Help with Research: Using Tesserae for Intertextuality, Part 1

When we talk about classical authors being “engaged with” each other, what do we mean? Often, that term refers to intertextuality. In this post, I first explain what intertextuality is, and then I explain how you might recognize it, both with and without using digital tools. 

So what is intertextuality, and why do you care? The term intertextuality covers a variety of practices, but they are all based on the same idea: Author A refers to Author B. Because I think names are easier to deal with than letters, in this post we are going to talk about Ovid’s intertextuality with Vergil. The word order matters: putting Ovid first means that Ovid (the later writer) looks back to Vergil (the earlier writer). In this case, that’s the only possible way to interpret this phrase (Vergil couldn’t see into the future), but when you talk about intertextuality among contemporary authors, you need to be careful about what actions you’re attributing to which.

At its most obvious, intertextuality is a direct quotation put into a new context. In this sense, it is similar to sampling in music. Here is probably the most (in)famous example:

Vergil, Aeneid 6.126-129:

…facilis descensus Averno:
noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;
sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras,
hoc opus, hic labor est….

Ovid, Ars Amatoria 1.453: Hoc opus, hic labor est: primo sine munere iungi…

Vergil: The descent to Avernus is easy; night and day the doors of dark Death lie open. But to retrace your steps and escape to the air, that is the miracle, this is the struggle.

Ovid: That is the miracle, this is the struggle: to sleep with her without first giving presents.

Notice that the circumstances of each quotation have changed substantially. What in Vergil is a literally life-or-death matter of getting out of the underworld alive becomes in Ovid the “life-or-death” matter of getting something without needing to give anything in return. This change in tone and situation is what makes the intertextuality meaningful. While technically a direct quote in the same situation is intertextuality, it is also less interesting — like a footnote in a discussion. A footnote doesn’t (usually) require scholarly analysis; the reuse of material can be reinterpreted, because it causes the reader to stop, recognize the allusion, and rethink the material at hand.

Not all forms of intertextuality are parodies. In Metamorphoses 13 and 14, when Ovid retells the Aeneas story by skipping over all of the episodes from the Aeneid, that is intertextuality at work. But it can be argued that this is an act of homage rather than mockery. Similarly, Vergil’s retelling of the Trojan War story shows intertextual engagement with Homer using genre scenes such as the description of armor (compare Achilles’ shield in Iliad 18 with the shield of Aeneas in Aeneid 8), but Vergil isn’t mocking Homer.

Intertextuality might seem like a vague concept, but it’s rooted in the idea that you don’t read in a vacuum. Making connections between different materials helps change your experience of reading, and this is why you can read the same work multiple times in different ways. For example, if you read the Ars Amatoria line above without reading Vergil, you might pick up that it’s mocking something, but you’d read it differently after you read its Vergilian intertext (the passage to which it alludes). Similarly, you might read Aeneid 9 differently after reading Iliad 10.

Sometimes the best way to check for intertextual relationships is the old-fashioned way: memory and instinct (that’s probably how the Greeks and Romans did it!). If you recognize a verbal or thematic allusion, and it’s not something really common like senatus populusque Romani, then you can probably make the case that it’s an intertext!

But sometimes, you want to see if an intertextual relationship exists without recognizing it. In other words, you want to move beyond the corpus of texts you know to see whether there is an intertextual relationship that can be determined elsewhere. That’s where the Tesserae Project can be useful.

Tesserae allows you to compare chunks of two different works with each other. The chunks vary in size between authors, and right now you can’t compare more than two (so Ovid-Vergil/Vergil-Homer/Ovid-Homer would all work, but not Ovid-Vergil-Homer).  The tool offers lemmatized parsing, which means that the computer recognizes that (for example) res and rerum come from the same word, but reus is a different word.

For beginners, I would recommend exploring using only the basic features. These allow you to choose your texts, and will get you started with the interface. (In a later post, I’ll explain what the advanced features do.)

tesserae project basic comparison

In this example, we’re going to use Vergil and Ovid. By clicking on any of the blue arrows, you can change the work(s) and books. Here, for example, I’ve changed the Vergil from Aeneid 2 to Aeneid 6 to match our example from the beginning of the post:

tesserae project Aeneid change books

When you click on the dropdown menu, you highlight the book that you want (in this case, 6) and click. When your authors, works, and books are set up, click the Compare Texts button to get your results.

ovid vergil tesserae results

A few things to notice right away:

  • Wow, that’s a lot of results (645)! These are not all going to be relevant. You still need to check them over by hand to see what results make sense as intertexts.
  • Wow, that’s a lot of results! This is why advanced users will want to use the advanced search. It will cut down on the hits, so you can focus on the most meaningful texts.
  • The first result isn’t the one we expect: the famous allusion to the escape from the underworld. This actually turns up as result #315. This has to do with the ways the similarity scores are calculated: because these words are more common, the computer thinks they are less significant. This is also something that can be adjusted to a certain degree in the advanced search.
tesserae project actual allusion

You can see here that the right-hand column reads 8, which is its similarity score. Compare the screenshot above, which has a similarity score of 11.

Again, I’ll discuss the advanced options a little more in the next two posts. In this post, I’m going to focus on how you can sort the results once you’ve acquired them. There are a number of different options, all found at the top of the page:

tesserae project sorting options

The default format is, I think, not very helpful, since as we’ve just seen the “score” that the computer gives any given match doesn’t necessarily correlate with the strength of the intertext. (Although the computer’s top hit is more intellectually interesting because it’s not famous, the strongest intertext is the quotation.) What I find more useful is to change the score option to sorting by line. You can choose to do this by either source locus (in our case, Vergil — this is always your first option on the main search page) or target locus (in our case, Ovid — this is always your second option on the main search page).

TIP: when you change to either of the source options, the number in the left-hand column is no longer significant.

By searching individual lines of the source locus, you are looking for the influence of specific Vergilian phrases on Ovid. Here’s an example of our phrase in the same search when sorted by increasing source locus. Notice that now all of the results are sorted from line 1 of Aeneid 6 to the end:

tesserae project sort by source locus Vergil Aeneid 6 Ovid are armatoria 1

The same line, 6.129, results in a second intertext that you might want to explore.

When you sort by individual lines of the target locus, you’re looking at ways that Ovid may have been influenced by Vergil. The results aren’t the same, because now you are focused on Ovid’s words, rather than Vergil’s:

tesserae project potential influence of Vergil Aeneid 6 on Ovid ars amatoria 1

I’ll explain how this works in more detail in the next post, because this one is getting a little long and I want to explain the last features of the sort function.

Depending on which line(s) you’re interested in, it may make more sense to choose decreasing or increasing as your first option. Decreasing starts at the last line and works its way to the first; increasing starts at the first line and works chronologically through the text. To put this in context, when I was trying to find Aen. 6.129, I sorted by increasing source locus. When I was trying to find AA 1.453, I sorted by decreasing target locus.

Below decreasing, you have the option of showing 50, 100, 200, or all results at once. I like to see everything at once, but beware: with large texts, this could be literally thousands of hits.

tesserae project way too many results

This is a recent example of a search I did between Propertius 4 and Livy’s first decade. With over 16,000 results, it was a lot to include on a single page!

If you’re interested in only 1-2 lines, I find it’s easier to load them all onto the page and then use the Find function to locate the lines you’re interested in. But you should pick the option that works best for you.

Finally, you have the option of viewing your results as html, csv, tab-separated, or xml. With the exception of HTML, these are all spreadsheet files. If you track your intertexts in a spreadsheet, more power to you — I always use HTML and scroll through. Again, this is a matter of personal preference and knowing how your brain works! The advantage of downloading one of the spreadsheet formats is that you will also be able to sort your material offline. If this is an interesting feature, let me know and I will cover Excel sorting basics in a later post!


~j.

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