Saturday, September 18, 2010

Two Minutes Older: Consider the Footnote

The first time I was properly introduced to a footnote, I was studying Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the Arden edition. It wasn’t a thing you could ignore, because on most pages the footnotes occupied more than half the page, with scholarly references, asides on interpolations and interpretations. Reading Shakespeare that way was somewhat like reading with five books open at the same time.

Which, when you come to think of it, is exactly what reading a footnote is like: it’s an interruption but a necessary one. You’re moving along the page at a good clip and suddenly there’s a number or a symbol flagging you down for speeding and, like a slightly guilty but otherwise obedient driver, you stop to listen.

Or, if you’re like me, you might think of footnotes as half-open doors in which people are having very interesting conversations that you can’t help wanting to hear. It’s a brief and very illuminating pause on your journey.

All of which is to say that footnotes needn’t be the dry-as-dust academic device most of us think they are. Consider the number of fiction writers who have made an art form of footnotes:

J.G. Ballard’s ­­­­­­­­­­­­Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown is a book where the ‘main’ text is just one sentence long. But every word of that sentence has a footnote, with each note incrementally telling a complex story. Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire is a single poem but the main narrative is told in the footnotes. It’s like reading Shakespeare in the Arden editions, only the footnotes are also part of the text and not merely a commentary on it.

In Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Suzanna Clarke uses footnotes to provide both a history of magic and a sense that the fantastic events in the book are ‘fact’, in much the same way that someone today might make a colour photo black-and-white, as shorthand for something that is ‘authentic’ or about the past. In all these cases, both author and reader are complicit in the knowledge that the footnote, despite its claims to being ‘fact’, and an authoritative interruption, is also fiction.

Jasper Fforde takes this knowledge one step further in his Thursday Next books, where the characters in the book (who can enter and leave different fictional works) communicate with each other via a device called the footnoterphone – the urgent notes that these agents leave for each other appear as footnotes in whatever book they happen to be at that time.

If all of that sounds too complicated wait till we get to David Foster Wallace who made the footnote his own unique device*. He didn’t use footnotes in the cute way that Fforde or Terry Pratchett (in the Discworld books) do. For him, the footnote was a necessary life-line, a way to keep track of the process of thought itself, and the many implications of writing a single sentence. He footnoted his footnotes (and endnotes) and often made them into long digressions that were almost separate mini-essays.

One curious and interesting footnote I’ve recently seen is in a poem by Vivek Narayanan. The footnote appears in the last stanza** of the poem – against the last word, actually – and looks like prose but isn’t.

I’d like to consider the footnote in a different way entirely: in the poem, as in all the other instances, the footnote is a visual and non-linear device. What would its analogue be in other art forms?

Cinema, music, theatre, all being linear, can’t accommodate footnotes (unless they’re in the form of a director’s commentary found as extras on DVDs). What about paintings, though – could they have footnotes? What would they look like? What about fashion or food? Can clothes and cakes be footnoted?

I find all these possibilities very exciting and wish someone would explore them. I look forward to new and creative uses of the device. In effect, you could say, I have a footnote fetish.


*DFW died two years ago this month. He committed suicide by hanging himself. His suicide note might be read as a perfectly literal, perfectly macabre visualisation of the word.

**I could wish that it had not been so continuous with the poem itself but that’s just me.

(An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express. This week they've put my column at the bottom of the page. Heh.)


While we're on the subject of DFW, I recently read a review he wrote of an anthology of prose poetry [pdf]. In it, he calculates the square root of the book's ISBN. No, really. Plus, he's cheated his 1,000 word review most ingeniously. I wish the editors of books pages in newspapers and journals here would allow this sort of thing.


Aditi said...

Borges does it too.

And why don't you explore them?

Anonymous said...

Another novel that majorly uses footnotes: "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" by Junot Diaz.

Cheshire Cat said...

Our lives are footnotes to infinite space.

km said...

Cinema, music, theatre, all being linear, can’t accommodate footnotes

If you haven't seen the Swan Lake with footnotes, you haven't seen nothing.

Hari Batti said...

I like footnotes in academic texts; they are about credibility. I generally don't like footnotes in poetry (aside from the one you cited--I'll go read that now); in a poem, I count on the voice for the credibility. And I count on the readers to use google. I use footnotes all the time; they are hyperlinks. Mostly for credibility; when I'm really doing well, for depth.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

A book that has 20 footnotes in the foreword and none (well, one) elsewhere: P G Wodehouse's "Over Seventy." (The foreword is devoted to the subject of footnotes.)

I've always viewed them as a scholarly, rather than artistic, device. In fact, recognising their potential for interruption, I've seen many books that instead use "notes" at the back, with references by page numbers and sentence fragments: you don't get what PGW calls "those obscene little fly-specks scattered about all over the page", but if you want to know the source for a statement, you look up the page number in the Notes section.

The widespread literary use you talk about was enlightening.

The online version would be hyperlinks (or xkcd's mouseovers). I can imagine movie annotation projects in the future where you use HTML5 features to insert commentary while the movie plays (and of course you can stop the movie whenever you like). Or perhaps it already happens.

Space Bar said...

Aditi: I frequently do, when I offer up the burn portions of food as an ironic commentary on my cooking. Nobody seems to get it, though.

Aditi/Anon: There are oodles of folks who use fns most creatively. At one point, I breifly considered just making a list and leaving it at that.

Cat: Indeed.

km: I haven't seen nothing. (I'd like to see Margaret say that to Dennis).

HB: Oh footnotes are a good thing. Much necessary.

Rahul: I don't remember that! I've read that book (I think; I may be confusing it with Performing Fleas).

So jut last night I saw a Dastangoi performance (at last!) and we were told that the performers used to sometimes be stopped in the middle of some action so that the other dastango could start describing something in great detail, sometimes with very funny consequences.