Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Weird Death of the Literary Allusion

In a very good essay called The Obscurity of the Poet, Randall Jarrell bemoaned the fact that America no longer had any shared literary reference points. Flipping through old poetry, he is amazed at how many allusions -- to mythology, history, the Bible -- our ancestors "were expected to recognize--and did recognize."

Well, we can question who exactly he meant by "our ancestors," but it is clear enough what he's trying to say, and also that the situation is only getting worse. Today, even in a room with people sporting all sorts of degrees, there is barely any literary allusion one can make in full confidence of being understood. Off the top of my head, I can think of a handful of Shakespearean characters, a few people in the Bible, Don Quixote, and maybe Robinson Crusoe; and, as far as actual language goes, a few American political documents and speeches. One can make no end of references to songs and celebrities and SNL sketches, but they have a shelf life of about a month. Some iconic movies are probably all that remain of a universal and lasting cultural tradition.

I have especially noticed this lack of shared American reference points because Indians (at least Hindus) very much still have a common culture. There are hundreds of stories that I would say pretty much every Indian, regardless of level of education or piety, knows by heart, because these stories are continually retold in every Indian art form from the television serial to classical dance. And they crop up continually in conversation to illustrate points. My father quite casually compared himself to Abhimanyu while negotiating a tricky merge on the highway.

What is the point of allusions? They rarely save much space on the page. My father could have said that he felt hemmed-in and made largely the same point. But there is a range of associations that comes with these old stories; they give your speech an emotional charge that a simple description wouldn't have -- I immediately pictured the swirl of threatening soldiers from the story, for example -- and they also connect you, even if ironically, to the history of the human race; you realize that you are acting out dramas that have appeared again and again over hundreds of years, that you a part of a tradition instead of an entirely free agent.

But then again, maybe you're just being pretentious. There's always that possibility. And this is the usual response one gets if one drops one of these nuggets. Stop showing off. I remember being floored when Sidney Blumenthal, during the Monica Lewinsky hearings, mentioned that Clinton had compared himself to Rubashov. Can you imagine him ever making such a reference in a public speech, despite the fact that he is obviously a man of rather astonishing erudition? How many votes would it have cost him?

Literary allusions are still occasionally sighted, but they have undergone a strange transformation that, I predict, is a sign of their imminent demise. I read two articles recently that demonstrated their new form. Here is a quote from the first one, from Salon:
Simply to acquire a working familiarity with the theories that have been advanced to explain the fall of the Roman empire -- Murphy notes that a German historian has listed 210 of them -- is a massive undertaking; to advance an original thesis is the work of decades; to compare Rome to America could occupy a Casaubon -- the pedant who searches in vain for a "Key to All Mythologies" in George Eliot's "Middlemarch" -- for several lifetimes.
And here is one from a New York Times review:
At times, he is rather reminiscent of Dickens’s Mrs. Jellyby in “Bleak House,” “a lady of very remarkable strength of character, who ... has devoted herself to an extensive variety of public subjects, at various times, and is at present (until something else attracts her) devoted to the subject of Africa; with a view to the general cultivation of the coffee berry — and the natives.”
One sees this again and again. Every time an allusion pops up in an American newspaper, it is followed immediately by an explanation for those not in the know, so as to avoid seeming pretentious. The interesting thing is that these explanations, in addition to being distracting, render the allusions entirely unnecessary. Instead of your mind opening up into the thing alluded to, it is shut into the thumbnail description provided; and people who did not spot the allusion in the first place get little out of the explanation.

After this little dance is completed, in fact, it becomes clear that the allusions are there for absolutely no reason other than to indicate that the author is familiar with them; one becomes entirely pretentious in trying to avoid being a little pretentious. For example, the first sentence could easily say "occupy a pedant for several lifetimes" and actually be more accurate; all Kamiya is trying to say is that that many connections can be made on the subject, not that the project is (like Casaubon's) fundamentally misguided. And in the New York Times review, the long quote, necessary to indicate who Mrs. Jellyby is, actually misrepresents Ferguson's point, which is that Sachs is occasionally unrealistic and messianic; the quote implies, instead, that Sachs is a dilettante ("until something else attracts her"), ready to move on to another cause at the first opportunity.

These attempts to explain take away the ambiguity that the simple references might have had (which would have forced the reader to think about them and make her own, potentially interesting connections) and instead lead both authors to mess up their own arguments. All of this has, at its root, the assumption that there is nothing a modern reader is more disgusted by than a second of incomprehension. Obviously, clarity is a fine thing, but I've always been thankful for the occasional moment of incomprehension, even from a pedant, since it's a useful spur to further education.

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