Intertextuality and Ecology in The Gold Bug Variations
The Gold Bug Variations makes reference to (at least) two works of the Western canon in its very title—Poe’s “The Gold Bug” and Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Open the book, and allusions to these works and a whole host of others are everywhere—some explicitly marked, others so subtle that if you blink, you’ll miss them. I found myself playing a sort of literary version of “Name that Tune” while reading the Variations, trying to spot these allusive moments. Todd, in his note telling Jan of Ressler’s death, paraphrases Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”; little Margaret Blake spouts lines from Hopkins and Yeats in her virtuosic recitations; Ressler, seeing Dr. Koss in distress, wishes in the terms of Larkin’s “Talking in Bed” for words not unkind. This kind of intertextuality is pervasive throughout the novel, reaching its peak in Ressler’s hack of the Manhattan On-Line systems to bombard clients with Quote-of-the-Day verses and aphorisms. Quotation, whether a faithful replication of the source material or a derivation from it, is an integral part of the novel both thematically and structurally.
In the ecological thinking that Ressler advocates, “the world is a single, self-buffering, interdependent organism” (324). All life, as Jan learns, derives from the same code, the same nucleic acids in different configurations, the possibility for which has been latent in the code since its origins. Species exist in symbiotic relations to one another; individuals within the species are particular combinations of parental haplotypes, and though the individual may die the gene lives on. The individual, then, is not a well-delineated organism with definite borders; it’s a combination of its predecessors’ DNA, evolved as part of an ecosystem much larger than itself. In the spirit of the novel’s insistence on the flawed, irresistible process of translation, I want to suggest that intertextuality functions as a translation of this ecological thinking into the cultural sphere. The literary corpus is, for the speakers of this novel, like a gene pool; they fashion their “baby” as a new combination of the words, phrases, and sentences handed down by their artist-progenitors, with perhaps a few new mutations for good measure.
The analogy, of course, is as interesting in its imperfections as in its fit. Evolutionary ecology, for all of its orderliness and ingenious adaptations, is predicated on chance; nothing is consciously determined; no one orchestrates particular mutations. The intertextual elements of the novel, however, are deliberate, nonrandom references. They are not just a pattern—these allusions also mean something. Infinite typing monkeys did not produce The Gold Bug Variations; it’s the creation of an author exercising a human agency that is, the novel posits, not in contradistinction to biological identity, but intimately linked to that identity. The beauty of the code is in its ability to compose an organism capable of decoding itself, a fractal organism that carries the pattern for its thinking self in each of its cells. The code, like the novel, borrows from many sources yet winds up at self-referentiality, exposing its own process of becoming. Their difference lies in how they get there.