John Hollander calls transumption “the figure of interpretive allusion.” So transumption is when one work intentionally reminds us of another work, not just to say "hey, wasn't that thing awesome?" but to change the way we think about the work we have just been reminded of.
In the process it also changes the way we see the work that is doing the reminding. The artist alludes to previous work in order to increase his own artistic power. The aim of transumption, says Harold Bloom, is to capture an image away from canonical tradition. If the artist does a good enough job interpreting, he will basically own the thing he interprets. See Frank Miller, the definitive Batman guy, for a good example. It does not matter that he did not invent the character. He did it best, so he wins.
J. Hillis Miller writes “[transumption] puts early late … as late’s explanatory predecessor.” Normally, if you were an artist you would complain "Dammit everyone thought of everything else first." But with transumption you change the game. If you do transumption right guys that came first stop being BIG INVENTORS. They become merely your footnotes, the things people only need to understand to fully appreciate YOUR AWESOME WORK.
All of this is very abstract. Let's go to an example. Here is Milton talking about Satan just after his fall.
FROM MILTON’S PARADISE LOST (BOOK 1)
Nathless he so endur’d, till on the Beach
Of that inflamed Sea, he stood and call’d
His Legions, Angel Forms, who lay intrans’t
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th’Etrurian shades
High overarch’t imbow’r;
Milton's leaves, metaphors for fallen angels, are not just ordinary leaves -- he is calling on a poetic tradition of the metaphor of the leaves. These are the leaves mentioned in the Bible, Homer, Virgil and Dante
FROM ISAIAH (34:4)
“And all the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll; and their host shall fall down, as the leaf falleth off from the vine.”
FROM HOMER’S ILIAD (6.145-150)
As the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity.
The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the fine timber
Burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning.
So one generation of men will grow while another dies.
FROM VIRGIL’S AENEID (6.310-319)
Thick as the leaves that with the early frost
Of autumn drop and fall within the forest,
They stand; each pleads to be the first to cross
The stream; their hands reach out in longing for
The farther shore. But Charon, sullen boatman,
Now takes these souls, now those; the rest he leaves;
Thrusting them back, he keeps them from the beach.
FROM DANTE’S INFERNO (Canto 3)
“The demon Charon, his eyes like glowing coals, beckons to them and collects them all, beating with his oar whoever lingers. As the leaves fall away in autumn, one after another, till the bough sees all its spoils upon the ground, so there the evil seed of Adam: one by one they cast themselves from that shore at signals, like a bird at its call. Thus they go over the dark water, and before they have landed on the other shore, on this side a new throng gathers.”
Here is Harold Bloom on Milton's use of these guys:
“Homer accepts grim process; Virgil accepts yet plangently laments; Dante is more terrible since his leaves fall even as the evil seed of Adam falls. Milton remembers standing, younger and then able to see, in the woods of Vallombrosa, watching the autumn leaves strew the brooks. His characteristic metonymy of shades for woods allusively puns on Virgil’s and Dante’s images of the shades gathering for Charon, and by metalepsis carries across Dante and Virgil to their tragic Homeric origin. Once again, the precursors are projected into belatedness, as Milton introjects the prophetic source Isaiah. Leaves fall from trees, generations of men die, because one-third of the heavenly host came falling down. Milton’s present time again is experiential loss; he watches no more autumns, but the optic glass of his art sees fully what his precursors saw only darkly, or in the vegetable glass of nature.”
I am still working out exactly what some of that means, but you get the idea: Milton "carries across Dante and Virgil to their tragic Homeric origin." Milton references more than one guy here in order to link them. None of the guys are doing the exact same thing with the image. Homer Virgil and Dante may have thought of everything first but Milton has one big advantage to being the last guy at the party -- he sees more history than they do, and can position them in relation to the bible, which for Milton is the super-truth. Say what you want about that but it is certainly something Homer and Virgil cannot have known. This is how he will beat them. He comes late, but because he comes late he knows more than they do.
“By arranging his precursors in a series, Milton figuratively reverses his obligation to them, for his stationing crowds them between the visionary truth of his poem (carefully aligned with Biblical truth) and his darkened present. ... Troping upon his forerunners’ tropes, Milton compels us to read as he reads, and to accept his stance and vision as our origin, his time as true time. … Milton’s design is wholly definite, and its effect is to reverse literary tradition, at the expense of the presentness of the present. The precursors return in Milton, but only at his will, and they return to be corrected.”
In other words Milton wins because he makes it look like Homer Virgil and Dante are squished between the BIBLICAL TRUTH and MILTON'S TRUTH (which is basically a new biblical truth). Squished like that there is barely room for Homer, Virgil and Dante. Milton has no problem if his work makes you thinks of others, because rather than you just noticing similarities and calling him a rip off artist he is going to highlight the similarities and then point out the DIFFERENCES. He is going to interpret them according to his new, super-persuasive vision of HOW THINGS SHOUD FUCKING BE.
And Tarantino is doing the same thing in Kill Bill. More next week.