Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Intertextuality - It's More Than Just Text

Intertextuality is the shaping of texts by other texts. It is the theory that a literary work is not simply the product of a single author, but also the product of its relationship to other texts. Postmodernist authors and creators exploit intertextuality in some thought provoking and entertaining ways.

John Kessel's 1985 short story "A Clean Escape" - later adapted into a play - references Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four in subtle and overt ways.
"My name is Robert Havelmann."

That's right," Doctor Evans said calmly. "What year is it?"

Havelmann watched her warily, as if he were about to be tricked. "What are you talking about? It's 1984."
A prophetic reference to a dystopian diegetic that seems like paradise compared to what these characters are living through after a nuclear war.

Later in the story there is a specific reference to Orwell's work.
"What year is it?"

Havelmann adjusted himself in this chair calm, again. "What do you mean? It's 1984?"

"Did you ever read that book?" . . .

"Sure we had to read it in college . . . It just showed what was wrong with collectivism. You know--Communism represses the individual, destroys initiative. It claims it has the interests of the majority at heart. And it denies all human values. That's what I got out of 1984, though to hear that professor talk about it, it was all about Nixon and Vietnam."
Not only do Kessel's readers get an interpretation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, but they also get some contemporary cultural criticism of the story's fictional world as well -- very postmodern.

"A Clean Escape" also alludes to the 1985 non-fiction work The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sachs. In particular Sach's work contains an essay entitled "The Lost Mariner," an essay that outlines a case of Korsakov's syndrome. The case involves a man who can't remember anything past the end of World War II - not even a few minutes into his past.

Kessel's character, Robert Havelmann, has Korsakov's syndrome and the fictional psychiatrist tries to explain the syndrome with an example: "There was a famous [case] in the 1970s--A Marine sergeant named Arthur Briggs . . . He lost his memory of any events which occurred to him after September, 1944."

But as the title of this blog states intertextuality is more than just the borrowing and blending of words on a page. In fact, texts are more than just words on a page, they are also photo essays, comics, movies, music, dance, and song.

In Alan Moore's graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen every character comes from a classic piece of Victorian literature. Watchmen isn't just a graphic novel, its pages are a pastiche of literary genres from autobiographical tell-alls, to scholarly essays, ornithological journal articles, corporate correspondence, personal notes and letters, newspaper articles, arrest records, interviews, and marketing materials.

The short story "Work of Art" by James Blish contains a few lines from Ezra Pound's Personae which in turn is cites the Odyssey and contains references to 16th century translations of Homer's epic work.

Many ballets and operas interpret stories borrowed from mythology and are often staged to reflect contemporary cultural criticism.

Intertextuality is also found in the borrowing and blending many genres including music and film, as in the following clip:

Where else do you see borrowed "texts" in today's culture?

1 comment:

  1. This is an exceptionally true concept and I have always considered intertextuality to be a pop culture related literary theory. When I say pop culture I mean the popular culture of the time, not necessarily the post modernist era. In example, how the Bible references pagan lore. It is true that literature is not just novel references but rather anything that is involved with "word culture," at some point (Spoken word, scripts, etc.). Another instance of intertextuality is Warm Bodies, the modern, zombie movie remake of the basic Romeo and Juliet story, which has been pretty much the rough draft for numerous other works of, tragic or otherwise, romance literature. Or even the song White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane that alludes to the novel Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol. Essentially this article proves that intertextuality is not just a book to book thing but rather a literature to literature thing.