A Note on Epigraphs
Epigraphs help insert books into a larger literary conversation
I’ve only personally seen epigraphs in books that are attempting to be literary. Maybe that’s literary snobbery, after all some books that claim to be “literary” are little more than the author preaching through flimsily constructed mouthpieces (I’m looking at you Atlas Shrugged). However, despite their various flaws I think literary books do all attempt to engage with a larger set of ideas. Which is, to quote GRRM out of context “is their great glory and their great tragedy.” All literary books, without strong enough characters or plot, run the risk of turning out like Atlas Shrugged.
Epigraphs are a way to begin this discourse by citing and suggesting an expansion or a response to the ideas put forth in previous work. Citing your sources, as you will. Epigraphs suggest that the author has done their due diligence and read widely, and usually the book is better for it (guess which book does not have an epigraph :) ). Oftentimes however, the epigraph kind of gives away the chase: it can make the point of the book VERY apparent, although perhaps I am speaking with reread bias. Let’s take a look at a couple examples.
The celestial spheres endlessly resound.
But an instant is invincible in memory.
It comes back in the middle of the night. Who are those holding torches
So that what is long past occurs in full light
This is an epigraph from Guy Gavriel Kay’s newest book A Brightness Long Ago. The text of the epigraph itself is from a Czesław Miłosz poem called “The Master”. The poem is about an old musician/composer remembering some sinful event from his past, and remarking on how clear it seems and how he is glad he remembers in it. In A Brightness Long Ago, the main character Danino is also stuck in the mists of the past. He is old, serving on the council in Seressa (analog of Venice) as an important noble, but it is this event from his youth, the meeting of two mercenary leaders who engage in a struggle that ends up being pointless, is the thing he remembers. This epigraphs tells us that it is this act of memory that we should be focusing on: the how he remembers, and the why, not the what.
TRIPITAKA: Monkey, how far is it to the Western Heaven, the abode of Buddha?
WU-KONG: You can walk from the time of your youth till the time you grow old, and after that, till you become young again; and even after going through such a cycle a thousand times, you may still find it difficult to reach the place where you want to go. But when you perceive, by the resoluteness of your will, the Buddha-nature in all things, and when every one of your thoughts goes back to that fountain in your memory, that will be the time you arrive at Spirit Mountain.
-The Journey to the West
This is an epigraph from Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt. The epigraph is from the 16th century Ming Chinese novel The Journey to the West. The former tells the tale of an alternate history in which the Black Plague wiped out the entire population of Europe. The latter is a Chinese folktale chronicling the seeking of enlightenment by pilgrims traveling the Western regions of China (i.e. Northern India and Central Asia). Robinson’s novel focuses on two things: a world and a group of reincarnating individuals, both of which seek to come to some kind of balance. In the bardo, a limbo-like state between incarnations, the characters find themselves and the world in a state of anarchy. China is at first too powerful, then the Arab states; the cycle repeats. The reincarnated characters, each delineated by the starting letter of their name, also swing back and forth on the pendulum. From coward to scientist, hero to murderer. It is only in the chapter entitled “Window Kang”, in which the title character reflects on the best years of her life being those of “rice and salt” (the ordinary, hectic child-filled years of her life), in which enlightenment begins to be achieved.
…And I, who claim to know so much more, isn’t it possible that even I have missed the very spring within the spring?
“Some say that we shall never know, and that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer’s day, and some say, to the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God.”
-Thorton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey
And now finally Ghostwritten. The central event of the novel from which the epigraph is drawn from, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, is a bridge collapsing in Lima, Peru, killing seven people. Brother Juniper, a local monk, takes it upon himself to find out these people are and perhaps see the workings of the hand of God in their deaths.
Ghostwritten also focuses on the question of the existence of the hand of God. In some ways Mitchell comes to the same conclusion as Wilder. So many of the characters make the decisions they make because they love something or someone. Yet like all effective authors, Mitchell goes beyond merely affirming the ideas espoused by the epigraph. First of all there are the non-corporeals, an invisible force that influences our decisions in inexplicable ways. Then, more importantly, the central narrative thread is a train hurtling towards the creation of the super intelligent AI, “Zookeeper”, and the destruction of the human race by a comet. In Ghostwritten we are shown many gods: some that view human beings as mere distractions to their larger purpose (chance, the noncorporia, etc.); others that make it their work to know all the workings of the human soul (Zookeeper and the author). Perhaps the gods are not one or the other; untroubled or obsessive, with regards to human affairs, but both.