The Perils of the Ellipsis
I’m a fan of quotations, probably because I read stuff and certain passages get stuck in my brain, and then pop out at some later time in ways that are (mostly) related to what I’m thinking about. It’s a personal quirk. My brain is crammed full to overflowing with these bits of stuff, floating around in a sort of stew. I’m constantly surprised by the stuff that floats to the surface – stuff I didn’t knew that I knew, and stuff I have no idea how or where I learned it.
This morning I had this Thomas Merton quotation rattling around in my head. That’s no surprise – I’ve read a lot of Merton. This one is pretty well known in certain circles:
As long as I assume that the world is something I discover by turning on the radio… I am deceived from the start.
Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action
This quotation is often used in the context of a commentary on intermediation – on getting our sense of reality via the media. But watch out for that ellipsis. It replaces the words “or by looking out the window”. I’m sure some will disagree but I think that deleting those words changes the meaning of the passage significantly. Look at the surrounding passage:
This is simply the voice of a self-questioning human person who, like all his brothers, struggles to cope with turbulent, mysterious, demanding, exciting, frustrating, confused existence in which almost nothing is really predictable, in which most definitions, explanations, and justifications become incredible before they are uttered, in which people suffer together and are sometimes utterly beautiful, at other times impossibly pathetic. In which there is much that is frightening, in which almost everything public is patently phony, and in which there is at the same an immense ground of personal authenticity that is right there and so obvious that no one can talk about it and most cannot even believe that it is there.
I am, in other words, a man in the modern world. In fact, I am the world just as you are! Where am I going to look for the world first of all if not in myself?”
As long as I assume that the world is something I discover by turning on the radio or looking out the window I am deceived from the start. As along as I imagine that the world is something to be “escaped” in a monastery – that wearing a special costume and following a quaint observance takes me “out of this world” I am dedicating my life to an illusion.
I don’t like this practice of taking a quotation and bending it to fit our intent by clipping out the bits that don’t serve our purpose. It feels too much like taking our own words and putting them in someone else’s mouth, an act I abhor. It also feels quite a lot like evading the original meaning and substituting one with which we’re more comfortable.
Merton was, most fundamentally, a mystic. We should not take his words and bend them into a statement about the unreliability of mainstream media. We might disagree at a fundamental level with what Merton is getting at, here, but we should at least disagree honestly, and not try to turn his words into something they’re not.
The good news is that the internet is a boon to anyone who wants to look past the ellipsis. Using a search engine to find the entire quotation, in context, is usually child’s play.
I expect I’ll always be wary when I encounter the dreaded ellipsis in a quotation, because as soon as I assume that I am getting a sense of the original author’s words from that altered passage… I am deceived from the start.