That’s Going in the Quote Book #68

I was an English Literature major in university. In my years there, I learned all of two things – things I suspect my old school would be aghast to hear were my only takeaways.

The first is that the vast majority of “classic” literature is absolute dreck.

And the second is that the best way to ruin literature is to study it.

That being said, I do still dip my toe into the classics reading pool from time-to-time. After all, while the majority of it may be dreck, not all of it is. And reading it for the sake of reading it, as opposed to picking it apart to determine whether or not it’s “good” according to arbitrary rules set by people who really need to remove the sticks from up their asses, means that if I do find an enjoyable one, the circumstances behind my reading it aren’t going to ruin it.

Enter Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, a literati favourite that had somehow never been on any of my assigned reading lists. And I’m very glad it wasn’t, as if I’d been reading it under obligation – or, as I became more likely to do as my schooling progressed, not reading it all and taking really good notes in class so I’d know what things my professors would most like me to word-vomit back at them in essays and tests – I surely would have missed what is, hands down, one of my favourite quotes in my book.

There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest,

that gives us absolution.

This quote speaks to me on a couple of levels.

In the grander scheme of things, I find it a beautifully compact summation of the role religion plays in society. For all its simple, statement-of-fact tone, it’s actually quite an indictment of why many are drawn to these organizations – not charity, nor altruism, nor a search for some greater truth, but instead as a way to feel better about themselves. My atheist self loves the directness and accuracy of Wilde’s words, while the part of me that was drawn to English Lit in the first place appreciates how something can be both so bland yet also so scathing at the same time.

On a more personal level, I see a lot of my old self in this quote. Growing up in an abusive environment, in which both parents were quick to criticize … well, pretty much everything I ever said or did or was, a habit I developed was to essentially try to beat them to the (figurative) punch. I would say all manner of horrible things about myself in my head, so that when I heard the same statements about me come out of their mouths, I’d be prepared. I wasn’t looking for absolution, exactly, as I knew that nothing would stop my parents from saying the terrible things they did. But maybe, if I said it first, it would hurt less.

It never did hurt less, of course, and a big part of my healing process was recognizing that tearing myself down hurt me even more than they did. I had to learn how to let go of feeling good about feeling bad about myself.

While I’ve gotten this bad habit mostly under control, I do stumble sometimes. (Usually when it comes to my friends’ partners. For some reason, I seem hardwired to believe that none of my friends’ partners can stand me, and are only nice in our interactions because they’re obligated to be.) When I do stumble, I find this quote helpful in breaking the destructive thought cycle. It’s one of the few quotes I have properly memorized, and when I catch myself being overly self-critical, I’ll take a deep breath and repeat it to myself, as a reminder that what I’m doing isn’t going to get me the result that I need.

Not sure I could find a better example of a true classic.

To see previous posts in my Quotes series, click here.

3 Thoughts

  1. “And the second is that the best way to ruin literature is to study it.”

    That should go in the quote book too! There are great works of literature that I’ve had ruined for me by being assigned them in class. The Grapes of Wrath, Emma, Dante’s Inferno, I can’t enjoy those anymore. I had to over-analyze them, or read them too fast, or write too much about them, or spend too much time reading what literature experts had to say. Recently I’ve been checking out classic books on CD and listening to them in my car while I commute, and I’ve enjoyed quite a few of those. I’ve read War & Peace, Moby Dick, quite a lot of Dickens, all the classics you always mean to get around to reading someday but never do. Much better.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel you on Dante’s Inferno especially. I was excited to read it, but having to write an essay on it just destroyed it for me. It’s funny. I still have all my old uni essays, and a few years back, I read through them. It’s amazing the number of books I wrote an in-depth analysis of, yet don’t remember reading. And even the ones I do remember, my essays make it clear I was just going through the motions.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. One semester I had to write a short paper on Dante’s inferno for two different classes at the same time: European history, and a great books course. So you’d think I could just write one paper and turn it in twice. Except, coincidentally, I had the same professor for both classes, so I had to figure out two completely separate papers! I haven’t read that book since then.

        Liked by 1 person

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