The Genette Game

gerard-genetteI’m teaching a new course this term on what’s commonly known as intertextuality—the web of relations among texts (books, poems, stories, essays, what have you) and the ways in which they comment on, parody, undermine, and otherwise mess with each other. We began with a few theorists, among them the French structuralist Gérard Genette, whose book Palimpsests attempts to name and distinguish various ways of thinking about intertextuality.

By way of illustration, Genette proposes Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid on the one hand, and Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses on the other. In Genette’s phraseology, both the Aeneid and Ulysses are hypertexts, but their relationships to the hypotext (the Odyssey) differ substantially. To bring the comparison down to size, he suggests an old French saying, “Le temps est un grand maître,” or “Time is a great master.” Balzac, he points out, altered one letter, to write “Le temps est un grand maigre” (“Time is a great faster”)—thus preserving the proverb’s exact style but changing its meaning. But, Genette writes,

to imitate this proverb is an entirely different matter; it presupposes that I should identify in this statement a certain manner (that of a proverb) with such characteristics as brevity, peremptory affirmation, and metaphoricity, and then express in this manner another idea … for example, that one needs time for everything, whence the new proverb Paris n’a pas été bâti en un jour (Paris was not built in a day).

The second exercise—saying something akin to the first saying (i.e., time controls everything, therefore you can’t beat it when you’re attempting to build a city), in a different but related way—is, per Genette, much harder than saying something different in almost exactly the same way.

My students and I got rather caught up in this exercise. Hundreds of examples of the first sort of transformation hit the deck immediately, most of them from advertising. The TV series Pretty Little Liars, for instance, plays on proverbs for its episode titles: “There’s No Place Like Homecoming,” “Know Your Frenemies,” “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Lie, Lie Again,” and so on. The second challenge, as Genette predicted, is more difficult but also more thought-provoking. Imitating “There’s no place like home,” for instance, might give us “Home is where the heart is”—and juxtaposing the two proverbs (making, in Genette’s words, a “metatext” of the second) yields a different spin on the first. If there’s no place like home, and home is where the heart is, then one might count many places as uniquely homey.

Genette was merely using the proverb comparison to make his larger point—essentially, that he believes Joyce’s Ulysses has a more complex and interesting intertextual relationship to the  Odyssey than the Aeneid does. But sticking with proverbs makes for a fun parlor game. We tried “A stitch in time saves nine,” which I tried to imitate with “Seize the day,” but one student objected. “I think it’s more like ‘Go to the ant, you sluggard.’” Lively discussion ensued.

Try it yourselves! Remember, what Genette’s proposing is not one proverb that means exactly the same thing as another, but one that does a sort of “take” on the original idea.  So “Go to the ant, you sluggard” is interpreting “stitch in time” as being not just about procrastination, but also about the high cost of laziness; and “seize the day” interprets it as the power of now. “Paris wasn’t built in a day” gives a metonymic example of time’s being a master. Here are a few sayings to get you started, but other hypotexts and hypertexts are welcome.

  • A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.
  • A leopard can’t change its spots.
  • All things come to him who waits.
  • Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
  • A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
  • Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
  • The early bird catches the worm.
  • Fish rot from the head down.
  • If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
  • Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.



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