A Copy of the Universe Is Not What Is Required of Art; One of the Damned Thing Is Ample

Rebecca West? Virginia Woolf? Nelson Goodman? Noam Chomsky? Vita Sackville-West? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Quantum mechanics has an interpretation that envisions many worlds. Also, modal logic has a semantics that features many possible worlds. Yet, the expansive idea of many universes or worlds has waggish detractors. One comical response to this plenteous philosophy states:

One of the damn things is enough.

Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match known to QI occurred in a 1928 collection of essays by the prominent British author and critic Rebecca West. Her piece titled “The Strange Necessity” discussed the fidelity of representation within artworks. She believed it was wrong-headed for an artist to unduly concentrate on achieving verisimilitude. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

We feel impatient with Royal Academy stuff of that sort because really the makers of it ought to have learned by this time that a copy of the universe is not what is required of art; one of the damned thing is ample.

West’s barb about artistic realism was not really aimed at the many worlds of quantum mechanics or modal logic. Modern expressions typically use the word “enough”, but West used the word “ample”. In addition, she used the singular “thing” instead of ‘things”.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1901 the English literary scholar Andrew Cecil Bradley tackled the question of whether artworks (specifically poetry) should closely copy the real world. He suggested that the works should construct an independent world: 2

For its nature is to be not a part, nor yet a copy, of the real world (as we commonly understand that phrase), but to be a world by itself, independent, complete, autonomous; and to possess it fully you must enter that world, conform to its laws, and ignore for the time the beliefs, aims, and particular conditions which belong to you in the other world of reality.

In 1928 Rebecca West published an essay containing an instance of the quotation under analysis as mentioned previously.

In 1936 Professor of Philosophy Houston Peterson delivered a speech in New York containing a quotation ascribed to Rebecca West, but the wording was altered, i.e., “damned” became “damn”, “thing” became “things”, and “ample” became “enough”: 3

The function of the artist is not to photograph the universe. As Rebecca West said, one of the damn things is enough. The artist does more than express capricious feelings; he is really telling us more about the world; he is giving an immediate apprehension of a richer and fuller experience.

In 1943 the “Dictionary of World Literature” included an instance within the entry about the topic “Beauty”. West received credit, and the phrasing was accurate: 4

Coleridge, however, found it folly to seek to rival nature’s perfection; Nietzsche quite to the contrary bluntly declares “from an artistic point of view, nature is no model”; while the modern (Rebecca West) exclaims: “One of the damned thing is ample.”

In 1953 “The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition” by M. H. Abrams included a chapter epigraph that matched West’s quotation: 5

A copy of the universe is not what is required of art; one of the damned thing is ample. REBECCA WEST

In 1968 “Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols” by Nelson Goodman included an instance of the saying as an epigraph for the first chapter. A footnote linked the garbled statement to Virginia Woolf instead of Rebecca West: 6

Art is not a copy of the real world. One of the damn things is enough.*

* Reported as occurring in an essay on Virginia Woolf. I have been unable to locate the source.

In 1971 famous linguist Noam Chomsky used the quotation to illustrate a grammatical point in the book “Problems of Knowledge and Freedom”. A footnote pointed to “The Mirror and the Lamp” as the source of the statement: 7

To take a particularly simple example, Rebecca West, in criticism of the view that art reflects nature, wrote: “A copy of the universe is not what is required of art; one of the damned thing is ample.” The statement violates the rule of grammar that requires a plural noun in such phrases as “one of the books is here” or “one of the damned things is enough.” But the statement is nevertheless exactly to the point.

In 1977 “Aesthetics: A Critical Anthology” included a piece by Arthur C. Danto who discussed Aristotle and shared a version of the saying without ascription. This instance used “things” and “enough”: 8

And, as one of his successors has elegantly phrased it: “one of the damned things is enough.” Art fails if it is indiscernible from reality, and it equally if oppositely fails if it is not.

In 1996 the book “Can These Bones Live?” attributed an instance to poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West: 9

But this is to read the novel as if it were a realist text, which it is not. White’s concern is not to recreate history. For him, as for Vita Sackville West, in what may be an apocryphal story, “one of the damn things is enough”.

The 2009 book “Of Minds and Language: A Dialogue with Noam Chomsky in the Basque Country” contains an instance attributed to West using “damn” and “enough” instead of “damned” and “ample”. The accompanying footnote inconclusively points to a webpage and to Nelson Goodman’s 1968 work: 10

Rebecca West was once asked some question about possible worlds, and she said that “one of the damn thing is enough.” We know exactly what that means and that it’s a gross violation of some grammatical rule, but there isn’t any better way of saying it; that’s the right way to say it.

In conclusion, Rebecca West should receive credit for the statement she published in 1928. Variant phrasings entered circulation over time, but QI has found no substantive evidence that West employed any of the variants. Attributions to people such as Vita Sackville-West are unsupported.

Image Notes: “Copy” and “Do Not Copy” labels from OpenClipart-Vectors at Pixabay. Illustration of person looking up at a galaxy from WikiImages at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Geoffrey Nunberg whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Nunberg pointed to the 2009 citation. Thanks also to discussants Stephen Goranson who pointed to the 1968 citation and Ben Zimmer who pointed to the 1953 citation.)

Notes:

  1. 1928, The Strange Necessity: Essays and Reviews by Rebecca West, Essay 1: The Strange Necessity, Start Page 13, Quote Page 131, Jonathan Cape, London, England. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1901, Poetry for Poetry’s Sake: An Inaugural Lecture Delivered on June 5, 1901 by A. C. Bradley (Andrew Cecil Bradley), Professor of Poetry in the University of Oxford, Quote Page 8, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, ?Oxford, England. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1936 October 15, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Art as an Aid to Propaganda Is Beneficial, Dr. Peterson Informs Audience at Academy, Quote Page 10, Column 4, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1943, Dictionary of World Literature: Criticism, Forms, Technique, Edited by Joseph T. Shipley, Topic: Beauty, Quote Page 68, Column 2, The Philosophical Library, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1953 Copyright (Reprint 1980), The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition by M. H. Abrams (Meyer Howard Abrams), Chapter 5: Varieties of Romantic Theory: Wordsworth and Coleridge, (Epigram of chapter), Quote Page 100, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1968 Copyright, Languages of Art: An Approach To a Theory of Symbols by Nelson Goodman, Part I: Reality Remade, Chapter 1: Denotation, (Quotation appears as epigraph of chapter 1, additional information is given in a footnote on the same page), Quote Page 3, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Verified with scans)
  7. 1971, Problems of Knowledge and Freedom: The Russell Lectures by Noam Chomsky, Chapter 1: On Interpreting the World, Quote Page 32 and 33, Pantheon Books: A Division of Random House, New York. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1977, Aesthetics: A Critical Anthology, Edited by George Dickie and Richard J. Sclafani, Chapter: The Last Work of Art: Artworks and Real Things by Arthur C. Danto, Start Page 551, Quote Page 553, St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1996, Can These Bones Live? by Veronica Brady, Chapter: “It is where we are wounded”, Start Page 129, Quote Page 137, The Federation Press, Annandale, NSW, Australia. (Google Books Preview)
  10. 2009, Of Minds and Language: A Dialogue with Noam Chomsky in the Basque Country, Edited by Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, Juan Uriagereka, and Pello Salaburu, Chapter 23: Conclusion, Start Page 379, Quote Page 388, Oxford University Press, New York. (Google Books Preview)