Or, as the American poet Emily Dickinson has it, “He preached upon ‘Breadth’ till it argued him narrow–/The Broad are too broad to define/And of ‘Truth’ until it proclaimed him a Liar–/The Truth never flaunted a Sign–/Simplicity fled from his counterfeit presence/As Gold the Pyrites would shun–/What confusion would cover the innocent Jesus/To meet so enabled a Man!”
Or, how about Shakespeare’s Hamlet and his reference to Ophelia’s protestations? “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”?
All of these quotes are ways of saying the same thing in different circumstances, which is basically that when someone boasts, brags, or repeatedly or emphatically states that something is so, the human mind cannot help but swing to the opposite statement, by way of balance. This may be part of our self-protecting sense that nobody is perfect, nor is any stance or thing in our ordinary lives, and so we long to restore the equilibrium with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Yet what do you do if and when you are aware that someone doubts your probity unjustifiably, that in fact you are suspected of a fraud or a lie? What do you do? If they question you, the matter can be set right as long as you keep your head and answer them as truthfully as possible, at least so it would seem. Yet if they look askance at you but say nothing, your case is much harder to bear: you know you are suspected unfairly, yet cannot speak because it would seem more surely to involve you in knowledge of a crime, misdoing, or shortcoming. The best thing (as far as I have seen, having lived through this sort of thing more than once in a life that so far I like to think has basically been a truthful one) is probably just to grin–only figuratively speaking, of course–and bear it. People will think what they will think, and more often than we are perhaps aware of, either friends or acquaintances speak for us in a voice of moderation, or the suspicious themselves get tired of what they’re thinking and change their minds for the better, if only we keep a straight course, and refuse to let ourselves be shaken by their doubt (we’re not all hapless Billy Budds, after all!).
In the spirit of honesty, then (and I have been asked this question by a reader, a personal friend who was too shy to leave a recorded comment) I answer the question, “How can you remember so many quotes, and who said them?” And my answer is, “I don’t. There are myriads of reliable quotation books out there, of which I’ve seen a few. My favorite one is Bartlett’s Book of Familiar Quotations, edited in the sixteenth edition by Justin Kaplan, though I think there are now later editions of this famous work out. Another fine guide organized in a friendlier and less formal way is Robert Byrne’s The 2,548 Best Things Anybody Ever Said. The quote from Emily Dickinson comes from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson. The latest edition I have of this is from 1960, though for all I know now, other additional poems attributable to ‘the Belle of Amherst’ may have surfaced since then. This information would be something a specialist could provide. Finally, the remark about Billy Budd is a reference to Herman Melville’s work Billy Budd, Foretopman, a work which can make anyone who feels paranoid about being misunderstood feel even more so, and for this reason I’d advocate reading it when you’re in an optimistic mood about your place in the world.”
And this is my post for today! Late in the day, I know, to be doing a post, but the topic came to me ready-made by the friendly enquiry, and my feeling that I should probably not lay claim to being a human quote source. Until tomorrow, keep your hat on the hook, and your shoes under the table (whatever that expression means–I know it’s meant to signify good advice back in the country, but why I don’t know). shadowoperator