Thinking Allegory Otherwise


Thinking Allegory Otherwise is a unique collection of essays by allegory specialists and other scholars who engage allegory in exciting new ways. The contributors include Jody Enders, Karen Feldman, Angus Fletcher, Blair Hoxby, Brenda Machosky, Catherine Gimelli Martin, Stephen Orgel, Maureen Quilligan, James Paxson, Daniel Selcer, Gordon Teskey, and Richard Wittman.

The essays are not limited to an examination of literary texts and works of art, and in fact focus on a wide ...

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Thinking Allegory Otherwise is a unique collection of essays by allegory specialists and other scholars who engage allegory in exciting new ways. The contributors include Jody Enders, Karen Feldman, Angus Fletcher, Blair Hoxby, Brenda Machosky, Catherine Gimelli Martin, Stephen Orgel, Maureen Quilligan, James Paxson, Daniel Selcer, Gordon Teskey, and Richard Wittman.

The essays are not limited to an examination of literary texts and works of art, and in fact focus on a wide range of topics that includes architecture, philosophy, theatre, science, and law. The book proves the truth of the statement that all language is allegorical, and more importantly it shows its consequences. To "think allegory otherwise" is to think otherwise— to rethink not only the idea of allegory itself, but also the law and its execution, the literality of figurative abstraction, and the figurations upon which even hard science depends.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Thinking Allegory Otherwise therefore has something for everyone: it posits itself as a radical break from previous treatments of allegory, but insofar as it is thinking allegory otherwise in this way, it is also maintaining a very traditional emphasis on defining allegory as speaking otherwise. . .One of the clearest ways that this volume presents something new is in the strikingly interdisciplinary nature of the contributions."—David Kelman, Comparative Literature Studies

"This profoundly comparatist volume is full of interdisciplinary vigor. It provides a comprehensive assessment of allegory as a discursive and aesthetic mode, and gives a highly favorable report about the current status of allegory studies."—Bruce Clarke, Texas Tech University

"This volume makes an important new intervention in the study of allegory by arguing that its role and importance in Western culture, including our current time, has been much underestimated." —Kenneth Borris, McGill University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804763806
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 12/30/2009
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Brenda Machosky is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Hawai'i West O'ahu.
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Read an Excerpt

Thinking Allegory Otherwise


Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-6380-6

Chapter One

Allegory without Ideas ANGUS J. S. FLETCHER


As Renaissance authors used to say, allegory is the captain of all rhetorical figures of speech, and we might ask, Is it a ship of fools or a dreadnought? Certainly this "figure of false semblaunt" commands a large percentage of the world's symbolic activity, mainly because it permits the iconic rendering of power relations. Realism in fiction, history, and journalism may seek the inherent power connection of allegory, as we know from its structural properties, especially its demonic agency and cosmic range. The key to understanding how allegory works is to focus on its mode of agency, and here we find that from ancient times to the present, under varying guises, the demonic-not necessarily bad-is the embodiment of primordial agency; the daimons of Greek myth have a unique power to act without impediment, obeying a system of absolute, single-minded, purified intention. By radically simplifying purpose, the allegorist looks at life as if it were a game of getting and exploiting power. This confers on the method a vast general relevance, while other broad modalities do not have either this semiotic depth or this cultural-and significantly religious-usage. Even prophecy and typology in biblical interpretation lack the allegorical scope.

If iconologies of power are the issue, it must follow that we cannot understand the languages of politics and their rhetoric until we understand the allegorical method. It makes no difference what particular political order is in place; the defining allegorical structures will operate and will convert to the new situation, whenever a major political or cultural change of manifold occurs. Let us for reference purposes consider a rough rhetorical definition: Allegory is a method of double meanings that organizes utterance (in any medium) according to its expression of analogical parallels between different networks of iconic likeness. In setting up its correspondences between a certain story, let's say, and a set of meanings (the significatio of medieval exegesis), the method usually gives a vague impression of system. As rhetoricians ancient and modern perceived the process, a particular allegory will be either a composition or an interpretation based on a correspondence between images and agents (actions and the impressions they make) falling on one side of a wall of correspondence. Allegorical narratives, say a biblical parable or an Aesopian fable such as Animal Farm, lead us to imagine a set of meanings located on the other side of this hermeneutic wall. In political and cultural terms, these meanings lying on the other side of the wall comprise parts of the whole of an ideology-its commentary and interpretation.

Because allegory is a mix of making and reading combined in one mode, its nature is to produce a ruminative self-reflexivity. A large-scale allegory such as The Divine Comedy tends always to ruminate on its own levels of meaning, its own hermeneutic imperative, in a fashion we do not encounter, for example, with realism as in the novel or in historical writing. Self-reflection is obsessively an aspect of the allegorical method itself; that is, allegory works by defining itself in its enigmatic use. The motto of the mode might well be the line from Shakespeare's Sonnet 64, on time and the poet's destiny: "Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate." The rumination focuses on symbolic activity occurring on both sides of an interpretive barrier. If my rather too solid wall metaphor holds, there is in allegory something odd about the wall; each side seems cognizant of the other's activity, but each needs to accept that a semiotic barrier of some kind intervenes between story and significance. For centuries it was common to think of allegory as the semiotic medium for enigmatic thoughts.

Two attributes of a basic ritual process-the traditional use of the interpretive guide-will illuminate this process, whereby interpretation is darkly enclosed within the boundaries of the fiction itself. Following this tradition of the interpretive guide, in The Divine Comedy Virgil and Beatrice accompany the narrator Dante; in The Pilgrim's Progress a variety of friends counsel Christian on the meaning of his journey. Thus, in The Divine Comedy, the poet is shown the enigmatic meaning of his travel though the other world, meeting strange or strangely familiar persons from history or vision. These encounters constitute Dante the narrator's experience of "the state of souls after death," and they create in the reader a powerful curiosity and desire to interpret each step of the mysterious journey. So also in John Bunyan's great Protestant work, Christian (and later his wife, Christiana, and their children) travels on a progress from temporal defeat to resurrection, and all along the way the story suggests ideas of trial, choice, hope, and fear attending that journey. Particular moments and events stem from a larger vision, in this case the virtually cosmic idea of a Christian life. Story and idea, both sides rather complex, are twinned along the journey. This ingemination, as a Renaissance poet would call it, amounts to a belief that creation and interpretation are doubles of each other; they need each other. If a poet writes an allegory, the resulting poem apparently invokes and then controls its own interpretation. In a modern science fiction novel, Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, the interpretive guiding principle is inherent to the discovery of Leibowitz's banal shopping-list relic, a discovery made not casually but by a member of a desert religious order.

The principle of organization by which a story implies a set of parallel meanings will obviously not work with stories told merely for the sake of the plot; why should any tale as such correspond to anything except perhaps life itself? The story has to be structured to project repeatedly implied sets of oblique meanings. It then follows that ritual plays a central role in all allegorical compositions or readings. In my own general theory of allegory, I have shown how such ritual spreads its effects widely, from an obsessive-compulsive psychic origin to the massed cultural inventions of sacred liturgical rituals or rituals of political rhetoric. Ritual seems to be one way to prevent excessive questioning of the wall metaphor to which I have referred, as if repeated actions could ease a hidden stress between the image and meaning. A skeptical view asks naturally for the grounding of such beliefs and practices, while to a great extent the unquestioning answer can usefully be that allegories flourish in the form of ritual interpretations. Given this ritual protection from skepticism, there seems to be no limit, either in religious history or elsewhere, to the number of adumbrations that may load discourse with extra meanings. Even when the plain sense of literal meaning conflicts with evolved doctrine of any kind, allegorical rituals employ methods of accommodating a privileged text to the system of ideas; another word for this accommodating art is commentary, and yet another, the broad term interpretation.


The interpretive dance of allegory is an ancient literary phenomenon, no doubt as old as the desire to convert speech and writing into "scripture," where sacred writ is accorded an authoritative status. In the sixth century B.C., it was possible to read Homeric epic as an allegory of physical forces, so that the apparent irrationality of the chthonic and Olympian gods was made into an acceptable allegorical parallel to nature's wildness. Much later, with the establishment of the Christian church, a quite different mode of accommodation developed into an elaborate semiotic system, whereby all events could be read as implying the omnipotent providence of God. The system of interpretation keeps on changing its court of appeal, usually slowly, but at times fast.

Medieval practice seems to be the most revealing stage to examine before attempting any reach into the strange kind of allegory I am proposing. Let us recall the most familiar tag from medieval Christian exegesis, the fourfold method, which is known to poets and theologians alike. Reams have been written-Henri de Lubac wrote four densely packed volumes-on this simple statement of policy, its origins in Judaism and early Christianity, and on the various ways allegory could be found in and around biblical texts, sermons, secular literature, and life in general. The interpretive method was encapsulated in four mnemonic lines:

Littera gesta docet; Quod credas allegoria; Quid agas moralia; Quo tendas anagogia.

Loosely translating, we get:

The letter teaches events, actions, and history; What you believe is the allegory; What you should do is the moral; Whither you leaning (your final purpose) is the anagogy.

Christian exegetes often reduced the fourfold to a dyadic set, with the first half being the literal sense of a text and items two, three, and four together constituting the "spiritual" interpretation of the letter. Augustine would have seen the method in that way, recognizing paradoxically that the literal is the most subtle part of the fourfold, for without a degree of grammar, utterance, and rhetoric, the letter could not function at all; because on the biblical view God created by speaking, no derived or original sacred text could be a pure grapheme, functioning as pure Derridean différance. Even so, while the chief mystery of language is packed into the first level-the literal-there is also, according to this patristic view, a standard efflux of extra meanings, those other three levels. Massive medieval texts, such as the Cosmographia of the twelfth-century author Bernard Silvestris, typically exfoliate their meanings in complex designs, all of them streaming from the fourfold sense of the text. The method descends especially from close readings of the works of Saint Augustine, for example, his treatise On the Trinity. The hermeneutic adventure has been fully documented and analyzed by modern scholars such as M. D. Chenu, Jean Daniélou, de Lubac, Jean Pépin, A. C. Charity, and, more recently, Jon Whitman, who, in his book on allegory, has reduced the wealth of issues to a manageable and analytically helpful conspectus. The medieval fourfold system of reading is obviously the source of a rich semiotic because it can range from the most physical of senses to the most mysterious; if what is morally of concern (in the third level) is not understood as to its form of belief (second level), there will be a gap in the overall sense being conveyed, a kind of fragmentary loss of coherence. In fact, the four levels continuously modify each other as to meaning.

What is remarkable is that no exegetical scholar has given any weight to what appears to be the philosophical source of the fourfold system, that is, the theory of the four causes given in the Metaphysics and Physics of Aristotle. In Aristotle, all events and all change (as with natural motion, or kinesis) occur in relation to the four aspects, or "fashions," of causation, as the philosopher Jonathan Lear would say. First, the material cause virtually states its own character because objects and events are composed in some sense materially, of matter, in one respect or another. Materiality is hence an initial type of causal efficacy. Second, things and events have a formal cause, in that the design of their changing gives a second essential attribute of their potential for change. Third, things and events have an efficient cause because they need energy and thrust to bring about their motion from a potential to actual state. Fourth, they possess a final cause, for any movement or change of state-materialized, formalized, and energized-still requires a goal or purpose, an end toward which their changing aspires. This famous tetrad directly parallels the medieval fourfold method of interpretation, and one can only suppose its neglect in the commentaries to result from a refusal of the secular aspect of the Physics.

The reason I stress this neglect is that it marks a failure to note the pre-Christian physical basis of the history of allegory. By neglecting to see that the allegorist's four levels of meanings are actually four levels of natural causation-admitting that here we deal with Aristotelian, pre-Galilean science-we fail to establish our next step in the historical account of the fortunes of allegory in the West. Lurking under the veil of hermeneutic obscurity, as the Bible and other texts were read, there had always been an Aristotelian implication, if it is correct that the four causes underlie the four levels of Christian exegesis. That supposition may be historically impossible to prove; its point-the strong analogy between the two systems of fourfold explanation-remains viable. We commonly say that Aristotle explains change in terms of four "causes"; but, as Richard Hope shows, in his translation of the Metaphysics, the words aitia and aition have many shades of meaning, perhaps best summed in the phrase "basic explanation." This in turn leads to a sense of cause as "idea." The idea of a thing is in effect its cause, and, as idea, points us to the basic explanation of the thing being the way it is, not accidentally or contingently, but in essence. This sequence of relations in turn leads to the link between Aristotle (a fundamental Christian authority, of course) and the medieval allegory of the four levels of meaning. For each of these levels is an aition or system of aitia; and, in that respect, each level of interpretation is a "basic explanation," or, as Hope translates the key term, cause is the basic "explanatory factor" in reading the phenomenon of change correctly. A "level of meaning," finally, is a particular set of "explanatory factors," as, for instance, materials of which an object is made, or purposes to which its design contributes, and these factors in turn are accorded the status of ideas. In every case, the hermeneutic system is naturalized by virtue of its link to Aristotle's Physics and Metaphysics and anterior to those founding texts, the platonic theory of ideas. Given the embedded nature of the Aristotelian tradition, it is no wonder that on occasion exegetes might say there are more than four interpretive levels, as many as seven.

Rich with interpretive debate, this tradition opens up many doors, but behind them all there is a vision of the essential properties of being. Each of the four causes, or four levels, points to an essential (and only in that sense "natural") aspect of the Aristotelian reasons why things happen as they do. A deep essentialism animates this whole approach to meaning. If we say that the standard medieval interpretive system yields an allegory of ideas, we are also saying that it is an allegory of essences. Plato had imagined that the idea belongs to a realm of the unchanging, hence in a sense "eternal," and it has the aitiological power to generate change in things that need to change. The ideas toward which change points-say the events in a story-are points of unchanging essence, presided over by an ultimate unchanging essence, the final cause or anagogia of Christian destiny.

It is this resort to the finality of final causes that gives to Christian interpretation, say the account of doctrinal debates over science, even when extremely learned, such as Frederick Copleston's History of Philosophy, that strange willingness to assimilate all contradictions to the mysterious oneness and omnipotence of God, as if an essential property of the divine could resolve an earthly contradiction one has just noticed. One may feel better, but one has not resolved the contradiction. Of course, such maneuvers tend to reinforce an impression of divine authority because mystery always suggests the touch of arbitrary power-like the King's Touch, on which magic belief the great medievalist Marc Bloch wrote a whole book. In medieval philosophy, it was no doubt inevitable that a thinker such as William of Ockham would sooner or later arise to question the allegory of ideas, and this questioning in fact leads to the steady building of a quite different tradition of allegory, which I wish now to examine, in brief and roughly.


Excerpted from Thinking Allegory Otherwise Copyright © 2010 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction "A Protean Device" BRENDA MACHOSKY....................1
1. Allegory without Ideas ANGUS J. S. FLETCHER....................9
2. Memories and Allegories of the Death Penalty Back to the Medieval Future? JODY ENDERS....................37
3. The Mask of Copernicus and the Mark of the Compass Bruno, Galileo, and the Ontology of the Page DANIEL SELCER....................60
4. The Function of Allegory in Baroque Tragic Drama What Benjamin Got Wrong BLAIR HOXBY....................87
5. Colonial Allegories in Paris The Ideology of Primitive Art GORDON TESKEY....................119
6. Monuments and Space as Allegory Town Planning Proposals in Eighteenth-Century Paris RICHARD WITTMAN....................142
7. Allegory and Female Agency MAUREEN QUILLIGAN....................163
8. What Knights Really Want STEPHEN ORGEL....................188
9. Eliding Absence and Regaining Presence The Materialist Allegory of Good and Evil in Bacon's Fables and Milton's Epic CATHERINE GIMELLI MARTIN....................208
10. On Vitality, Figurality, and Orality in Hannah Arendt KAREN FELDMAN....................237
11. Allegory and Science From Euclid to the Search for Fundamental Structures in Modern Physics JAMES J. PAXSON....................249
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