MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 62.3 (2001) 291-293
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The Full-Knowing Reader:
Allusion and the Power of the Reader in the Western Literary Tradition
The Full-Knowing Reader: Allusion and the Power of the Reader in the Western Literary Tradition. By Joseph Pucci. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. xxii + 263 pp.
Critical discussion of the phenomenon of allusion (in the sense of a brief, identifiable verbal reminiscence of an earlier literary work in a later one) is beset by terminological difficulties. In one respect, there is a superabundance of terminology, since newer terms, such as intertextuality or anxiety of influence, which might seem to be helpful, in fact have little to do with allusion. In another respect, there is a terminological dearth; it confuses discussions of the phenomenon, for example, that there is not one term for the allusive phrase as it appears in the alluding text and another, distinct term for that phrase as it appears in the anterior text.
One strength of Joseph Pucci's book The Full-Knowing Reader is that it introduces into the study of allusion greater terminological and conceptual [End Page 291] clarity than has hitherto characterized the field. His major thesis is that previous theories of allusion have ignored the role of the reader and instead have either focused on the alluding author or treated allusion as a kind of sign, despite the fact that "the connection of the two phrases that compose the allusion can only occur in the mind of the reader, who is reminded by virtue of shared language of a connection between a later set of words and an earlier set, and who configures on his own terms the interpretive outcomes of this connection" (36).
That thesis emerges after an admirable survey, in the book's first part, of twentieth-century scholarship on and theorizing about textual interrelationships, running from T. S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent," through New Critical treatments such as Reuben Brower's Alexander Pope: The Poetry of Allusion, to the structuralist accounts of Ziva Ben-Porat and Carmela Perri. Though his focus is allusion, Pucci ably incorporates into his overview more globalizing treatments of textual interrelation, such as Harold Bloom's theory of influence and the structuralist concept of intertextuality. The scope and lucidity of Pucci's theoretical survey make it, by itself, a significant contribution to the study of textual interrelationships, the most clear and comprehensive such overview available. His emphasis on the reader as the locus of allusive potentiality represents a second salutary contribution to the study of allusion.
The following definition by Ben-Porat typifies the obscurity and awkwardness that result when the reader is not taken into account in discussions of allusion:
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 characterized 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. 1
Pucci calls this kind of language a "critical shell-game . . . subsuming under the veneer of linguistic function what is . . . the crucial component of the allusion's function, namely, the creation of the allusion in the mind of the reader" (36). He speaks, much more straightforwardly and naturally than a critic like Ben-Porat, of a reader noticing and interpreting an allusion (though I cannot see how he is served by spatializing this process and asserting, as he often does, that the reader's interpretation occurs within "allusive space").
The second part of The Full-Knowing Reader takes up a question that has [End Page 292] apparently vexed classicists: why ancient rhetorics do not mention the phenomenon of allusion, when so many literary works from the classical period are so densely allusive. Pucci argues that the ancients did have a term for readerly involvement in the...