WuToWu #96: Intertextuality

Hi Jessica! Your tardiness pales in comparison to my long absence from the blog, but after an intense and fun finals period, I am back!

As part of my education in English literature this year, I’ve had to learn some fancy words: hypostatize, mimesis, textualization, tropology, metatextuality, and intertextuality. The last one, intertextuality, is interesting because of the broad range of effects it can have on the reader.

Intertextuality is the ability of a book to incorporate other texts or works of art. Allusion is one of the most common types of intertextuality, but it can also incorporate direct quotations or references. One popular form of intertextuality today has been covered in a video by Nerdwriter, which can be found here. In it, he argues that it’s an easy way to make the audience emotionally invested in a narrative. Although his conflation of the proliferation of sequels and the concept of intertextuality is a bit tenuous, I can agree with the argument that intertextual references ought to have some deeper narrative purpose than merely triggering a memory in a reader or viewer.

However, I believe that intertextuality is at its best when it is able to give definition and character to a narrative while also evoking an emotional response. Recently, I got back to reading Madeleine Thien’s novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which I had started over winter break. In it, she quotes a couple of lines from Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Nänie”:

“Even the beautiful must die!

See! The gods weep, all the goddesses weep

Because the beautiful perishes, because perfection dies

Even to be a song of lament on a loved one’s lips is glorious…”

The poem gives voice to the sense of loss experienced by these musicians, as the cultural revolution destroys the Western music they’ve studied for years. What’s more, this poem was set to music by Brahms, which makes the characters’ loss all the more acute – songs of lament of the form Brahms wrote are now forbidden as bourgeois elitism. Even the hope for remembrance stated in the poem is absent here.

The quotation also brought to mind memories of my freshman year in the Harvard (at that time Holden) Choruses, when we sang Brahm’s Nänie with the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra. It was the most serious complete work of classical choral music I had sung at that point, and I was struck by the ability of music to convey all those emotions. My personal connection to the instance of intertextuality gave me an personal experience of the novel.

This is one of the things I appreciate most about art, that it operates, and is intended to operate, on intellectual and emotional (and sometimes spiritual) levels. I hope that having read this blog post you have the opportunity to find more of these moments in your own experience of art.

Nantais.

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