Intertextuality is a fun word to say. It’s an even funner concept: it’s the idea that one text will reference another. And I’ve been on a vacation of sorts this week so I’m going to write about it.
See, when intertextual literature lets its world be informed by the outside. Chuck, for example, uses it to inform characters. Characters’ references to Tron or Back to the Future lets us in to their heads and gives us an idea of who they are. When Casey tells an amnesiac Morgan that there are only three Indiana Jones movies, we know that he does actually care about the guy he’s always found insufferable. First off, the show at-large is tapping into general consensus that Crystal Skull, the fourth Indiana Jones movie, was comparatively awful. But more importantly, it’s got Casey entering into Morgan’s nerdy world, something he usually doesn’t entertain. But because he does, we know how far both his character has come but also his relationship with Morgan. Outright telling Morgan he cared would be clunky (and also not true to the character), but the smaller reference feels far more natural. All because of an Indiana Jones reference.
Of course, when talking about intertextuality and characterization, it’s hard not to bring up Ulysses, but that’s mostly because I’ve read it and the book’s kinda taken over my head. The tome portrays a day in Dublin from deep within a couple characters’ minds. Bloom and Stephen, the main characters whose heads the book spends the most time in, both use contemporary culture in their thoughts, but both do differently. Stephen, the intellectual young man, quotes and references Shakespeare and Catholic funeral rites. The former because it’s what he’s familiar with, the latter because of residual guilt over his mother’s death. Bloom, on the other hand, being a rather normal middle-aged man, has advertising slogans and popular songs crawling through his head. Since Ulysses is meant to be as close to life as literately possible, it wouldn’t make sense for it to not have this. Intertextuality here serves to make James Joyce’s Dublin feel even more real. Then there’s also the fact that much of what they reference has to do with their own internal conflicts (see Stephen and his mother) and also elucidates more of the book, but that’s an essay rant dissertation for another day.
Intertextuality, however, extends beyond simple references. Star Wars is deeply intertextual, although it takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far far away where contemporary pop-culture isn’t a thing. Rather the plot as a whole is heavily influenced by traditional mythology as well as classic Japanese cinema. Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress featured many ideas and plot beats that were integrated into Star Wars. This isn’t to say that Star Wars is derivative, no more than The Lion King is for taking a lot from Hamlet (or, for that matter, Lion King 1/2 and its relationship to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead).
Rather it makes you realize that literature — and that’s literature insofar as film, books, video games, television, comics, and any form of telling a story — is inherently interconnected. Everything references something else and now, with the internet making pop culture osmosis prevalent enough that I can mention Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and know that a good many of you will get it even if you, like me, haven’t read it.
All this to say that intertextuality isn’t going away, and isn’t necessarily bad. Rather, it’s a fancy word for a normal enough thing that, when used well, adds layers to a story that wouldn’t otherwise.