By Anne Matthews
[T]he servant … came and stood beside him and said, “Socrates, I shall not find fault with you, as I do with others, for being angry and cursing me … when I tell them to drink the poison. … Try to bear what you must as easily as you can.” And he burst into tears and turned and went away. And Socrates … said to us, “How charming the man is!” … I wrapped my face in my cloak and wept for myself; for it was not for him that I wept, but for my own misfortune in being deprived of such a friend.
—Plato, Phaedo, 399 B.C.
Think how many blameless lives are brightened by the blazing indiscretions of other people.
—Saki (H. H. Munro), Reginald, 1904
The Japanese race was now divided into the emperor on the one hand and everyone else on the other; and where responsibility for defeat was concerned, the lowliest subject was suddenly equal to the most beribboned and bemedaled officer or official. On the matter of blame, the old guard hastened to espouse the purest sort of democracy imaginable.
—John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, 1998
How wonderful to have someone to blame … to live with one’s nemesis! You may be miserable, but you feel forever in the right.
—Erica Jong, How to Save Your Own Life, 1977
How could we avoid losing a hundred million dollars on our stake in British Petroleum? … My boss wanted to threaten the British government with another stock market crash if it didn’t take back its oil company. (Note to members of all governments: Be wary of Wall Streeters threatening crashes. They are tempted to do this whenever you encroach on their turf.)
—Michael Lewis, Liar’s Poker, 1989
Finally Abdou and I separated the trio, and I discovered how the quarrel had started. Mother and daughter-in-law had disagreed on the recipe for haroset, the thick preserve made from fruits and wine that is eaten at Passover. My mother wanted raisins and dates, because her mother used raisins and dates, but my grandmother wanted oranges, raisins and prunes, because this had been her family’s recipe for as far back as she could remember. “Maudite pesah! Cursed Passover!” cried my grandmother. Sugared water was promptly distributed to all three in their respective rooms.
—André Aciman, Out of Egypt: A Memoir, 2007
Mr. Cizec has bingled me. I am short haired for life. … In front there is no change, behind I’m like the rump of a partridge.
—Virginia Woolf, 1927
Lear: I am a very foolish fond old man …
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong:
You have some cause, they have not.
Cordelia: No cause, no cause.
—William Shakespeare, King Lear
Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work—the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside—the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once. … Sometimes, though, the cracked plate has to be retained in the pantry, has to be kept in service as a household necessity. It can never again be warmed on the stove or shuffled with the other plates in the dishpan; it will not be brought out for company, but it will do to hold crackers late at night or to go into the icebox under left-overs.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up,” 1936
When business is good, buyers are inclined to take credit for their superior buying skill. When business is bad, management generally blames the buyers … [but] if we can please the 5% of our customers who … know that a bias-cut nightgown belt will stay tied better than one cut on the straight [and] know the difference between a silk scarf made of twelve-momme weight and one made of sixteen-momme … you have customers that no competitor can take away. And what’s more, you learn from them … the difference between better and best.
—Stanley Marcus, Minding the Store, 1974
Thus was the myth of the noble but tragic South embodied in Lee, exonerated from all blame and heaped with all praise. Unlike the greedy, self-made men of the North, he … remained the standard of Southern heroism until the premature death of Elvis Presley supplied yet another saint of failure, whose natural talent and moral nature had been usurped and warped once again by the success-hounds of the North.
—Leo Braudy, The Frenzy of Renown, 1986
This stupid Indifference so often you blame
Is not owing to Nature, to fear, or to Shame. …
But I hate to be cheated, and never will buy
Long years of Repentance for moments of Joy.
—Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, “The Lover,” 1713
The drawing still looks dead to him, and now he feels sure those second-story windows are to blame. … He does not want to make the composition asymmetrical. What he wants is for it not to be symmetrical. The distinction has weight for him. It’s the difference between wanting to find a cage to get into and wanting to get out of one.
—Tracy Kidder, House, 1985
Even that night [when George H. W. Bush finished third in Iowa’s straw poll] … Bush spent his time trying to calm Atwater. Lee kept trying to take the blame, vowing they’d turn it around. … The Veep told him he had nothing to worry about. He would have told [political director Richard] Bond, too … but Bond was talking to Bar. Actually, Barbara Bush was talking. “So, Rich. … When are you going back to Iowa to manage the Vice President’s campaign?” Bond jerked in place, for an instant, like a specimen pinned to a lab table. “Um … right away, Mrs. Bush!” “Good!” said Bar. Her mouth was smiling, but her eyes had Bond’s, as her head tilted back an inch or two. “Because that’s what George and I want.”
—Richard Ben Cramer, What It Takes, 1993
The serpent tempted me, and I did eat.
—Eve, Genesis 3:13
Anne Matthews collects the quotations for Commonplace Book and is a contributing editor of The American Scholar.