This Begins with an Epigraph

Ed Simon in Avidly:

Montaigne-1024x535In the stone tower of his chateau in Dordogne, the sixteenth-century French writer Michel de Montaigne worked on his essays while surrounded by classical quotations painted on the oak beams of his study. Here, among the scenic vineyards within site of the Pyrenees, Montaigne had aphorisms of scholarly Horace, tragic Sophocles, introspective Lucretius, and of course the Bible, stenciled in red and green on the bare wooden joists and columns of the library. I like to think of Montaigne’s decorative fragments as a type of architectural adage, or epigraphic interior design. Indeed they served the same function that an epigraph does at the beginning of an essay or a novel, to introduce themes, spur anticipation, to pause for an initial reflection, to possibly connect the author to illustrious predecessors, and perhaps to also react against those same predecessors. But epigraphs are probably theorized about as much as wallpaper is. Indeed the epigraph to a book, if it is thought about at all, is normally simply classified as another bit of paratextual adornment that is largely unimportant. In the Great Chain of Being that constitutes what occupies our literary attention, epigraphs are much lower than titles, perhaps only a bit higher than blurbs and ISBN information. For many, focusing too much on the epigraph would be, if I am to extend my architectural metaphor, as if we stayed in the foyer rather than entering the building. But as an ornate decorative doorknocker can tell us something about the owner of a house, so to can an epigraph tell us something about a book before we cross the threshold of its entrance. Epigraphs (and decorative door-knockers) may be rarely analyzed, but neither are they incidental. Whether we’re considering epigraphs while interpreting a literary text, or we’re utilizing them in our own writing, what we need is a general theory concerning their use. And so I tentatively offer some thoughts on epigraphs here.

First, what exactly is an epigraph (and for that matter what exactly isn’t it)? The epigraph is often confused with the “epitaph” (a commemoration of the dead) or the “epithet” (normally a derogatory statement), though no doubt an enterprising writer can come up with a single example that demonstrates all three terms. From the Greek “to inscribe,” (appropriate to my earlier rhetorical conceit the epigraph has always had a bit of the architectural about it) the etymology of the very word harkens to the representative lines chiseled at the bottom of a sculpture. Someone said those lines in marble before, and so as it is with the epigraph, which is always a quotation, whether from the author of the text it precedes, another writer, or from something completely fabricated. The epigraph is a particular species of reference or allusion, or for the more academically inclined among you a type of “heteroglossia,” or a “dialogic statement.” But what purposes does the epigraph serve, this artifact that is placed like some sort of relic from a Wunderkammer upon the entrance to one’s writing?

More here.