Sunday, April 11, 2010

Allusion and Search

Adam Kirsch has some interesting things to say in his New York Review essay, "Poets Haunted by Poets," about the impact of the Internet on the practice of reading. He writes from the perspective of the scholarly reader, but his remarks can easily pertain to the more casual reader who happens to be blessed with a streak of curiosity. He approaches his argument in terms of "the way writers make use of allusion;" but it becomes quickly clear that is addressing the broader question of how readers engage with the texts they are reading. Here is how he initially states his position:

For if Google means that no book, however rare or obscure, will actually be hard to find, so it means that no quotation, however recondite, will be difficult to recognize. Enter any phrase into the search engine and you will instantly discover who, if anyone, has used it before, and when and how. You can even have the novel and strangely reassuring experience of beginning to type in a quotation, only to have it automatically completed for you by Google—a sign that it has been searched for by others already, that you and some anonymous fellow reader are on the same track.

He then launches into an extended case study around the phrase "Datta, dayadhvam, damyata." Kirsch then justifies why one might do a phrase search on these words in the sort of language that could easily put off the casually curious:

Any reader of English poetry will immediately recognize those Sanskrit words: they appear in the fifth section of The Waste Land, "What the Thunder Said," as three possible interpretations of the thunder's monosyllabic utterance, "Da."

Those first two words have the somewhat distasteful elitist position that those who ask will never know, a position which is only marginally more enlightening than the notes that T. S. Eliot himself provided for The Waste Land. Thus, the note for this three-word phrase explains little beyond citing its source, which is the Brihaddāranyaka Upanishad. Two points are interesting about this note. The first is that it is incorrect: It refers the reader to the first verse of the fifth chapter of the source, whereas the Thunder speaks in the second verse (at least in my Oxford University Press edition)! (My guess is that this is not the only error in Eliot's note, and I would be surprised if a Master's Thesis has not yet been written enumerating and correcting all of those errors.) The second interesting point is that none of the Upanishads had been translated from Sanskrit into English when The Waste Land was published; so the only translation Eliot cites is a German translation of sixteen of them (which is four more than are collected in Patrick Olivelle's English translation for Oxford).

The bottom line is that The Waste Land was deliberately conceived to be enshrouded in a thick fog of arcana; and the "explanatory" notes only added to the fog. Kirsch's case study then proceeds to argue that Google now provides us with a humongous fan with which all of that fog may be conveniently dispersed. He then draws the following conclusions, which basically shore up his own elitist dispositions:

We know that the Internet has made it very difficult for intellectual property owners to assert their rights—to music, movies, books, or newspapers. What this example suggests is that the Internet also tends to disrupt the more casual, but for literature highly meaningful, kind of right that gives a poet property in his allusions. The Waste Land itself is old enough and famous enough that when we read these Sanskrit words—or the lines it borrows from the Pervigilium Veneris or Kyd's Spanish Tragedy—we are still likely to think of Eliot. But the advent of Google means, I think, that no future poet will ever be able to make allusions with the same kind of boldness and authority that Eliot did. No matter how esoteric, his references will be an open book to any reader with a computer; the poet will be unable to "trademark" them as successfully as Eliot did.

What this also means is that no future reader, however well informed, will enjoy the particular kind of satisfaction that readers once derived from successful recognition of a poet's allusions. It used to be the case that the ability to recognize when a poet is alluding to Virgil, or Milton, or even the King James Bible set the reader apart as a member of a more or less exclusive intellectual group. Nor was this simply a matter of snobbishness; there is a genuine aesthetic pleasure in recognizing an allusion, which comes from the reader's sense that he has successfully entered the poet's mental world. If the allusion is arcane or clandestine, the pleasure is that much greater, since it suggests how difficult true attainment between poet and reader can be. But here, too, the Internet democratizes and universalizes what used to be a kind of distinctiveness. If every reader can tune in, allusion is no longer a privileged channel of communication.

From my point of view, each of these paragraphs rests on a premise that I cannot accept.

In the first paragraph the premise is that Eliot used allusion to "trademark" his text. I am more likely to believe that Eliot was more interested in whether or not readers would be drawn to his poetry (hence his interest in magazine publication of The Waste Land) than in treating his poems as intellectual property whose rights needed to be safeguarded. I would even stick my neck out and suppose that, while Eliot was certainly interested in receiving fair compensation for his efforts, he would probably view (as I tend to do) today's arguments over intellectual property rights as idle chatter over a thoroughly misconstrued concept.

The premise behind the second paragraph is that writers invoke the technique of allusion as "a privileged channel of communication." Eliot may have been showing off the breadth of his personal knowledge in The Waste Land; but, on the basis of my attempt to refute the first premise, I cannot believe that he wanted his poem to communicate to a privileged few. Quite the contrary, I suspect that he would have relished the interest that professional actors and actresses have taken in "performing" this poem; and he probably would have been equally pleased with last year's reading of Four Quartets by the actor Stephen Dillane prior to a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven's Opus 132 string quartet prior to its performance by the Miró Quartet.

To be fair, my own position owes much to my personal focus on serious listening to music. Allusion is a practice that has been part of both the composition and the performance of music that dates at least all the way back to plainchant and is probably fundamental to any oral tradition that preceded the music actually being documented. I happen to be particularly sensitive to it right now, having seen an excellent performance of Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress on Friday night. Writing about this performance on, I suggested that Auden's text was probably rich with allusions to eighteenth-century English literature "best known by academic specialists." Stravinsky, on the other hand, prepared to compose his opera by studying the scores of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's operas; and his score is rich with "citations" that actually extend beyond the operas into at least one piano composition. I would guess that Stravinsky did not invoke these citations for the sake of showing off (although I would not put it past him). Rather, since the work was first performed at the Metropolitan Opera, he was providing his audience with anchors to personal experience through which they could negotiate his own characteristic approaches to grammar and rhetoric. On the basis of the reception he received there, his Met audience did not quite "get it;" but these days The Rake's Progress has become a relatively popular staple in the repertoire of opera companies in both the United States and Europe, regardless of how many people in the audience "get" either Stravinsky's or Auden's allusions.

Given how hard it seems to be to get anyone to read anything longer than a tweet these days, the last thing we need is for those with a longer attention span to circle the wagons of elitism. The best way to expand awareness of communication, in both the artistic and mundane worlds, is to engage in more of it. Indeed, those who wish to communicate more richly can now benefit from the ability to write with hyperlinks on platforms such as this one; and, while doing my own background research on The Waste Land, I was delighted to discover a Web site that provides a hypertext edition of the poem.

Let me conclude my considering two additional flaws in Kirsch's case study: one concerns Google, while the other involves more general reading practices.

The Google-related problem is that Kirsch seems to assume that allusion resides only in words. I hope he realizes that it does not. Yes, one can do an exact phrase search with Google. I do it frequently, and it is often very helpful. However, just as keyword search can turn up hits that are totally off the mark, phrase search can be just as vulnerable. Not only are there cases in which, through ambiguity, the phrase may have more than one denotation (that being the one the searcher had in mind), the context in which the phrase is embedded allows for a rich variety of connotations. Thus, while one may be searching for a specific meaning of the phrase, a straightforward match of characters cannot take anything having to do with "meaning" into account. Thus, even a phrase search may lead me to new ways of thinking about what I was trying to find, simply through the accident of turning up something having nothing to do with my intended target.

Beyond Google, however, is the question of when you realize that you have stumbled over an allusion. There is nothing in reading from a printed page that gives much indication of when allusion is at play. In Eliot's case the notes for The Waste Land are endnotes indicated by line numbers. Nothing in the poem itself gives any indication of whether or not it is "covered" by a note. In this respect the hypertext version of the poem is probably preferable for the beginning reader and might even encourage that reader to get into the spirit of playing Eliot's game. This is an issue of democratization that Kirsch seems to have overlooked. Ultimately, what matters is not how many pages the Internet can provide us for reading matter. More important is that the Internet can expand the scope of the methods we apply in engaging with the text as a serious reader, and the methods it now makes available could even encourage more readers to expand their interests beyond tweets and Facebook chatter.

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