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Home News by Category Critical Analysis Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way - Anthony Burgess Epigraph Source

Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way - Anthony Burgess Epigraph Source

A couple of days ago Scott David Herman (@erasing) posted a great little piece to wallace-l about the source of the Anthony Burgess epigraph for David Foster Wallace's story/novella (and one of my very favourite Wallace shorts), Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (from the Girl with Curious Hair collection).

I've reproduced the post below with Scott's permission. Thanks, Scott!

If anyone's interested, I recently dug up the source of the Anthony Burgess quote that Wallace used as the first epigraph to "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way":

"As we are all solipsists, and all die, the world dies with us. Only very minor literature aims at apocalypse." -- Anthony Burgess

I was surprised to find that this is kind of a misquote, or at least it's an alteration -- maybe deliberate, maybe not. There are two issues:

  1. The epigraph's two sentences aren't adjacent in Burgess's original piece. In fact they're almost antipodal from each other.
  2. The second sentence changes Burgess's wording a bit.

The original piece is "The apocalypse and after", a book review Burgess wrote for the March 18, 1983 issue of the Times Literary Supplement. He was reviewing an academic book entitled Terminal Visions: The Literature of Last Things by W. Warren Wagar (what a name) and musing generally about end-of-the-world literature. Burgess also included the review in his 1986 essay collection Homage to QWERT YUIOP, under the title "Endtime" (and its text appears to be unchanged, from what I can see on Google Books).

The first sentence of the epigraph is the second sentence of Burgess's opening paragraph:

We have had the end of the world with us ever since the world began, or nearly. As we are all solipsists, and all die, the world dies with us. Of course, we suspect that our relicts are going to live on, though we have no proof of it, and there is a possibility, again unprovable, that the sun will heartlessly rise the morning after we have become disposable morphology. Perhaps it is rage at the prospect of our ends that makes us want to extrapolate them onto the swirl of phenomena outside.

The unaltered version of the second sentence appears nearly 2000 words later, as the last sentence of the piece:

And if H.G. Wells emerges in this survey as the only giant in a genre which he virtually invented, it is, almost in spite of himself, because he was interestingly ambiguous, which few of his successors are, and because he dealt in the minutiae of human experience. The man in "The War of the Worlds" who, facing the probable endtime, mourns the loss of tinned salmon with vinegar remains more memorable than the Martian death-rays. Only very minor literature dares to aim at apocalypse.

(I do like that "dares to aim at" rather than "aims at"...)

I guess either Wallace wrote down the lines from memory and misremembered them, or he was pulling some sort of Reality-Hunger-ish remix of Burgess's words in order to generate the epigraph he preferred. Or both -- i.e. deliberately combining non-adjacent sentences without an ellipsis, and misremembering the wording of one of them?

If anyone wants to read the whole Burgess piece, I've got a PDF of it here.

PS: I should probably confess that it was all the tongue-in-cheek Mayan apocalypse stuff from last month that reminded me of Wallace's epigraph and spurred me to look it up.


Scott David Herman (@erasing) - Jan 2013


Last Updated on Sunday, 06 January 2013 22:31  

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