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An allusion is a figure of speech that makes a reference to, or representation of, people, places, events, literary work, myths, or works of art, either directly or by implication. M. H. Abrams defined allusion as "a brief reference, explicit or indirect, to a person, place or event, or to another literary work or passage". It is left to the reader or hearer to make the connection (Fowler); where the connection is detailed in depth by the author, it is preferable to call it "a reference". In the arts, a literary allusion puts the alluded text in a new context under which it assumes new meanings and denotations. It is not possible to predetermine the nature of all the new meanings and intertexual patterns that an allusion will generate. Literary allusion is closely related to parody and pastiche, which are also "text-linking" literary devices.
In a freer informal definition, allusion is a passing or casual reference, an incidental mention of something, either directly or by implication: In the stock market he met his Waterloo.
A sobriquet is an allusion: by metonymy one aspect of a person or other referent is selected to identify it, and it is this shared aspect that makes an allusion evocative. In an allusion to "the city that never sleeps", New York will be recognized. Recognizing the figure in this condensed puzzle-disguise additionally serves to reinforce cultural solidarity between the maker of the remark and the hearer: their shared familiarity with The Big Apple bonds them. Some aspect of the referent must be invoked and identified, in order for the tacit association to be made; the allusion is indirect in part because "it depends on something more than mere substitution of a referent" The allusion depends as well on the author's intent; an industrious reader may search out parallels to a figure of speech or a passage, of which the author under examination was unaware, and offer them as unconscious allusions— coincidences that a critic might not find illuminating. Addressing such issues is an aspect of hermeneutics.
William Irwin remarks that an allusion moves in only one direction: "If A alludes to B, then B does not allude to A. The Bible does not allude to Shakespeare, though Shakespeare may allude to the Bible." Irwin appends a note: "Only a divine author, outside of time, would seem capable of alluding to a later text." This is the basis for Christian readings of Old Testament prophecy, which asserts that passages are to be read as allusions to future events.
In Homer, brief allusions could be made to mythic themes of generations previous to the main narrative because they were already familiar to the epic's hearers: one example is the theme of the Calydonian boarhunt. In Hellenistic Alexandria, literary culture and a fixed literary canon known to readers and hearers, made a densely allusive poetry effective; the poems of Callimachus offer the best-known examples.
Allusion differs from the similar term intertextuality in that it is an intentional effort on the author's part. The success of an allusion depends in part on at least some of its audience "getting" it. Allusions may be made increasingly obscure, until at last they are understood by the author alone, who thereby retreats into a private language.
Martin Luther King, Jr., alluded to the Gettysburg Address in starting his "I Have a Dream" speech by saying 'Five score years ago..."; his hearers were immediately reminded of Abraham Lincoln's "Four score and seven years ago", which opened the Gettysburg Address. King's allusion effectively called up parallels in two historic moments.
An allusion may become trite and stale through unthinking overuse, devolving into a mere cliché, as in some of the following examples:
Andy Warhol, a 20th-century American artist most famous for his pop-art images of Campbell soup cans and of Marilyn Monroe, commented about the explosion of media coverage by saying, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes."
Today, when someone receives a great deal of media attention for something fairly trivial, and he or she is said to be experiencing his or her “15 minutes of fame”, the allusion is to Andy Warhol's famous saying.
This phrase comes from a novel by Joseph Heller. Catch-22 is set on a U.S. Army Air Force base in World War II. “Catch-22” refers to a regulation that states an airman’s request to be relieved from flight duty can only be granted if he is judged to be insane. However, anyone who does not want to fly dangerous missions is obviously sane, thus, there is no way to avoid flying the missions.
Later in the book the old woman in Rome explains that Catch-22 means "They can do whatever they want to do." This refers to the theme of the novel in which the authority figures consistently abuse their powers, leaving the consequences to those under their command.
In common speech, “catch-22” has come to describe any absurd or no-win situation.
The poetry of T. S. Eliot is often described as "allusive", because of his habit of referring to names, places or images that may only make sense in the light of prior knowledge. This technique can add to the experience, but for the uninitiated can make Eliot's work seem dense and hard to decipher.
The most densely allusive work in modern English is Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson wrote A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1944) that unlocked some of Joyce's most obscure allusions.
The literary allusion is a device for the simultaneous activation of two texts. The activation is achieved through the manipulation of a special signal: a sign (simple or complex) in a given text characterizad by an additional larger "referent." This referent is always an independent text. The simultaneous activation of the two texts thus connected results in the formation of intertextual patterns whose nature cannot be predetermined. ... The "free" nature of the intertextual patterns is the feature by which it would be possible to distinguish between the literary allusion and other closely related text-linking devices, such as parody and pastiche.
|2. Additional reading material: W. T. Irwin (2002). "The Aesthetics of Allusion." Journal of Value Inquiry: 36 (4).|