I said I'd never and now I have
November 23, 2011 6:23 AM   Subscribe

Do you know of any literary quotes on the theme of self-disgust and shame when authors or characters realise they have turned into that which they once despised?

Essentially "What have I become?" ("What have we become?" is fine too.)

I imagine there are plenty in Shakespeare - feel free to name some of them. But I would like as many examples as I can get, from all forms of literature. Ideally they should be succinctly and pungently phrased.
posted by cincinnatus c to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
"It's strange. You never start out in life with the intention of becoming a bankrupt or an alcoholic or a cheat and a thief. Or a liar." -- Raymond Carver
posted by timsteil at 6:35 AM on November 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

Michelangelo, lamenting his own ugliness:
I've already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water's poison).
My stomach's squashed under my chin, my beard's
pointing at heaven, my brain's crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy's. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!
My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine's
all knotted from folding over itself.
I'm bent taut as a Syrian bow.
Because I'm stuck like this, my thoughts
are crazy, perfidious tripe:
anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.
My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.
posted by XMLicious at 6:49 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

From All the King's Men:

I have to believe he was a great man. What happened to his greatness is not the question. Perhaps he spilled it on the ground the way you spill a liquid when the bottle breaks. Perhaps he piled up his greatness and burnt it in one great blaze in the dark like a bonfire and then there wasn't anything but dark and the embers winking. Perhaps he could not tell his greatness from ungreatness and so mixed them together so that what was adulterated was lost. But he had it. I must believe that.

From Beyond Good and Evil:

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.
posted by superlibby at 7:14 AM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think The Picture of Dorian Gray fits the bill.

"You look exactly the same wonderful boy who, day after day, used to come down to my studio to sit for his picture. But you were simple, natural, and affectionate then. You were the most unspoiled creature in the whole world. Now, I don't know what had come over you. You talk as if you had no heart, no pity in you."
posted by anderjen at 7:14 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg kind of fits your bill. A Scottish Calvinist who hates sinners ends up being one of the worst sinners. No quotes to add here I'm afraid, since I don't have a copy with me, but it's a very rewarding book on the theme of self-delusion.
posted by Scottie_Bob at 7:19 AM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

From George Orwell's short story, Shooting an Elephant:
"And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool."
posted by iamkimiam at 8:10 AM on November 23, 2011

Indirect, but Hunter Thompson makes it (arguably) clear why he would eventually kill himself in his 1964 essay about Hemingway's suicide, "What Lured Hemingway to Ketchum?"

Which is less, "what have I become, " and more, "what did I work to become and fail to change as the world changed?"
posted by cmoj at 9:18 AM on November 23, 2011

Fairly straightforward, but:

"I've been an adult for some time now. I used to love the man I would become. I don't any longer. Look at him, look at him." Gregory (the posh stepbrother) in the early Martin Amis novel Success.
posted by rhymer at 10:47 AM on November 23, 2011

It's a bit hit-or-miss, but you could check out the quotes page on He Who Fights Monsters in TvTropes.

And at the risk of injecting too much silliness into this, there's also the following from "Doom: Repercussions of Evil":

"No! I must kill the demons” he shouted
The radio said “No, John. You are the demons”
And then John was a zombie.

posted by Tubalcain at 11:53 AM on November 23, 2011

Read the whole of Kafka's The Metamorphosis, pretty much.

"And now he could see him, standing closest to the door, his hand pressed over his open mouth, slowly backing away, as if repulsed by an invisible, unrelenting force. His mother - in spite of the manager's presence she stood with her hair still unbraided from the night, sticking out in all directions - first looked at his father with her hands clasped, then took two steps towards Gregor, and sank down in the midst of her skirt spreading out around her, her face completely hidden on her breast. With a hostile expression his father clenched his fist, as if to drive Gregor back into his room, then looked uncertainly around the living room, shielded his eyes with his hands, and sobbed with heaves of his powerful chest."
- The Metamorphosis, Ch. 1

"I won't pronounce the name of my brother in front of this monster, and so all I say is: we have to try and get rid of it. We've done everything humanly possible to take care of it and to put up with it; I don't think anyone can blame us in the least."
- The Metamorphosis, Ch. 3, pg. 51
posted by DisreputableDog at 5:38 AM on November 24, 2011

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