Skip to main content

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

Allan H. Pasco writes that an ideal literary allusion leads to a “bond[ing] to make a new creation, different from either of the component texts, quite different from what the text would have been without the external material, and, in addition, distinct from what exists outside the work in hand” (6). Allusion is one of the three kinds of intertextualities identified by Pasco, the other two being imitation and opposition (Pasco, 5). Since Kristeva’s use of the term ‘intertextuality’, the concept has become dominant in the world of art. In most cases, it is considered helpful to think of art as intertextual because we understand works in relation to other works: we see the work, as Barthes would say, as a system of signs. By understanding the way the system works, we understand how our interpretations of art are formed, and the interrelatedness of works. Writing in 1994, Pasco claims that “little or no attention has been paid to allusion within the reading process when the external text is metaphorically grafted onto the internal image to create something new” (italics my own, 6). For the purposes of this essay, allusion will be examined in this way – not as part of a system of signs which point outwards at other works, but as part of the creation of a single work of art, which consists of the material at hand (e.g. Dorfman’s play) and something of the work it alludes to (e.g. Schubert’s quartet).


What follows is a long extract from Pasco, both for his eloquent explanation of reading which sits nicely with my own, and his choice of example to demonstrate the effect of allusion:


“The main difficulty in understanding how allusion works may be the failure to consider the device in the light of the way we read. We know that as our eyes follow the words on the page our minds convert the signs into images according with the conventions of the language. The reader’s mind searches for ways to fit these significances into a conception, a mental image with history, context, colour, depth, direction, weight, and velocity. We watch and apprehend Anouilh’s Antigone, for example, as she struggles with the circumstances that surround her. Not uncommonly, while continuing to complete the reader’s conception, the text being read will recall a completely different conception (or text) from the reader’s previous experience. When Anouilh recreated Antigone, he clearly hoped to raise a second image, since he summarized the Sophoclean tragedy in the program and since his Chorus clearly forecasts the girl’s future in the first few moments of the performance. By raising the classical story, Anouilh insists metaphorically on the terrible destiny that draws Antigone toward death. Consequently, the modern play’s portrayals of hope, purity, society, love, government, and so on, are all integrated into the theme of fate because of the allusion” (6-7).


What I find particularly relevant in this passage is the fact the Pasco speaks of how the allusion in Antigone affects us, but only lists two ways that the playwright actually creates the allusion: the summarization of the classic tragedy in the programme, and the premonition of the Chorus at the start of the play. The most important and effective technique that Anouilh has employed is probably too obvious for Pasco to bother mentioning – the title itself. Now that we have seen how the power of allusion binds works together to produce an artwork’s resulting aesthetic appeal, we must examine the source of this strange power; in this particular case, and in many others, the main source is the title.


An objection may be raised: how can we know the title is the most important or effective allusive technique? We saw from the quotation that the central character is also named Antigone, as in the tragedy of Sophocles. Why shouldn’t that be just as important in allusively creating the final aesthetic product? The answer lies in what we already know of the nature of titles. A title is ever-present within its referent, and so an allusive title assimilates its allusion throughout the entire work of art – it is not just an allusive element. A title is also a label, unifying all aspects of its referent under a name. If an artist chooses a title which is already in use, he is demanding that we understand his work in parallel to the previous work. To return to the box metaphor: it is as though the author has deposited a new set of objects in an old box, already labeled, and by doing so is asking us to understand this new set of objects in the same way that we made sense of the set that was previously in the box.


An interesting example of this “labeling” effect can be seen in Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. The main character is a boy, for whom we only know his pseudonym, Kafka. In the novel, Kafka encounters an old pop song called Kafka on the Shore, which has a mysterious quality that he struggles to understand, and the song proves to be central to both his life and the events of the novel. We learn that the song was based on a painting that the musician had, an image of a boy standing by the sea, and also called Kafka on the Shore. Furthermore, there is a moment in the novel when the protagonist, with the musician, is actually standing on the shore, and so is himself a “Kafka on the shore”. The title remains mysterious throughout the novel, but nonetheless there is an accumulative effect that gives it meaning – the reader feels that whatever essential mystery the novel holds, it is the same one held by the song, the painting, and the event of Kafka on the shore. In all cases the words are a sign, and their artistic referent (whether novel, song, painting, or event) is an impression which encapsulates that lost meaning (Deleuze, 26 – 33). At the end of the novel, Kafka takes the painting with him, and we feel as though he is taking the mysterious heart of the novel (and his experiences therein) with him as well, all captured in a plastic art form, something that he can cherish forever. All this is achieved through the shared use of one title – the effect is one that we might call inter-allusive, the work metafictional by drawing attention to itself within itself.


It seems clear to me that this effect that Murakami toys with in his novel functions similarly when employed across different works of art in reality. Murakami himself employs it in the more common sense with his novel Norwegian Wood. At which point another objection is raised: my claim is that the “mysterious heart” of the Beatles’s song Norwegian Wood (1965) is allusively grafted into Murakami’s novel of the same title, and furthermore it is this titular allusion that binds and unifies the text (for that is the role of all titles). At the same time, the song will mean different things for different people – anything essential to the song is only so because it singularizes, there is no universal core (Deleuze, 29). How, then, can an allusion to the song unite Murakami’s text, when the song itself has no unified meaning?


Of course, what the song evokes depends partly on its listener – for some people, John Lennon’s voice will be most present in those parts of the novel that clearly remind us it is set in the 60s; for many, the wistful energy of the chords will echo as Toru strolls the Japanese countryside with Naoko; or the haunting melody will colour his love for her. Different readers will experience the effects of allusion differently, there can be no doubt. However, what they experience must make sense in light of the content of the Beatles’s song. Not everything is relative. It surely will not be denied that what Norwegian Wood evokes is not the same as what Yellow Submarine evokes, no matter how differently listeners respond to the songs. This suggests to me that it is valid to assert an integral difference between the two. I would not deny the importance of intertextuality used as a tool for seeing texts as relations, but nonetheless I believe it may also be used to help us understand the presence of a common force amongst those who experience a work of art, a force which does not equate to the specific content of people’s reactions (including personal associations, memories, etc.). The nature of the common force I am describing is an area of interest, but not one which needs further investigation for the purposes of this essay. It is sufficient to know that something exists particular to a work of art, and is transmitted through allusion.


For instance, there is a great deal of variation in Macbeth, but it nonetheless expresses something which is recognized universally – some sort of evil presence pervades Robert Frost’s poem “Out, Out –”, which takes its title from a famous passage in Macbeth. Note that this example is unlike Norwegian Wood as it does not employ the “labeling effect” I outlined previously. Imagine if Frost had named his poem “Macbeth”. All the associations of evil concerning the doomed king of Scotland would have been equally made available as a resource to the reader, and the events of the poem would be seen in parallel to the events of Macbeth. By simply choosing those two memorable words of the passage and providing that suggestive dash, Frost focuses our attention on the power of these particular words.[i]


Frost’s poem is about a boy in America who is accidentally killed by the chainsaw that he is using to cut wood. All the evil of the play is available as a resource, but it is much more distant to us than the powerful sentiment captured in Macbeth’s passage. If no shared force existed here, and the meaning of this passage was merely a tangle of subjective associations, then Frost would have had no idea what kind of effect his title would produce. Laurence Perrine writes that “poets must assume a certain fund of common experience in readers” (Arp, 683), and also that Frost’s title is “a good illustration of how a poet may use allusion not only to reinforce emotion but also to help define his theme” (Arp, 682). The theme expressed in both cases is the cruelty and meaninglessness of life in the face of unexpected death, but as an explanation this does not account for the poetic power that is produced by having these words permeate the poem. The “sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” makes itself present in Frost’s poem, strengthening his words but also giving them a certain character.


1 . 2 . 3



[i] She should have died hereafter;

There would have been time for such a word.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

(qtd. in Arp, 682-683)