It’s All Just an Allusion

Allusions are tricky. On the one hand, an allusion can be an effective way of adding meaning to a poem or a story; on the other hand, an allusion can be a marker of a kind of cultural snobbery. An allusion assumes that the reader knows the reference, that the reader is in the know. There was a time when most readers probably knew at least the Bible and the plays of Shakespeare. I’m not sure that’s true today. When William Faulkner wrote The Sound and the Fury he probably expected his readers to remember the passage from Macbeth: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” (Macbeth 5.5.23–27). When Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World, he probably expected his readers to remember the passage from The Tempest: “O wonder! / How many goodly creatures are there here! / How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, / That has such people in’t” (The Tempest 5.1.203–06).

But why the Bible and Shakespeare? When Ken Kesey wrote Sometimes a Great Notion, did he expect his readers to know Leadbelly’s song Goodnight, Irene: “Sometimes I live in the country, / Sometimes I live in town, / Sometimes I take a great notion, Lord, / To jump in the river and drown”? Leadbelly is not a canonical author, but a lot of people have heard Goodnight, Irene. Maybe Leadbelly is canonical, but according to a different canon. Who gets to decide what the canon is and what readers should read?

Allusions seem to select certain readers and exclude others. Huxley selects readers who have read The Tempest and Kesey selects readers who have heard Goodnight, Irene. An allusion also asks the reader to do some work. The reader of The Sound and the Fury has to complete the reference: “a tale told by an idiot”. The reader of Sometimes a Great Notion has to complete the reference: “to jump in the river and drown”. Then the reader has to decide what to make of these references. My feeling, for what it’s worth, is that both the Sound and the Fury and Sometimes a Great Notion are effective allusions; they add some depth of meaning to the story, though exactly how isn’t easy to say. Other allusions just seem to take advantage of a verbal similarity. I’m not convinced that the allusion in Brave New World adds much. Huxley was fond of allusive titles: Eyeless in Gaza is taken from Milton’s Samson Agonistes; Antic Hay comes from Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II; After Many a Summer Dies the Swan is taken from Tennyson’s poem Tithonus; and Time Must Have a Stop is another Shakespearean reference, this time to Henry IV, Part 1. Are these markers of a claim to belong to the great tradition of English literature?

Allusions can take many forms and have many meanings. At the very beginning of Iris Murdoch’s novel The Green Knight we meet a dog named Anax. As it happens, “anax” is the word for “king” in the Greek of the Homeric epics. The prototypical dog name in our culture is “Rex”, which is the Latin word for “king”. I suppose this allusion may be a point of characterization—the person in the novel who named the dog is showing off his erudition. Only a few pages later another character is “thinking about Hannibal’s tactics at the battle of Cannae, and pressing yellow gingko leaves between the pages of her Liddell and Scott”. The standard Greek dictionary was edited by Liddell and Scott (and Jones), so it is often referred to as Liddell and Scott (or LSJ). It comes in three sizes, sometimes called the little Liddell, the middle Liddell, and the big Liddell. The big Liddell is something over 2000 (big) pages, so it would be a good tool for pressing leaves. Murdoch does not explain any of this. Some of her readers will catch the reference, but not all. Just how much does Murdoch expect us to know? Is Murdoch showing off her erudition? Is this allusion another point of characterization? This character is the sort of person to own the big Liddell, but also the sort of person to use it for pressing leaves.

Murdoch seems completely comfortable with the cultural world of her allusions. Other writers are less comfortable, and their discomfort may be part of the point of an allusion. The title of Derek Walcott’s long poem Omeros is a signal—this poem is going to be somehow related to Homer. In the second line of the poem we learn that one of the characters is named Philoctete—a clear reminiscence of the character in the Trojan War stories who was marooned on an island because he had a leg injury that stank. A few pages later we meet a character named Achille. Walcott has changed the spelling of these Greek names to fit his Caribbean characters—Philoctete is not Philoctetes and Achille is not Achilles.

There is more to be said about names in Omeros, but even these two names tell us that Walcott wants his reader to look for connections between his poem and the Homeric epics, and perhaps to the larger tradition of Greek myth. At the beginning of Chapter II we discover that Philoctete has an unhealed and smelly sore on his shin. A few pages later the narrator of the poem, speaking in the first person, calls a lighthouse a Cyclops because its light is like a single eye. In Chapter Three we meet Helen (“The duel of these fishermen / was over a shadow and its name was Helen”) as well as a blind singer. And so on and so on. These allusions are not casual ornaments; they are woven into the essential fabric of the poem.

Homer is not the only epic poet Walcott wants us to have in mind. Here is the very beginning of the poem:

“This is how, one sunrise, we cut down them canoes.”
Philoctete smiles for the tourists, who try taking
his soul with their cameras. “Once wind bring the news

to the laurier-cannelles, their leaves start shaking
the minute the axe of sunlight hit the cedars,
because they could see the axes in our own eyes.

Wind lift the ferns. They sound like the sea that feed us
fishermen all our life, and the ferns nodded, ‘Yes,
the trees have to die.’ So, fists jam in our jacket…

The lines are grouped in threes; the rhyme scheme of the first three lines is ABA (“canoes”, “taking”, “news”) and the B word links to the next set of three lines (“taking”, “shaking”). As the poem continues the rhyme scheme more or less continues, though some of the rhymes are less than identical. Thus “cedars” rhymes with “feed us”, “eyes” rhymes with “yes”, and so on. Moreover, the pattern doesn’t always follow. We might expect six to rhyme with line four, but it doesn’t. The form is a variation of the terza rima Dante used in the Divine Comedy (ABA BCB CDC). Even without a direct verbal allusion to Dante’s epic, the form supplies the allusion. But these allusions point to a problem Walcott faces. To what extent is a black writer from the Caribbean indebted to white European culture, the culture of Homer and Dante? What does that debt amount to, and how should it be paid? Part of the answer, I think, comes in the very deformations of the allusions. I’ll use your names, but I will change them, I’ll use your rhyme scheme, but I’ll make crooked rhymes.

Viet Thanh Nguyen faces a similar problem in the novel The Sympathizer (2015; Pulizer Prize 2016) and makes it part of the theme of the novel. Here are the first three sentences of the book: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.” This opening is clearly an allusion to the opening of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground: “I’m a sick man… I’m a spiteful man. I’m an unattractive man”, and even more to the opening of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; not am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me”.

And here is the beginning of the second paragraph: “The month in question was April, the cruelest month. It was the month in which a war that had run on for a very long time would lose its limbs, as is the way of wars.” The first sentence of this paragraph alludes to one of the most famous lines in twentieth-century literature, the first line of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land—“April is the cruelest month”—which in turn alludes to the first line of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The war in question is the American War in Vietnam, and the fall of Saigon did occur in April 1975; Nguyen did not have to rearrange reality to make his point but he did take advantage of it. There are further allusive references in the novel, direct and indirect—to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now—and brief allusions as well, to Emerson, Hegel, William Blake, and others.

Is Nguyen just showing off? I don’t think so. These allusions raise some of the important questions posed by the novel. Most of the book is in the form of a confession written by the narrator, who is a prisoner in a Vietnamese re-education camp. Later on we learn that the Commandant of the camp criticizes the narrator’s confession partly because of these allusions, which show that the narrator remains too much influenced by Western culture. The narrator lives in two worlds, two traditions. It is not easy to reconcile the demands or the opportunities of the multiple cultural citizenship of our post-colonial world (if it is truly post-colonial). Walcott and Nguyen and many other writers struggle with this problem, and they express this struggle in their allusions

2 thoughts on “It’s All Just an Allusion

  1. This is again so interesting, Matthew. Since your last post on Emic and Etic perspectives I’ve been wondering about inside jokes and in-group cultures, so I’m particularly interested in how those fit in with this discussion of allusions. As usual, you cover a lot of ground. I’m curious about the different levels and ways of being inside and outside of different kinds of allusions. In the Omeros examples, for instance, how does a reader’s relationship to the Western Canon generally, or to Homer or Dante more specifically, affect her way of being “in” on the allusion? Is “getting” the allusion identifying what’s being alluded to and/or identifying what the allusion is doing (if that’s something that can be “identified”)? Are the groups distinguished as in or out of allusions aware of the rules they are following in emic or etic terms?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love the connection you make between allusions and the emic/etic distinction. I’m not sure about awareness. One might think that a person who gets an allusion must be aware of being in the in-group, but maybe not always. If everyone (everyone who is reading anything at all) knows the Bible, then it’s no big deal to be in the in-group, because everyone is, and everyone will get the allusion. You become aware of being in an in-group only when you are aware that other people aren’t, and that’s the same kind of situation which makes a person aware that not everyone has the some phonological system, for instance. Does that make sense? I’m working on further posts continuing the discussion of allusions; I will post the next one in a week or so, I guess.


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