On Allusions

by F.

Literary allusions make good leads and can spice up even the dullest writing. For instance, today I opened up the Weekend section of the FT and read the first lines of John Gapper’s column:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an Englishman in New York must be in want of a cup of tea.

Oddly, I can’t find his column online. Oh well. Anyway, here’s the quiz. This line above contains an allusion to:

  1. Henry IV Part II
  2. Middlemarch
  3. Pride and Prejudice
  4. The Da Vinci Code

Did you get it? Here’s another hint

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

Where’s that from? Pride and Prejudice. Now, if you didn’t get it, don’t feel bad. First, Pride and Prejudice is horribly dull. Even the movie version with Kyra Nightly and Donald Sutherland was dull. Too much tittering for any man to endure, that’s for sure. So this book has probably not been at the top of your reading list. Second, allusions are easy to find nowadays: Google it. Who cares if you missed the allusion the first time.

Allusions have always irritated me because, well, I often don’t know what the allusion is too. There was probably a time when all “educated” people had read Jane Austen. That time is gone. I would imagine that more people people would understand an allusion to Who Wants to Be a Millionare or The Brady Bunch than Jane Austen. And allusions are culture specific. As the world gets more culturally blended, people won’t be able to rely on this sort of allusion, I don’t think.

The bright side of allusions is that they are a little bit of cognitive Nutrasweet sprinkled on the prose. They let you connect two unrelated pieces of information and this always feels good. You can almost hear the dopamine being released when you get the allusion. The dark side of them is that they separate people. They are like shibboleths: if you get it, you are one of us, if not, you are not. That’s not particularly useful. The point after all is to communicate not to show off.

But the dark side can be brightened by Googling for allusions. I’m amazed at how often I can find the source of an allusion just by putting into Google the string in which the allusion is buried. James Surowiecki makes this same point in The Wisdom of Crowds, a wonderful, easy-to-read little book on how crowds solve problems better than any one member would (e.g., markets).