Okay, so now that what was once considered a core curriculum has basically been splattered, it brings ever more into question the business of making references in works of art. If nobody reads the classics, then what is the point in referencing them? And for that matter, what is the point of any references anymore? T.S. Eliot speaks eloquently on the matter:

In a lecture of Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, published in one of my collections of essays and addresses, I made the point that in appraising the judgments of any critic of a past age, one needed to see him in the context of that age, to try to place oneself at his point of view. This is a difficult effort for the imagination; one, indeed, in which we cannot hope for more that partial success. We cannot discount the influence upon our formation of the creative writing and the critical writing of the intervening generations, or the inevitable modifications of taste, or our greater knowledge and understanding of the literature preceding that of the age which we are trying to understand.  Yet merely to make that effort of imagination, and to have these difficulties in mind, is worth our while. In reviewing my own early criticism, I am struck by the degree to which it was conditioned by the state of literature at the time at which it was written, as well as by the stage of maturity at which I had arrived, by the influences to which I had been exposed, and by the occasion of each essay. I cannot myself bring to mind all these circumstances, reconstruct all the conditions under which I wrote: how much less can any future critic of my work have knowledge of them, or, if he has knowledge have understanding, or if he has both knowledge and understanding, find my essays of the same interest that they had for those who read them sympathetically when they first appeared? No literary criticism can for a future generation excite more than curiosity, unless in continues to be of use in itself to future generations, to have intrinsic value out of its historical context. But if any part of it does have this timeless value, then we shall appreciate that value all the more precisely if we also attempts to put ourselves at the point of view of the writer and his first readers. To study the criticism of Johnson or of Coleridge in this way is undoubtedly rewarding.”

So the problem is articulated. Now as for the reader, he can have many responses to an apparent reference. 1) he knows a references is being made and knows he should have paid more attention in high school 2) he senses the same 3) he totally misses it, and finally, 4) he knows the reference! (this event does in fact, still occur on rare occasions).

Now I suspect the most fortunate reaction is somewhere between not knowing and knowing, in other words, barely knowing. As a reader, you want to conjure up the gist of the reference, but you don’t want to start drifting into an actual recollection of it, to be lured as Odysseus further and further away from the primary thread because of a pathological thirst for knowledge. And I submit anyone reading such heavily laden works as Wasteland most definitely does have such pathology.  As Brando says in The Godfather, “A man can’t be a real man if he doesn’t spend time with his family.”  Your family is waiting. They are at the end of the poem. So please, take a gander, but stay on the path. 

When, for example, Eliot says “Oh Phlebas, something something.” It’s like, I don’t remember who Phlebas was. But I do still get that sense of tragedy, of greatness, of myth, of searching and loss from the Greek works, for the Greek works, wherever they may be, in large stone books. Let me hold onto that feeling and move right along into the next line. Maintaining speed is vital to get the inherent rhythm of a poem. If I actually remembered the story, I might start thinking about some detail or unresolved issue. Or a beat down, one of many, I may or may not have received from Mr. Thames for talking up in class. Or passing notes. I passed a lot of notes. And if only for a moment, such digressions were not the point. That was not the point at all.

When Eliot recommends the “study” of Coleridge, he is talking about something you do later on, in your spare time, for “the fun of it.” This is different from your primary response to a work of art. The primary response must be spontaneous, and personal, and at its core emotional. The other stuff comes later. So there is no right and wrong in how many references an artist should consider. All that matters is the emotional contribution it makes for the final effect on an audience. Aqua Teen Hunger Force will probably appeal to generations to come in spite of its surfeit of cultural commentary. Family Guy—well actually it probably will too. Especially if they keep airing it.



April 2007