Sunday, September 25, 2016



Footnote: An event of lesser importance than some larger event to which it is related.

Or perhaps: An annoying detail that must be referred to for honesty's sake.

Or even: A matter of debatable interest that should not detract from the primary focus of the text.


I started thinking of footnotes a few years back. I was researching the life of the French painter Maurice Utrillo, whose existence seem to have been an endless series of footnotes. Shortly after that a friend asked me to read and edit her master's thesis which was, as it should be, festooned with the things. In fact, if I’d counted the lines, I’m reasonably certain there might have been more space devoted to the footnotes than to the subject at hand.

It struck me then that the majority of our existence is spent being footnotes in other people's lives.

We are brief romances vaguely remembered, one or two pleasant rainy afternoons in a month of doldrums. We are the bringers of gifts that adorn a coffee table but will end their lives in someone else’s yard sale. We are a meal with a particularly good dessert or bottle of wine, a conversation that left something behind but didn’t change a belief.

We expand a lot of energy being footnotes, because really, each and every footnote would like the opportunity to become a full book, a meaningful discussion that alters a consciousness, a something that really matters. But, by their very definition and every letter in their spelling, footnotes are lesser creations, afterthoughts there to amplify a greater truth. And a footnote, even if it has every right to ask, why am I here? will not necessarily get an answer. It simply is there.

A footnote cannot exist without a more important text, but the reverse is not true and sometimes preferable. Footnotes may be annoying ankle-biters, but were they alive and truly breathing, they would tell you the veracity of entire manuscripts hinge on their very existence. Footnotes, no matter how brief, are very important in their own minds, and they echo the old saw: I may not be much, but I'm all I think about. They occasionally add a bit of excitement, a tint of the forbidden, something secret with which we may have gotten away. They can be clandestine, joyfully mysterious, even if there's an uneasy relationship between the footnotes and the writing they complement. And of course, they can be sad: there is something tragically complete and finite about them. Footnotes do not have footnotes of their own. They stand alone in much smaller print and thus much harder to see than the texts they adorn.

As footnotes, we may have had a time of greater importance, a moment when we thought we lit up the sky, but most of us are as ephemeral as fireworks. We are remembered faintly, adjuncts to other events, other feelings and moments in time that become vaguer as memories either fade or are replaced.

But here, perhaps, is a radiant side: while they are happening, in the moment, footnotes can appear to be life-changing epiphanies. They may have an intensity that dims only after the page is turned, when reality becomes, well, reality. For many, life without footnotes would be spiceless and boring.

Next week I'll write about semi-colons.

No. I won't.


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