Allusive Butterfly

The Allusive Butterfly

I was standing on the edge of highway 10 when I saw the sign in front of the shop: The Allusive Butterfly. Not the elusive butterfly, but rather the allusive one. I have no idea what they sell. However, it certainly sounds girly to me. Perhaps its just my dirty mind. But it made me think of the problems of allusion.

Allusion is always local. It is connected to our place in time. It doesn’t translate well, without a lot of work. It’s the same problem faced by humor—if you have to explain a joke, it isn’t as funny anymore. I think a lot of poetry suffers from this problem, and it is unavoidable. I remember the most irritating response of failed literature students who seemed to dominate the rhetoric department when I first started there: “I can’t stand it when teachers explain literature. Isn’t my opinion just as important as all that critical junk?” Like Wordsworth’s famous observation, do we murder to dissect?

I don’t think so. I enjoyed taking things apart to better understand them. When you understand the allusions in a particular poem or novel, it seems to me that it should deepen your understanding of it. The power of those allusions, in the richest of poetry, cannot be reduced to some sort of metadata to help someone understand. Metadata could tell you the apparent subject, but not perhaps the real meaning, or tangible worth of a work of literature.

You have to know the context for the construction of the deep allusive meanings. They can be quite elusive, and not easily trapped. And it is not illusive, residing only in the minds of literary scholars. It is a tangible dimension to literature—its richest dimension, the dimension of relationship to not only the words that appear on the page, but to the words that echo through the memory of a culture.

I started thinking about The Rhetoric of Temporality by Paul de Man. I began to wonder why the connection that every work of art has to its own time—the sort of social allegory sometimes just below the surface—is often taken to be second class compared to its supposedly “universal” symbolic meaning. It seems to me that the connection, the closeness in time of allusion is more valuable than the symbolic desiccation and rendering of art as somehow being timeless. What de Man does in his essay is challenge the notion that the romantic poets (Coleridge in particular) thought of allegory as an inferior form. While it is easy to martial a lot of evidence that they did, it is just as easy to note that even the most rabid haters of allegory like Blake admitted that there was always a truth under the surface of allegory that was important. Allegory, in de Man’s view, differs from symbol in that it is closer in temporality to the audience that receives it. There is a potential for identification with truth (perhaps only mythic) which exists in allegory that is totally lost in symbolic representation.

Symbolic reduction is by necessity an abbreviation of the real content. The richness and color are most often found in the dense lace of allusions, not immediately apparent to those who view the work through a different lens, separated through time and space. But through allusion, there are always connections to a person who was there. A person who made connections, and formed relationships, out of things both inside and outside themselves. It’s the outside that gets lost, the further we get away from an artifact from another time. As for the inside, well, that’s always more of an illusion of identification, which the writer or artist begs for—knowing he cannot control what a viewer thinks—firing a sort of shotgun blast of humanity on a canvas or a page, hoping that something will stick.

More often, the audience just flits away, and the paper or canvas crumbles to dust. The laughter dies, when people can no longer connect with the joke.