I came across this quote while reading Bryan D. Estelle’s Echoes of Exodus, and I thought it, and some thoughts of my own, worth a post:
It is a difficult art, the art of the evocative quotation. The theory held by the romantics that all good writing was entirely “original” threw it into disrepute. It has been further discredited by the misapplication of scholarship and the decline in classical knowledge…for readers do not like to think that, in order to appreciate poetry, they themselves ought to have read as much as the poet himself. Also, they feel, with justice, that hunting down “allusions” and “imitations” destroys the life of the poetry, changing it from a living thing into an artificial tissue of copied colours and stolen patches. Still, it remains true that the reader who knows and can recognize these evocations without trouble gains a richer pleasure and a fuller understanding of the subject than the reader who cannot. (Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature. New York:Oxford University Press, 1957, pp. 157-158).
Highet’s quote reminds us that writers are also readers. Consciously or not and in spite of efforts to be original, writers draw upon those who have written before them. Sometimes they directly quote, sometimes they imitate in content and/or form, sometime the consciously allude to something, and sometimes, there are echoes of what others have thought and written of which even they may not be conscious.
Mortimer Adler, of “Great Books” fame contended that these books are in a conversation with each other through the ages and we ought read them to overhear, and join that conversation. Today, literary theorists and biblical scholars alike speak of “intertextuality,” how various texts allude or draw upon others.
Highet’s other point here has to do with the reading experience. While anyone may profit from and enjoy reading a text, say The Chronicles of Narnia, the experience is far richer for the reader who is aware of the biblical overtones and can delight in how Lewis draws this material. Our reading is richer, Highet contends, when we recognize the allusions a writer is making, what they meant in their original context as well as how the writer appropriate (or occasionally misappropriates) the material.
Allusions in various form are certainly important in reading the Bible. Prophets allude to the Pentateuch and historical books. New Testament writers allude, even quote from throughout the Old Testament as well as extra-biblical material. Forty some years ago, when I began reading the Bible, there were passages that spoke deeply to me. Today, understanding more of the allusions to earlier material, my understanding is even richer.
Highet does raise an issue that may be daunting to the budding reader. We often find that we haven’t read as much as the writer. Here are some things that have worked for me:
- Read as you can, not as you can’t. Enjoy what you can–the use of language, the thoughts and feelings they evoke, the characters, the ideas, the basic plot.
- Annotated editions and commentaries can draw your attention to allusions you’ve missed. I suggest reading first on your own, then with the notes.
- Read great and challenging works with others. I never really got C. S. Lewis Till We Have Faces until I read it with a group with some who explained the Greek mythology and how Lewis reinterpreted it,
- Identify and read “foundational” works often referred to by others–Greek mythology and philosophy, the Bible, Augustine, Shakespeare, and others. Every field has these from philosophy to science fiction.
- Come back to important books that often allude to others. Each time, your reading experience will be richer.
All of us are beginners at some point. We have a lifetime to grow in making these literary connections. Some of us got a head start with our education. Many of us didn’t, or weren’t paying attention. Truthfully, some things just don’t register until we have a little life under our belts. It also reminds us to mix old works in with new throughout our reading lives, so we can overhear that conversation across the generations, and begin to get a clue as to what they are talking about.