Literary Allusion in the Age of Google

By Adam Kirsch
wsj.com

One of my favorite stories from World War II concerns the great British travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who in 1944 led the daring mission to kidnap the commander of the German forces occupying Crete. The general, Karl Heinrich Kreipe, was held captive in a mountain cave, where one morning the sunrise brought into view the snow-covered peak of Mount Ida.

Gen. Kreipe, who had studied the classics, began to recite a famous Latin ode by Horace, which opens with the image of a mountain that “stands white with deep snow”—whereupon Mr. Fermor, who also knew it by heart, joined in and finished the poem. The men’s eyes met, and a long silence ensued. “It was very strange,” Mr. Fermor recalled. “As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist.”

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Mr. Fermor’s story, from his memoir “A Time of Gifts,” is like a fable about the paradoxical power of allusion. Speech and writing are supposed to be most powerful when most sincere. To quote is to use someone else’s words, which ought to make that kind of immediacy impossible. Yet when two people—a captor and a prisoner, or a couple of friends or (most often) a writer and a reader—can share an allusion, it creates a remarkable intimacy. It is almost the intimacy of conspiracy: If you can recognize a writer’s borrowing, it is because the two of you know something that other people don’t.

In this sense, literary allusion is exclusive, even aristocratic—which is why it’s hard for anyone writing in 21st-century America to pull it off. Latin and Greek are out of the question, of course, and have been for some time, since virtually no one still studies them. But even if you stick to English, it is almost impossible to be confident that your audience knows the same books you do. It doesn’t matter whether you slip in “April is the cruelest month,” or “To be or not to be,” or even “The Lord is my shepherd”—there’s a good chance that at least some readers won’t know what you’re quoting, or that you’re quoting at all.

What this means is that, in our fragmented literary culture, allusion is a high-risk, high-reward rhetorical strategy. The more recondite your allusion, the more gratifying it will be to those who recognize it, and the more alienating it will be to those who don’t. To risk an unidentified quotation, you have to have a pretty good sense of your audience: Psalms would be safe enough in a sermon, “The Waste Land” in a literary essay or college lecture, Horace just about nowhere.

In the last decade or so, however, a major new factor has changed this calculus. That is the rise of Google, which levels the playing field for all readers. Now any quotation in any language, no matter how obscure, can be identified in a fraction of a second. When T.S. Eliot dropped outlandish Sanskrit and French and Latin allusions into “The Waste Land,” he had to include notes to the poem, to help readers track them down. Today, no poet could outwit any reader who has an Internet connection.

As a result, allusion has become more democratic and more generous. If you quote an obscure book today, you’re not shutting the reader out but extending an invitation for him to track it down and make it his own. Here, as in so many areas of life and literature, the Internet abolishes secrets and hierarchies, offering universal access to “the best that has been thought and said in the world.”

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