David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Literature Minus One

I’d like to ask you all out there for your participation here: pick a work of literature or philosophy (or poetry, if you can make it work) and a sentence from that work that, if the sentence had been excluded from the work, would have made the greatest difference in the work’s interpretation/reception/history in the following years. I’ll start with what set me off on this line of thinking in the first place:

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them–as steps–to climb up beyond them.

Wittgenstein, TLP 6.54

Who’s next?


  1. “let us go then you and I”

    made the poem a break form the Dramatic Monologue and from ontologically coherent mimesis.

  2. “ I would like to inform all intrepid Muslims in the world that the author of the book Satanic Verses, which has been compiled, printed, and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet, and the Qor’an, and those publishers who were aware of its contents, are sentenced to death.”

  3. Howl. First sentence.

  4. “Tu modo nascenti puero, quo ferrea primum desinet ac toto surget gens aurea mundo, casta fave Lucina” – Vergil, Eclogues 4.8-10, on the birth of a child.

  5. Godot – “I think it’s white, sir.”

  6. “Neither shall you covet your neighbour’s wife.”

    thought-sins etc.

  7. In the beginning….

  8. Second sentence of the short version of Poetry by Marianne Moore.

  9. It seems that there are several different types of sentences that can be turned up by this question. There are sentences which change the way you read the text, whether it is an explicit instruction (like your Wittgenstein) or a cryptic clue. There are sentences that are so eruptive that they anchor the rest of the text (Conrad’s “The horror, the horror” or Faulkner’s “I don’t hate the South, I don’t hate it”). There are sentences where the text reaches its most crystallized coherence and turns into some sort of poetic easiness. There are sentences which for arbitrary reasons have been given a lot of critical attention (“My mother is a fish.”) but despite their immediate impression don’t really define the text as a whole at all. And then there are the sentences which an individual latches on to as their personal lens of the text, but might have nothing to do with the general reaction (mine would have to be “Soldier, there is a war between the mind and sky” in “Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction”). And then of course there are examples where the idea of removing “a sentence” can destroy the careful construction of a work (“If on a winter’s night a traveler…”, or any of the “chapters” from War & War or the entirety of “In a Station of the Metro”).

    The most interesting answer to the question I think are not the sentences which effect the reception or reaction of a work, but what disrupts the ‘flatness’ of the work, i.e. when the text critiques itself, betrays itself, or folds inward — the stresspoint of the text as prototype. In this regard, I think I would choose the very end of Our Lady of the Flowers where Genet has given us the text of a letter and then says “The dotted line that Darling refers to is the outline of his prick.” Or the second sentence of this part in Absalom, Absalom when Sutpen explains about how as a boy he had been turned away from a rich man’s house by a servant: “He no more envied the man than he would have envied a mountain man who happened to own a fine rifle. He would have coveted the rifle, but he would himself have supported and confirmed the owner’s pride and pleasure in its ownership because he could not have conceived of the owner taking such crass advantage of the luck which gave the rifle to him rather than to another as to say to other men: Because I own this rifle, my arms and legs and blood and bones are superior to yours except as the victorious outcome of a fight with rifles: and how in the world could a man fight another man with dressed-up niggers and the fact that he could lie in a hammock all afternoon with his shoes off? and what in the world would he be fighting for if he did?”
    I think there is probably another quick example to be found in Lord Jim, but its been too long for me to start leafing through it again.

  10. My first thought, before I even got to your original quote, was from the same work, perhaps an alternate statement of the same idea:
    “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.”

  11. Great question —

    Obviously: “Old man, ‘tis not so difficult to die” from Byron’s Cain.

    “Love, word known to all men,” from Gabler’s edition of Joyce’s Ulysses

    “Verweile doch! Du bist so schön!” from Faust

  12. “And there was nothing in her eyes.” Last sentence of La Maison de Rendez-Vous, by Alain Robbe-Grillet

  13. Gerund Baronit

    2 May 2008 at 14:21

    “God is dead”

  14. “I have a truly marvellous proof of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain.”

  15. parvomagnus

    2 May 2008 at 15:22

    Back to Faust:

    STIMME (von oben). Ist gerettet!

    At least till he finished the second part.

  16. Clearly, Battiades wins it hands down. You might add a similar case like “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)

  17. “For such loss I would believe / Abundant recompense.”

    Also, “It was not midnight. It was not raining.”

  18. “For a long time I used to go to bed early.”

    sorry, just couldn’t resist this one….

    and what about Kant if there were no Schematism?

  19. ..life is much more successfully viewed from a single window after all. – The Great Gatsby

  20. L says that last lines shouldn’t count. Probably not first lines either. If they do count, though, then:
    “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.”

  21. L’s rule makes this a much more interesting game.

    I’ll venture “If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die?” Or, if you consider that a cheat, the “poison” clause, since that’s the only part of Shylock’s defense that even begins to balance the villainy he threatens.

  22. Just visiting from LanguageHat’s site; I love this idea and linked to it from my own page. But can no-one really have suggested “Mistah Kurtz, he dead” yet?

  23. Some great responses here.

    One other cheat I will rule out before someone uses it: the last sentence of Ulysses. There are, though, a lot of candidates in the penultimate chapter:

    “For the host: rejuvenation of intelligence, vicarious satisfaction.”

    “The irreparability of the past: once at a performance of Albert Hengler’s circus in the Rotunda, Rutland square, Dublin, an intuitive particoloured clown in quest of paternity had penetrated from the ring to a place in the auditorium where Bloom, solitary, was seated and had publicly declared to an exhilarated audience that he (Bloom) was his (the clown’s) papa.”

    For Proust, perhaps when Swann is idly mentioned as having died?

    As far as last lines go, Faulkner has some good ones: “Meet Mrs. Bundren.” For example.

  24. Still following L’s version of the game: “‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’ — and tore it up.” Not only the book’s but the author’s reception leans heavily on that line.

  25. L’s contribution:

    “The deep truth is imageless.”

    I add: “But this is hell, nor am I out of it.” I seem to be on a Faust / Faustus kick…

    Lots of drama in the answers, too, including these two.

  26. “Then from the very first page you realize that the novel you are holding has nothing to do with the one you were reading yesterday.”
    — Italo Calvino, if on a winter’s night a traveler

  27. A related rule concerning foreign-language novels: vitally important plot points tend to hinge on vocabulary words you don’t know. The only specific case I can remember, although I have had this experience dozens of times, was the word brujula (compass) in Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”… It makes my laziness about looking up unknown words rather costly.

  28. ‘This question has today been forgotten’.

    Martin Heidegger, Being and Time

  29. The word “Übertreibungskunst” (“The Art of Exaggeration”) from Thomas Bernhard’s novel Auslöschung (Extinction), and any of the sentences surrounding it. This word is often used as a key to interpreting this novel, but also every other work by Bernhard.

  30. The Heidegger one made me laugh.

    Here’s one from the Aeneid, Mandelbaum translation:

    There are two gates of Sleep: the one is said
    to be of horn, through it an easy exit
    is given to true shades; the other is made
    of polished ivory, perfect, glittering,
    but through that way the Spirits send false dreams
    into the world above.

  31. “Call me Ishmael.”

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