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The quality of allusion is not google

January 15, 2011

Last Saturday, Adam Kirsch, the talented TNR penman, accomplished a rare feat. His cherry-scented byline marked the pages of both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. In the Times piece, he tied the Congressional whitewashing of the Constitution to the latest attempt to give poor old Huck Finn a thorough scrubbing. Upshot: "To believe that American institutions were ever perfect makes it too easy to believe that they are perfect now. Both assumptions, one might say, are sins against the true spirit of the Constitution." Yes, one might very well say that. One might even say "one might say," if one wanted, say, to allude to one's own words as if they were another's.

Which brings us to the Journal column, titled, promisingly, "Literary Allusion in the Age of Google." Here, one not only might but must say, Kirsch goes agley.

The piece begins well, as things that go agley so often do. Kirsch describes how the art of allusion has waned along with the reading of the classics and the Bible. As one's personal store of literary knowledge shrinks, so too does one's capacity for allusiveness. But Kirsch also believes that, as our shared cultural kitty has come to resemble Mother Hubbard's cupboard, the making of a literary allusion has turned into an exercise in elitism. Rather than connecting writer and reader, it places distance between them. It's downright undemocratic. Says Kirsch:

it is almost impossible to be confident that your audience knows the same books you do. It doesn't matter whether you slip in "April is the cruelest month," or "To be or not to be," or even "The Lord is my shepherd"—there's a good chance that at least some readers won't know what you're quoting, or that you're quoting at all. What this means is that, in our fragmented literary culture, allusion is a high-risk, high-reward rhetorical strategy. The more recondite your allusion, the more gratifying it will be to those who recognize it, and the more alienating it will be to those who don't.

No need to fret, though. The search engine is making the world safe again for literary allusions:

In the last decade or so, however, a major new factor has changed this calculus. That is the rise of Google, which levels the playing field for all readers. Now any quotation in any language, no matter how obscure, can be identified in a fraction of a second. When T.S. Eliot dropped outlandish Sanskrit and French and Latin allusions into "The Waste Land," he had to include notes to the poem, to help readers track them down. Today, no poet could outwit any reader who has an Internet connection. As a result, allusion has become more democratic and more generous.

Reader, rejoice! Literature, like the world, has been flattened.

It's a dicey proposition, these days, to take issue with a cultural democratizer, a leveler of playing fields, but there are big problems with Kirsch's analysis, and they stem from his desire to see "allusion" as being synonymous with "citation" or "quotation." An allusion is not a citation. It's not a direct quotation. It's not a pointer. It's not a shout-out. And it most certainly is not a hyperlink. An allusion is a hint, a suggestion, a tease, a wink. The reference it contains is implicit rather than explicit. Its essential quality is playfulness; the word allusion derives from the Latin verb alludere, meaning "to play with" or "to joke around with."

The lovely fuzziness of a literary allusion - the way it blurs the line between speaker and source - is the essence of its art. It's also what makes the literary allusion an endangered species in the Age of Google. A computerized search engine like Google can swiftly parse explicit connections like citations, quotations, and hyperlinks - it feeds on them as a whale feeds on plankton - but it has little sensitivity to more ethereal connections, to the implicit, the playful, the covert, the fuzzy. Search engines are literal-minded, not literary-minded. Google's overarching goal is to make culture machine-readable. We've all benefited enormously from its pursuit of that goal, but it's important to remember that Google's vast field of vision has a very large blind spot. Much of what's most subtle and valuable in culture - and the allusions of artists fall into this category - is too blurry to be read by machines.

Kirsch says that T. S. Eliot "had to include notes" to "The Waste Land" in order to enable readers to "track down" its many allusions. The truth is fuzzier. The first publications of the poem, in the magazines The Criterion and The Dial, lacked the notes. The notes only appeared when the poem was published as a book, and Eliot later expressed regret that he had included them. The notes, he wrote, "stimulated the wrong kind of interest among the seekers of sources ... I regret having sent so many enquirers off on a wild goose chase after Tarot cards and the Holy Grail." By turning his allusions into mere citations, the notes led readers to see his poem as an intricate intellectual puzzle rather than a profound expression of personal emotion - a confusion that continues to haunt, and hamper, readings of the poem to this day. The beauty of "The Waste Land" lies not in its sources but in its music, which is in large measure the music of allusion, of fragments of distant melodies woven into something new. The more you google "The Waste Land," Eliot would have warned, the less of it you'll hear.

Let's say, to bring in another poet, you're reading Yeats's "Easter 1916," and you reach the lines

And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?

It's true that you might find the poem even more meaningful, even more moving, if you catch the allusion to Shelley's "Alastor" ("His strong heart sunk and sickened with excess/Of love ..."), but the allusion deepens and enriches Yeats's poem whether or not you pick up on it. What matters is not that you know "Alastor" but that Yeats knows it, and that his reading of the earlier work, and his emotional connection with it, resonates through his own lyric. And since Yeats provides no clue that he's alluding to another work, Google would be no help in "tracking down" the source of that allusion. A reader who doesn't already have an intimate knowledge of "Alastor" would have no reason to Google the lines.

Indeed, for the lines to be Google-friendly, the allusion would have to be transformed into a quotation:

And what if "excess of love"
Bewildered them till they died?

or, worse yet, a hyperlink:

And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died.

As soon as an allusion is turned into an explicit citation in this way - as soon as it's made fit for the Age of Google - it ceases to be an allusion, and it loses much of its emotional resonance. Distance is inserted between speaker and source. The lovely fuzziness is cleaned up, the music lost.

In making an allusion, a writer (or a filmmaker, or a painter, or a composer) is not trying to "outwit" the reader (or viewer, or listener), as Kirsch suggests. Art is not a parlor game. Nor is the artist trying to create a secret elitist code that will alienate readers or viewers. An allusion, when well made, is a profound act of generosity through which an artist shares with the audience a deep emotional attachment with an earlier work or influence. If you see an allusion merely as something to be tracked down, to be Googled, you miss its point and its power. You murder to dissect. An allusion doesn't become more generous when it's "democratized"; it simply becomes less of an allusion.

My intent here is not to knock Google, which has unlocked great stores of valuable information to many, many people. My intent is simply to point out that there are many ways to view the world, and that Google offers only one view, and a limited one at that. One of the great dangers we face as we adapt to the Age of Google is that we will all come to see the world through Google goggles, and when I read an article like Kirsch's, with its redefinition of "allusion" into Google-friendly terms, I sense the increasing hegemony of the Google view. It's already becoming common for journalists to tailor headlines and stories to fit the limits of search engines. Should writers and other artists be tempted to make their allusions a little more explicit, a little more understandable to literal-minded machines, before we know it allusiveness will have been redefined out of existence.

UPDATE:

Alan Jacobs corrects an overstatement I made in this post:

I think it’s clearly wrong to say that “what matters is not that you know 'Alastor' but that Yeats knows it.” It does matter that Yeats knows it — Yeats’s encounter with Shelley strengthens and deepens his verse — but is also matters if the reader does, because if I hear that echo of Shelley I understand better the conversation that Yeats is participating in, and that enriches my experience of his poem and also of Shelley’s. And not incidentally, the enriching power of our knowledge of intellectual tradition is one of Eliot’s key emphases.

I should have written "what matters most" rather than "what matters." Jacobs is right that allusions draw on and reflect "the enriching power of our knowledge of intellectual tradition," which is enriching for both writer and reader. But, in the context of a particular poem (or other work of art), the power of an allusion also derives from how deeply the artist has made the earlier work his or her own and hence how seamlessly it becomes part of his or her own work (and emotional and intellectual repertoire). I think this is one of the things Eliot meant when he remarked that mature poets steal while immature poets merely borrow. The pressure of Google, I believe, pushes us to be borrowers rather than thieves, to prize the explicit connection over the implicit one.

Comments

"The Waste Land" seems to be a topic of interest lately. I hope you saw this article in The Atlantic that discusses textual analysis of "The Waste Land: Facsimile and Manuscripts of the Original Drafts."

http://tinyurl.com/322ds2l

Posted by: Charles [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 15, 2011 07:01 PM

Mr. Carr, here is another well prescribed medication for google ailments.
Wonderful termings, chicky use of language, incisive and cutting edge analysis for 'Allusionitary voilence' over rhetoric emotions...
Blunder of accusatory notes were seen here for agitating against acrimony of allusive muscles....
Complete non fiction prowessy of entire tweet is gone under anti-idiosyncratic behaviour of literary allusion...
I am really pleased by such piece of explicitness....
Presently, by not offering too much words, suggest only one thing-which is absent here. That, we human beings in this modern google age, surviving a quite complicated lives. Which is stored with undue functionality and human life ia best instance of hub of complexities. Even though, when all these ceases to exist, human life gets eroded at same time. Somewhere, lamency is need of time, by avoiding its excess. Do we cope up with the idea of workaholistic life run, without paving our toes towards allusion?
If anything cancel all implicitness and cover opaqueness, still we dislike it?
Are we mateur enough to make diffrence between 'right' and 'wrong'?
Ain't we loosely tilting the knickle of fenzy?
I wanna answering from you as soon as possible!!!!!...

Posted by: umesh.bawa19 [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 16, 2011 05:19 AM

I didn’t get your allusion to “agley,” but Google corrected this lacuna in my education... If people don’t read, there are no readers for Google to level the playing field for as Kirsch argues. If people don’t read, the danger of the increasing “hegemony” of Google, as you argue, does not exist. And no, people did not stop reading because of Google.

Posted by: Gil Press [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 16, 2011 11:42 AM

>>>His cherry-scented byline marked the pages

Is Kirsch's cherry-scented byline german(e) to this discussion?

Posted by: Robert Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 16, 2011 04:38 PM

Ouch.

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 16, 2011 08:25 PM

Mr. Carr,

You may have already seen this, but from the NY Times - http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/17/technology/17brain.html?pagewanted=1&hp - data overload in the military and how multitasking may have negative effects

Posted by: Jeff Walzer [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 17, 2011 07:25 AM

There is an essay to be written about the way, for a certain audience, allusions (and citations) to the Simpsons have rushed into this void.

Posted by: Matt Frost [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 17, 2011 09:56 AM

Matt,

Yeah, I agree. The Simpsons, Monty Python, The Big Lebowski, Harry Potter: all have become fertile sources for contemporary allusions. In these cases, though, the allusions do tend to serve as social codes, as ways of announcing one's membership in, as you say "a certain audience."

Nick

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 17, 2011 10:46 AM

Allusion is certainly playful, but I think it succeeds on a much deeper level. When a phrase is recognized outside its normal context, or feels familiar in a new context, more associations are occurring in the brain. The reader or listener or viewer (it happens in the visual arts, too!) becomes more engaged as a result.

I would argue that even if the reader doesn't know the original source, they are probably more engaged by familiar phrases than not. How many readers knew you were referencing Portia? But the overall phrasing and rhythm of the words has been used and reused in our culture, so that the title of the column probably "works" for more people than it alienates.

Educational programs with courses that allude to each others' work are typically more successful at integrating knowledge. Rap and hip/hop, the source of some of the most allusive and complex lyrics being written, speak strongly to their audience because the allusion ties individual songs into multiple larger narratives: the artist's personal arc, the community (there's a strong regional component), and the cultural community overall drawn to the music. The metaphysical poets (and some after them, like Yeats) played using allusion, but that sometimes resulted in multiple different interpretations being possible.

Besides which, I believe more people are turned off by condescension (which is what Kirsch is advocating when he advises people not to write to their natural, full capability) than by someone trying to make a point as well as possible. I learned this the hard way - looks like Kirsch has yet to discover it.

Posted by: Uxtraordinary [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 17, 2011 02:52 PM

Thoughtful post.

As with many of your posts, though, I think your good critiques of techno-utopianism bleed into a techno-fatalism that short-changes the human capacity to adapt.

Writers will adapt to Google in the long term by making their allusions a little less explicit, less quoted, and with fewer tell-tale keywords that would tip readers off. Writers will always want to wink in their texts, and 'Google goggles' require of them more subtle winks, not (as Kirsch suggests) more explicit links. Those explicit links (eg, references, quotations, etc) lack the playfulness and tacit membership into a common group that make allusions so enjoyable for writers and readers.

Allusions will not be abandoned by online writers.

NYT film critic A.O. Scott, as one example among many, makes good use of subtle allusion in his online and offline articles.

Posted by: Watch_them_roll [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 18, 2011 12:32 AM

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