Famous Misquotes

“The 21st century will be religious, or it won’t be.” Everyone has heard of André Malraux’s prediction. But the author of La Condition Humaine always denied saying it. He offered the following explanation in an interview with the magazine Le Point in 1975, one year before his death: “My opinion is less certain. I simply do not rule out the possibility of a spiritual event on a global scale.” Perhaps he was referring to Islam, whose growing influence he had previously predicted.

Many quotes repeated ad infinitum are in fact works of pure fiction. The renowned phrase uttered by Louis XIV – “I am the State” – was in fact a mere rumor. While Queen Marie-Antoinette may have cared little for the starving people of Paris, she never cried “Let them eat cake!” And Jean-Paul Sartre never said, nor wrote, “Let us not drive Billancourt to despair.” In his play Nekrassov, one of his characters actually claims the opposite.

There is no trace of Albert Camus’ famous “I love justice, but I prefer my mother”, a sentence which supposedly reflected the struggle of a pied-noir man torn between defending the Algerian people and maintaining Algeria’s place in the French Republic. Contrary to popular belief, Voltaire never wrote “I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This “quote” was actually invented by an American academic in the early 20th century, who thought it was an apt way of resuming the philosopher’s thoughts, and decided to put it between quotation marks. The result was so powerful that hundreds of authors presented it as a quote, although it was nothing more than an extrapolation. And an extrapolation which seems logically flawed, as Voltaire was hardly benevolent towards his rivals and adversaries.

In a quite delicious little book* published in 2009, Paul Desalmand and Yves Stalloni pull 65 of these “quotes” over the coals. “Eppur si muove” (“And yet it moves”) is not of Galileo’s making, for example. One of his biographers, Giuseppe Baretti, chose to put the famous words in his mouth in a book published more than a century after the astronomer’s death. As for Hermann Goering, he never said “When I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my gun.” The playwright and SS officer Hanns Joshst was the man behind this quote, spoken by a character in his play Schlageter, performed in Berlin in 1933. The exact line from the play was actually “Wenn ich ‘Kultur’ höre… entischere ich meinen Browning” (“When I hear the word ‘culture’ I arm my Browning.”)

In the same vein, “The Guard dies but never surrenders” was dreamed up by writer Michel-Nicolas Balisson (1781-1840), baron of Rougemont, who falsely quoted Cambronne’s supposedly famous phrase in a description of the Battle of Waterloo for the Journal général de la France, published in June 1815.

But what about the renowned mot de Cambronne? As the story goes, an English officer suggested he surrender, but instead of cooperating the valiant commander simply replied: “Merde”. This too is a legend, and the man responsible is Victor Hugo, who made the character Cambronne say this “five-letter word” in Les Misérables, inadvertently making it the most famous swear-word in the French language.

There are other cases in which quotes are attributed to the wrong people. François-René Chateaubriand did not in fact say that “Old age is a shipwreck”, as stated by Simone de Beauvoir in her work Old Age. The quote is actually from Charles de Gaulle in his Mémoires de guerre (L’Appel, “La chute“). Many writers have unfortunately and inconsiderately repeated de Beauvoir’s mistake, and one of them even had the impudence to quote it specifically from Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’outre-tombe!

But why have there been so many mistakes and approximations? Some may say it is because journalists and essayists write whatever they like without checking their facts. This may sometimes be the case, but if some non-quotes have enjoyed such success, it must be because their supposed authors could well have said them.

Niccolò Machiavelli is often associated with the maxim “Divide and conquer”. But it is nowhere to be seen in the Renaissance philosopher’s work. The closest example can be found in the title of a chapter in his Discourses on the first decade of Titus Livius: “Together the masses are strong; divided they are weak”.

But the original maxim could well be from Machiavelli, for whom politics was as much an art of remaining in power as a way of managing the city. He also could have written “the end justifies the means”, another quote wrongly attributed to him.

At the end of the day, and as highlighted by Desalmand and Stalloni in their book, the fact that later generations have wrongly associated this type of sentiment with Machiavelli – and the same goes for every person quoted – has only cultivated his reputation.

*Petit inventaire des citations malmenées, Editions Albin Michel, 192 pages.


Column published in the March 2016 issue of France-Amérique.

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