Matthew Nye

On Epigraph

  1. In a mathematical proof, certain knows are given. The endpoint follows from this hypothetical genesis. We grant axiomatic knowledge to advance higher order synthesis. In the first book of The Elements, Euclid offers a set of postulates to assume flat rather than curved space. The planer geometry that follows is sound, but as we know now, space is not necessarily planer. The grounds upon which we build our proofs may move beneath us.
  2. From the Latin postulātum, meaning demand, petition, or request, a postulate may or may not be granted. It may or may not be sustained. Before a proof can be said to be solved, its axioms float hesitantly in suspension. Assume X. One may assume almost anything. Whether true or false, the hypothesis radiates a magnetic-like force in search of its nested opposite, the intermediary connection between assumption and conclusion, the tie that completes the logical circuit. When solved, the proof may be applied as given in future inquiries, a second-order, hypothetical petition posing a new request. When the proof remains unsolved, the act of assumption alone holds a certain potential energy regardless.
  3. Assume the end will come quicker than one suspects. Assume all will be forgotten, and memory, in so far as personal remembrance, matters with respect to its innate value. Assume meaning can be measured and that the risk for nihilism increases logarithmically on any extended timeline. Plot meaning over time, and the limit bends toward zero. Plot self-interest over global population, and its sinewave pulses steadily, the amplitude low and wavelength variable.
  4. In letters, like mathematics, meaning is derived from similar petitions for truth. Within the text, common assumptions of genre allow readers to gain understanding from a written work. In Validity in Interpretation, E.D. Hirsch grounds his generic theory within foundational linguistics. “An interpreter’s notion of the type of meaning he confronts will powerfully influence his understanding of the details.” Thus, a mistake in genre results in mistaken interpretation. To communicate meaning across any shared readership depends upon a common understanding of the form. Beyond the text, we assume a further set of givens about the world. We might grant that time runs forward and cause precedes effect. We might assume free will, or single authorship, or the very distinction between text and world in the first place. This is not an exhaustive list, and nor are these stable givens.
  5. Assume the writer is consumed by thoughts of death. Assume that resistance is moot and escape the all-consuming preoccupation. The epigraph to the writer’s latest work reads: “What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it.” For Eliot, the sustained propagation and mutability of art are givens. For the writer, the image of the archive, or the canonized figure, or the near timeline that extends generations, offers an impression of permanence, or at the very least, the continuation of the mind beyond the finite body. The critic will say the work is either ethical or narcissistic depending on the circumstances, to say nothing of its artistic merit. The psychoanalyst will say it is an expression of fear. Fiction is the orthodoxy of the agnostic, the most honest and contradictory of genres with respect to its own futility, the simultaneous desire for lasting truth and the preemptive surrender to this impossibility.
  6. What-is-left-over is a small fraction of what-is. What-is-left-over is the refracted memory of an original, at best a misremembered fiction, at worst the direct quotation cum epigraph, exhumed and placed in isolation, set apart to spark life in some new text soon to be forgotten. When adopted, the epigraph undergoes a kind of alchemical resurrection, the creation of an authorial automaton, a quote speaking from beyond what-is, a corpse brought back to life through necromancy.
  7. Gérard Genette defines epigraph as “a quotation placed en exergue…[meaning] at the edge of the work, generally closest to the text.” This edge is characterized by generic norms and hypothetical potentials. Often an epigraph occupies its own page between front matter and matter. Often it is composed by one writer and selected by another. However, an epigraph need not be textual, nor must it occupy a fixed location before the primary work. Genette notes a number of exceptions. In form: “An example is Corporal Trim’s ‘flourish with his stick’ in volume 9, chapter 4, of Tristram Shandy, which Balzac put more or less faithfully en exergue of La Peau de chagrin; or the three bars from The Rite of Spring reproduced at the head of the novel La Consagración de la primavera by Alejo Carpentier.” In terms of placement: “Another possible location, as for the dedication, is the end of the book: the last line of the text, set off by white space, as with the quotation from Marx that Perec put at the end of Les Choses.” Within the text: Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wander partitions each chapter with its own epigraph. In terms of authorship: F. Scott Fitzgerald composed the paratext to The Great Gatsby himself, its epigraph, signed Thomas Parke D’Invilliers, collapsing any normative distance between epigrapher and epigraphee. Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire inverts the paratextual structure entirely, whereby the novel is composed in the form of Forward, Poem, and Commentary. Nabokov’s epigraph from Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson at once mirrors the content of the internal text and extends its game-like oscillation of inside and outside, authority and unreliability, from matter to front matter.
  8. Inscribe on a tombstone: Loving father and husband. Ignore the fact that this particular father was not loving to child or spouse. The difference between epitaph and epigraph rests in the medium and means of production: stone versus paper, and a singular one versus the infinitely reproducible. Their respective effects bend similarly toward abstraction, a distillation to nominative essentials, the pity quotation or mischaracterized ideal, the anecdotal account absent the impossibly unverifiable totality. The laws of entropy do not apply to revisionist histories, pulled from chaos and toward a binary one or zero, the single account, which is to say a lack of one.
  9. A limit approaching zero is equal to zero. No infinitesimally small gap exists between arc and asymptote, the quote and the quoted, a voice speaking through another like so many ventriloquist dummies. The original is rarely lost, but decontextualize or misremembered. In mathematics, the acknowledgement of the unknown is expressed in the rounding of significant figures. Sometimes there is the genuine impossibility for greater precision: a Roman copy of a Greek original, lost to posterity, lucky to have anyone speaking for it at all.
  10. Epigraph offers a sign of attribution and the acknowledgment of a dialog to which the writer belatedly enters. It occupies the threshold between text and world, metonymy for the metaphoric crossing between heir and ancestor, a biographic inheritance and textual reappropriation. Genette notes how there is perhaps no writer more often cited than Shakespeare. In terms of influence, certain figures expand beyond their original contexts. This is not an escape from death necessarily, but rememberance via penitent surrender, a partial reflection and textual transmigration of souls. For others, this second life is colored by perpetual void or capture. The epigrapher pulls from a text uninvited, colonizing the space and voice of another, breathing through a one-way pantomime with those who could not or would not speak back.
  11. As an epigraph precedes the first word, the flow of literary inheritance trends steadily forward. Causation runs from past to present, and to say that Homer influences Joyce is a mere truism. However, this timeline may also run simultaneously backward. As Genette asks, “How would we read Joyce’s Ulysses if it were not entitled Ulysses?” An uneasy creation myth sits between these two poles. For Eliot, a newly written work alters the totality of all extant writing. On the scale of the epigraph, the selection of paratext reverses the directionality of time and causation. The epigrapher selects the epigraphee, and in so doing, a link is drawn between source and text, from present to past, which is distinct from what alignments existed before. Lineage is a matter of choice as much as it is a matter of inheritance. The child in effect choses the parent, and literary influence is less a deterministic timeline than a historic reproduction running in both directions simultaneously. Joyce influences Homer.
  12. Write again on a tombstone: Loving father and husband. Mean it this time. Or at least, mean it in part, whereby some fraction of truth may subsume the whole. Intention endows the text with a power distinct from strict meaning. A reader scans the work not only for foundational understanding, but the alignment of authenticity, irony, playfulness, or fraudulence, the alternative potential pathways between text and world.
  13. Between text and paratext, the relationship is variable and open-ended. An epigraph may frame, introduce, or juxtapose what follows. In geometric terms, it may run parallel or perpendicular to the primary content, zoom in or zoom out upon any order of scale. Epigraph operates via principles of collage. The synaptic meanings that bridge the gaps are decidedly unvoiced. Rather than defining an expressed synthesis, epigraph sounds a silent intuition prior to any distilled meaning and a formal resistance to any definitive answer. It is the muted postal horn in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, or the “narrow abyss of non-comprehension” that John Berger uses to describe the gap in understanding between humans and non-humans. For Pynchon and Berger, the silence between signifier and signified, an intuitive distance that may be approached but never crossed, is not equivalent to an absence of meaning, but rather the fullness of the inexpressible. Metaphor is perhaps as close as we can come. For Genette, “To think without knowing what you are thinking—is that not one of the purest pleasures of the mind?”
  14. In its silence epigraph offers a suspended potential. It blurs speaker and audience; it problematizes lineage, causation, and time. Rather than answering questions of meaning, epigraph demands that the reader hold multiple possibilities in check. Often these potentialities lie hidden behind normative readings upheld not by necessity but convention. Often epigraph’s potential energy loses its charge as soon as it comes to ground.
Matthew Nye is the author of the novel, Pike and Bloom (&NOW Books, 2016). His work has appeared in Ploughshares, Chicago Review, The Iowa Review, Mid-American Review, and Hotel Amerika. He teaches at Unity College in Maine.