by J. Kates
I recently quoted Alice in Wonderland pretty obviously in a note to a recipient, assuming she’d know it, and she thought I was threatening to decapitate her. She notified the state police.
Clearly, she overreacted, but there is a cautionary tale here for those of us who use allusions and quotations in our work: What can we take for granted that our readers will know? If we make a timely reference, how can we be sure it will last? In a 1999 essay, I referred to Dennis Rodman as a figure anyone would recognize, and today even I have to think hard to conjure up the image I intended.
We can write ‘way over our reader’s head, or we can bounce one too obviously in front of the plate and sound condescending. (Uh oh, do you know baseball?) But a well-placed allusion is not only an ornament to writing, it can open up a multiplicity of meanings in a kind of shorthand that binds the writer to the reader and both to a whole culture. When Ernest Hemingway titled a novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, he wasn’t just making a random allusion to a seventeenth-century preacher. He was importing into his novel a notion of the world in which people feel connected to one another in time and space, “a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” And that itself is exactly what a good quotation or an allusion will do.