Allusion: A Literary Graft. By Allan H. Pasco. University of Toronto Press. $55.00.
Present appearances notwithstanding, critical strategy can be contrarian. And to my knowledge, no recent humanist has swum against the current more persistently—or more astutely—than the Hall Professor of 19th-century French Studies at the University of Kansas, Allan H. Pasco.
In the late 60’s and early 70’s, as the study of literary chromatics was losing its compass and beginning to founder on impressionism, fuzzy theories of the symbol, and statistical charts, Pasco performed a salvage operation. His The Color Keys to ‘A la recherche du temps perdu’ (1976) dredged the discipline up, fitted it with new instruments, then launched it on a promising course of inductive formal analysis and philologically sound, text-based thematics.
Later, when the fragile analogies and fastidious jargon of structuralism had all but stifled debate about narrative composition, Pasco wrote Novel Configurations: A Study of French Fiction (1987). Bold, accessible, and invigorating, this work revealed a multiplicity of organic forms and functions which devotees of the Saussurian model had overlooked or excluded. That Novel Configurations sold well enough to justify a second, enlarged edition in 1994 speaks volumes.
More recently, in Balzacian Montage: Configuring ‘La Comedie humaine’ (1991), Pasco cogently challenged the idea that the 19th-century masterpiece is a loose baggy monster, as indeterminate as it is shapeless. In this rich and coherent treatment, Balzac was nothing less than a crafty seer, who knew exactly what he was about.
Pasco’s latest book, Allusion: A Literary Graft, seeks to remedy the vagueness, indeed, near-meaninglessness, to which careless or tendentious bandying-about has reduced the term intertextuality, or “the exploitation of one text by another.” Though deliberately circumscribed, his solution accounts more satisfactorily than anything else in (or out of) print for the many patterns and uses of sustained literary resonance.
Pasco begins by distinguishing between three modes of textual exploitation.
In imitation, the author fits his text into a tradition, and willingly attempts to use its means—whether style, forms, lexicon, or devices—and its values to echo previous success. In opposition—whether irony, or satire or even negative commentary and comparison—the signified images resist integration and emphasize disparateness. In allusion, different texts, both the one in hand and those that are external, are integrated metaphorically into something new.
He then elaborates this idea in a passage which tempers traditional organicism with Gestalt esthetics and Anglo-American formalism:
[T]he author has grafted another text onto the root-stock of his creation. In an ideal environment, the two texts—plant and implant, stock and scion—bond to make a new creation, different from either of the component texts, quite different from what the text would have been without the external material, and … distinct from what exists outside the work in hand.
Though presented as an a priori, this perspective actually arose from decades of dialectic between Pasco’s independent variables and the texts that fascinate him. Theory, in other words, was constantly revised after clashing with particulars, and individual texts were constantly and ever more productively reread through a framework of ideas and methods that continually gained in explanatory power.
The product of this labor is two-fold and useful in very different ways.
First, Pasco provides well-founded, solidly reasoned and, above all, penetrating analyses of excellent, representative works, such as Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet, Flaubert’s “Un Coeur simple” and Zola’s La Faute de I’abbe Mouret; Proust’s Recherche and Gide’s La Symphonie pastorale; Sartre’s La Nausee and Robbe-Grillet’s Les Gommes. In each, he reads plot, narrative technique, and language in terms cast up by the allusion, whose half-shadowy presence and subtle permutations he documents with solid proof and compelling logic. Pasco is no dupe of his method, however: he habitually rejects facile or inadequate hypotheses, while addressing counter-evidence, reasoned objections, and alternative readings. Indeed, much of the volume distills classroom exchanges, one-on-one conversation with skeptical as well as supportive colleagues, and debate at professional meetings or in the pages of learned journals.
Secondly, Pasco arranges his analyses into a provocative taxonomy. Among other modes, he distinguishes between translation, imitation, plagiarism, and parallel allusion; between allegory and allusion (only the latter of which contains a “concrete universal”); between oppositional allusion and allusive oxymoron; and, finally, between modernist and postmodernist allusion, the former centripetal, the latter centrifugal. These categories are not Platonic essences: Pasco challenges the reader to contest, broaden, deepen, and nuance them.
A brief digression about revelance. Though Pasco’s examples are modern and French, his method is immediately applicable to the study of other periods and literatures. Two examples will suffice. His essay on Anouilh’s (and Sophocles’) Antigone, for instance, provides a model for discussing French (or any other country’s) “classicism” as a dynamic relationship between ancient and modern literary theories and practices. Secondly, Proust’s allusive complex, a rich “figure in the carpet,” is but one variant of a pattern well established in Vergil, Cervantes, Tolstoy, and, of course, Joyce—to say nothing of Catullus, La Fontaine, and T. S. Eliot.
To conclude, Allusion: A Literary Graft is a summative and innovative contribution. It clarifies and (more importantly) integrates the most viable elements of past research, even as it creates a new tool eminently suited to future inquiry. Informed and guided by Pasco’s model, the next wave of “textual exploitation” studies should surpass most earlier attempts not only in comprehensiveness, accuracy, and precision, but, above all, significance.
Finally, with humanistic discourse becoming ever more trivial, detached from its objects and traditions, crypto-dogmatic, and self-indulgent, this work offers a promising corrective. Every page of Allusion: A Literary Graft illustrates the powers and affords the pleasures of active engagement with first-order artistic creations; of steady focus on the problems, both current and perennial, that these works pose to analysts, interpreters, and historians; of openness to methods, old as well as new, that are apt to solve such problems; and of personal reflection that is self-aware, self-assessing, and self-correcting. In sum, Pasco’s book unites authentic— that is to say, dialogical and critical—pluralism with cultural literacy in the strong sense.