By Clover Carroll
Which political candidate will meet his/her Waterloo in November?
Will the upcoming debates reveal that one of them has an Achilles’ heel? Or will the debates simply open a Pandora’s box of problems facing our country and the world? Whether to watch the debates at all presents a catch-22 situation: watching them will make you sick from the negativity; skipping them will make you miss out on the zingers. The election’s outcome is difficult to predict, since both candidates so often appear quixotic.
Don’t worry, this column will not wade into the quagmire of presidential politics! I simply used these examples to demonstrate the power—and prevalence—of literary allusion. Although my first paragraph was peppered with enigmatic references to unidentified literary works and/or historical events, you probably understood exactly what I meant. Our shared education in western civilization’s history and literature –also known as cultural literacy—reminded you that Napoleon’s 1815 military loss to British and Prussian forces represents any major competitive loss, that legendary Greek hero Achilles’ only physical weakness led to his death by a poisoned arrow aimed there, that in Greek mythology the first human woman unleashed all known evils upon humanity when she opened the box (originally a jar) given her by Zeus, and that Cervantes’ memorable antihero, Don Quixote, is exceedingly idealistic, impulsive, and prone to delusion. In Joseph Heller’s novel of the same name, World War II bombardier Yossarian names his unresolvable predicament a catch-22: if he is declared insane, he can be excused from flying endless life-threatening missions; but completing an application to be excused is considered proof of his sanity. Even if you don’t remember the details of these stories or haven’t actually read the Odyssey (8th c. B.C.), Don Quixote (1615), or Catch-22 (1961), you understand the symbolism implied by these brief mentions; and if you have read them, my text becomes that much richer and more meaningful.
This kind of indirect reference to an historical event, person, or literary work, is known as an allusion. Allusion is different from either a direct, cited reference or a general source of inspiration; it is a specific quotation, name, or location given without explanation, which the author expects the reader to recognize. But many allusions are missed. Imagine my surprise to learn that J.D. Salinger’s Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters (1963)—one of his many books I read and enjoyed in my teenage years—takes its title from a poem by Sappho, the Greek poet born in the 7th century B.C. whom the Greeks called “the tenth muse.” This phrase was used at the building of a wedding canopy (and also had erotic overtones), appropriate to a novel about Seymour Glass’ aborted wedding. I learned this surprising nugget while reading Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter (2003) by Thomas Cahill, the title of which itself contains an allusion to Homer’s Iliad.
Many titles of classic books are allusions, casting a mood over the work even before the first page, and deepening our understanding of its themes after the last. William Faulkner favored allusive titles; for example The Sound and the Fury (1929) comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (c. 1623), when, near the end of the play (and of Macbeth’s life), he reflects:
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,
One of Faulkner’s narrators is Benjy, whom the other characters view as an idiot but who often sees more of the truth than they do; but all the striving in the book comes to nothing. Stephen Ambrose’s title Band of Brothers (1992) also comes from Shakespeare, quoting Henry V’s brave speech before the Battle of Agincourt. Both Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck also rely on allusive titles to deepen our understanding of their novels. For Whom the Bell Tolls is an allusion to John Donne’s famous Meditation XVII, “No man is an island” (1624), in keeping with the brutality of war depicted in the book. Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, from a line in Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (1862), suggests that God is not pleased with the treatment of migrant workers displaced by the Dust Bowl. These references add another dimension to the works they identify.
Poetry has been another rich source for book titles. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (1934) comes from John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” which magnifies Dick Diver’s emotional pain and alcoholism:
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
O for a beaker full of the warm South,…
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim.
Robert Penn Warren’s title All the King’s Men (1946), alluding to the whimsical Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme, casts a shadow of impending destruction over his story of the downfall of Willie Stark, believed to be based on 1930s Louisiana political kingpin Huey Long. When B.F. Skinner named his novel envisioning the application of his behavioral psychology theories to a human community Walden Two (1948), he evoked all of the utopian energy of Henry David Thoreau’s own 19th century experiment, when he lived simply in a hut on Walden Pond. I could go on and on! For more examples, visit www.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_book_titles_taken_from_literature
Allusion is an especially powerful literary device because it allows an author or speaker to introduce complex ideas and emotions into a text with great concision. An entire set of connotations, moral considerations, foreshadowings, or implications is imported into the new work by a brief mention of a past story, person, or event. It allows a poet, novelist, songwriter, or filmmaker to borrow the verbal beauty and emotional depth of his/her literary ancestors, creating an invisible link of appreciation and thematic resonance. The most common sources of allusion, Greek mythology and the Bible, can also add a supernatural or moral dimension to the work. One of the most famous first lines in all of literature, “Call me Ishmael,” which opens Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), alludes to the Ishmael of Genesis (and of the Qu’ran as well), who with his mother Hagar is banished into the desert by Abraham after his wife Sarah gives birth to her own son, Isaac. Thus from the outset, we associate Melville’s narrator with exiles and outcasts, but also with innocent victims and unlikely survivors (he is the only crewmember to survive Ahab’s maniacal pursuit of the white whale).
These echoes of beautiful language through time underline the importance of reading the classics in order to become truly educated. In addition to literature, allusions abound in song and the visual arts. Our works of art create a rich tapestry of interwoven strands from earlier works, lives, and events that combine to create beauty and meaning while celebrating our artistic legacy.
Recognizing and understanding allusions are the keys to fully appreciating this living connection between authors and readers that spans many places and ages.