Keep Those Allusions Coming

Even now when being technologically savvy seems to trump so many other skills, I believe the best grounding is in the liberal arts.  (I have a personal bias toward literature.)  Encountering the writings of great minds is a good way of modeling your own writing and speaking skills.  If nothing else, one’s writing can be enhanced by an occasional literary reference that shows you can, at the very least, connect the dots between what you’ve learned from others and what you’ve experienced personally.

There are several examples of that in the new book I’m reading, Arguably:  Essays By Christopher Hitchens.  For example, in an essay dismissive of Prince Charles and the British monarchy in general, Hitchens writes:

A hereditary head of state, as Thomas Paine so crisply phrased it, is as absurd a proposition as a hereditary physician or a hereditary astronomer.

For those of us not that familiar with Paine’s writings, the allusion serves several purposes:  It makes a point in a way that is relevant and funny, the reader learns something about Paine, and lastly, it shows us that the writer making the allusion has some academic chops and credibility.

Here’s another example.  In an essay about women and humor, Hitchens makes the point that Rudyard Kipling saw through the premise of male humor based on the notion that women are not really the boss, but are mere objects and victims.  It’s from Kipling’s poem “The Female of the Species”:

So it comes that Man, the coward,

when he gathers to confer

With his fellow-braves in council,

dare not leave a place for her.

Not that many people, I bet, can quote some of Kipling’s lesser known works.  Can allusions to one’s learning run the risk of making someone come across as an educated smarty pants?  Probably.  But, what a pleasure it is to have a writer regard his or her readers as adults who are not threatened by someone who’s bright, educated and can turn a phrase.  Smarty pants are okay in my book!


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