Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say, “I think,” “I am,” but quotes some saint or sage.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance”
I love epigraphs. There is a kind of salutary modernist austerity in not using them, of course–Beckett and Flaubert and Woolf and Faulkner and Kafka never did, and Joyce only did once (in A Portrait: “Et ignotas animum dimittit in artes“), because, I suppose, they saw it as an artless imposition on the reader, a bit of symptomatic nineteenth-century social-climbing in place of artistry, whereby every dipshit-novelist sought to elevate his or her dreck by heading each chapter with a deracinated, decorative tag from Shakespeare or Milton to reassure the reader that the new writing communicated the same supposed values as the old. A quote from Shakespeare at the head of a book represented a reification of tradition rather than an agon with it: compare an epigraph from Hamlet or Lear to the wrestling-with-the-angel that Joyce and Woolf undertake for and against the Bard in Ulysses and To the Lighthouse.
But epigraphs can add something to a text; they needn’t only be garish badges of illegitimate affiliation. The high art of the nineteenth-century epigraph arrives in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. These two novelists often invent or willfully misattribute quotations, juxtaposing tradition with what it excludes (in The Red and the Black, we find “She isn’t pretty, she wears no rouge” credited to Saint-Beuve) or provoking questions about why the writing of the past differs from that of the present (hence, George Eliot, with her wonderful, still-underappreciated boldness, often writes her own epigraphs in superseded styles–blank verse exchanges from faux-Renaissance dramas–as if to ask why the stories she’s telling have to be told this way and not that, given that she could just as easily write it that way). And this is not to mention Moby-Dick, with its pages and pages of “extracts”–resonant quotes from the Bible to Hawthorne about whales–whose proliferation and diversity and authority begin to suggest to the reader, before the story even starts, that this is about something more than whales, or is at least about what it means to be “about” something.
All of this is just to say, as I’ve already said, that I love epigraphs. They imply contexts, they add history, they provide a frame, maybe an old-fashioned one, like the involuted braids or scrolls or vines of nineteenth-century frames that would be thrown out with the less-is-more ascesis of twentieth-century painting, which dispensed with the frame as it did with perspective and anecdote, but what can I say?–We all have our lapses. I always plan to use epigraphs, even if I ultimately decide against it. My short novel The Ecstasy of Michaela was originally going to have one–and only one–epigraph, but I never decided on the best one. Below, I offer, in our contemporary spirit of “DVD extras” and “online content” and the like, the rejected candidates for epigraph to Michaela. I may use them again someday, but for now I commit them to the internet.
From this the poem springs: that we live in a place
That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves
And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.
–Wallace Stevens, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction
He has been a sick man all his life. He was always a seeker after something in the world that is there in no satisfying measure, or not at all.
–Walter Pater, Imaginary Portraits
The melancholy of the adult state arises from our dual, conflicting experience that, on the one hand, our absolute youthful confidence in an inner voice has diminished or died, and, on the other hand, that the outside world to which we now devote ourselves in our desire to learn its ways and dominate it will never speak to us in a voice that will clearly tell us our way and determine our goal.
–Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel
Every happy man should have some one with a little hammer at his door to knock and remind him that there are unhappy people, and that, however happy he may be, life will sooner or later show its claws, and some misfortune will befall him–illness, poverty, loss, and then no one will see or hear him, just as he now neither sees nor hears others.
–Anton Chekhov, “Gooseberries”