Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Intertextuality and Literary Evolution

kaleigh19's picture

As a Classicist, I often find myself often reading texts for the holy grail of Classical studies: intertextuality. In its most simplistic terms, intertextuality is the presence in one text (the target text) of another text (the source text). The most obvious intertextual moments are allusions—direct (if at times obscure) references to another piece of literature. For example, Dante’s Inferno has as a primary character Virgil, the Augustan-era author of the Aeneid. Similarly, as Dante and Virgil descend through the circles of Hell, they encounter various characters from ancient literature, many of which are represented in Book 4 of the Aeneid, in which Aeneas visits the Underworld—for example, Cerberus, the three-headed dog and Medusa, the snaky-haired gorgon, just to name a few. But intertextuality can also be far less explicit. In the same work, one might find subtle resonances in Dante of other hell-bound travelers, like Aeneas or Odysseus. For a Classicist, these intertextual moments are thrilling. They represent an author’s engagement with the Classical tradition, at once affirming that the influence of ancient literature is not limited to ancient writers and also providing new and compelling ways of reading old and oft-analyzed texts. But we Classicists are just one sect of an intertextuality studies cache consisting of members from every literary discipline. Intertextuality’s implications, however, are also generative to a person attempting to understand how stories in general evolve.

Let us first attempt to grasp what exactly those implications might be by understanding what intertextuality is not, specifically the seductive assumption that a given intertext was intended by the author. While it may be fair to say that Dante “meant” to engage with the Aeneid, for the author of the source text in question figures prominently in the narrative action of the target text, this will not always be the case. Just because a poem by William Carlos Williams may remind me of a fragment of Sappho’s does not necessarily mean that Williams consciously imitated Sappho or even that he was familiar with Sappho. In fact, it is probably true that the vast majority intertextualities are unintentional, for intertextuality is a product of reading, not writing, or as Don Fowler, a 20th-century Latinist and intertextuality theorist, writes: “We are concerned not with what writers think…Intertextuality, like all aspects of literary reception, is ultimately located in reading practice….meaning is realized at the point of reception, and what counts as an intertext and what one does with it depends on the reader,” (Fowler 127). To return to our example, even though Williams may not have “known” Sappho, if I read Williams and think Sappho, that still qualifies as an intertextual moment. If I, as a reader, find Sappho in Williams, then I can argue that there is an intertextual relationship between the ancient female and the modern male poets. Whether or not this observation is generative, depends on what I do with it—if my discovery of Sappho in Williams enriches someone else’s reading of Williams, then the intertext can be argued to be interesting.

Fowler also argues that the phenomenon of intertextuality is indicative of what he identifies as the textual system, “a matrix of possibilities constituted of earlier texts” (Fowler 117). According to Fowler, it is impossible to read an individual text in isolation from this matrix, the context in which we may locate the text, and without this context, a text is unreadable. I can best understand this on a verbal level—if I read the word “cat,” but I have never seen a cat nor read anything about cats, then I cannot know what a cat is. So, if I read a story about a cat without having any context for “cat”, the story will have no meaning for me. To read a narrative, to comprehend the story, is to engage with the matrices of language and literature within which each word and the entire work functions, to find resonant intertextualities. As Fowler formulates, “Intertextuality is a property of language—and of semiotic systems in general—not simply literature,” (Fowler 119). The universality of non-literary intertexts serves as an illustration to this observation: we find traces of former presidents in current ones, echoes of Bach in Beethoven, hints of Monet in Rothko, even Archie Bunker in Homer Simpson. Far from confusing our experiences of these figures, intertexuality enables them.

We should now return to how intertextuality informs literary evolution. It could be argued that literature, unlike evolution, is not random. Writers are creative, putting together strings of words and ideas to a specific end, and intertextuality is merely a tool of which writers avail themselves to approach a telos. As Fowler argues, however, understanding intertexuality as symptomatic of a textual matrix sidesteps authorial design. Individual authors do not use intertexts any more than individual organisms use mutation—it is only when a reader, like Darwin, tells a story about a story that intertexts become apparent as part of the generation process of a work of literature.

Many aspects of intertextuality, in fact, enable us to reframe literature in evolutionary terms. First, the literary matrix, as a reference space for reading texts, can also be viewed as a universal point of origin for works of literature. A text becomes unique insofar as it represents a “new,” but perhaps only slightly distinct, combination of intertexts, a multi-faceted and multivalent interaction of one text with every text within the literary matrix. A single character, for example, might be read as the product of multiple intertextualities with other characters from previous works, each of which is the product of other myriad intertextualities. In this way, we can construct family trees, relating a character like Kiki Belsey to other cuckolded characters as diverse as Zeus’s wife Hera or Shakespeare’s Othello. Intertextualities therefore provide a means by which we can connect widely different species of characters or works, just as comparative morphologies can link vastly different organisms like a zebra fish and a human. And perhaps more importantly, speciation of literature, just like speciation of organisms, speaks to the generative mutations of Fowler’s literary matrix, what we might think of as a literary genome.

Considering all literature as sharing a common origin has similar repercussions to conceiving of all organisms as ancestrally related. Just as Darwin subverted the scala natura of the biological world, intertextuality compels us to reevaluate the literary canon and the scala natura of literature. The literary canon is often thought of as an impossibly high standard for what literature should be and against which all new literature is compared. Novelists attempt to write the “Great American Novel”, to produce something worthy of being canonized. In this way, the literary canon is a telos, the goal towards which any writer should aim. Intertextuality, however, undermines the teleology of the literary canon. All works of literature have a common power source, the literary matrix, and all texts enable the reading of all other texts. Moreover, not only does intertextuality, like biological evolution, suggest that all texts have a single origin, thereby complicating the idea that some are supposed to be better than others, it actually prevents a catch-all definition of literary superiority. How can one tell that a book is particularly good? Should it be far more complex combination of intertexualities? Should it contain a few particularly efficient and resonant intertextualities? Should it be a prolific source of future intertextualities? Just as there are many ways to situate an organism in the non-teleological web of life, there are untold possibilities for locating a work in the literary matrix, and as a result, literary, like biological, evolution is necessarily non-teleological.

This, however, is not to say that all texts are equally viable. Like biological success, literary success is wholly a matter of reception, for only those books that resonate powerfully with many people will be published and read and only those organisms that survive to reproduce will reproduce. As we have seen, intertextuality is also almost entirely a matter of reception. It is safe, moreover, to argue that a specific text’s intertextual moments will have a key role in determining its success. If a text does not effectively engage with the literary matrix, if its intertexts are not accessible, then as Fowler suggests and we considered previously, it cannot be read. If a text cannot be read, then it will not be successful. Therefore, a text’s viability will be due to its capacity to resonate with readers through intertextuality. All that can be said of a text that is viable, that enjoys a wide and long-lasting readership, is that it represents an advantageous combination of intertexts from the literary genome. It is probably for this reason that we see entire genres of literature emerge—a particular combination of thematic or character intertexts proves to be successful (just as a certain pattern of gene expression might beneficial in organisms), and the literary environment began to select for other novels with like characteristics.

Understanding intertextuality, then, is useful in considering the evolution of literary stories. Intertextuality teaches us that like species, stories share a common origin and a common means of expression, of communicating and interacting with the environment. These commonalities imply that, in parallel with biological evolution, literary evolution is non-linear and non-teleological. Finally, textual success is due in large part to the commodity of combinations of intertexts, just as species viability relies on novel gene expression. Indeed, the matrix of literature is just as dynamic and vibrant as the biological universe. The only question remaining, then, is whether or not thinking of literature in evolutionary terms is generative. I am inclined to argue that it is—if not, then I am not sure what I have been doing over the last semester. But on less personal level, it is important to consider stories as evolving, for in doing so we assume a greater responsibility as readers. If literature is narrative, then we can impact future readers and writers, we can have a greater voice in determining what is “good literature,” what should and should not be canonical. To presume that literature is non-narrative is to forsake personal agency and embrace complacency, a state that negatively resonates with this reader.

Works Cited

Folwer, Don. “On the Shoulders of Giants.” Roman Constructions: Readings in Postmodern Latin. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. pp. 115–137.


Paul Grobstein's picture

intertextuality and evolution

I like your connection between "intertextuality" and evolutionary thinking. And am intrigued by "intertextuality" as the "Holy Grail of classical studies". You've done some nice paralleling to arrive at several reasonable conclusions, among them that intertextuality implies no fixed literary canon in the same sense that there is no final state for biological evolution, and that some selection is operating in both cases. I'm intrigued and want to think more about the "literary matrix" as parallel to the gene pool at any given time. And about parallels to speciation. And an interesting question is your emphasis on reader response theory, ie on an observer as an important constituent in literary evolution. That, it seems to me, lacks a parallel in biological evolution?