Epigraphic Ephemera

Photo credit: Napoleon Sarony, via Wikimedia Commons

“We live in an age when unnecessary things are our only necessities.” ― Oscar Wilde

In certain kinds of books, epigraphs are popular.  In fact, I’m currently reading a book where every part of every chapter begins and ends with an epigram.  It starts to taste like an epigram cracker after a while.  Don’t get me wrong, every great once in a while there’s a quote that just illustrates your point in a chapter so pithily that you can’t resist.   Still, epigraphs ought to come with a warning label.  Working in publishing one of the first things I learned is that unlike quotes in the body of a text, an epigraph that’s covered by copyright isn’t considered “fair use.”  It’s an ornament, an embellishment.  If you want to use one, you need to get permission from the rights holder.  (Unless it’s in the public domain.)

While the idea of copyright itself isn’t that complicated—the creator of intellectual property is the owner of said property—copyright laws can be complex.  Publishers discourage the use of epigraphs (which only academics seem to use any more) because of permissions complications.  You see, when you publish a book (or article) you’re trading your copyright for whatever emoluments the publisher or the journal has to offer.  Most publishers, no matter how noble, are businesses.  There are costs with producing books.  If someone wants to reuse part of a another book—apart from the standard academic quote—they must have permission to do so.  Epigraph permissions can really slow a book down.  And make it expensive.

Reading is an involved process.  We human beings are seldom given such direct access to the interior lives of others.  Think about it—books are private thoughts made public.  Sometimes writers like to show that others have been thinking along similar lines, especially if what they have to say challenges convention.  Thus the epigraph.  The quotable quote.  But did you have permission to take that?  I like poetry.  It takes longer to read than prose, but it says so much in so few words.  That means using poetry in epigraphs becomes a nightmare.  Rights holders often charge by the percentage of the poem used.  And once a book becomes e book there no stopping the spread of its epigraphs used so carefully by permission.  Indeed, e-books are easily pirated, increasing the concerns of those who sell other’s thoughts for a living.  Before sticking that clever quote at the start of your chapter, it’s worth pondering the epigraph above (in the public domain, of course).


EarnestI suspect, like most people, I missed quite a few classics in school. This was the ’70’s when new and experimental were still the rage. One of the must-reads I missed was Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. As usual when approaching books like this, I’m delighted at the sheer number of famous lines I’ve repeatedly heard, whispering to myself, “So that’s where that comes from!” as I go. Since I expect you, my cultured reader, have walked on the Wilde side, I need not provide any of these lines here. I won’t even have to go over the plot. The edition I read, however, contained lines and scenes that did not make it into the canonical version. As an erstwhile writer, I know that final versions seldom resemble those that felt so magical at their penning. Cuts must be made. Editors must be satisfied. And so goes the life of the writer.

It was one of these cut lines that caught my eye. With Wilde’s keen wit, the clergy, represented by Dr. Chasuble. (For those liturgically challenged readers, a chasuble is a priestly vestment in the Roman and Anglican traditions.) In an unfortunately stricken scene the minister says, “I am compelled, like most of my brother clergy, to treat scientific subjects from the point of view of sentiment. But that is more impressive I think. Accurate knowledge is out of place in a pulpit. It is secular.” Accurate knowledge is secular. That thought stayed with me long after reading the out-takes and deleted scenes of the play. Those that remain contain priceless comments about the church and the dangers of christenings. This particular gem, from the cutting room floor, would be hilarious were it not so often true. It explains, for example, creationism.

It’s a fair wager that science remains, even today, a subject that flummoxes clergy and laity alike. It is the new revelation, after all. No truth cannot be reduced to numbers. Even my scribbling this post is mere electro-chemical signals jumping synapses like electro-chemical salmon dying to spawn. We’ve simply substituted one clergy for another. When’s the last time a preacher has been cited as an authority on anything? What with televangelists setting the bar (for anything we see on the media is necessarily representative), it stands to reason that no real intelligence lies here. By default we nod toward those who hold the paten and chalice of empirical evidence. As it is now, but never was, and shall be forever, amen. Who’s being earnest now?

The Importance of Being Honest

JohnGrayContinuing our quest to be a family out of sync with the modern world, we used part of our free day in Edinburgh to take the Book Lover’s Tour. Edinburgh has a long literary history that includes such writers as Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, J. M. Barrie, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A more recent star in that constellation is J. K. Rowling. The tour we took was led by the redoubtable Allan Foster, a geology student turned literary psychopomp. Although not associated personally with Edinburgh, Oscar Wilde had an unusual connection that made for an interesting tale. One of his male lovers, John Gray (a model for the eponymous Dorian) eventually became a Catholic priest, and lover of a wealthy Russian poet, Marc-André Raffalovich. When the Gray was assigned to St. Patrick’s in Edinburgh, Raffalovich was appalled at the state of the building and offered to finance a new church with the provision that his friend be appointed priest in charge. Thus the new building came to be and still stands on Cowgate.

Of course, nowhere is the priest or his lover, benefactor of the parish, mentioned in the church literature. Morality often parades as self-righteousness. Secret lives are not restricted to the clergy, of course. The fact is that people everywhere are human, and people are complex. So complex that we will sometimes carry on a charade to ensure religious respectability, to the point of having political candidates endorsed by clergy for issues that run counter to the very sources of their funding. Righteousness can be very costly, but self-righteousness comes cheap. Religious systems that demand standards that they can’t uphold either collapse or excel in duplicity.

When the tour was over, we walked by St. Patrick’s church. I wondered how many of the patrons knew the history of the lovely building they use for worship. Should they take a literary tour and learn the background of the church, would it make any difference? Ethics can be a matter of convenience, particularly when it is a matter of sexual propriety. Somebody else’s sexual propriety, that is. The real business of religion should be helping to improve authentic lives. Today it has often become the business of supporting the political system that bankrolls the special interests nearest to one’s heart. And reading, especially of unapproved materials, only gets in the way.