Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Mosaics of Quotations

Eric Griffiths's "Dante, Primo Levi, and the Intertextualists," in this week's TLS, has it all: Mr Aligheri (of course) but also the Lumieres, Milton, Kristeva, Bakhtin, Saussure, Barthes, and a range of lesser-known writers and theorists, all of whom have their say, get tweaked a bit, and exit the picture. As Wordwright's Gavin pointed out, it has a great tagline:

"Language makes us capable of talking about ourselves and itself, and does one only by doing the other."

On top of that, it's actually pretty lucid and enjoyable to read, which most discussions of intertextuality are not. (Griffiths also helpfully explains why that's the case.)

A nice sample:

Take “epic”, for example. In his lucid and thoughtful From Many Gods to One: Divine action in Renaissance epic, Tobias Gregory writes well about Milton not just because he unpacks the label “epic” itself, indicating its wrinkles (where “a European culture that was officially, if by no means purely, monotheistic” and the convention’s “pagan origins” tug it about), but also because he individuates the agent Milton, whose conduct in the epic environment of Paradise Lost he subtly describes as “arguing” about predestination not only with tough-minded contemporaries but “arguing as well, perhaps above all, with his own younger self”. Milton’s great poem is not, as Bakhtin was inclined to label all epics, “monological” but in dialogue over time with himself, both intersubjective and intra-subjective. This is why it often sounds like a play by Shakespeare. Sometimes the resemblances are probably happenstances. When, at the outset, he promises his readers “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme”, we had better not hear “unattempted yet” as an echo of the same words from King John, Act Two, scene one (line 601), where the Bastard torrentially reflects that the only reason he is railing against bribery is that nobody has so far troubled to try greasing his palm. We discount this as “static”, interference from a shared, but insignificantly shared, atmosphere, unless we impute to Milton a desire to hint with inordinate faintness that we should think of him as a bastard, too. But when Satan leads Eve to the forbidden tree, and she explains that it is off-limits to her, “To whom the tempter guilefully replied. / Indeed?”, a family resemblance between two tempters may strike us. We can hear here an echo of that “Indeed?” with which in Act Three, Scene Three, Iago initiates Othello’s downfall. Textually, and a fortiori intertextually, there is more in common between Milton and the Bastard than between Satan and Iago – two words rather than one – but if we personify “Indeed?”, embody it with camp surprise and mock solicitude, with the paraded reasonableness that comes pat to both these insinuators, we find they are a match for each other. When intertextuality distends into a General Theory of Relatedness, it loses the capacity to produce such yields. It becomes a mere derivative of the exchange principle, “every contact leaves a trace”, which Edmond Locard introduced into forensic science. This principle guides the work of those who investigate the scenes of crimes, but it serves them well only because they select for traces which will lead them to a person.

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