The Half-life of Allusions
There is a somewhat odd-sounding line in Dr. No:
Major Boothroyd : [to Bond] Walther PPK, 7.65 millimeter, with a delivery like a brick through a plate-glass window. The American CIA swear by them.
Today, that line would be written without the word “American.” Who in the world does not know what the CIA is? But back in 1962, the English script writers clearly did not expect their audience to instantly recognize those three letters. They felt the need to clarify.
This is the sort of problem that writers wrestle with all the time. Even if the British public of 1962 could not be relied on to know what the CIA was, clearly M, Q, and 007 would have been familiar with them, and the clarifying word “American” would not have been necessary in their conversation. The word was inserted artificially for the sake of the audience.
In writing the paragraphs above I made the assumption that my readers would recognize Dr. No as the name of a Bond movie, would know what a Bond movie was, and would recognize “M, Q, and 007” as the code names of characters from the Bond movies. Making these assumptions enabled me to lead into my point about allusion with a familiar and dramatic example. But if you have no knowledge of James Bond, this discussion will have been at least partially opaque to you. This is the power and peril of allusion in writing.
Thanks for reading Stories All the Way Down by G. M. Baker! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Allusion is the passing reference to either a real thing or some literary character, story, or expression that the writer assumes their reader will recognize. It is a very powerful kind of writerly shorthand. It can evoke images and emotions in an instant which otherwise would be laborious to produce. Without the ability to rely on allusion to get something across quickly, a story could become too tedious to endure. And yet, if the reader does not recognize the allusion, they can be left with a blank in their appreciation of the work. The story may not work for them at all.
As societies become more diverse, the use of allusion becomes more difficult. This is not a critique of diversity, it is simply noting that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. For centuries, writers in the Western tradition could safely assume that their readers would recognize allusions to the Bible, and thus the art of the Western canon is rich in biblical allusions.
Among English writers (meaning people writing in English) a familiarity with Shakespeare and the major figures and incidents of English history could similarly be assumed. Someone teaching English literature in the schools and colleges of today, if they are going to do anything other than spout Marxist nonsense, are going to have to devote much of their time to pointing out the Biblical, Shakespearean, and Historical allusions that pervade the works that their students are reading, because it is no longer safe to assume that their students are familiar with them.
I raise this because the story I published in this newsletter on December 17, No Room at the Inn, presented me, and my readers, with all kinds of allusion problems, and they are illustrative of the problem that allusion presents for the modern writer.
Let’s start with the title. “No Room at the Inn” is a reference to the infancy narrative in Luke 2:7:
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
It is a phrase well known to Christians. And it would have been a phrase well known to most people in Western countries even if they were not Christians. It was so well known that the phrase “no room at the inn” would instantly take the reader to that time and place and event. Today I am not sure that all my readers would recognize it, or know what I meant by “infancy narrative” or “Luke 2:7,”
Then again, those who are not may not be the audience for a Christmas story anyway. Stories are embedded in cultures and no story is universal in its appeal, let alone in its allusions. So let’s consider the story from the point of view of a reader who would recognize the phrase “no room at the inn” in the context of the Christmas story.
My story assumes a familiarity with the Christmas story, starting with its allusion to the Christmas star or Star of Bethlehem, the star that supposedly guided the Magi to the birthplace of Christ. And, of course, it assumes familiarity with the Magi as well.
In itself, the story belongs to the somewhat satiric genre that attributes great historical events not to great historical causes but to the oblivious bumbling of ordinary venal people. My protagonist, Ichabod the Innkeeper, sees the Star of Bethlehem as a tourist attraction and a chance for him to get rich by hosting the wealthiest guests who come to see the star. He makes the classic blunder of mistaking the signifier for the signified. Rather than the star leading him to Christ, he throws Christ out of the stable to make room for the camels of the Magi.
Anyone familiar with the Christmas story should be able to follow all of this. But they may find the attitudes and behavior of the Magi themselves rather odd. This is because there is a much more subtle allusion here, one than many of my readers would not have seen, because many of them will never have read the thing I was alluding too. My three kings are not the jolly and reverent three kings of popular tradition. They are the confused and world weary magi of T. S. Eliot’s poem, The Journey of the Magi.
My story is full of allusion to the poem. Anyone who has the poem somewhere in the back of their mind would probably twig what was going on from those numerous allusions. And if they did, it would change how they read the story. Notably, Eliot’s poem does not relate the Magi’s encounter with Christ in the manger, rather, it recounts the difficulty of the journey and its doubts in the form of a memory of one of the Magi after their return. It expresses only confusion and unease at what they have witnessed.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation
My story essentially fills in the middle bit, the actual encounter in Bethlehem, without, of course, the grace or profundity of Eliot’s poem. What a reader unfamiliar with the poem must think of the behavior, the confusion, the weariness, the unease of the Magi in my story, I am not sure. I am too familiar with the allusion myself to be sure how the story would come across to someone not familiar with it.
There are several other allusions that readers may or may not recognize that might cause a frisson of recognition, and thus some sly pleasure, for those who recognize them, without the reader who does not recognize them feeling they are missing something, or their actually missing something. For example, at one point, Ichabod the innkeeper says:
“It is because of the star, sire, as you see. People come from all over the world to see the star of Bethlehem. They have come from Midian and Ephah, from Sheba and Kedar and Nebaioth. There have been shiploads come from Tarshish. Some days it seems that the land is covered in camels! But for kings, sire, for kings we always make room. Come in, come in. And I shall make room in the stable for your camels also.”
This is an allusion to Isiah 60 6-9:
Herds of camels will cover your land,
young camels of Midian and Ephah.
And all from Sheba will come,
bearing gold and incense
and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.
All Kedar’s flocks will be gathered to you,
the rams of Nebaioth will serve you;
they will be accepted as offerings on my altar,
and I will adorn my glorious temple.
“Who are these that fly along like clouds,
like doves to their nests?
Surely the islands look to me;
in the lead are the ships of Tarshish,
bringing your children from afar,
with their silver and gold,
to the honor of the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel,
for he has endowed you with splendor.
The reader who recognizes this allusion may get a bit of a giggle out of it. The reader who does not will probably just read it as a bit of marketing hyperbole in the mouth of the innkeeper, which is what it is. Not recognizing this allusion probably won’t spoil the story for you.
An even more subtle example is the innkeeper’s name, Ichabod. This one is pretty obscure, and it is not the result of any erudition on my part. Rather, I Googled for names that might have a clever hidden meaning. (Yes, authors cheat to make themselves seem more erudite than they are. Deal with it.) The name Ichabod means “Where is the Glory.” The joke here is that Ichabod has the glory dwelling in his stable and can’t see it. But if you miss that, as almost every reader probably will, you really aren’t missing much.
An even less consequential allusion was in the names given to the night patrol:
“I see the Carthaginians have gone,” Ichabod called to his wife. He wanted no part of her quarrel with the Greeks.
“He’s threatened to complain to the night guard,” she replied.
“Good luck to him then,” Ichabod said. “Gaius and Titius know where their beer comes from. What about the Nazarenes in the stable?”
Gaius and Titius are the pseudonyms given to a pair of incompetent grammarians in C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. There is no joke here beyond the names themselves. I just needed a pair of Roman sounding names for a throwaway line.
On the other hand, the reader who misses the allusion to Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi is going to miss half the joke. The other half of the joke — the venal innkeeper who influences key elements of the Christmas story without having any idea what is going on — should be accessible to every reader familiar with the basic Christmas story.
But is that enough? Does the story work well enough to amuse the reader who does not happen to be familiar with The Journey of the Magi?
I puzzled over this for some time before I published the story. Should I tell people up front that I was riffing on The Journey of the Magi so that they would understand why the Magi in the story are behaving as they do? This would perhaps have avoided some confusion. But it is also like explaining a joke before you tell it. It tends to spoil the joke. Jokes, like literary allusions, rely on people already recognizing the elements of the joke or the allusion. Having them explained to you, whether before or after, is like reading a tedious letter about a party you didn’t go to. The effect is just not the same.
When it comes to using allusions, there is also the danger of false allusion to contend with. With the name Ichabod, I intended to create an allusion to the Ichabod of the First Book of Samuel. But if the name rang a bell for many readers it would have been the Ichabod Crane of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, perhaps the only Ichabod most people will have heard of. The whole point of an allusion is to take the mind somewhere quickly, but this effect depends on where the reader’s mind goes at a given prompt, and that is never going to be entirely consistent. It used to be, in the days of what I suppose we would now call a “classical education,” that there was a rich body of allusions that would take the mind of every reader somewhere consistent. No small part of the purpose of a classical education was to stock people’s minds with those very allusions.
The reader does not always have to get the allusion, though. Sometimes it is possible to thoroughly enjoy a work without being conscious of its allusions at all. One of my favorite books of all time is Alan Garner’s Elidor. It was only in the course of recommending it to a friend this week that I discovered that it is based on a folktale, Childe Roland. Does the discovery change my love of the book? Not at all. Does it enrich it? That is to be seen when I read it again. But it is a book written for children, who, I presume, the author did not expect to be familiar with Childe Roland.
I had the same kind of problem with Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight, which is also based on a folktale, a ballad of the same name. As with Elidor, Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight takes the folktale as its starting point and extends the adventure. But while Garner cuts the ending of the folktale so as to continue the story in a different way, my plan in Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight was to continue the story after the original ending. I knew I could not rely on my readers all being familiar with the ballad, so I know I had to tell that part of the tale somehow. I tried to tell the whole of the story of the ballad in novel form and then continue it, but the ballad really doesn’t lend it self to that treatment. I ended up with what was essentially a 60 page prolog with unsatisfactory development and a false climax. I did eventually find a way to handle it, but it was one of the most difficult pieces of story design I have ever had to do.
Allusions of the kind I have been describing here, allusions that bring in whole stories, events, places, or works are at the top level of the phenomena that I describe as Stories All the Way Down, the process by which not only stories, but language itself, is built up of references to stories. Because language and stories are built out of references to stories, stories suffer from a phenomena which we could call the half-life of allusions. The half-life of an allusion would be the time which it takes for half the readership to no longer recognize the allusion.
This is an allusion itself, of course, an allusion to the process of radioactive decay. It is an imperfect allusion, since the process of radioactive decay is constant, whereas the decay of an allusion within a culture is more apt to happen suddenly and irregularly based on cultural trends. An allusion may even be revived. An allusion to “the Tardis” today will be much more widely recognized than it would have been in 2002, before the series Dr. Who was revived by the BBC. As I noted at the beginning, an allusion to the CIA is better recognized today than when Dr. No made one back in 1962.
Nonetheless, the general nature of allusions is to decay, and sometimes the half-life of an allusion can be very short. TV programs often make extensive use of pop-culture references, or references to the news of the day, but these allusions, by their nature, decay very quickly. Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts. (Yes, that’s an allusion. My generation would be much more likely to recognize it as such than kids of today.)
The decay of allusions does not lead to older works simply becoming obscure. Sometimes it appears to give them a whole new meaning at odds with the intended meaning, either because the allusion is taken literally or the words have taken on new meanings. The phrase “to make love to,” which occurs in many earlier works used to mean “to pay court to,” or “to flirt with.” No, that scene you just read does not describe an orgy in the drawing room.
Sometimes the decay of allusions can lead the puritanical and uninformed to condemn perfectly innocent works of the past, and to misunderstand and misrepresent the culture that produced them. One such case is the Baby It’s Cold Outside farrago of a couple of years ago. There is, alas, little an author can do to protect themselves against this kind of mischief and malice.
This half-life of allusions is something every author has to bear in mind. Are you writing for today, tomorrow, or posterity? Choose your allusions accordingly. For an older author such as myself, there is the constant danger of making allusions that are completely engrained in your psyche and your vocabulary, but will mean nothing to most younger readers. Then again, young authors may unwittingly make allusions to contemporary pop-culture that are lost on readers even a few years older than themselves. More durable allusions are obviously safer, but predicting which will prove most durable can be difficult.
But there is an upside to the half-life of allusions. Quite a big upside. It drives the need to keep retelling stories. The fundamental human stories are not that many in number, and while it is the particularity of the individual telling that makes a story work, and therefore allows for the same fundamental story to be incarnated many times, still, if every story ever published were as fresh and accessible today as it was when it was written, there would be precious little for the contemporary author to do. The half life of allusions ensures that older works will become less accessible over time, meaning that all but the best of them will fade away, and even the best will increasingly require explanation. And thus there is space for new work that tells the old stories with new allusions. For writers, the half life of allusions may frustrate us, but it also keeps us in business.