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The Title: The Aesthetic Significance of the Unique Position of Titles in Art

Sean Hudson


It is rarely a priority of the critic to examine how the title of a work of art contributes to its aesthetic power. This is because a title is a label – it serves the practical function of allowing us to identify a particular song or book, and sometimes does little more than that. However, by labeling the work of art, the title has a curious power over it – as long as we know the title, we cannot look at a painting without the knowledge that everything we see, such as form and colour, is united by that title, nor can we read a book without being aware that all the words on all the pages are unified by a few other words, those of the title. In this way the title is both unifying and pervasive to its work of art – it is both external (as a label) and integral. In this essay I will explore the consequences of this strange position, as well as the possibilities available to artists when using titles. I will be especially interested in the cases where the content of a title signifies an entirely different work of art, and the effects this has on both the original work and the newer one. To examine this phenomenon I will synthesize Allan H. Pasco’s theory of allusiveness with Arthur Danto’s conception of the role of titles. I will draw mostly on Bakhtin in my portrayal of language, but it will be helpful to begin with Saussure’s account of signs, as it is the historical background that informs our current conception of the relationship between a thing and its name.


Saussure believed that language was not a nomenclature – we do not name things because they are there to be named. Instead, our language systems establish the boundaries of the external world (1-6). Language gives being to what would otherwise be an incomprehensible reality. This removes human autonomy when it comes to naming: names (excluding proper nouns) occur due to the structure of a changing language rather than any person’s intentions. Thus the relation between signifier (or name, in this case) and signified (concept) is “arbitrary” – we do not choose for a book to be called “book”, and it could just as easily have developed to have an entirely different signifier, as we know from other languages. Contrast this with a title, say John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. We know that this title, unlike the signifier “book”, has been chosen intentionally. There is nothing book-like about the word book, and so no reason to try and understand the signified object by examining it’s signifier, or vice versa. Not so when it comes to titles: “The Day of the Triffids” is not arbitrary, and we presume that the relationship between the book’s content and these words are meaningful because they have been chosen. Obviously, we cannot know what this meaning is if we have no knowledge of the book’s contents, but as long as we do, there will be something The Day of the Triffids-like about the title “The Day of the Triffids”, that is to say that something of the experience of reading the novel inheres in the title, and equally the title’s presence is felt as we read the novel. This effect occurs due to our natural presumption that there is a meaningful link between title and content.


It may be helpful to understand this relationship if we think of a work of art as though it were a box. The box has a word scrawled across it, Hopscotch. You open the box and find an assortment of items. As you go through the items, you think to yourself, “Yes, I can see why that would be in a box called Hopscotch,” or “That’s strange, I wonder why someone chose to put that with the rest of these things?” As you explore the varied assortment, you are constantly aware of the fact that what unites them is that they are all in the same box, and also that the box is labeled Hopscotch. We presume that whoever put the objects in the box decided that whatever story the objects tell or patterns they create, all this can be summed up with the word “Hopscotch”. So, just as the box unites them in a physical sense, like the frame of a painting or the covers of a book, the word unites them in a conceptual sense. Like a label on a box, a title exists outside of its artwork, while at the same time it commands how we react to its content. Seen from this angle, the location of a title is external – it is written on a cover, it is outside of the box. However, the title also inheres to every object that we find inside the box. Every individual object that I look at has an invisible “Hopscotch” stamp on it for me, because I know that it does not exist by itself but as part of a greater unity, one which is called Hopscotch. Every title has a dual identity, as its location is both external and internal to its referent.


When choosing a title, then, an artist is choosing something which will not only label his work, but that will impregnate every aspect of his work, even if it is not necessarily in an obvious way. When listening to Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, we are not necessarily thinking of those four words or those two figures throughout the whole song. Nonetheless, they are always there as a resource, and even in the midst of our appreciating the talent of a particular violinist they are lurking in the backs of our minds, affecting the way we hear the music and able to make an appearance in our consciousnesses at any moment. What’s more, those words have their own resource of invisible words and concepts attached to them, extending the net of potential aesthetic material even further. Bakhtin believed that every speech act gave rise to a ‘heteroglossia’ of other words and meanings, unsaid but surrounding the speech act and contributing to its meaning. To posit a word is to posit a concomitant resource of other, invisible words, though they may differ from individual to individual. For instance, when someone says “apple”, the words “snake” and “Eve” will become available to many of us, although we don’t have to think them. This is true of the words in a title – “death” and “maiden” are surrounded by words like “skeleton”, “female”, “scythe”, “virgin”, and hundreds more, stretching off into words that have only the vaguest association with the original ones, scattered in the far peripheries of the heteroglossia, and which are consequently the least available in this invisible resource. As a title is both external and internal, the resource of words available to a reading of the title is also available in the artwork itself. To put it another way, not only do we have the words of the title as a permanent resource when we read, view, or listen to our work of art, we potentially have access to these other, more distant words and their meanings. Together, they form a background which affects the work of art in different ways and to different extents.


This structural attribute of titles may be employed as a highly effective artistic device. Let us take three works of literature as examples: Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Marquéz’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Nabokov’s Lolita. In the first instance, the twenty thousand leagues is a reference to the distance travelled by the Nautilus, and not the depth it reaches. However, having the presence of those words inherent at every moment of the novel means there is always the presence of depth, and distance, and the presence of the sea is also, of course, inescapable. This would be true even if the whole novel took place on land. Thus the title permeates the novel with a certain spatial framework, that is, one which is concerned with physical location and distance. While the resource of words and concepts it generates will differ among individuals, that they evoke a background concerning space is undeniable. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, the novel is labeled with a time limit: a duration of solitude. As in the previous title, the specificity here is what is most effective. If the book were called A Long Time Lonely then while time would certainly be part of the resource supplied by the title, it would not give us the impression of a unit of time, with beginning, middle, and end. This is achieved in Marquéz’s title, which functions to a similar effect as that of Twenty Thousand Leagues, but with an obvious difference: the pages of Verne’s book are saturated with an indefinable spatial element, whilst those of Marquez’s are imbibed with temporality.


In Nabokov’s Lolita, the effect of the title is quite different – presuming we come to the novel with no prior associations with the name “Lolita” there is no background resource to shape our reading of the text.[i] However, I would maintain that the title is still being employed as a literary device. The first-person narrator is obsessed with the eponymous schoolgirl – his obsession is wild, over-the-top, raving, blissful, agonizing, and celestial. A wide range of emotions are expressed in the text, but all are unified as elements of Humbert Humbert’s fixation on Lolita. “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins”, begins the first chapter. “My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta” (9). The reader, like the protagonist, must experience a Romanticised world which is unified by one word: Lolita. True, the protagonist makes the link between his experience and the word “Lolita” within the text, but this link is heavily reinforced by the permeating effect of the title. No matter what emotions the book presents to us and puts us through, we can never separate them from that permanent stamp of the title. In this case, it is not space or time that becomes an aesthetic framework for the work of art, but obsession.


What, then, if the artist selects a title which is already attached to an entire network of aesthetic responses? Let us consider the play called Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman. This title not only has a resource of associations as in the Bakhtinian sense, such as the words “skeleton”, “female”; it also has a framework of aesthetic responses as part of its resource, the responses being those which are experienced when we listen to Schubert’s quartet. The allusion to Schubert will obviously impact our aesthetic response to Dorfman’s play, and in order to continue our investigation of titles, it is necessary to establish a particular understanding of allusion. Laurence Perrine believed that allusions are powerful “because they may compact so much meaning in so small a space” (Arp, 681), making them particularly relevant when exploring how far the potential aesthetic powers of titles can stretch.


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[i] I am aware that in today’s day and age reading Lolita without any associations with the name is rarely the case, and am suggesting otherwise only to show that the background resource is not necessary in order for the title to be an important component in art due to its unique position. It is interesting to note that in modern usage, the term “lolita” has come to have various meanings, usually regarding any attractive girl who also looks very young, perhaps under the age of consent. This is a perfect example of how, just as the title Lolita is ever-present in the novel, the contents of the novel have instilled meaning within the title, so much so that in this unusual case the title has actually entered language itself. I will examine the phenomenon of titles being aesthetically shaped by their referents further on in the essay.