I. What is Intertextuality?
Intertextuality (pronounced in-terr-text-yoo-a-lih-tee) is not a literary or rhetorical device, but rather a fact about literary texts – the fact that they are all intimately interconnected. This applies to all texts: novels, works of philosophy, newspaper articles, films, songs, paintings, etc. In order to understand intertextuality, it’s crucial to understand this broad definition of the word “text.”
Every text is affected by all the texts that came before it, since those texts influenced the author’s thinking and aesthetic choices. Remember: every text (again in the broadest sense) is intertextual.
II. Examples of Intertextiality
Fan fiction is a great example of deliberate intertextuality. In fan fiction, authors enter the fictional worlds of other authors and create their own stories. For example, a Lord of the Rings fan fiction might tell the story of minor characters or add new characters to the world of Middle Earth. Sometimes, fan fiction becomes extremely successful in its own right – 50 Shades of Grey was originally written as Twilight fan fiction.
Martin Luther King’s writing was heavily influenced by the work of Mohandas Gandhi, especially in the area of nonviolent resistance. Much of this intertextuality was deliberate, with King explicitly crediting Gandhi as one of his influences. Scholars, however, have debated whether there might have been other aspects of Gandhi’s writing, such as his aesthetic style, that also influenced King in a more latent way.
III. Types of Intertextuality
Sometimes, intertextuality is the result of an author’s choice. When a heavy metal artist makes references to Norse mythology, or when a novelist draws on the works of Shakespeare as inspiration, these choices forge a relationship between the old text and the new. We can call this deliberate intertextuality.
Even when an author isn’t deliberately employing intertextuality, though, intertextuality is still there. You can’t escape it! Everything you’ve ever seen or read sticks somewhere in your memory and affects your understanding of the world. They all contribute to building your specific worldview which, in turn, determines how you write or create art. We can call this latent intertextuality.
Of course, since we can’t read an author’s mind, it’s not always easy to know the difference between deliberate and latent intertextuality. We might find a similarity between two texts, but we have no way to know whether it was deliberate or accidental unless the author tells us!
IV. The Importance of Intertextuality
Intertextuality shows how much a culture can influence its authors, even as the authors in turn influence the culture. When you create a work of art, literature, or scholarship, you are inevitably influenced by everything that you’ve seen or read up to that point. Even seemingly disparate fields, such as music and philosophy, can exert a strong influence on each other through intertextuality – the philosopher Nietzsche, for example, was heavily influenced by the early operas of Richard Wagner. Similarly, authors from different cultures and historical periods can influence each other!
Intertextuality also shows how a similar cultural, religious, political, or moral ideology can be expressed in very different ways through different cultural practices. For example, think about the way that art, music, literature, and philosophy all changed in the aftermath of World War I. This earth-shattering event made people feel like nothing was stable or certain, and this was reflected in all aspects of artistic and scholarly pursuits. Post-war paintings were far more abstract and chaotic; post-war philosophy was nearly obsessed with problems of evil and unpredictability; post-war music was more formless and atonal; post-war novels questioned the rules of linear structure and chronology. Every aspect of the society was affected by the events of this bloody war, and everything produced in its aftermath shows plenty of latent (and sometimes deliberate) intertextuality.
V. Examples of Intertextuality in Literature
James Joyce’s Ulysses was a deliberate retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, but transplanted out of ancient Greece into modern-day Dublin. The various chapters in Joyce’s novel correspond to the adventures of Odysseus in Homer’s epic poem. For Joyce, the point of this deliberate intertextuality was to show that ordinary people can experience something heroic in their everyday lives.
Steven Pressfield’s novel The Legend of Bagger Vance, which was adapted into a movie starring Will Smith, was originally written as a re-telling of the Hindu epic Bhagavad Gita – the name “Bagger Vance” is supposed to sound like “Bhagavad.” In the original Hindu epic, the god Krishna discusses the importance of enlightenment and warrior virtues with Prince Arjuna – the novel/movie transplants this ancient story onto the links of a golf course.
VI. Examples of Intertextuality in Pop Culture
The actor Christopher Guest appeared in countless comedic movies in the 1980s, including such classics as The Princess Bride (1987) and This Is Spinal Tap (1984). In the earlier film, he plays a heavy metal guitarist whose amplifier, as we learn in one scene, can be turned up to 11 instead of the usual 10. Three years later, he appeared on screen again playing a man with 6 fingers on his right hand – the character had 11 fingers instead of 10. Fans have wondered ever since whether this was a deliberate reference to Spinal Tap or just an accident: deliberate or latent intertextuality?
Most people today have seen Star Wars, but many do not realize that it was intended to be an intertextual work, based on the psychological theories of Joseph Campbell. Campbell wrote a book called Hero With a Thousand Faces, which describes a single, universal form of hero-stories that appears in cultures all over the world. George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, wanted to explore this idea of the cross-cultural heroic ideal in the character of Luke Skywalker.
VII. Related Terms
Allusion is a particularly common form of deliberate intertextuality – it’s when one text makes a deliberate, but subtle, reference to another.
Citation is another common form of deliberate intertextuality – unlike allusion, it isn’t subtle at all! The point of a citation is to acknowledge, loud and clear, that the author is borrowing an idea or phrase from someone else. Citation is about giving credit to the original author.
Plagiarism is stealing another person’s work without giving them proper credit. In formal essays, it’s important to cite your sources so that you won’t be guilty of plagiarism.
Sometimes the line between latent intertextuality and plagiarism is muddy. For example, imagine a young comedian sees an older comedian on stage at a club. Years later, the young comedian uses a joke that he heard that night – but he’s forgotten that he ever heard it! It was just lying buried in his memory all those years until it came out when he was writing a new set of jokes. This is an accident, and it’s certainly latent intertextuality. But it’s also plagiarism, even though it was accidental! That’s why it’s important to be very careful about using other people’s texts in your own work.