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This article is taken from PN Review 255, Volume 47 Number 1, September - October 2020.

Something Momentous like a War
Text and Pandemic
Rachel Hadas
Intertextuality, according to Wikipedia, is ‘the shaping of a text’s meaning by another text. It is the interconnection between similar or related works of literature that reflect or influence an audience’s interpretation of the text….’.

I often tell my students that intertextuality is a cumbersome and abstract word (Bernard O’Donoghue, in his Poetry: A Very Short Introduction, politely calls the term ‘rather elaborate’) for a very simple principle: that texts refer to other texts, because that’s the nature of texts – and it’s our human nature too, to connect. Admittedly, the term has its utility; it refers to something real. Nouns, however clumsy, have a function when what they’re naming exists.

But I can’t think of a good name for another principle related to reading that also certainly exists – the way texts can suddenly, urgently refer to our lives at the moment we’re reading them. Relatable, my students sometimes say. Reader-response, like intertextuality is an off-puttingly-theoretical term for a process that comes so naturally it seems intuitive; and the same might be said of receptionsaesthetik. Thich Nat Hanh’s term ‘interbeing’ comes a bit closer to what I have in mind, as does, if I understand it, the notion of cosmic interdependence to which the term ‘Indra’s Net’ refers. Neither interbeing nor Indra’s Net refers particularly to reading, but both terms signify a vision that embraces everything, so that any tiny thing – a leaf, a bug, a tear, a breath of wind, or a paragraph – can encompass and call up immensity. Nothing’s irrelevant, nothing should be dismissed; everything somehow fits, and everything ...


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