You are here


This paper will review the origin and history of the term “intertextuality.” In doing this, I revise some basic misunderstandings about Kristeva, point to a lost potential in the understanding of literature and its value, and suggest how Sallust, and writers like him, can benefit from a return to Bakhtin’s prosaics and Kristeva’s intertextuality.

Intertextuality, by Kristeva, out of Bakhtin. For Bakhtin, the polyphonic novel was the locus of independent voices. The art of this novel was “plural, anti-tolitarian and anti-theological. It thus exemplifies permanent contradiction…” [Kristeva1970, 21]. Even the word was heteroglot, always double voiced it addresses another (dialogism) and carries with it the traces of where it has been (polyphony). The classical unity of epic and lyric imposed the author’s will upon meaning, a form of aesthetic totalitarianism. The “otherness” inhering in the polyphonic novel became the basis upon which Kristeva developed her view of intertextuality. Other voices, forces, drives speak within the text. And they do so as a function of the heterogeneity of language and the fluidity of self: on the one hand, the homonyms, rhymes and the pulse of words (what Frye called “babble”) and, on the other, the slips of the tongue, lies that tell the truth, denial and projection (what Frye called “riddle”). The subject, whether reading or writing, is always split, between the said and the un-said, the communicable meaning and the unassimilable. For Kristeva, intertextuality disrupts the project of clear communication, because there is no point of security and self-presence.

But it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that this potential for disruption and otherness was exploited by writers. This historical dimension to the work of Kristeva and Barthes has generally been overlooked. The death of the author is not a transhistorical fact, but a feature of literary history. After the break that interests Kristeva, the writing-subject no longer claims undisputed authority over the meaning of his texts. She becomes the writing-subject-in-process (always of interest, but not for reasons of authority) presenting the text to areading-subject-in-process. Being “in process” refers both to “ the process of becoming” and “judicial process,” indicating that there is no fixed absolute, but only the ethical, political, and aesthetic dimension of responsibility.

For Kristeva, “intertextuality” conflated with allusion only revives the representational world of the transcendental ego. So, how did intertextuality become what it is in Latin studies? The Hellenistic art of reference contributes, and so does Kristeva’s emphasis on“poetic language” – a modification of Bakhtin to reflect her interest in rhythm, pulse, and sound. But, there is something else going on: our desire for a transcendent authorial voice. One may cite Hinds’ talk of limits, extremity and impoverishment, all terms from the social world of symbolic illusion. It seems that we enjoy our poets circulating in culture as self-aware repositories of culture; but writers-in-process split by drives and desires, or writers whose aesthetic products speak against control and wholeness and understanding? That frightens us.

So, what would a Kristevan intertextual prosaics be? Sallust seems best to recall the revolution in poetic language that Kristeva attempted to theorize. His text speaks in several registers as it responds intertextually and intratextually to a revolution in his world and in his life. So, how does the writing-in-process present the text for our pleasure and dismay? I will focus on the opening four sentences of Sallust’s BC. The unusual content, the number of texts engaged (Cato Maior, Ennius, Plato, maxims), the totalizing language and its necessary adjustments, the hexameter pulse and archaic alliterations all leading to a word/world that either promises a stabile reward (habetur) or leaves only desire’s illusion (habetur). Here the attempt to find and fix the truth of history, fact and writing, finds only the real of the world, which is our inability to grasp and fix what lies outside the fragile negotiations of the symbolic.

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy