The Cambridge Companion to Allegory. Edited by Rita Copeland and Peter T. Struck. Cambridge University Press. 324 pp. $29.99
Even though allegory continues to have contemporary application—the foremost examples being John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy or the magic realism of Gabriel Garcãa Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude or Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land—a definition of allegory is elusive. This is recognized by Rita Copeland and Peter T. Struck who, in their introduction to the Cambridge Companion to Allegory, discuss two of its aspects:
In its most common usage it refers to two related procedures, a manner of composing and a method of interpreting. To compose allegorically is usually understood as writing with a double meaning: what appears on the surface and another meaning to which the apparent sense points. Allegorical interpretation (allegoresis) is understood as explaining a work, or a figure in myth, or any created entity, as if there were another sense to which it referred, that is, presuming the work or figure to be encoded with meaning intended by the author or a higher spiritual authority. Literary allegory has been treated by turns as a genre, a mode, a technique, or a rhetorical device or trope, related to metaphor and sometimes defined as ‘extended (or continued) metaphor.’
It is within these different aspects, as well as within the historical transference from ancient Greek and Latin philosophical usage to that of the Medieval Churchmen, that confusion arose:
In the early fifth century, John Cassian gave a formal stamp to the notion of a multi-valent spiritual sense, in his outline of the four-fold system of scriptural interpretation: he spoke of a literal or historical sense, and of three spiritual senses, tropology (which concerns the soul), allegory (which concerns the revelation of mysteries prefigured in history), and anagogy (which concerns the divine secrets of heaven). But in the same era as Cassian, Augustine could treat theological allegory, or the spiritual sense of Scripture, as another dimension of the rhetorical trope, as a special aspect of the trope found in the spiritual realities of Scripture rather than in its words. It appears that for Augustine, the rhetorical trope was the standard from which a specialized scriptural form had to be distinguished.
This ambiguity lent itself well to the service of
medieval vernacular authors, notably Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun (authors of the Roman de la Rose), and spectacularly Dante, [who] found that they could play with accepted distinctions between allegory as verbal trope and allegory as theological or cosmological truth, in order to lay claim to much greater authority than traditionally accorded secular poetry.
The introduction proceeds through the examination of allegory in subsequent centuries where, after falling into a period of derision, it was resuscitated by Walter Benjamin who “found in the Trauerspiel or mourning play of the German Baroque a critical turning point in the early modern world”:
On Benjamin’s view, Renaissance allegory maintained the fiction that an assured meaning was accessible through and immanent in visible signs, but it was the Baroque Trauerspiel that presaged modernity by exposing the chasm separating human life from a transcendant ideal.
Suddenly, allegory, and, in particular, allegorical interpretation became the crux of postmodern critical interpretation:
Post-structuralist theory, and Paul de Man’s work in particular, has turned to allegory as the paradigmatic instance of rhetoric and rhetorical language, of the sign whose meaning cannot be fixed but is continually deferred, both calling for and resisting interpretation. As a sign of deferred or absent meaning, allegory has once again occupied a critical position, this time as the trope of tropes, by its very name (‘other-speaking’) announcing itself as the definitive mark of the contingency of language and its referential claims. And conversely, as de Man famously argued, all reading, all critical practice, is allegoresis, that is, allegorical interpretation.
This collection of essays is divided into four parts— Ancient Foundations; Philosophy, Theology and Poetry 200 to 1200; Literary Allegory: Philosophy and Figuration; and The Fall and Rise of Allegory—each exploring a different era in the development and use of allegory.
The first of those four parts opens with Obbink’s “Early Greek allegory,” in which Obbink attempts to locate “from where the inclination to read this way may have come.” Interestingly, Obbink focuses on allegory’s absence, at least as a term, in the period:
Also missing during this period is, strictly speaking, the notion of ‘allegory’ (allêgoria) itself. We find readers using other terms to anchor their discussions of the nuggets of wisdom which they supposed great poets had tucked away in their poetry, including the terms hyponoia (under-sense) and symbolon (symbol), but with central position occupied by the notion of the aenigma (enigma). Readers of enigmas and undermeanings in this period are not rare, though some broad treatments of literary criticism treat allegory as though it were an exotic overgrowth of later periods. In fact, quite a number of examples of allegorical reading can be found during this early period, with difference of approach to be sure, but always with an interest in locating some hidden, other meaning under the surface of the poet’s words.
Obbink’s take is followed by Glenn W. Most’s “Hellenistic allegory and early imperial rhetoric,” which discusses the growing importance of allegory as a tool for both new writing and interpretation:
once allegory had become a philosophically legitimate instrument of poetic composition, genuinely talented poets could make use of it strategically in order to add an appearance of depth and sophistication to their works, to advertise their own learning and sometimes to achieve effects of irony and wit – all the more as the texts of the ancient poets they read in school were equipped with commentaries into which, despite the best efforts of Aristarchus and his like, bits of allegorical interpretation had already started to infiltrate.
The latter portion of that quote reminds one of the Leavises and the school of conservative literary interpretation they attempted to found.
Daniel Boyarin’s “Origen as theorist of allegory: Alexandrian contexts” covers the important shift to religiously inspired allegory:
Within an early Christian context, one finds allegory judged by at least two quite different measures. It is, on the one hand, the powerful engine of Pauline reinterpretation that makes the Hebrew Bible into an ‘old’ testament. On the other, it is a non-literal way of reading that raises a certain anxiety within a set of traditions that at regular intervals insist on different forms of literalism…This aspect of Origen’s work highlights the transition of allegory from a pagan practice of interpreting difficult passages in Homer and Hesiod to a foundational piece of an emerging Christian biblical hermeneutics.
The second section, “Philosophy, Theology and Poetry: 200 to 1200,” begins with Peter T. Struck’s “Allegory and ascent in Neoplatonism.” He acknowledges the transition between this period and the preceding:
In Late Antiquity a series of ideas emerges that adds a kind of buoyancy to allegorism. Readers’ impulses toward other regions of knowledge begin to flow more consistently upward, drawn by various metaphysical currents that guide and support them…To greater or lesser degrees this group of readers will transform Plato’s world of mere images, always and everywhere pale imitations of the real truth, into a world of manifestations, always potentially carrying palpable traces of that higher world.
He attributes a great importance to Macrobius in “effacing the difference between literary allegory and divination,” which would have extreme relevance to allegory in the Middle Ages. This section and the next, “Literary Allegory: Philosophy and Figuration,” are full of interesting and useful information with excellent articles examining the development of allegory up to the era of the Renaissance.
The last section, “The Fall and Rise of Allegory,” takes us into the modern era. We will skip discussion of the first two chapters in this section, “Romanticism’s Errant Allegory” and “American Allegory to 1900″ thereby permitting us more time to consider the influence of Walter Benjamin, hermeneutics and allegory since 1960, which will likely be of most interest to Quarterly Conversation readers. What should be noted of the earlier period, however, as the initial essay in this section more than adequately sets out, is that allegory had fallen into relative desuetude during the Romantic era. It took Walter Benjamin to revive interest in it and lend it credibility. As Howard Caygill says in “Walter Benjamin’s concept of allegory”:
The work of Walter Benjamin has made a fundamental contribution to the re-assessment of allegory during the twentieth century. It not only made a powerful case for the significance of allegory as a radical art practice but also extended its reach from the aesthetic to other realms of experience. However, the precise contours of the concept of allegory are hard to trace because Benjamin lends such broad significance to the allegorical. In so far as he possessed an integrated theory of allegory, it is one made up of the intersection of several discrete lines of inquiry whose precise relations were left deliberately undefined. For Benjamin, allegory is a concept with implications that are at once philosophical, religious, aesthetic, political and historical. . . . It is also evident that allegory is central not only to his understanding of modernism in art and literature, but also to the shifts of religious and political experience that for Benjamin constituted modernity.
This is then followed by an excellent exposition of Benjamin’s thought as traced through his writings. We shift now into Steven Mailloux’s “Hermeneutics, deconstruction, allegory,” which sets out its approach in the first paragraph:
[W]e can view hermeneutics generally as theories of interpretation, the establishment of textual meaning, especially those theories associated with the writings of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur. More provisionally, we can treat deconstruction as a radical form of poststructuralism and a certain way of interpreting against the grain of a text, developed within and against phenomenology and structuralism and often identified with the critical reading of Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida. Hermeneutics and deconstruction intersect and diverge on their shared topic of allegory in its relation to rhetoric, philosophy, and literature.
Both Gadamer and de Man see allegory as standing “as a synecdoche for rhetoric itself” but in different ways:
[W]hereas rhetoric and hermeneutics, language-use and interpretation, are inseparable and complementary for Gadamer, this is not the case for de Man, who sees linguistic figures as troubling interpretative reading and rhetorical and hermeneutic theories to be in dynamic tension.
Lynette Hunter, in “Allegory happens: allegory and the arts post-1960,” the concluding essay in this collection, discusses reader-response theory and its effect on allegory:
The focus on the reader as a vital element in allegory became central to the development of ideas about the stance in the latter part of the century. The concept of readers and audiences as engaged in making the text had been introduced into criticism by Prague School aesthetics in the 1930s. But is was not extensively taken up until the rhetorical methods of deconstruction fed into some versions of poststructuralism and found a different weighting for allegory, especially through reader-reception theory…became involved in a distinctive attempt to distinguish allegory from naïve mimetic representation and reductive generic definitions, and to focus on it as something that reminds human beings of their limitations, their differences from the material world.
The essays in this collection have been well-chosen to highlight various aspects of the history and use of allegory. Each is merely an introduction into a much broader area but an excellent introduction nevertheless. Each will intrigue the reader (as they have the reviewer) into wanting to explore further. As such, this introduction has more than served its purpose.
The author of poetry, reviews, and essays published in a number of literary journals in the United States and Canada, John Herbert Cunningham has recently become the host of the half-hour radio program “Speaking of Poets,” which is available streaming or as a download from the University of Winnipeg’s CKUW. He is currently working on a manuscript of poetry.
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