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Collection: INTERAMER
Number: 55
Year: 1997
Author: Harry Beleván
Title: The Heirs of Ariadne

ON THE USES AND ABUSES OF THE EPIGRAPH

With certain books, it is customary for authors to write a prologue, introduction or preface to ease the reader into the text. For others, however, the epigraph has a raison d’être all its own: it is directed to those readers of book jackets who are, unfortunately, multiplying in direct proportion to the torrent of books flooding the market with words that convey more passion than ideas. Ours seems to be an age obsessed with spreading anybody’s word ...

My suspicion is that the prologue is a typically Western custom: foyers and vestibules lead into living rooms the way soups and salads precede the main course. These architectural and culinary entrees, I suspect, are not part of Oriental tradition. Yet it seems to me that with books any introduction is somehow an indirect acknowledgement of failure, for why should one have to explain what should be self evident and speak for itself. Still, there is something to be said for the custom, as it helps the author to orient (a word of symbolic etymology if ever there was one) his readers. An introduction can tell readers how they should interpret the book and is a place to summarize what the book accomplishes so that the reader will not dwell too long upon its shortcomings.

The epigraph, then, is certainly more civilized. A curious custom, it usually appears at the beginning of a work and is intended to sum up everything that comes after it. It is, in that sense, a subtitle of sorts. While this custom is efficient and infinitely tidier and more economical than the endless string of words that an entire prologue may involve (as the reader will no doubt conclude once he has finished this one), it is governed by an unwritten law of moderation and sobriety: an epigraph might well be what literary etiquette dictates... In the final analysis, my (pre)text is about this conundrum and how to resolve it.

My first idea for an epigraph for this work were the following words by a professor whose teachings had a profound influence on my own evolution: “Any value research may have, lies in what it brings to the solution of the problems it raises.” (dixit Leonard Linsky).

What philosophical audacity it would have been to give this study the name I originally intended for it: “Towards an epistemology of the fantastic.” And although I have not abandoned such enterprise and indeed continue to pursue it, for now I have opted to put forward just a few ideas, since the literary genre of fantastic fiction can be studied in isolation from the rest of that universe indiscriminately called irrational, that which constitutes the fantastic universe of man and to which, I am convinced, one can get without having to forsake reason. Hence, one’s efforts need not sink to the level of some form of social entertainment. So while I have clearly compartmentalized my goals, I have done so for purely practical reasons: rather than a phenomenology of the fantastic, I have confined myself to examining its properties within literature. This book, therefore, is an outline of my ideas, first examining fantastic fiction and then attempting to establish some general precepts of the fantastic.

My instincts tell me that this undertaking should begin with that rule of Saint Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, which states: “The first prelude is to compose myself in place and see, through the eyes of the imagination, the length, breadth and depth of hell” (my second epigraph). My instincts also tell me that this undertaking should cover Kirilov’s obsession and Aliosha’s supreme charity, which made Dostoyevsky the great heir of Loyola’s teachings. Lastly, I also sense that all I need find will be the only two other directions possible, thus completing the four cardinal points of a universal geography of the fantastic that can go on ad infinitum so long as man retains one of his most intimate properties: imagination, the original tissue of all human evolution, captured in the word fantastic and achieved only by “those who are governed by caprice and leave necessity behind them” (my third epigraph), an aphorism by Valéry that presupposes an understanding of the fantastic as the one place where one can still dream in terms of philosophy and speak in terms of destiny: unreality, that “ungodly divinity” that Malraux discovered in Donatello’s Gattamelata, when the new man arises, “the self-questioning man” who, like a priest madly trying to exorcise death with his sermons and prayers, is a man who discovers, forgets and rediscovers the fantastic as the ultimate hierarchy of reality.

This essay searches for the dynamics of fantastic expression, first trying to get at that original episteme that is the fantastic per se. Where is the difference? Allow me to recall one of Plato’s Dialogues where Socrates asks Hippias: “What is beauty?” and Hippias answers saying beauty is, for example, an attractive woman, or beauty is gold because with gold one can buy that which is beautiful. Socrates insists and asks him: “But do you see no difference between the questions “what is beauty?” and ‘what is beautiful?,’ to which the dense Hippias replies, “Only the slightest ...”

Students of the fantastic all agree how absurd it would be to look for an objective definition of the term. They also agree, however, that analytical methods can be employed which, like Hippias, will get at the themes or forms of the fantastic, though not its essence proper. We might all call this the fantastic episteme, what anatomy calls the parenchyma of organs, i.e., their very essential and innermost tissue as opposed to the “supporting framework”—as the dictionary puts it in its inimitable bureaucratese—that the forms of cells constitute. This essay, therefore, strives to get at the essence of the fantastic, its causes more than its effects, its basic state rather than the forms it takes, its spirit rather than its letter, in short, the ontos of the literary fantastic. As Jakobson suggested, the object of literary study is not literature as a totality, but rather its literarity (my fourth epigraph). The path I have chosen to reach the fantastic is an analogous one.

Another custom dictates that introductions should include an accounting of debts owed and the thanks that the author wishes to extend. No obligation could weigh more lightly, as it is an acknowledgement that while much has been said about many things, not everything has been said, much less resolved.

Not to dwell too long on these thoughts, I shall simply say that the enormous intellectual debt I owe is amply reflected in my repeated citations from other books and authors that guided me through this adventure (but that just as quickly lost me when they suddenly rounded some corner). So while I may be accused of going to excess with my many citations and references, I would rather err on the side of pedantism than ungraciously purloin ideas that are not mine. (I should note, however, that ironically I feel more indebted to those authors whose analytical thinking served as catalysts for my own intuitions about the fantastic, than to those many other critics and scholars who have devoted their attentions to this subject specifically. The reasons will be quite obvious from the text itself.)

I shall be ever grateful to Augusto Tamayo Vargas for the sensitivity and affection that he brought to his readings and rereadings of this study. His corrections—small notations, but poetry all the same—were, as always, of enormous help. José Guzmán, the star of countless literary gatherings, whose intellectual rigor was a constant challenge to all those whom he honors with his friendship; Beatriz de Moura, whose counsel was in large part responsible for this effort; Mario Vargas Llosa, whose generosity and understanding will always be one step ahead of my acknowledgements and whose friendship alone is, for me, a source of encouragement and inspiration, as he is one of the last of that rare breed of men whom the tyranny of fashion would have us believe are outmoded and in decline: those who still believe in literature. And last—because she knows she is first—my gratitude goes to Cecilia, my partner in this and all my other endeavors, whose quiet understanding is and always will be a treasure worth more than words could ever say. To all of them, to whom I dedicate this book, I ask: Need I remind you of my affection and gratitude?

Some final thoughts, in first person singular before shifting to the less confessional we, to say the only reason I have opted to play the role of essayist instead of confining myself strictly to the realm of fiction, is my own haste to explain to myself the causes of that which I only see the effects. For some time now I have been troubled by the incomplete analysis of the literature of fantastic expression and by the contempt in which it is held, especially in the enigmatic Latin American universe of which I am part, where some regard it as “Europeanized para-literature” (parenthetically, I might add, it is high time to get past the disparaging labels). Those partial analyses and that contempt have been and continue to be my greatest inducement to complete this first chapter, albeit claiming, to be sure, what Baudelaire called the inherent right to contradict oneself. Accordingly, this is an attempt to organize my thoughts, and its only redeeming virtue might well be in this intention. I ask only one thing: that the reader try to understand that my frequent neologisms, redundancies and alliterations are out of my desire to penetrate the at times impenetrable epidermis of language which cannot be avoided in a critical analysis of this kind. (Perhaps my greatest concern has been to use words for the meaning that they carry, and not—as the farce so much in vogue suggests—for the effect they produce ...)

I shall conclude with another Linsky axiom which, while it constitutes yet another epigraph for this book, is something of a defense as well: “A theory beyond criticism has never been proposed and never will.” And so I shall regard challenges, rebuttals and refutations as the finest compliment.

Harry Belevan
Brussels, July 1974