Allusions: No fun unless you understand them

 Vronski and his injured horse in the 2012 movie production of Anna Kerenina. Credit: Mail Online

In an essay published in the Feb. 3, 2012 New York Times Sunday Book Review, author Elizabeth Samet describes her discomfiture after tossing an allusion that nobody caught.
A good friend recently treated me to one of the preposterous yet mostly true tales for which I prize him. This one involved the Texas Tech University mascot’s horse, Double T., skidding on the turf during a pregame gallop and careening into a stadium wall. While my friend described the fatal accident, I recalled the scene in Anna Karenina in which Vronsky’s horse — whose name I had momentarily forgotten and was desperately reaching for — falls in the steeplechase and must be put down.
“Like Vronsky’s horse!” I announced. “You know,” I stumbled on, “Vronsky’s horse . . . injured at the races . . . has to be shot. . . . What’s the name of Vronsky’s horse?”
“Who’s Vronsky?” my friend shrugged, and I was reminded that each unhappy allusion is unhappy in its own way.
Which in itself is an allusion to the Tolstoy's famous opening line of Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

So we again face the fact that allusions aren't a whole lot of fun unless you understand them.

When the Mexican General, Santa Anna, was captured after the battle of San Jacinto, he told General Sam Houston, "You have conquered the Napoleon of the West," which, says scholar Willson, is an allusion just about anybody can understand because they immediately get the comparison implied.

But, many allusions are meant for limited audiences, and comprehension buys admittance to an exclusive club. What junior high school student --what adult-- hasn't experienced the "unhappiness" of a cryptic cultural allusion or inflicted one themselves?

For a lesson on allusions, check out the New York Times Learning Network site, "It’s All an Allusion: Identifying Allusions, in Literature and in Life."

 Source: Willson

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