“EXCELSIOR,” OR ON THE HORIZONS OF PARODY: SYNCHRONIC AIM AND REFERENCE

Darko Suvin                                                                                               (1995-2012, 5,960 words)

Parody represents a complicated device of style oriented toward an at least two-dimensional critique, namely on the one hand toward the pre-text and on the other toward its own social context.
Abbé de Sallier, “Discours sur l’origine et sur le caractère de la parodie,” 1733

 1.0. There are two minefields which I want to mention here in order to say that I shall carefully avoid it. The first is parody’s relation to cognate genres often mentioned when discussing it: burlesque, travesty, and of course comedy. Primarily non-political parody is sometimes identified with burlesque (from Italian burla), but on the whole I have not found much clarity in such usages. The only comparison which seems to be both important and clear is one to the pastiche, extremely popular in Post-Modernism. I have dealt with it in another essay, but it is both too long and, being based on texts from medieval Japanese poetry, too complex to be here entered upon.

If we begin to look at history, tribal and oral literature which seems to have been full of parodies, so that the claim has been made they are as old as literary composition. In the Euro-Mediterranean tradition a first flowering occurred in Hellenic times: in mock-epics, where the foil was Homer, and in Athenian comic theatre, culminating in Aristophanes, where the foil was tragedy. The Middle Ages seem to have been another time chock-full of parodies of Church liturgy and ritual in both the counter-festivities of the Boy Bishop and Mystery episodes, culminating in the great Mak episode of the 2nd Shepherds’ Play, while Renaissance literature seems to have retreated into parodying the Petrarcan love-romance, the pastoral, and the courtly tradition. The rest will be dealt with in incidental remarks.

However, even from this first approach, it will be clear that there is one major theoretical rock, threatening to sink our notional ship, which is so hard that I shall here avoid it: parody without a prior literary (or semiotic, say pictorial or performed) text to ridicule, say the anti-Puritan verse of Butler’s Hudibras or indeed prose of Swift’s The Tale of a Tub, and earlier Rabelais’s scathing attacks on scholasticism in Gargantua and Pantagruel (even earlier there were analogous Italian works, say Boiardo’s Morgante Maggiore or Gelli’s Circe). The problem has been sometimes avoided by calling this satire rather than parody, while burlesque is used for either. However, I am not aware of any convincing investigation about this thorny  matter, which requires fundamental definition and orientation within a cultural semiotics. Thus, short of maybe a full semester or term of discussions, I have to leave aside both this crucial matter and the matter of genres cognate or interlocking with parody. I shall concentrate on the usual definition of parody in literature, which is, roughly, a literary composition in which an author’s characteristics are ridiculed by a modified reproduction which clearly allows identifying the source; the derived transitive verb “to parody” means to ridicule by doing so. Its root is in the ancient Hellenic parōidia, which is composed of  para-,  beside, beyond, + ōidē, sung, where the name arose from such a composition being sung “beside”—that is, immediately following upon—another straightforward one. It is usually allotted to the comic mode as opposed to the serious preceding text.

 1.1. The best overview I know of complained in 1977 that we do not really have a satisfying theory of parody or pastiche (Karrer 15, 24, and passim). True, central contributions to a theory of parody probably begin with the Russian Formalists, when Shklovsky proclaimed that parody’s “parallel and contrast to an existing model” (67) is–e.g. in Tristram Shandy–the paradigm for literature in general,  while the more balanced Tynianov still took the Bergsonian automatization and deautomatization of devices in parody as a general principle of literary evolution. And since Karrer wrote, there has come about a flurry of renewed interest hitched on to the bandwaggon of “post-modernism” and proclaiming –in an unconscious parody-pastiche of the Formalists–that not parody but pastiche is the model of all literature (e.g. Rose, Hutcheon; most famously, Jameson). Finally, of course, much sterling work on which we all build has been done both before and after 1977. Still, I do not think all of this has solved our problems. Thus anything short of a long book can today only be a teasing out of one or a few significant problems as a contribution to something more encompassing.  I wish to focus here on the fact (to my mind central, though not exclusive) that parody in literature–and in art in general–seems to present itself as dual, as oriented towards two time-horizons, confusedly implying also two aims or ends for it.

1.2. I  shall begin with a definition of parody both old enough not to be suspected of fashionable trendiness and apparently speaking against my thesis:

                       A deliberate imitation of a literary work that burlesques the distinguishing                             qualities of the original…. The aim of the parodist is entertainment or satire.                           (Barry & Wright 66)

Even this rather confused, circular and heavily formalistic, entry has the merit of identifying, malgré soi, two  constant problems in studies of parody: its aim (Zielsetzung) and its reference. Its dubious duo of entertainment and satire–the ludic and debunking aspects–is ubiquitous: in Weisstein’s formulation, it is parody’s “humorous and/or critical intention” (811); in Rühmkorf’s, the “stylistic and exemplary” (i.e. sociocritical) parody (119); in Hutcheon, the range from playful to scornful (6); and it is assessed as “Komik und Kritik” in Verweyen-Witting (195-99). The entry’s synchronic end, fortunately, forgets its monolithically diachronic beginnings: for, both entertainment and satire cannot but be addressed exclusively to a present readership.  In  both parody and pastiche, it is only in the case of  either an officially hegemonic master-text, such as the Bible in the European Middle Ages (cf. Jackson 229ff. and Stock 88ff.), or in rather esoteric (though quite possible) cases of coterie or inner-circle writing, that such a readership would be overwhelmingly oriented toward connoisseur judging of how “the original” was handled. Even in those cases, I would maintain it is probably extremely rare that the focus of parody could be simply on desecration (or other handling) of a–paradoxically timeless–original: the desecration is at least balanced by the ineluctable fact of being perpetrated right here-and-now, at a nexus of human relationships different from that which gave rise to the earlier text. That nexus is both the reason and the horizon of the critical distanciation (Hutcheon 10) effected by the new product upon the “original” (or perhaps better “hypotext”; I shall return to this terminology). If parody necessarily has a different tone, horizon or value-system from its “source/s/,” the reason and aim for these differences is the author’s and intended readers’ hic et nunc nexus.

Though inductive examples can only suggest conclusions, I propose to take in my first example as the “original”  the beginning of Longfellow’s once famous “Excelsior,” and, as what I have symmetrically to call the “derivation,” Housman’s to my mind rather funny uncrowning parody of it (an equally funny but less gentlemanly French example would be Apollinaire’s parody of Verlaine’s “Il pleure dans mon coeur,” see Hutcheon 45). This example participates in the frequent case of parodying only part of a specific text, as opposed to the parody of a whole text– for ex. the perhaps unfortunately forgotten parody of Victor Hugo’s Marie Tudor whose quality may be gauged by the title, Marie tu ronfles (cf. Issacharoff 315). I shall argue later that a second and more important category of parody (just as of pastiche) is the reference to a diffuse, syncretic, often or primarily anonymous topos of social discourse, and that parodies of “Excelsior” are usually a case in point. In fact it should be noted, also in fairness to Longfellow,  that the complete poem, comprising nine stanzas which lead to the death of the lonely and heroic pioneering youth in the mountain heights, is more an allegory of the misunderstood loner (e.g. artist) than of the Horatio Alger myth, from rags to riches: in other words, it could be read as an allegory of the deadly cost to the individual of upward mobility  in capitalist society, which is nonetheless reaffirmed in the final divine voice from above. But the poem was then throughout the 19th Century unanimously vulgarized into the go-getting myth through an overwhelming fertile misreading throughout its  reception history, by high lit. and popular or trademark reception alike. I shall in the present case call this always synchronic topos one of “excelsioricity,” and argue that most parodyings start from this rather than from any original, past isolated unit–here Longfellow’s 1841 poem (see my brief summary in Section 4 of data from the OED between 1850 and 1902). To adapt Francastel’s precise argument about Botticelli’s Primavera (which is in this reading, intriguingly, both a pastiche and an undoubted novum), “he refers to fragments of separate texts, fluctuating in memories, whose connexion is not part of a fixed code but of an atmosphere; and furthermore, from time to time, to contexts of the new culture and living forms…” (278). If I had scope for a proper spread of inductive examples, I would examine the hypothesis that such recourse to reconstructed scraps of fluctuating social discourse is the general case in parody (and pastiche), of which a direct reference to the “original,” when the hypotext happens to supply a sufficiently durable springboard for parodying, is merely a–so to say –“zero reconstruction” case. This would be, at least initially, Housman’s case.

It should be at least broached here that “Positivist” treatments  comparing one present unit to one past one are identical to (and probably derived from) the copyright-law stance, oriented toward “atomic” units such as one poem. The latest such case known to me is the US Supreme Court ruling of March 7, 1994, on the “2 Live Crew” group’s 1989 parody of Roy Orbison’s rock song “Oh, Pretty Woman” (known also from its use in the eponymous movie). The parody uses much of Orbison’s music and the first line of lyrics: “Pretty woman, walking down the street”; 2 Live Crew shift then to “big hairy woman,” “bald-headed woman,” and “two-timin’ woman” (AP byline in The Globe and Mail, March 8, 1994, E5).  The court ruling was, by the way, that the parody was not theft.

  1. Here then is the juxtaposition of the Longfellow and Housman stanzas:

  LONGFELLOW

 The shades of night were falling fast,
As through an Alpine village passed
A youth who bore, ‘mid snow and ice,
A banner with the strange device,
Excelsior!

HOUSMAN

 The shades of night were falling fast,
The snow was falling faster,
When through an Alpine village passed,
An Alpine village pastor.

 I submit no reader (not even a specialist in English poetry) can make sense of this qua parody unless the partial reuse of the first two Longfellow lines is collocated within Housman’s telos of ridiculing the abstract and high-flown rhetoric of liberal optimism3/ from the radically blacker perspective of an Oxbridge ruefulness. In other words, the reason/s/ for burlesquing or parodying are the ends, and the textual “imitation” or “derivation” a–no doubt consubstantial–means. (I am speaking here from the perspective of an ideal intended reader; the contingent sequence of creative composition may start from any point that happens to strike the parodist, even from prosody.) Only within a given teleology can the quantity and quality of segments and aspects taken over be evaluated as functional (i.e. successful) or not. Such is the case here, e.g., with the shift from insistent acatalectic iambic tetrameter to tetrameter plus anticlimactic  catalectic trimeter, and also from succeeding masculine rhyme to a cross-rhyming where the feminine rhyme (“faster-pastor”) is a micro-parody of the “imitated” masculine rhyme (“fast-passed”) by addition of the minimal phonetic unit of a semi-vowel. Or indeed, this is the case  with evaluating and even understanding what I would in Housman read as a chronotopic and agential  allegory for his epoch –the night and snow falling faster–, and for Longfellow’s role in it –the Alpine village pastor, the redundant preacher. (Urbanely, Housman neglected Longfellow’s tempting “bore”….)

Thus, it would seem necessary to begin the discussion of parody (and pastiche) by disambiguating a double reference: a diachronic one to anterior propositions (e.g. Housman’s “derivation” from Longfellow), and a synchronic one to contemporary imaginary entries in the encyclopaedia/s/ of possible readers (e.g. the invraisemblance of triumphalist Idealist liberalism). An important difference is that the first referentiality is often to fixed, neatly identifiable denotations in semiotic texts (verbal, pictorial, musical, etc.), such as my Longfellow quote, while the second one is always to a semi-precise system of overlapping connotations which meld currently floating bits and pieces of the supposedly past referentiality with more inchoate but present feelings, discursive networks  or topologies about human relationships. The easier identification of a previous text makes it  technically much more economical, though not necessarily more precise, for criticism to start from that hypotext and then infer the telos for the whole procedure only in a second moment (cf. Karrer 36). But second easily becomes secondary and indeed, alas, dispensable and dispensed with. Thus I fear that both this easier identification and the previous text’s status of hegemonic or “high lit.” from a previous epoch, account for what one must sorrowfully call a major historical delusion in our profession, the “professional idiocy” of substituting semantics for pragmatics, or of being fixated on a precisely delimitable semantic unit rather than adopting a more supple view of the situation which is colouring any and all participating text/s/. Its European roots are in Humanist exegesis of the Bible, then the French and English Classicistic literati’s discussions of hierarchical genres and styles,  and then the ambiguous Romantic shake-up of those hierarchies: in fact, most present-day attempts to define parody go back to Scaliger and A.W. v. Schlegel (see von Stackelberg 59). There is a Chinese parallel in the orthodox Confucian fixed canon of classical texts as “sources” and “origins” for imitation, in particular for yung tien, “allusive borrowings” (cf. an updated critique in Wang 3-10 –and for a related Japanese parallel in the honzetsu and “honkadori” hypotexts in my essay on pastiche). This tradition of looking toward a past as the constant source for imitation or desecration was then taken into both the Chinese and European academic Establishments as  Positivistic source-hunting, and one of its results is a stifling overestimation of “originals,” “timelessness” or diachrony, rather than an orientation toward what a text actually does within necessarily changing meanings of sociohistorical human nexuses.

1.3. What I am arguing, not the least from my own creative practice in poetry, is first of all (but not only, see 1.4 below) that as a rule the telos or end for parody is supplied by synchronic intervening in current relationships, in which the reference to anterior texts  is an important means.  Pace Todorov’s hermetic vraisemblable, the verisimilitude of parody is thus not simply (or to my mind even primarily) a “mask that conceals the text’s own laws and that we are supposed to take for a relation with reality” (3). Pace the much better Ben-Porat, her quite valid analytic distinction (“Method” 247-48) which I would rephrase as one between representing a world found in an artistic model or representing a world found in other, as a rule less focussed,  discursive models, is to my mind in actual parodic practice melded or collapsed. Pace Hutcheon (49 and passim) there is no exclusively “intramural,”  aesthetically self-referential, parody. If parody is to be called centrally an intertextuality, I think the notion of text has to be taken in the widest possible, Ecoan and Angenotian, sense of a congeries of all discourses accommodated and rubbing off each other in given entries of a shared imaginary encyclopaedia. This encyclopaedia is  located in the cultural presuppositional network and is thus not fully or permanently spelled out, though a user is able to call up (by what Tynianov calls “underlining” and Eco “boldfacing”) pieces of its usually “narcotized” discourse in a written form when necessary. A good example might be D.H Lawrence’s “Up […he goes] like a bloomin’ little Excelsior!” discussed below, which refers to an anonymous present topos of “excelsioricity” rather than to Longfellow’s original, past poem.

In sum, it is a shortsighted short-circuit to assume that Housman is satirizing Longfellow’s stanza rather than the “Longfellovian”–i.e. not only Longfellow’s!–stance, bearing or Haltung (cf. Suvin “Brecht”). So that, if Scarron’s Virgile travesti and Boileau’s Le Lutrin parodied Virgil, I read their substitution of bourgeois for aristocratic manners as interested less in Virgil than in 17th-Century Paris; if Gay’s Beggar’s Opera parodied the reigning Italian “opera,” I read it as primarily interested in the underworld of his London, and when Dostoevsky parodied Gogol, I read him as interested in Gogol because of the fate of their Russia and its people. Perhaps even more clear is the case of Cervantes: no doubt, his novel parodied courtly romances such as Amadis of Gaul, but surely its interest even at the time was overwhelmingly in the juxtaposition of his high-flown idealistic hero and the sober, if not sordid, everyday world depicted in Don Quixote—and after Amadis of Gaul and suchlike ceased to be read, the reader’s interest is exclusively in this opposition. Thus, “The idea that at least the parody with a literary model relates only to literature and not to ‘reality’ can only be upheld at the price of a violent sundering of literary life from the Lebenswelt [life as experienced]” (Verweyen-Wittig 101).

Indeed, the proper locus for a theory of parody would, I think, be in an interdiscursive theory of textual variants, adaptations or rewrites within given systems of ideological maxims and horizons connected to specific social fractions, such as the approach I adumbrate in my essay on pastiche (cf. beside theoretical arguments some concrete hints from the great masters Nestroy and Brecht in Rommel resp. Wirth and Verweyen-Witting 140-47).  Within such a theory of rewritings, we could then probably distinguish changes of hypotext such as pure rewriting of lines, omission (Housman’s parody functions in good part by omission of the key word “Excelsior”), or indeed addition. An example of the latter is Bret Harte’s sequel to Whittier very popular long sentimental poem (what Mark Twain called “girly girly romance”) Maud Muller, that ends in the famous couplet:
Of all the words of tongue and pen
The saddest are “It might have been.”

    Harte changed this in “Mrs Judge Jenkins” by strategic rewriting in order to fit a contrary addition, into:
If of all words of tongue and pen
The saddest are “It might have been,”

      Sadder are these, we daily see,
“It is, but hadn’t ought to be!”

 Stressing the chronotope of a parody’s production—that is, both the moment and the concrete environment of who it was intended for, their synchronic sociohistorical situation–is, of course, not a totally new stance in parody studies. To the  practitioners in  and  students of the 18th Century  this  nexus  was  crystal-clear,  e.g., to Diderot or to my epigraphic de Sallier,  and  their stance still echoes in Hegel (1: 578). Even today a number of people suspect or assume, though without much articulation or follow-through, that one can parody a whole class of texts, the style of an age, a plot-schema, a formal system or even a world-view–and therefore, I would argue, a horizon (see Karrer 84). And I could claim a series of at least partial modern precursors. Shklovsky and Tynianov, for example, insisted on the present existence of a model to which parody is opposed (and cf. the stress on the intention of the parodist in Verweyen-Wittig). However, this model was for them usually only another concrete work of art, rather than a stance, value-system, and horizon–which would render obsolete the interliterary vs. extraliterary dichotomy. Given all of this, it is a surprise to see that at the basis of Jameson’s, Hutcheon’s, and most current recollocations of parody and pastiche there still seems to be not only Russian Formalism and French Structuralism but even a reliance on pre-Formalist, Romantic views such as that of A.W. v. Schlegel. An intermediary may be seen in Jonathan Culler who, following Todorov & Co.,  defined parody as formal “imitations and exaggerations of the original” that “produce…a distance between the vraisemblance of the original and its own” (152-53, emphasis DS). The underlined term is both highly characteristic of most theories of parody and highly suspect, and I shall return to it in the final section. In order to show this, I shall leave aside for the moment theoretical debates about individual authorship and originality, and just “do a Raymond Williams” by giving a brief semantic history of the “keyword” in the first quatrain quoted–“excelsior.”

4. I suppose it may sound banal to say Longfellow did not invent any English word used
in his first stanza, not even the Romantically elided word “‘mid” (which the OED glosses with Scott’s Marmion, cf. s.v. “mid prep. 2″). Yet the stories (e.g.) of “shades of night,” “falling,” “Alpine” or “banner” are not banal: the first one goes back to a Hellenic and Latin topos (Catullus used the coming night as death to persuade Lesbia into giving him a thousand kisses), the second one is probably as old as the beginnings of language, the third is Romantically charged, and the fourth was parodied already by Falstaff’s “Under which banner, Bezonian?”. In particular, the story of the bourgeois political, pseudo-theological adverb “Excelsior” is most instructive. The classical adjective “excelsus” could take a comparative and superlative, and did so in Caesar, Pliny, and Cicero as a flourish of style, but the medieval theological substantivized “excelsum” is already a superlative, “the highest [heavens],” probably best known from the Church hymn “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” so that “excelsior” makes as little sense as would, for example, “sublimer.” “Excelsior” seems to have been first “anglicized” as meaning “higher” (an ellipse for “tending ever higher”) by the assembly of New York State in 1778 which put it on the State seal accompanying the emblem of a rising Sun.1/ Then it was popularized in 1841 by our “original” poet, Longfellow, whence it passed into general use by means of “his” poem’s presence in genteel educational writing such as Miss Jemima’s Swiss Journal of 1863 and (one assumes) in school readers. The strivings of the pseudo-Longfellovian allegorical young man on the make can thus be deciphered as a kind of sanitized Faustian urge, without Goethe’s Gretchen and Mephistopheles, or indeed without final empirical success. The allegory, estranged (verfremdet) into a diluted Romantic landscape of mountain ice, was successful with its readers because Longfellow’s perishing but beatified striver, as well as the misreading that glossed over the deadly price paid, figured forth idealized character-types of rising industrial capitalism.

It is therefore understandable, and very significant, that the semantic fates of “excelsior” subsequently diverged in “high” and “mass” cultures. In the increasingly disillusioned high culture, and due to Longfellow’s extreme popularity in Victorian Britain, it is literarily alluded to in Trollope and Hopkins (see OED), and after Housman’s parody-by-omission-of-keyword (itself a theoretically highly interesting case!) it received a possibly final coup de grâce in the renewed parodic citation by D.H. Lawrence: “Up he goes! Up, up, like a bloomin’ little Excelsior!” (Pansies 1929)–where to my mind “Excelsior” does not mean the device on the banner but is a personification of what I have called the inchoate mass of “excelsioricity.”2/ But in the increasingly ad-dominated mass culture, British and especially US, the term “excelsior” was taken as itself an emblem or parable of success and therefore adopted as a trade-mark, a word that is legally private property (you can be sued for using it without permission)! Here it connotes ever-growing excellence for various articles of manufacture: Excelsior soap; Excelsior test cards; and especially the Excelsior wood-shavings, the mattress thus filled, and the machine for filling it and filling other upholstery items (all from 1851-88). In a final twist, the Excelsior wood-shavings  begin then to be “cited” not from literary but from the everyday or pragmatic discourse by such Naturalists as Kipling and James Cain in 1928-34 (all citations and data from OED s.v. “excelsior”).

Midway between the high lit. and pop. lit. register is situated the  strange little article “Excelsior” by H.G. Wells of 1895, reprinted as a rider to chapter 16 of his autobiography (343-46). Its fence-straddling is also homologous to the author’s position of a proletarianized lower-middle class person (his imaginary biographical protagonist is “a young proletarian”) striving to “rise in the world” as taught by the likes of Samuel Smiles. However, this particular protagonist voices his fears of the psychic cost to the “evil lesson of ambition”–what Wells in his prefatory comment pithily calls “this loss of dearness and nearness.” This is not a parody but an embroidery, narratively inverted adaptation of or counter-project  to Longfellow, who has for a change been read well: the young ambitious proletarian “lifts his eyes to the distant peaks, and the sun is bright upon them and they seem very fair.” But nobody warns him of the penalties and “sorrows of success.” Many drop by the way “with bodies enfeebled by overstudy, underfed, who are lost amidst the mountain fogs of commercial morality,”  Wells notes from personal experience; but the young man’s “concern is with those who win,” with the “Nebo incident” of succeeding to look upon the Promised Land (the article was written at the same time as drafts of the Time Machine whose protagonist was early on called Nebogipfel, and there are interesting homologies between the two works). The penalty is, surprisingly, class snobbery against the upwardly mobile, a Spencerian misadaptation of the declassé, which leaves him successful but withered, amid “the Dead Sea fruit of success.” And Wells returns to Longfellow’s climber’s fate at the end of his little allegorical biography: “Happy is the poor man who clutches that prize in the grip of death and never sees it crumble in his hand.” The role of Longfellow’s voice from the sky is then taken by the Wells of 1934, “add[ing] …only one word: ‘Nonsense’.” The double inversion works as the proletarian youth succeeding (not a genteel youth failing) but psychically perishing in the process: more clearly than in the hypotext poem, the price is foregrounded. It is achieved by ellipse and interpolation of new elements but also by subtle inversion of some narremes from Longfellow, so that e.g. his “spectral glaciers shone” becomes Wells’s sun on distant peaks. As in the trademark PR promises, pragmatic success is more readily achieved in Wells; however, as in the high lit. diagnoses, it leads to no contentment. While the article is certainly not a masterpiece, the author’s retrospective poormouthing from the position of one who “got on” does not dispose of the problem interestingly if sketchily raised.

Looking at these examples, and in particular at the trademark ones, it might be difficult today to say where does parody or indeed unconscious self-parody of an unselfconscious social discourse begin or end. It is difficult to sustain parody, remarks justly Cavell, when nothing can be counted any longer to strike a given social group or a society as outrageous (292). I find an excellent example in the English newspapers’ report of May 16, 1996, that a MS. of Bach’s cantata “fetched” at auction half a million British pounds: its title was “O Lord, look down from  Heavens” (Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh drein)… At any rate, if there is an origin/al in the “excelsior” semantic sequence, it is firmly anchored not in God guaranteeing meaning through His Book, His Church, or a Sun-King and His Academy, but in a fittingly anonymous New York State Senate member or clerk misremembering in the flush of revolutionary independence his small Latin. And this unoriginal original is then mass-reproduced by the anonymous discursive and semiotic apparatus of capitalist industry, commerce, and liberal admanship. It is all of this–a cat’s cradle of interlocking sememes, images, and connotations participating in a definite orientation and emotional colouring, and not an atomic stanza, isolated poem or even one writer’s opus–which is the referent of any “excelsior” parody.

I believe that only an approach generalizing from a wider spread of similar case studies would permit us to integrate into our theory of parody Benjamin’s fulminant and unavoidable insight that the behaviour of Nazis toward Jews parodied Leninist class struggle–and I would add that the behaviour of Stalinists toward the original Soviet plebeian democracy did the same (so that Stalin even had to concoct a pseudo-theory that success of socialism equals sharpened class-struggle).

 5. What, then, could we today take as a defining hallmark of parody? Certainly, Tynianov’s insistence on an incongruity between what he very rightly calls its two levels, one “glimmering through” the other, might adequately distinguish it from the “neutral” stylizations of pastiche, where pieces of the two levels fit without incongruity. As Neumann observed, “parody is caricature by means of what is being caricatured” (cited in Verweyen-Wittig 78). The rhetorics of parody is sharply opposed to that of the hypotext. But whence and wherefore comes the use of this rhetorics, caricature or incongruity? Following the “Excelsior” discussion, my second argument–with which I shall leave this thesis about parody–is even more radical: I hope that this set of historico-textual examples might permit us to think about parody (and pastiche) having finally, in social practice if not yet in literary theory, only one HEGEMONIC  referentiality, namely the synchronic one. For Housman and Lawrence to parody “Longfellow,” the latter needs to be non-positivistically present at the precise time of the parody itself for both author and intended reader/s/. What lived of “Excelsior” in 1929 as a  Dawkinsian meme was probably no more Housman’s precisely known poem but an ideologically and affectively sufficiently precise, if meta-stable, fragmentary tag of social discourse and evaluation; had it not been so,  Lawrence could not have used it as a springboard  in Pansies. In other words, a hypotext may be referred to more or less precisely, but it stands for a precise pragmatic and axiological complex and orientation as normatively understood at the moment of parodying: the parodied stanza of “Excelsior” was important because it was a metonymy or exemplum for the “excelsioricity” I have been attempting to describe above, which proved insufferable to Housman and others (cf. Verweyen-Wittig 98 and 167). The rest seems to be, be it said with due respect, a professional  illusion and delusion of chronological anthology-makers and other critics of that monotheistic stripe, concerned with origins in time rather than with relationships between people (for what else is any discourse?). As Condillac remarked in De l’art d’écrire, “you are comparing all these operations [of comparison, judgment, etc.] to streams, and the words source and flow are tropes….” And Valéry, acute as ever: “The origin, in all, is imaginary. The source is the fact within which the imaginary is proposed: water wells up there. Beneath, I do not know what takes place?” (both cited in Derrida 297; see Valéry 592)

Now time-flows (my own trope) do, of course, participate in human relationships; or perhaps better, such relationships are partly explainable by means of, as a swirl of,  various and varying time-flows. Indeed, a synchronic coupe in relationships is from one point of view a constellation of time-flows and the correlative semiotics, dipped into at a precise sociohistorical moment constituted by pragmatic relations between people. But to believe that there is a single origin to practically anything, or that sources–which I myself as a rule find fascinating and indeed pregnant–by themselves explain consequences, is either a monotheistic or a mechanistic, in any case a banally deterministic, fallacy. Fortunately, those coming after can change, and indeed reverse, what originated earlier. How could there, otherwise, be parody?

Notes

*/ My thanks go to the SSHRC of Canada for a travel grant which allowed me to come to the Venice colloquium “Parodie, pastiche, mimétisme” in Oct. 1993, and to Prof. Patrick Parrinder who reminded me of Wells’s “Excelsior.”  Unacknowledged translations are mine.

My late and mourned friend Chang Huei-keng gave me much advice on the Chinese “imitation” tradition,  and I wish to dedicate this essay to her memory.

 2/ I do not know how this revolutionary emblem of the rising Sun crossed into the iconography of the Second and Third Socialist International, and thence into the State emblems of all Soviet and “People’s Democratic” Republics. All data on the Latin uses of “excelsus – excelsior” come from Georges-Calonghi, and on English uses from the OED.

 3/ Further interdisciplinary investigation could profitably start from James Thurber’s parodic drawings in Famous Poems Illustrated, which have had quite an echo, e.g. in comics, but this is beyond my essay’s scope.

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