Friday, November 16, 2007


Intertextuality is a concept that floats around the worlds of literary studies and semiotics (the study of signs, from literature to clothing labels). Here's how Jonathan Culler describes intertextuality:

Intertextuality thus becomes less a name for a work's relation to particular prior texts than a designation of its participation in the discursive space of a culture: the relationship between a text and the various languages or signifying practices of a culture and its relation to those texts which articulate for it the possibilities of that culture (The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature and Deconstruction).

A little while ago at work I listened to the entire The Dark Tower series by Stephen King. I'm not a huge King fan, mostly because I don't go in for horror as a general rule. The fact remains, however, that King is really quite a good writer. One of the things that makes me think he's a good writer (and almost a great writer) is the magnificent intertextual layering of the Dark Tower books, particularly book one, The Gunslinger. By the close of book six King's "participation in the discursive space of [our] culture" does start to collapse into a much more self-conscious use of outside cultural and literary material. King spends less time building characters and events that we know from our cultural-creativity-soup and more time tracing the lines of where each one of those characters comes from. I suppose you could condemn King for this, but I wonder if the problem isn't that Culler's concept of intertextuality is a little bit too narrow. Umberto Eco, for instance, has stated explicitly that many of the intertextual layers of Name of the Rose were created intentionally (see his essay "Intertextual Irony" in On Literature), and this from one of the world's leading novelists, literary critics and semioticians.

The above is a fairly meandering way to suggest that both intentional homage and completely unintentional intertexture are fun. They both make reading interesting and immediate and they help to tell so much more story than is on the page. For those of you still not quite getting the intertexture thing let me give you an example from King's The Gunslinger.

The main character in The Gunslinger is the Gunslinger. He does have a name, Roland, but the character is really the Gunslinger. King describes him as tall, thin, he has hard, cold, blue eyes and is a single-minded, all-but-invincible warrior. He carries two big revolvers, one on each thigh, and has two belts of bullets criss-crossed over his chest. He wears a flat-topped hat and looks old, as though he was chiseled out of bare rock. Picture this character, place him in your mind's eye. Is there any chance that he looks an awful lot like this?

In my very first reading of the very first description of Roland the Gunslinger, all I could think of was Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven (absolutely his best acting role and arguably his best directorial offering, which is really, really saying something). I know now that King actually did have a modified version of Eastwood in mind as he designed Roland, but that the idea of Eastwood would come so completely and perfectly to my mind is, I think, a product of an intertextual relationship. It's not just that King meant me to think of Eastwood that makes this relationship intertextual. He just wanted me to think of an archetypal character and in my culture (and King's as well) that archetypal character has found its most complete representation in Eastwood's various portrayals of the darkly aberrant yet honorable anti-hero. Cool hey?

What, you might well ask, is the point of all of this semiotic gibberish? Our lesson of the day from literary criticism: intertextuality is fun. That is all.