Thursday, August 30, 2012

taxing my Google-fu skilz

In an essay he had written, a student of mine quoted Picasso:

I don't believe in accidents. There are only encounters in history. There are no accidents.

The student wondered whether he should cite the source for the quote, and I told him he should. The problem, though, is that the quote's source is nearly impossible to find through Googling. Was this quote from a published interview with Picasso? From a biography? From a coffee-table book on Cubism?

When you Google the exact quote, all you get is a long list of websites devoted to witty quotes from intellectuals, artists, politicians, and other luminaries. Not a single site-- and I've visited over thirty-- traces the Picasso quote to a legitimate reference.

How should I engage in deeper research?



Charles said...

This is interesting--I've found a few sites that attribute the above quote instead to Elie Wiesel, while attributing the following to Picasso: "Accidents, try to change them--it's impossible. The accidental reveals man."

To be honest, the mention of history in the original quote makes it sound more like Wiesel than it does Picasso.

Google Books is probably a better resource for this sort of thing than just plain old Google. A search for this quote there turns up 22 results, six of which actually contain the exact quote. Of those six, four attribute it to Wiesel and two attribute it to Picasso.

I'm putting my money on Wiesel, then, mainly for the reason I mentioned above: it sounds more like something Wiesel would have written. It's possible that Picasso said that other "accidents" quote and people got the two quotes confused.

What would I do in this situation? Well, aside from attributing the quote to Wiesel, I would not cite it. This quote has become an aphorism, and aphorisms live independently of whatever source might have given birth to them. Attempting to trace that source will likely prove futile, at least on the internet, which has the worst signal-to-noise ratio of any medium in the world. So what I would do is say something like "Wiesel (or Picasso, take your pick) is purported to have said..."

Is that a satisfying answer? Probably not. But that is what I would do.

Michael Gilleland said...

Robert Andrews, The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p. 7, attributes it to Elie Wiesel and cites International Herald Tribune (September 15, 1992) as the source. In general, more reliable information can be found on Google Books than just on plain Google, at least in my experience.

Kevin Kim said...

Mr. Gilleland,

An honor and a pleasure to have you visit my blog! You must be one of my five remaining visitors. Thanks for your insights, which seem to confirm Charles's suspicions.