What is allegory? Most simply, it is a way of saying one thing and meaning another. But it is an extremely complex literary concept, about which, paradoxically, there seems to be an almost unanimous and simplistic scholarly agreement that it is nothing more than personification. This book utterly rejects that idea and takes a radically different approach to understanding allegory – one that reveals rich new depths of meaning in major works by Dante, Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, Swift, Fielding, Conrad, Nabokov, and Pynchon.
This essay tries to sensitize readers to the active role they will have to play in coming to terms with allegory. It tries to avoid the loaded terms of conventional criticism – a plain language contract is what I’m after – and to prepare readers to begin thinking about allegory in terms like those that describe the behavior of non-linear systems in math.
This chapter grapples with the way allegory de-familiarizes language and images, twisting them from their conventional significances – usually by means of strict literalism – to what will be our initial confrontation with the Other, in all its potential richness and complexity. It proceeds by looking closely at the opening of Dante’s Commedia.
Here, to establish a basis for talking about what allegory claims for itself as its zone of signification, we look specifically at the way allegorists – Dante Alighieri, Edmund Spenser, Joseph Conrad – use language as distinguished from the way non-allegorists – St Paul, John Milton – use it.
This chapter engages allegory’s confrontation with and incorporation of the Other in the senses of alterity, as well as twinning and much more. It also deals with the idea of liminality – border crossing and transgression, erasing and superceding – through discussions of Book I of The Faerie Queene and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
This chapter deals with the powerful role of strange attractors in allegory – areas of reference that prod the reader into active participation in the construction of meaning in the text. The works principally engaged are Book VI of The Faerie Queene and Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books; with attention also to Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire provides the primary focus (but The Tempest gets attention too) for this attempt to analyze some of the complexities generated by allegory’s self referentiality and replications, by the intervention of its strange attractors, and by its increasing demands on the reader’s attention and involvement.
Everything that I have arguing thus far about allegory comes together here in elaborate discussions of, once again, Book VI of The Faerie Queene and, most extensively, of the language of Dante’s Paradiso and the role of Beatrice in Commedia.
We loop back once again to the questions of borders and transgressions, openings and closings, the knowable and the unknowable or unspeakable, with now more expanded awareness of their complexity in allegory. The key texts are Conrad’s Lord Jim and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.
By way of Pynchon’s lovely conclusion to Vineland, and as much as any discussion of allegory can, this brief essay offers a closure – which, inescapably, is also a beginning.