Though it was a standard term in literary history for generations, the word “influence” never satisfactorily suited the complex variety of ways in which authors and texts interact with and upon one another over time. Though weakened and made vague through overuse, “influence” continued to suggest a neatness of linearity and hierarchy that never existed in a simple form. “Intertextuality,” the word currently preferred, is less loaded, more open but hardly an improvement in precision.
In Literary Symbiosis: The Reconfigured Text in Twentieth-Century Writing, David Cowart attempts with admirable success to give shape and definition to particular kinds of intertextuality and then proceeds to examine some instances with insight and originality in several works. Aware of the common and hardly recent tendency of authors to borrow from, misread, and rewrite earlier texts, Cowart is most concerned with the postmodern habit of displaying and critiquing this practice rather than concealing or justifying it. Borrowing, as critics before him have done, from the vocabulary of biology, he locates three kinds of interdependency: “commensalism,” in which the guest organism benefits but the host suffers no harm; “mutualism,” in which both benefit, and “parasitism,” in which the guest benefits at the expense of the host.
It is to Cowart’s credit that he sees the utility of his borrowed vocabulary without being blind to its limitations. That which constitutes “harm” or “benefit” is likely to be more a matter of debate among literary critics than it is among biologists. Furthermore, time plays a different role in the history of texts than it presumably does in the history of organisms. What may appear “damaging” to the reputation of a book or author in one era may enhance both a generation or two later. When Cowart speaks of “parasitism,” therefore, he is more interested in showing how the new text ostentatiously hangs on to the old and temporarily redirects our reading of it than in proving a permanent positive or negative impact. When he refers to “symbiosis,” he recognizes that it “no doubt falls into that vast category called influence,” but that it is “influence at its most explicit and recognizable.”
Cowart’s selection of texts provides strong support for his argument that in the twentieth century, especially in the second half of the [End Page 916] twentieth century, something peculiar if not altogether unique occurs when old and new texts encounter one another. Shifting his terminology to accomodate his psychoanalytic and post-structuralist intentions, he shows that with increasing frequency the old text becomes an object of deconstruction and irreverant remaking. Allusion, quotation, and imitation—never neutral acts—have grown more and more subversive with time.
The two chapters on twentieth century works linked to Shakespeare, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Auden’s “The Sea and the Mirror” reveal that something more radical than parody or pious imitation is involved. “In Stoppard’s version of Hamlet . . . the inconsequential Rosencrantz and Guildenstern supplant the noble protagonist, as in fact they have figuratively done (in plays by Rice, Pirandello, Brecht, Beckett, Pinter, Ionesco, et al) on the twentieth century stage.” By contrast, Auden’s poem is not so much a rewriting of The Tempest as a reflection on the events of Shakespeare’s play as the characters prepare to leave the island: “Indeed, to read Auden is to encounter a text that defers an encounter with—and defers to—another text.” In both cases the relationship to the “original” is dependent and defiant, a tribute that, given the aesthetic conventions of our own time, is virtually indistinguishable from a repudiation.
A particularly important part of Cowart’s thesis that distinguishes postmodern intextextuality from earlier versions emphasizes its self-critical character. Unlike simpler forms of parody, the symbiosis to which his book points often displays the contemporary structure dismantling itself at the same time it dismantles its “host.” If classic modes of comedy, tragedy, epic, and romance no longer seem valid, the parasitic forms that expose their dry roots and bend their brittle branches...