learned quotations that justified the act of quoting—before proceeding to turn their own work into exemplars of how something genuinely new could be made from the old. In his Anatomy, Burton addressed the Senecan objection squarely, demonstrating complex creative possibilities within this seemingly simple form.
— Gary Saul Morson, The Words of Others: From Quotations to Culture
I have nothing to declare except my derivation. Essays ex nihilo are not my style; I prefer the blog post with its conversational nature, relying on others to provide the opening gambit. Even so, sometimes I still get tired of my own authorial voice. What do I have to say that I haven’t already said better? Truthfully, my “juxtapositions” posts are some of the most fun ones for me to “write” these days. It’s more of a challenge to place selected passages from various sources in conversation with each other, and the contrived nature of that conversation sometimes produces unexpected results. (If you had asked me beforehand, “What do a NYT op-ed, a Dave Chappelle stand-up routine, and Dostoyevsky’s greatest novel have in common?”, I would have been stumped, but it sure was fun to find out.) I don’t set out to write. I just read, and every so often, a phrase or idea jiggles a strand of the neuronal web, and the spider of memory rushes out, immobilizes it, and carries it off to arrange it in a pleasing fashion alongside similar prey.