Amongst those who go to sea there are the navigators who discover two worlds, adding continents to the earth and stars to the heavens: they are the masters, the great, the eternally splendid. Then there are those who spit terror from their gun-ports, who pillage, who grow rich and fat. Others go off in search of gold and silk under foreign skies. Still others catch salmon for the gourmet or cod for the poor. I am the obscure and patient pearl-fisherman who dives into the deepest waters and comes up with empty hands and a blue face. Some fatal attraction draws me down into the abysses of thought, down into those innermost recesses which never cease to fascinate the strong. I shall spend my life gazing at the ocean of art, where others voyage or fight; and from time to time I’ll entertain myself by diving for those green and yellow shells that nobody will want. So I shall keep them for myself and cover the walls of my hut with them.
Letter by Gustave Flaubert, quoted in Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot (1984).
Also given in The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, 1830-1857, trans. Francis Steegmuller (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), p. 83.