The Difficult Art of Allusion

Posted: Jan 10, 2006 11:37 AM

Back in March, the Charleston (S.C.) News and Courier carried an eye-catching staff photograph of harbor pilings silhouetted against a late afternoon fog. The photo had no particular news value. It was ars gratia artis. The caption read, "On little cat feet."

You will already have inferred that we're back to the oldest of all topics in this column: What is a writer's obligation to his readers? Or, to switch genders and pronouns, what is a writer's obligation to herself?

In drafting a caption, the Charleston editor was quoting from a poem by Carl Sandburg: "The fog comes/on little cat feet./It sits looking/over the harbor and city ..." In identifying the photo as ars gratia artis , I was just showing off. Art for art's sake.

In our business -- the writing business -- we begin with certain assumptions. The first of these is that we want to be read. We want to be understood. If these are not our aims, we have no business in the writing business. But hold on! Are these our only aims or only our primary aims? Do we want to be perfectly understood by all our putative readers? If not, why not? Or are we aiming our bons mots and apt quotations only for some fraction of our putative audience? If so, what fraction? Why?

These are serious questions. Today's meditations are not concerned with technical words and phrases. No one reasonably could expect writers constantly to define "hedge fund" or "squeeze bunt" or "First Amendment." We're talking about allusions. Like bank shots in billiards, these literary devices depend for their effectiveness upon some secondary cushion. Writers and editors tackle elusive allusions every day. Hamlet addressed them in his famous speech to the players. He recalled a play that failed after one performance because "it pleased not the million. 'Twas caviar to the general." Our readers cannot live on caviar alone.

Maureen Dowd, a greatly gifted columnist for The New York Times, never writes down to her readers. Writing about Vice President Dick Cheney, she said that a few years ago he "created a Machiavellian Mobius strip." Writing about Vice President Al Gore, in his moussed 'do and heathery polo shirts, "he hardly looks like Willie Stark."

Alessandra Stanley of the Times is equally erudite: "When Hollywood stars attach themselves to a noteworthy cause, the tableau can turn into an Escher print." Watching television during last year's presidential campaign was "a little like walking into fabled Narnia."

In The Washington Post last year, a columnist recalled the Russians' long dominance in the arcane world of chess. "Enter Bobby Fischer, gangly kid from Brooklyn, all brains and no grace, a high school dropout with the sartorial sense of Gary Glitter ..."

In a review some years ago of the movie "Bringing out the Dead," The New Yorker's Anthony Lane criticized the performance of actress Patricia Arquette. She was "so blank and wasted that next to her, even Nicolas Cage starts to look like Howard Keel."

Were the allusions clear to most readers of the Times, the Post and The New Yorker? How many of Dowd's readers could identify the mathematician August Ferdinand Mobius (1790-1868). An Escher print? Gary Glitter? Howard Keel?

Should editors explain? Some years ago, when President Clinton was running for re-election, he said he would seek to increase funding for Medicaid in New York. An opponent said he was making "the El Dorado of campaign promises." The Buffalo News felt it had to explain: "The president was referring to the legend of an elusive storehouse of gold." Oh, well. Oh, dear.