"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Those Who Know

Posting Early This Week, in honor of my friend Victoria, One Who Knows
(And one who gave me the above - pictured sari for my birthday!)


A Steamy Classic

As a follow up to my recent post, Quotidian post concerning Dickensian references in Batman and Star Trek, here is another look at the phenomenon of literary allusion.

Way back during the summer before my Senior year in high school, I asked my father for some reading suggestions. He recommended the 1940s best seller Leave Her to Heaven (also a best selling movie) by Ben Ames Williams.

This looks more like the copy that I read!

The story involves a married couple: stoic Richard, who is the legal guardian of his disabled younger brother Danny, and obsessive Ellen, who grows increasingly jealous of their brotherly bond. One afternoon, Ellen offers to help Danny with swimming therapy and allows him to drown "accidentally," not knowing that Richard is watching from his study window. Ellen's guilty conscience leads to her suicide, leading to a trial in which the truth comes out and Richard is convicted as a silent accomplice. As for Ellen, both Richard and the audience must "leave her to heaven," just as the Ghost advises Hamlet.

I enjoyed the novel at the time, but I'm not sure that it would have remained so strongly impressed upon my memory had I not read Hamlet shortly thereafter in my Senior English class. Though the passage from Hamlet appears as an epigraph to the novel, it wasn't until I read them within the context of the play that I fully grasped the connection.

But, howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven,
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge
To prick and sting her.
Act I, scene V, 84 - 88

Even in reverse, having encountered the allusion before before the originating source, I relished the exhilarating domino effect of one text bouncing off another! In highschool Shakespeare class and in again in Professor Herman Wilson's graduate seminar on "Style & Audience Interaction," we discussed the importance of Biblical and classical allusions in Shakespeare's plays, and in turn, the use of Shakespearean allusions by generations of later authors. As I mentioned last week ("A Far Far Better Thing") I have always been fascinated by the intertextual version of "six degrees of separation," with each reading experience perpetually preparing the reader for an allusion that may come in the future -- or bringing about the realization that one has already occurred, as happened for me with "Leave her to heaven."

However you think of it -- a contract between writer a reader, a shared frame of reference, a short - cut, an expansion -- the literary allusion can certainly make the Great Conversation a lot more fun! You have only to say, "Stella!" or "Madame Defarge" or "Nurse Ratched" to convey a second universe of character and conflict, a little meteor impacting Earth.

To be fair, an author cannot assume that every reader will catch every allusion. The reference must be independent enough to make sense on its own, in the context of the poem or story at hand; it should not detract meaning for those who are not familiar with the work or character alluded to. Rather, it is a special bonus for those make the connection, for those "who know."

Wait! That's another one:

“I talk to you in my mind because
I know you understand the things I want to mean.

There are those who know and those who don't know.
And for every ten thousand who don't know
there's only one who knows. That's the miracle of all time --
the fact that these millions know so much but don't know this.

It's like in the fifteenth century when everybody believed the world was flat . . . But it's different in that it took talent to figure that the earth is round. While the truth is so obvious it's a miracle of all history that people don't know.

For you see, when us people who know run into each other that's an event. It almost never happens. Sometimes we meet each other and neither guesses that the other is one who knows. That's a bad thing. It's happened to me a lot of times. But you see there are so few of us.

Why has this miracle of ignorance endured? Obscurantism.”

Carson McCullers
from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
[emphasis added]


"We divided people into two groups: those who knew, and those who didn't know. Aldous Huxley and Carson McCullers knew. Roy Rogers and Doris Day didn't. [Joan Baez and a] crazy singer called Bob Dylan knew.

Sara Davidson
from Loose Change: Three Women of the Sixties
(also a movie)


  1. Biff's vision: http://www.shmoop.com/heart-lonely-hunter/life-consciousness-existence-quotes-5.html

  2. I love the new blog on cursive and the wisdom of your brother's words. And "Leave Her to Heaven!" I wrote a paper on the film several years ago and delivered it at a conference, and I've read the book, too!
    Wonderful, my friend. You're a star. And thank you for the birthday tribute, too.