I’ve been thinking about allusion recently, specifically the claim that “it is impossible to properly appreciate an allusion without considering what it is an allusion to.”1
Of course, it is impossible to understand an allusion in a semantic sense if you don’t know what it’s alluding to. But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to properly appreciate it in an aesthetic or artistic sense.
Take this example, from the Paul Simon song “The Late Great Johnny Ace”:
I was living in London
With the girl from the song before2
One blogger calls this bit “so great it hurts my heart to think of writing that good.” That same blogger suggests that it isn’t referring to anyone, that it’s left for the reader to fill in.
Discussing this with Cristyn, she says she’d always heard it as a way of breaking the fourth wall: You’re listening to this Paul Simon song, and you’ve probably listened to some songs before that. There’s sure to be a love song about a girl. The song says that he was living with her.
Since Simon was a longtime songwriter by the time he wrote “Johnny Ace”, you might suppose that he is referring to a girl who he had earlier written a song about.
With more knowledge of Simon’s life, you can fill in the details: Simon went to England after the first Simon&Garfunkel album was released and met a girl there. After returning stateside, he wrote “Kathy’s Song” about missing her. It’s on the second S&G album, which also includes some other songs that reference her. They broke up. She went on to live a life. Although Simon doesn’t always write lyrics with a specific meaning in mind, he (probably) meant Kathy when he wrote “the girl from the song before.”
Fine, but all these facts don’t yield a greater or deeper appreciation of the song.
The narrator of the song says that they are a musician. So the interpretation of “the girl from the song before” as referring to a girl they earlier wrote a song about doesn’t require knowing which girl in the actual world the phrase refers to. The song would be a less faithful autobiography if Kathy hadn’t existed, but it would be no less of an artistic success.
Moreover, Cristyn’s reading of it is pretty awesome. And it’s not made any better by adding: Not really. Her name is Kathy. She lives in Wales now.
Even though I’ve been a fan of this song for decades, I’d presumed that Johnny Ace was a fiction made up to have an iconic name and to fit the meter of the song. I recently learned that he was an R&B musician. Simon did hear on the radio in 1954 that Ace had died, just like it says in the song. I’ve learned something, sure, but the new information doesn’t make me like the song more.3
- This is a quote from Andrew Kania in a discussion of cover songs, but the same idea has been advanced by others.
- As originally posted, there was an error in the quotation. I posted about it later.
- Arguably the reference to Ace is not an allusion, because it’s by name. From what I’ve looked at, this is a point of contention in philosophical discussions of allusion.