Thursday, October 28, 2010

Epigrams: From Comic Strips to Montaigne

I love epigrams, those often small obtuse statements of forced weight and thematic issues that authors use to introduce their own works.  They are the author's way of hitting their readers over their heads with the literary two by four as they scream: Do ya get it?!?  As an example, for his novel Firestarter, Stephen King uses the first line of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451: "It was a pleasure to burn."  One of the best opening lines for a novel, I think.  You just know Bradbury used that during his pitch session.  As another example, I shamelessly offer my use of comic strips to introduce my novel, Cursing the Darkness, the epigrams, prologue and first chapter of which you can find here.  Here, if you get what the monk is saying to Hagar the Horrible, you get the essence of Foster's psyche, not too far from Ahab's, in its own way, a fist clenched in hateful rebellion against the skies.

So, in that vein, today's entry starts what I hope will be a continuing series of the occasional epigram, introduced and quickly pondered.  These may or may not be famous snippets of genius; though many are very well-known, others are just favorites of mine, for reasons not always literary, but hopefully always interesting.  For every last stanza of a famous Frost poem, for example, there may be a line from Lorrie Moore, or a quote from Charles Manson.  Whatever floats my boat at the time, don't you know.  What tickles my fancy from my collection of epigrams right now is:

Writing does not cause misery, it is born of misery.--Montaigne

Rather apt for this discussion, wouldn't you say?  Stephen King also grabbed this one for his novel, Misery.  Very fitting for his own work.  A true statement, from what I've seen and studied.  In my masters class right now, it has been often remarked by the professor that 20th Century literature--specifically for this class, the short story--is borne of the writer's innate misery, whether it be loneliness, isolation, parental issues, alcoholism (another form of self-expressed misery), lousy relationships (yet another), or any thousands of other expressions of self-torment.  

We write to connect, I believe, and often that connection is a tenuous arm outstretched to an uncaring (or so it seems) society, parent, or universe.  Maybe that's the most obvious difference between writing and what some, with a bit of elitism, call literature.  Literature is an open hand that says Pull me up, but be careful that I don't instead just grab onto you and pull you down with me.  Writing, like The Da Vinci Code, let's say, is still a connection, but it's an open hand that says I hope you find this as interesting as I do, so we can connect, share a passion, and so you can make me a millionaire.  Both equally worthy, I should say, and point out that I have read the latter and find it maybe the exemplar of its type, the escapist brain candy.  And Montaigne's quote still holds: Dan Brown, one could say, reaches out to connect to his readers, the misery possibly caused by the fact that he couldn't connect his passion for (extreme revisionist) history with his family or loved ones, so he had to write them down into opaque cliffhangers and share them with us.

It's the weight of the shared or implied misery that separates writing from literature.  The ponderous, perhaps profound misery of the writer is the bridge that makes some writing literary.  There's a solid whiff of pretentiousness in that.  But that doesn't make it not so.

Besides: Of all the writers who you know, are any one of them truly happy? 

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