Appendix 4:  Joseph Andrews, Where Allegory First Meets the Modern World

The gulf that yawns between the scale of an epic poem like Commedia and a “comic epic-poem in prose”1 like Joseph Andrews seems immense, but if chaos theory teaches us anything about allegory, it is precisely that we should be looking for similarities across scale. Joseph Andrews has nowhere near the scope, and nothing of the grandeur, of Dante’s Commedia, but Fielding’s novel is very much a work of the same kind – stripped down to the barest essentials of the kind, it is true, but nonetheless an allegory whole and entire, and perhaps the first allegory ever written in the modern mode.

Needless to say, I am not here referring to any simplistic interpretation of the novel’s characters as personification figures, but rather to the novel in toto as a meaning system, as a multivalent, transliminal, and paradoxically open-ended phenomenon/noumenon despite its apparent closure. Joseph Andrews is not chastity or virtue, Parson Adams is not morality or virtue, Fanny is not innocence or virtue or anything else. True, the novel’s characters start as personification figures – flat, one-dimensional, single-trait markers rather than rounded, psychologically coherent individuals – but Commedia and The Faerie Queene begin the same way, and all three works rapidly outgrow that simplistic and confining mode.

In Joseph Andrews, in fact, the characters’ process of growth, both in their psychology, as fictively “real” individuals, and in the manner of their portrayal, as imagined actors in a fictional narrative, constitutes a large part of the subject of that narrative. Not only has Fielding set himself an at least dual subject right from the start of Joseph Andrews – it’s really more than dual, because he’s exploring the nature and depiction of virtue too – but he has cast that subject, or those subjects, in a form of pervasive self-referentiality: The actions of a character and the presentation of those actions consistently illuminate each other.

Fielding “inherited” from Richardson’s Pamela a cluster of cognate problems that he adopts as the paradoxically separate yet unitary subject/action of Joseph Andrews. The identity and nature of virtue, how to write about virtue, how to depict virtue in character and in narrative, and how to depict character in action and in narrative – all these concerns combine to form the unitary subject of Fielding’s novel. He so manages his rhetoric and his subject(s) that he is always saying at least one thing and meaning at least one other, whichever of the topics – virtue, character, writing – he is talking about. Need I add that he does this so openly that almost no one has seen it?

Such a stance vis-a-vis Joseph Andrews – the willingness to read it as allegory, with the expectations of allegory as I have described them – alters readers’ whole understanding of the relations of parts to parts within the novel and of the function of episodes within the narrative. For instance: From the point of view of allegory, the “Author’s Preface” and the discursive, “theoretical,” initial chapters of the first three books of Joseph Andrews do not differ from the narrative portions of the novel except in ostensible subject matter. In essence, they form as congruent and as necessary parts of that narrative as – to choose easy comparisons – Adams’s and Mr. Wilson’s discussion of The Iliad, or the argument of the poet and the player, or Joseph’s disquisition to Fanny about the impossibility of ridiculing a truly virtuous act. The canny (or uncanny) reader of allegory should regard them as belonging as much/as little to the narrative of this allegory, and as much/as little to its “theory,” as, in Commedia, Virgil’s many explanations of Hell or Beatrice’s equally many of Heaven belong to the “theory” and narrative of that allegory, or Colin Clout’s explanation of the Graces belongs to the theory and narrative of The Faerie Queene.

Joseph Andrews’s handling of the interplay of “executive” and “deliberative” portions of its text differs radically from, for instance, that of A Tale of a Tub, where Swift exploits the difference between “progressive” narrative and “digressive” essay as part of a comprehensive metaphorics of insides and outsides. Fielding is headed the very opposite direction: If Joseph Andrews has a controlling metaphorics at all, it is some concept of wholeness and inseparability – the inseparability of Joseph, Fanny, and Adams, the inseparability of what a character says, what a character does, and the way the author presents that saying and doing. Fielding’s self-consciousness about the “species of writing . . . hitherto unattempted in our language” (12) on which he is working in Joseph Andrews does not confine itself to his Preface or to the novel’s various prefatory chapters. The novel as a whole is suffused with Fielding’s theorizing about his new genre: It is a novel as much about the development of the character of fiction and the development of characters in fiction as it is about the specific development of Joseph’s character or the improvement of the reader’s.

Fielding’s quarrel with Pamela is as central to his thinking about the form of the novel as it is to his ideas about the form of virtue or the development of character, either real or fictional. Richardson’s novel provides one the most important areas of reference for Joseph Andrews. Pamela, as both character and as novel, provides a running analogue – a pre-text, a strange attractor – for Fielding’s presentation of her putative biological, moral, and artistic sibling, so that each episode of Joseph Andrews functions not just to illustrate the growing maturity of its hero but also to demonstrate both Fielding’s version of the proper development of character in fiction and his vision of the greater-than-Pamela’s-method-allows potential of the art of the novel. Fielding’s readers are supposed to learn by doing, by experiencing, by working through their ad-hoc reality – the novel Joseph Andrews – just as Joseph analogously and simultaneously acts, experiences, and works through his reality, the substance of the book.

The reader is no more educated by emulating the example of Joseph’s virtue (Lady Booby, after all, has the first and last word on that: “Your virtue! . . . I shall never survive it” [32]) than Joseph is by the example of Pamela or Parson Adams. Nor is the reader “insensibly” and effortlessly moved to virtue by Fielding’s artistry any more than Joseph is by Adams’ preaching. Sed contra: Each of the novel’s four books contains at least one scene in which its titular hero’s actions demonstrate the inadequacy of emulation and/or artistry as incentives to virtue (Joseph at Lady Booby’s bedside; Joseph’s, Fanny’s, and Adams’s reunion at a country inn; the paired poet/player/Adams/Joseph chapters of Book III; the “night adventures” and identity revelations of Book IV: all to be discussed below). Fielding makes each of those actions reverberate against multiple, alternative modes of literary representation, so that the reader is forced to reject the easy answer of exemplary virtue (and is thereby implicitly prohibited from reading any of the novel’s characters as paragons, whether of virtue or of vice).2

In orthodox allegorical manner, Fielding in each of these scenes pushes readers to think for themselves, to reject conventional routes of literary interpretation, by exposing those various modes of reading for what they really are: perspectives on reality, each complete in its own terms but each only partial with respect to the reality it purports to represent. Like Dante at the beginning of the Commedia or Spenser at the start of The Faerie Queene, Fielding forces his readers – not only at the beginning, but at key points throughout Joseph Andrews – to confront the limitations of different literary modes as a way of subsuming and transcending those modes.

Like Dante and Spenser in their allegories, Fielding in Joseph Andrews is himself confronting the limits of conventional figuration, the boundaries of artistic language, and violating them, opening them, in order to enter new linguistic and artistic fields – all of which he says so overtly that readers tend not to pay it any real mind. At the particular “confrontational” points to which I refer – that is, in those set scenes in each book wherein Joseph’s actions or experiences reverberate against multiple literary frames – Fielding prods his readers simultaneously to explore the possibilities and limitations of those various modes, of his own mode, and of the modality of the character Joseph Andrews. Let me stress “at these particular points in the novel,” because the novel Joseph Andrews is no more a static form than is the character Joseph Andrews. Fielding treats both as living, growing, changing entities that assume their final shapes only as a result of the multiple collisions of their own inner natures with external realities – one of which is the reader.

Despite what I will argue are Joseph Andrews’s impressive formal resemblances to Commedia and The Faerie Queene, the differences between Fielding’s situation and Dante’s and Spenser’s remain crucial to understanding the nature of his – and most subsequent – allegory. Spenser and Dante could both count on a shared background, a common language of cultural assumptions, and even, within broad limits, a communal literacy, a very real social contextuality. Fielding no longer could make assumptions of that order, or at most could make only gravely restricted ones. So Fanny, for instance, who is the goal and motive of Joseph’s pilgrimage, as Beatrice was for Dante, is presented as illiterate, shy, almost voiceless, and frequently powerless, in radical distinction from Dante’s lady (and, obviously, from Pamela the prolix, as well). By the same token, a large part of the background (or subtext or area of reference) of Joseph Andrews derives from Pamela, which in its contemporary popularity provided Fielding with just about as much communal literacy and contextuality as he could get.

The rest of what he needs for his narrative and allegorical purposes he must himself explicitly supply in his prefaces and initial chapters and through the reading and conversation of his characters. Once again, this is not merely Fielding theorizing about this strange new form he is experimenting with: It is, once again, an allegorist giving his readers the clues they need to read the allegory rightly; it is, once again, an allegory defining its own pedigree and field of play. Granted that the problem – and the need for such self-definition – is more acute for Fielding than it has been for allegorists before him because of the widening fissures in western culture: Nevertheless, fissures are precisely allegory’s scope.

Allegory seeks out fissures, breaks borders, shatters forms, discovers gaps and bridges them: That is its work. Fielding confronts an un-ignorable gulf between writer and reader, a communication gap even between his own characters3, which did not exist for Dante and Spenser. Such a gap was in fact the shape of things to come: of comic things, in the breakdowns of connectedness portrayed in Tristram Shandy (whose “progressive” and “digressive” narratives owe as much to the example of Joseph Andrews as they do to A Tale of a Tub), and of far more serious things, in our own loss of anything remotely resembling “a common language of cultural assumptions.” For that reason, illiteracy, incommunicativeness, and silence become charged, central phenomena and noumena in Joseph Andrews, in ways different from their importance in Commedia or Faerie Queene.

Both those allegories use language to point past language to the visible but unsayable, the perceptible but ineffable. The world of Joseph Andrews, however, is riven: A deep cleft runs between the material world we can see and the significance we can say. Ordinary language – vide Parson Adams and Peter Pounce – cannot bridge that chasm. Modern allegory, starting with Joseph Andrews, accepts nevertheless that language is all we have to bridge it with, even though much remains unsayable. Thus, the various visions of earlier allegories – the dance of the Graces, the Heavenly Jerusalem, the Sabbaoth, Beatrice, God – dwindle here to Fanny’s “discovering” – the word is rhetorical too – her charms and her subsequent total withdrawal from action within the narrative. So too, in the fourth book, Fielding the narrator moves Joseph from direct into indirect discourse, thereby joining him in that way too to Fanny (who has been presented in indirect discourse for most of the book), linking them in shared and deliberately chosen silence and “illiteracy.”

The point is hammered home especially at the conclusion of the book, when Joseph vows that he will not “be prevailed on by any booksellers, or their authors, to make his appearance in ‘high-life’” (298). That is not only a repudiation of Pamelan prolixity and self-publication, but an ideologically opposite movement inward to the private, the secret, the unspoken – even, if you like, the unwritten and the non-verbal. In that sense, the illiterate Fanny literally closes the book, restoring – by her silence, by the fact of her illiteracy – mystery, awe, reverence to a world that is otherwise, from this historical point onward, hell-bent on publication, publicizing, publicity. At the dawn of what we are pleased to call the modern world, allegory rediscovers – in language itself – its most ancient vocation as barrier to the unworthy and veil of the holy of holies, protector and preserver and transmitter of that which the vulgar (who are emphatically not co-extensive with the lower classes) cannot be permitted to see or say because they would profane it.

The means to this complex apprehension are, as I’ve already suggested, the acuteness of Henry Fielding’s literary self-consciousness and the radical directness with which he puts that self-awareness to work on and in the narrative of Joseph Andrews. The originally Aristotelean concept of drama as the imitation of nature underwent a radical transformation in the years between the reopening of the theatres at the Restoration and the licensing of the London theatres in 1732. Four different understandings of the idea of imitating nature succeeded each other:

  • first, the dramatic imitation, in a play as a whole and its characters as individuals, of nature conceived of as pattern or platonic ideal;
  • second, the dramatic imitation of the interplay between the ideal and the less satisfactory actual;
  • third, the imitation of human inner life, wherein the particular character reveals a typical or representative pattern;
  • and fourth, a reversal, wherein nature is persuaded to imitate art – the audience learns and changes not by the intellectual process of pattern-recognition or revelation but by the emotional power of particular, individualized characters who move the viewers to reformation of their own characters by an “insensible” effect.

At the final stage, the imitation of nature focusses obsessively on internal nature, the characters’ and the audience’s interior states. This process both prepares for and culminates in the flowering of the novel.4

These four versions of imitation tally significantly with the four books of Joseph Andrews and the four corresponding stages through which Fielding develops the character of his eponymous hero. This is another result of looking at the novel through the lenses of allegory: Readers of allegories are freer than readers of novels to see artificial divisions such as books and cantos – even chapters – as artificial divisions, and thus to attend to what they artificially divide.

Regard each book of Joseph Andrews as a temporarily or provisionally complete entity, and you can discern pretty quickly that each obeys different ground rules and is written to a different prescription and for different ends. Fielding’s first theoretical remarks in the novel address – with more deliberate ambiguity than I think has yet been recognized – “writing lives in general,” and his first paragraphs touch on the ideas of example and emulation, issues central to the evolving notion of imitation of nature. They also raise the central question of the relation of “real” lives and literary lives. Too often Fielding’s playful tone in his prefaces and introductory chapters has been allowed to obscure the fact that he and many of his characters (Parson Adams for one) are formidable and serious literary theorists (not always correct, of course, but serious).

My contention here is that Fielding was at least as conscious of the varying meanings that might be attached to the phrase “imitation of nature” in his age as we are. Further, the fact that the stages of Fielding’s treatment of the problem of imitation and character development in Joseph Andrews correspond almost exactly to the stages described in Mirror to Nature to my mind corroborates the accuracy of Fielding’s artistic awareness: He recreates in micro the process modern scholarship has found occurring in macro.

At the beginning of Joseph Andrews, the narrator posits that “real” lives and written lives equally inspire emulation by the power of example. The “original” life provides the “pattern” that the written life imitates, and that written life in turn serves as a pattern for “real” lives to imitate. Art imitates nature, inducing nature in turn to imitate art, in a closed system of emulation. Simple enough perhaps, but the examples that Fielding cites are Colley Cibber and Pamela Andrews, the one an exemplary “real” life and the other an exemplary written life, but proposed to the reader as undifferentiated examples of the comprehensive art of “writing lives.” The choice of these examples – even if we’ve been able to ignore Fielding’s comic preteritio of Jack the Giant-killer and others of that ilk – forces us to admit a pervasive irony in Fielding’s whole treatment of the doctrine of emulation and example. Joseph himself has the last word on this as on most subjects in this book, when he writes, in Pamela’s own manner, to his chaste sister about his escape from Lady Booby’s boudoir:

Dear Sister Pamela,

Hoping you are well, what news I have to tell you! O Pamela, my mistress is fallen in love with me – that is, what great folks call falling in love – she has a mind to ruin me; but I hope I shall have more resolution and more grace than to part with my virtue to any lady upon earth.

Mr. Adams hath often told me, that chastity is as great a virtue in a man as in a woman. He says he never knew any more than his wife, and I shall endeavour to follow his example. Indeed, it is entirely owing to his excellent sermons and advice, together with your letters, that I have been able to resist a temptation, which he says no man complies with, but he repents in this world, or is damned for it in the next; and why should I trust to repentance on my deathbed, since I may die in my sleep? What fine things are good advice and good examples!  But I am glad she turned me out of the chamber as she did: for I had once almost forgotten every word Parson Adams had ever said to me. (I.x.38-39)

Joseph’s final remark shows definitively the limits of example and emulation in the face of real(istic) circumstance, just as Fielding’s deadly accurate parody of Pamela’s own rhetoric gives the death blow to the idea that he is serious in endorsing the naive notion of fiction’s teaching by example. The questions then become more pointed: if literature doesn’t teach by example, by exciting emulation, then how does it teach, if it teaches at all? If it can’t succeed by presenting exemplary characters, how can a novel work? How should it present character?

The famous scene in Lady Booby’s boudoir – the scene that prompts Joseph’s letter – is the first focus for these questions in the novel. The scene is matchless: funny, pointed, sardonic, reflecting on social norms and moral duplicities so effectively that the reader laughs while squirming. But it is also – indeed, this is a keystone of its comedy – a scene unrealistic in the extreme, a scene played out by characters statically one-dimensional, speaking a language patently artificial. It is bookish and stagey in the pejorative senses of those words, and the participants – Joseph at least – know it. Joseph’s first letter to Pamela identifies Lady Booby as acting “exactly as a lady does to her sweetheart in a stage-play” ( His second identifies himself as following “your [Pamela’s] example, and that of Joseph, my namesake” (I.x.38).

That is to say, Fielding has made Joseph’s character and the modality of his novel at this point typological in three different respects. First, morally, Fielding looks to the Bible and presents us characters stripped down to the ideological nub of recreating a one-dimensional tableau of chastity: Joseph’s resistance to the blandishments of Potiphar’s wife. Second, literarily, he points us to the stage, to bedroom farce, and presents us characters reduced to another kind of one-dimensional typology: characters confined to a single motivation and encompassed by the stereotypes of naif and seductress. Third, in terms of form and of the reality that novel-as-form purports to embody, Fielding looks to Richardson’s Pamela and shows the reader that it is no different from the first two: Insofar as Joseph’s letter accurately recreates the form, substance, and style of Pamela’s letters – and it does so very well – Joseph as character and Pamela as character are shown to be functioning typologically and one-dimensionally also. The novel Pamela and the narrative of Joseph Andrews, to this point, simplify and arrange reality and human personality by simply omitting most of both – as both Joseph’s very honest admission about his nearness to falling and Fielding’s elaborate apostrophe to the (ambiguous) power of (ambiguous) love (I.vii.29) remind us.

This is why Fielding only later informs the reader about Joseph’s abiding love for Fanny: not because, as earlier critics of the novel thought, the character Joseph has suddenly grown under his hands or because he has abruptly changed his own artistic direction, but because Joseph’s love for Fanny is another motivation, another facet of personality, and any such concession to the multiplicity of the real world or real character destroys at one blow the uses of typology, stereotyping, and fictional oversimplification. (Indeed, Lady Booby as presented this early in the novel already strains the bounds of personification: She is herself a psychomachic personality, torn between the demands of lust and vanity.)

The first book of Joseph Andrews offers these essentially typological modes of character imitation as the baseline, the bare minimum, from which the aware artist must build up to a more encompassing method of fictionalizing reality. To this point in Book I, Fielding is demonstrating graphically both the virtues and the limitations of an art that imitates nature as ideal pattern and of the putatively “real” nature – i.e., Joseph’s – dependent on those patterns. Such characters veer dangerously near simple personification: Their actions are predictable, almost programmable, because the narrative emphasis and the reader’s own expectations are defined by performance to type, fidelity to pattern – the same sort of expectations generated by a superficial reading of the first few stanzas of The Faerie Queene, for instance. The stylistic consequence, for both author and character, is a clearly self-conscious literariness, an emphasis on artifice, a single-dimensionality in their approaches to the world and the reader. This produces a world reduced to outline and – no matter how funny – to outline only.

Fielding’s task is to find a way of writing lives that does not impoverish lives. In Book II.xii he shows more of the problems inherent in project. This is a classic recognition scene, the first meeting, in the novel, of Joseph and Fanny. At an unnamed inn Fanny and Parson Adams hear an unidentified voice singing in another room. Fanny recognizes the melodic voice that sings the erotic pastoral as Joseph’s, then almost swoons, and rapturously revives in Joseph’s arms as Parson Adams capers about and his disregarded copy of Aeschylus smolders in the fire. Once again, at least two literary analogues are operative in the foreground, in addition to the background of the pervasively present Pamela, the recognition, by the lovers in the lyric, of their mutual passion, and the close-to-archetypal recognition scene of Orestes and Electra in Aeschylus.

The whole set piece corresponds quite closely with the second version of the imitation of nature, the observed interplay between the ideal and the actual. In Fielding’s scene, this is dramatized for us pointedly by the contrast between the spontaneous affection and natural modesty of Joseph and Fanny on one hand and the elegant seduction and slightly smirky sexual joke of the song on the other. The unrestrained and decidedly comic caperings of Parson Adams not only add another counterpoint to the song’s achievement of merely carnal knowledge but function as well as a satyr-play pendent to the tragic recognition scene in Aeschylus, the text of whom is here burnt up for more than one reason.

At least one component of this episode turns upon broad parody of such archetypal recognition scenes, in that respect anticipating and ironically foreshadowing its two analogues in Book IV, where, in a false recognition scene, Joseph and Fanny will be confronted with the classically tragic fate of incest, later to be rescued from that by a true recognition scene in which Parson Adams behaves very much as he does here.

The valences of this episode remain much the same as those in Book I: art and nature in general, artifice and reality more particularly, most specifically the high style and “real” language, pastoral lovers and actual English peasants. The gap between literary renderings and the actuality furnishes the guts of Fielding’s scene, and the narrator expands and exploits that gap by his own ironically self-conscious adoption of the high style and a congruent classicizing imagery.

Only part of the comedy turns on the exposure of the inadequacies of the pattern to contain the “real” lives of Fielding’s characters. That part of Fielding’s joke points inward to the song itself, where artificial and classicized shepherds heeding the dictates of nature are weighed in the balance and found wanting by the scale of the natural behavior of Fanny and Joseph. Fielding’s major points, however, lie outward; first, in his characters’ dawning awareness of the necessary distinctions between public and private conduct (Fanny’s behavior here, the contrast between Strephon’s actions and Joseph’s) and second in an elaborate linkage between artifice, style, and identity. The lovingly copied and everywhere carried copy of Aeschylus that lies “expiring” on the fire – its action emulating Strephon’s in the song – has been, to this point in the novel, the key to Parson Adams’ identity. Badgered by an ignoramus who mistook the book for a “cipher” – i.e., a code (it was, but not of the sort Adams’ persecutor thought) – and asked, in the chapter immediately preceding this scene, “What’s your name?” (II.xi.125), Adams had answered unhesitatingly “It is Aeschylus, and I will maintain it.” In this chapter, the first words that Joseph and Fanny say to each other are “Are you Joseph Andrews?” and “Art thou my Fanny?” Slipslop ends this same chapter with her usual pertinence, wondering as she leaves the room “who the creature was.”

Of course, Parson Adams is not Aeschylus in any literal sense any more than Joseph and Fanny are asking whether or not they are literally seeing each other: All three individuals pose to the reader questions of interior identity, questions of who they are in their hearts. Joseph’s song and the values it embodies give Fanny real cause to ask whether this citified Joseph is the same person she used to know. The lingering traces of that song in Joseph’s language (“Art thou my Fanny?”) should equally well make the reader wonder who the creature is.

Book I exposed to us a surprise secret of Joseph’s heart – i.e., his love for Fanny. Book II should be causing us to wonder if in fact we know all the secrets of Joseph’s heart and how we can be sure of that knowledge. The song that he sings is, after all, first-personal, confessional, describing a recognizable and nearly universal human feeling. Our only guarantee that it does not describe Joseph’s heart is that we know already it is not Joseph’s style – and we know that not only because it is a borrrowed style, archaic and inappropriate, but also because the narrative (especially I.x and this present chapter) has educated us to see that Joseph at this point has no style of his own. He is not yet a fully conceived, rounded character, not yet his own man – or, for that matter, Fielding’s. He has moved as it were from bas-relief to middle relief, but he is not yet free of the wall that frames him. In his “real” life, he is framed and contained on one side by the psychological pulls of his loyalty to Parson Adams, to his sister Pamela, and to Fanny, and on the other by the opposing attractions of sexuality, sophistication, worldliness. He is barred from significant action by his own naiveté and dependence.

Second, in the moral context of the novel, Joseph is still contained by mere slogans: the chastity of Pamela vs. the sexuality of Strephon, the total resistance to passion preached by Parson Adams vs. the complete submission to it exemplified thus far in the novel by Lady Booby (and let us not forget the soon-to-be-troubling disparity between Parson Adams’ conduct and his beliefs). Again, Joseph is barred from any significant action by the unbridgeable polarity of those positions.

Third, in the context of literature, Joseph is confined by the whole idea of genre. He is not yet free to exist as a “real” individual because he is still enmeshed in the claims of genres (and their necessarily attendant styles and subject matters) completely inappropriate to his and the novel’s essence. Joseph’s art song makes explicit what has been lurking not far below the surface of the novel, disguised as a version of the town-and-country conflict: the claims of pastoral. As Raymond Williams tellingly remarks, “it was precisely at this point that the ‘town and country’ fiction served: to promote superficial comparisons and to prevent real ones.” Williams means by his words something very different from what I intend. He wants to identify the town and the city as reciprocal, indeed continuous, phenomena, not opposed but sharing and expressing the same values in different ways. Williams’s sense of “town and country” is of course perfectly true of and applicable to Joseph Andrews: It just doesn’t get us very far into the book.

Fielding’s narratives wear on their sleeves the romance of upward mobility within a seemingly sacrosanct and – save for the virtuous hero – inviolable social order. The diegetic level of the pastoral mythos, for all its apparent democracy and egalitarianism, really portrays only the upper class in masque, as its heroes and heroines invariably reveal themselves to be. It achieves social equality by, in the language of Catch 22, “disappearing” the real shepherds with all their attendant ills and odors and displaying only those individuals who play the fiction correctly and hygienically.

Nevertheless, pastoral as genre is about power, specifically about transformational power, whether that power is seen as residing in art or in money, in land or armies or imagination. Colin Clout displays it when he “disgraces” Gloriana. Dante’s Glaucus displays it when he metamorphoses into a god, pointing the way for the pilgrim’s growth into the seer and poet. Joseph displays it in his song: Pastoral allows him to think and say the things he would not do with Lady Booby or say in his letter to Pamela. Pastoral empowers, and Joseph’s song provides the gateway by which the whole charged field of pastoral pours into the English landscape of Joseph Andrews.

Sex and sexual roles – gender assignments – inevitably serve as vehicles of power relations, and in elaborating the basic fiction of Joseph Andrews Fielding has engaged one of the most highly charged of those head-on: male chastity. In the social and cultural milieu in which Joseph Andrews is anchored, male chastity is the essence of joke. Chastity is a female role, and Fielding emphasizes his awareness of that by making his hero Pamela’s brother, a male Pamela, and by milking the situation early in the novel for all its slapstick potential through Joseph’s interacting – or failure to interact – with Lady Booby and Slipslop and Betty. Satirically, Joseph reverses gender roles with brilliant effect. Narratively and intertextually, he doubles and tropes Pamela – and then is doubled, troped, and gender-reversed in turn as we progressively discover that he and Fanny look enough alike to be twins, that they may be brother and sister, and finally that Fanny, not Joseph, is Pamela’s kin. Indeed, Fielding’s final joke on Richardson, which few have perceived, is to offer readers a female Pamela.

All this is intimately connected to pastoral, as Joseph’s song declares. Pastoral is the world of dominant, pursuing males and their fleeing – female – sexual objects. The “actual” Joseph, insofar as he too is the object of pursuit, is confusing the issue. So is Lady Booby, insofar as she pursues him. And so is Slipslop. And Betty. The real power lines, of course, are those of wealth and position and class, as Lady Booby’s dismissal of Joseph at the beginning of the novel and her near-transportation of him and Fanny at the end of it make clear. But even in the cases of wealth and power and class, sex clouds the issue, as is the way of pastoral. Lady Booby can strip Joseph of his livery, but she can’t make him voluntarily undress. She can have him transported, but she can’t transport him. Only Fanny – Fanny the utterly powerless – can do those things.

Pastoral generates multiple expectations: the expectation of erotic power and erotic bliss, the expectation of the (at least temporary) triumph of serenity and tranquility over the vicissitudes of fortune (cf. Mr. Wilson’s story), the expectation of the triumph of (hidden) art over (unreal) nature, the corollary expectation of the successful providence of pastoral care (Parson Adams as an avatar of the Good Shepherd seeking his lost sheep; the narrator himself, providing for everything). In all these expectations and the intellectual areas and issues they draw into the arena, pastoral plays at the very borderline of reality, and it plays with counters of real power.

The Lady Boobies of the world have in fact made fools of themselves over their footmen, just as the Mr. Bs have done over their maids, and some of the world’s Parson Adamses have defied them over it or rebuked them in church for it – though not many. Mostly they leave that for the poets, whose only avenue to real power lies in guiding their readers’ expectations to be satisfied with what they get. Fielding does just that, in Joseph Andrews, by grounding and shaping the expectations of his pastoral romance in and by the great-granddaddy of them all, Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe, the strange attractor responsible for the overall shape of his novel.

Fielding delays even the possibility of the reader’s recognition of this until quite late in his tale. Indeed, among the plethora of authorities and precedents and potential models that Fielding invokes throughout his novel, the names Longus, Daphnis, and Chloe are notable for their absence. Nevertheless, from the moment in Book IV when readers are forced to realize the inherence of Daphnis and Chloe in the text of Joseph Andrews, they also realize, by that kind of retrospective apprehension so characteristic of allegory, that it has been there all along.

Obviously this kind of backward-looking regrasping of the significance of what one has already read works best for readers who bring to Joseph Andrews an acquaintance with classical literature generally, as well as more specific recollections of Daphnis and Chloe. The problem of dealing with allegories whose strange attractors are not readily recognizable is not insignificant. The simple fact that Daphnis and Chloe never possessed the kind of cultural centrality of, say, The Odyssey or The Aeneid, means that many readers even in Fielding’s lifetime “didn’t get” Joseph Andrews – and the fact that we collectively lack so much of the classical background in which Fielding’s mind was steeped means that there is even more of the novel that we’re not reading. This means not only that some dimensions and aspects of the novel are closed to us: It also impedes dramatically the possibility of our perceiving the novel as allegory by reducing the “critical mass” of referential data that allegory needs to attain its characteristic density and multivalency.

As the fictional Joseph Andrews works toward the attainment of his true identity, the fiction Joseph Andrews pursues the same goal for itself. In the final recognition scenes of Book IV, its literary analogs and pre-texts shift from those it has already shown to be outmoded and inadequate – the stage generally, the mode of imitation employed in Pamela, and the high style in either its tragic or lyric form – to a muted but very recognizable echo of the true literary ancestors of Joseph Andrews’ not-really-new, comic-epic-in-prose form: classical prose romance, and specifically Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe, the most charming of all comic foundling stories, as Oedipus is the greatest of the tragic. Like Joseph Andrews, Daphnis and Chloe closes with a double recognition scene: Neither Daphnis nor Chloe is really the child of his or her reputed parents. As in Joseph Andrews, those successive revelations briefly threaten the lovers’ happiness, and as in Joseph Andrews, that threat is quickly dissipated, the foundlings’ true – and well-born – parents discovered, the lovers united in marriage and settled in wedded bliss to a joyful and fertile life in the country. Daphnis and Chloe bears many other resemblances to Joseph Andrews, not the least important of which is the remarkable beauty, innocence (naiveté actually), chastity, and fidelity of the two young lovers, and a plot that revolves around the sexual temptations and assaults they both endure on their way to reciprocal and blissful wedded love.

Why should Fielding use Daphnis and Chloe? At least three reasons, beyond the obvious and significant facts that it is a thoroughly charming proto-novel and a classical model for the very form he is pioneering in English. First, because Longus’s narrative offers a ready-made model for the objective delineation of specifically the kind of intricate relationships of love, chastity, and power that Fielding sought to propound against the (to his mind) formless subjectivity and egoistic manipulativeness of Pamela and Pamela.

Second, because both Daphnis and Chloe, like Joseph and Fanny, are seeming rustics whose appearance belies their putative peasant origins and betokens their true natures and identities: That is, both Daphnis and Chloe and Joseph Andrews take the cliché of natural nobility (another version, in the Eighteenth Century, of the even larger cliché of the Noble Savage) and turn it into an argument about the relation of art to nature and about modes of imitation. Daphnis and Chloe is a fiction whose working method involves the embodiment of inner truth in outer circumstance – so, with many more added complications, is Joseph Andrews.

Third, because Daphnis and Chloe is a fiction already derived from and parodic of works in the high style, just as Joseph Andrews is. Longus’s recognition scenes parody the recognition scenes of Greek tragedy; his action plays with elements from The Odyssey and numerous other works. Daphnis and Chloe violates genres and plays with conventions of style, constantly and explicitly juxtaposing “high” and “low,” in both content and style, in exactly the same way Joseph Andrews does. At the same time, Daphnis and Chloe achieves its own individual mode of being in much the same manner that Joseph Andrews does: By a gradual process of disentangling itself from its false generic affiliations, it finds or creates its own special category – just as Joseph Andrews does. Even the narrative voices of the two works will bear comparison – knowledgeable, sympathetic to both the virtues and the limitations of their heroes, sophisticated but not cynical, rejoicing in the simple joys of their protagonists even as the narrators’ knowledge of the world extends beyond that of the protagonists. In short, each work creates a narrative voice not unlike each book’s ideal reader – which, of course, it is the nature of each book to create even as it creates its characters and itself, replicating itself across scale and across orders, spilling over the border of fiction into the reality of the reader’s world.

That out-thrusting replication, that spilling over, reverses the last of pastoral expectations and fulfills one of the most basic expectations of allegory. Pastoral exists in, as, and by enclosure, encapsulization, separation – in the past, in a golden age, in Arcadia, somewhere else. Allegory exists by breaking all confines, resisting all enclosures, crossing all borders. Allegory transvalues pastoral and uses it not as an escape but to close the escape hatches: not there, but here; not then, but now; not them, but you. Joseph Andrews, with the wonderful insouciance of comedy and the sangfroid of allegory, calmly violates all the borders, confuses all the territories, jumbles all the separate castes and issues, and insists on their interconnectedness – London and the country, master and servant, rich and poor, learned and illiterate, epic and pastoral. How much more jumbled (or more connected?) data can a novel present us than erotic pastoral in a country pub, or a copy of Aeschylus handed in evidence in a hearing on rape and/or sheep stealing?  Such scenes are self-consuming artifacts, literary devices whose self-destruct mechanism wipes out the lines of genres and classes, fictions and facts.

This erasure of generic distinctions, of course, describes accurately enough the basic working strategy of all of Joseph Andrews. Fielding’s proto-novel creates itself and its “genre” by systematically, as I have been describing, distinguishing itself from other extant genres and discrediting other modes of “imitating nature.” In Book III, after Book II’s first steps in the explosion of pastoral, Joseph as character at last moves into high relief, developing strong individual traits and the beginnings of a mature personality. For instance, in this book he disagrees with his no-longer-mentor Adams about education and rescues him rather than being rescued by him. Joseph is moving closer to true interiority, to achieved personality, though he is still conceived typically and the novel still so operates. But “typically” differs radically from typologically: however broadly, typical behavior involves notions of realism and reality and convincing representation.

That is the whole point of the famous paired chapters, the argument between the poet and the player and the parallel scene of Adams and Joseph tied to the bedposts as Fanny is abducted. The two gentlemen of the theatre disagree not about the nature of drama – that broad a subject doesn’t even arise – but about “how to give a sentiment utterance” (III.x.220). Joseph and Adams in their more constrained circumstances disagree about the same subject, and their argument is played out against the obvious analog of the drama as a whole and the idea of the world as stage (induced by the chapter parallels) and especially the plays of Shakespeare (in particular Macbeth, pointedly cited by Joseph) as well as against a body of learned Christian and pagan moralizings (invoked by Adams).

The smallest and most obvious function of these intricate interweavings of stage and morality and life is to remind us that all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women players, and to point us in the moral direction of Stoic and Christian teachings about how to play our parts. In fact, those lessons in apathy fervently imparted by Adams are exactly what almost drive Joseph mad in this episode, forcing him to flee to the poor solace of Macduff’s slightly modified stoicism: “Yes, I will bear my sorrows like a man,/ But I must also feel them as a man” (III.xi.226). The self-evident artificiality of soliloquy points not inward to the “lessons” being imparted but outward to their form.

The primary work of these two chapters is not to teach us something but to show us something. Moral instruction has nothing to do with it: Parson Adams is just as much a comic figure here, ludicrous in his pretentions, as is Joseph, helpless in his misery either to do anything on his own or to say anything of his own, or even to feel anything of his own. So he soliloquizes. And he quotes. Emphatically, instruction has nothing to do with it. On the contrary, the primary thrust of all those analogs is to call attention to the artifice of this novel at this point, to focus the reader on its method of holding a mirror to nature, its present – inadequate – mode of giving a sentiment utterance.

Inevitably of course Fielding’s orchestration of the scene recalls its antecedent in Book I, with positions now morally and ironically reversed: Where Lady Booby was fixed in bed and endured the outrage of Joseph’s smug moral pronouncements, Joseph now finds himself literally bound to a bed and bombarded by the same moral pronouncements from the same teacher whose example he had at that earlier point credited. Clearly, Fielding is demonstrating that there is more to life and art – even to morality – than controlling passion, and far more than one passion to contend with (despite Pamela’s obsession with only one, and Pamela’s confinement of that one to Mr. B alone). The flat one-dimensionality of the stage analog invoked in Book I of Joseph Andrews has yielded to richer characterizations in the tradition of Shakespeare – yet they too are not without limitations.

Fielding emphasizes the artifice inherent in Joseph’s recitation of Macduff’s lines. He pointedly labels it a “soliloquy.” In answer to Parson Adams’ query “what stuff that was he repeated?” he has Joseph answer “they were some lines he had gotten by heart out of a play.” There is no great behavioral or ideological distance between Adams dredging up scraps from his commonplace book about the control of emotion and Joseph quoting Shakespeare to explain his way of dealing with the same problem. Both constitute appeals to higher authority. Both are modes of reduction: They depend on stripping away circumstances and differences and identifying the particulars in question not by virtue of their particularity but by their generality. Macduff justifies his conduct by appeal to the nature of the species man, and Joseph does the same.

Fielding announces at the beginning of this third book that “I describe not men, but manners; not an individual, but a species” (III.i.159) – exactly as he ought, if his evolving novel is working its way through the chronological changes that the idea of artistic imitation underwent in Restoration and Eighteenth-Century drama. It is in that light that Joseph is here presented and the reader once again prodded to appraise the possibilities and limitations of that literary mode. Typical behavior – even when true, even when powerfully written – falls short of the particularity of the human individual. Macduff’s half-expression of his grief gives us no adequate idea of the depth of Joseph’s. And the outpouring of inward feeling in soliloquy or exclamation simply can’t escape the artifice of stage rhetoric. The situation itself is unreal and fosters neither the sentiments nor the utterance of real people – a criticism that Joseph Andrews levels also at Pamela, which shares with the soliloquy (and the aside) the rhetoric of false interiority.

Adams recognizes the limitations of the stage itself, though for the wrong reasons, and repudiates it on didactic grounds, for its failure to teach: “Ay, there is nothing but heathenism to be learned from plays,” he says; “I never heard of any plays fit for a Christian to read, but Cato and the Conscious Lovers; and, I must own, in the latter there are some things almost solemn enough for a sermon.” Whatever Adams’ shortcomings as a drama critic, his total forgetting of his own beloved heathen playwright Aeschylus signals here Joseph Andrews’s abandonment of drama and dramatic imitation, of the idea of characters drawn according to species’ traits, as vehicles in any way adequate to the utterance of a uniquely felt sentiment. Paradoxically, Joseph has found his correct species – not boy, not servant, not pupil, but man – and the novel has found in the example of Shakespeare a workable voice to free itself from the constraints of genre. But those remain typical affiliations, appropriate to Book III and of the sort that the narrator’s opening chapter promised, but not the final answer to Fielding’s or his novel’s quest for self-definition. Neither Joseph Andrews the character nor Joseph Andrews the book have yet achieved their own independent, unique mode of being.

Joseph Andrews’s evolving interdependence of narrative, character development, and theorizing about literature naturally culminates in the fourth book. Here the stage analogs disappear entirely, having gone as far as they can in the example of Shakespeare, but the constant pre-text of Fielding’s whole fiction enters the novel in propria persona with the arrival of the “real” Pamela. Recognizably the same person as the Pamela of Richardson’s novel, yet displaying unpleasant traits of snobbery, irreverence, and coldness that Richardson’s way of presenting character concealed, Fielding’s Pamela embodies his novel’s final critique of Richardson’s. His basic objection remains the same here as in Shamela. There, under all the fun and all the irony at the expense of Pamela’s morality, after all the jokes about Shamela’s hypocrisy and self-seeking, Fielding leveled one crucial criticism at Pamela’s artistic method: simply put, it fails to establish itself as fiction rather than lie. It gives readers no objective corelative.

In fact, Richardson’s novel is recessive with regard to reality external to it: Instead of spilling over into the world in the manner of allegory, it fictionally engulfs the world into itself, narrowing rather than widening. Midway through Pamela, various characters in the narrative begin reading the book we are reading – and they do not read skeptically, with any doubts about Pamela or any suspicions about fictitiousness. The characters of Pamela read the letters and journals that make up Pamela as transcriptions of reality, and they are converted to the worship of Pamela (and Pamela) by them. In what I understand to be Fielding’s terms, this is not narrative at all. It is only omnivorous ego in action, Blifil with blushes, artifice without art.

Not only is Pamela’s version of events unverifiable by any measure external to her own account of them, but her conduct, her language, her one-dimensional obsession with physical chastity, are all untrue to the diversity and richness of human personality. Fielding’s final statement about the limitations of Richardson’s presentation of character in Pamela lies in his creation of a more realistic Pamela than Richardson’s. She is a one-character course in just how art holds the mirror to nature and a lesson in the limits and dangers of imitating nature by the creation of types and/or species: What you leave out returns to haunt you.

Book IV moves the characters of Joseph Andrews into a more recognizable, more conventionally realistic world: no more hunting squires and night adventures, but instead the real pressures of law and social status, the real temptations not just of the flesh but of wealth, power, and prestige. The Joseph who withstands these perils could not be expressed adequately by the one-dimensional naif of Book I, nor by the half-baked worldling of Book II, nor by the half-formed hero of Book III. Book IV requires a protagonist who has found a center in himself, who has secured an identity of his own – a private persona distinct from whatever public guise he may wear. This is why Fielding so dramatically juggles Joseph’s apparent social standing in Book IV: first servant to Lady Booby, perhaps soon to be transported felon, then perhaps kinsman by marriage, then perhaps brother to Fanny, and finally no kin at all but son of a gentleman.

For the same reason, in this book Fielding alters his mode of presenting Joseph. The narrator moves the reader further away from Joseph, shows him more externally: What Joseph thinks and feels, Fielding largely presents here as quasi-inferences from what he does. Direct discourse markedly declines, and Joseph’s words are distanced, presented more often in indirect discourse or what amounts to authorial paraphrase. For instance, in the sequence of “night adventures” that enliven (but notably fail to advance) the novel’s dénouement, Joseph’s crucial action of trying, judging, and acquitting Parson Adams (of, implicitly, attempted rape: no sheep stealing clouds the issue this time) is recounted without a single spoken word of Joseph’s:

Joseph’s great opinion of Adams was not easily to be staggered, and when he heard from Fanny that no harm had happened, he grew a little cooler; yet still he was confounded, and, as he knew the house, and that the women’s apartments were on this side Mrs. Slipslop’s room, and the men’s on the other, he was convinced that he was in Fanny’s chamber. Assuring Adams therefore of this truth, he begged him to give some account how he came there. Adams then, standing in his shirt, which did not offend Fanny, as the curtains of the bed were drawn, related all that had happened; and when he had ended, Joseph told him, it was plain he had mistaken by turning to the right instead of the left. (IV.xiv.289)

This almost casually reported sequence, a pendent to the more intensely comic bedroom mistakes Parson Adams made in the first part of the same chapter, nevertheless significantly reprises all the novel’s earlier scenes of judgment, from Lady Booby’s bedside trial and dismissal – in a very different sense – of Joseph, to Fanny’s and Adams’s appearance before a country justice, to the “play of Socrates,” to Joseph’s and Fanny’s recent appearance before a country justice, to Lady Booby’s even more recent bedside trial and dismissal of Parson Adams.

These are the narrative topoi that feed into Joseph’s judgment, and Fielding surely wishes us to wonder how the famous judgment [faculty] and judgments [acts] of the Biblical Joseph play against all of these. Also, and not insignificantly, Parson Adams’s paired bedroom mistakes – landing him first in Slipslop’s bed and then in Fanny’s – also formally recreate the paired scenes of Joseph’s above-stairs (Lady Booby) and below-stairs (Slipslop) trials in Book I and the paired scenes in Book III (poet and player, Joseph and Parson Adams) about doing a part justice.

Lest we miss any of these resonances, and to underline the distance we readers and Joseph have come from the exaggerated slapstick and moral simplicity of those earlier acts, the narrator describes Joseph, on discovering Parson Adams in Fanny’s bed, as standing, “as the tragedians call it, like the ‘statue of Surprise’” (289), pointedly echoing his own earlier use of the same image to describe Lady Booby’s reaction to Joseph’s proclamation of virtue in the farcical Joseph-and-Potiphar’s wife scene that initiates the main action of the novel. These reprises are substantial as well as stylistic and formal: They bring to bear on the apparently digressive and unnecessary “night adventures” all the interrelated issues of Fielding’s novel, and they make these flimsy actions reverberate with complex and essentially open-ended significance.

In Book IV, Joseph’s interior reality – his sentiments – are given utterance not by rhetorically or artistically manipulated language – at least not his own – but by his whole conduct. Readers read Joseph’s heart the way that in reality they read anybody’s heart – from the outside, by inference from language and conduct, bearing and behavior (thus, by the way, the tellingness of Adams’s having to rebuke Pamela for laughing in church). As the character Joseph achieves true interiority, the narrator depicts him more and more in modo Fanny, by description and indirect discourse. Joseph modulates from a voice speaking directly to us to a distant voice, a silence, reported to us through the narrator’s voice. He is more mediated at the end of the novel than he was at the beginning, hidden further from us in a Fanny-like silence and “illiteracy” and incommunicability.

Because she is illiterate, because she is modest, because she is shy, because she is a servant, because she is a woman, because she is poor, Fanny cannot publish herself. Fanny Goodwill – the whole name is used only once in the novel – paradoxically and ironically becomes Fielding’s paradigm, his narrative enactment, of achieved interiority, an anti-Pamelan closed book. The heart, whether of darkness or of light, is what allegory reveals and veils.


Coda: Allegory, the Epic, and the Novel

In Joseph Andrews, Fielding reinvents a mode of revealing inner reality in external detail, of imitating nature as underlying pattern or idea without losing all of the richness and particularity of the surface. He accomplishes this by the gradual fusion of style and substance, of the mode of narration, the content of narration, and the style of narration: the three separate, integrated concerns that have constituted the ongoing, simultaneous plots of Joseph Andrews.

Over the length of his novel, Fielding has gradually thinned the multiplicity of literary analogs for his characters and narrative to a few, from the Bible, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, The Faerie Queene, Telemaque, Daphnis and Chloe, Pamela, a whole host of prose fictions and romances – from Gargantua and Pantagruel and Don Quixote through all the ladies’ romances Fielding mentions in the “Author’s Preface” and more besides – down to, essentially, just Daphnis and Chloe. Simultaneously, he has adjusted the fit between the analogs and the “real” situation in the novel. The congruence between the pre-text and the text has grown both closer and less precise.

That is to say, the analogs have become more appropriate to the style and substance of the novel’s actions and characters, while the correspondences between them have become more general and less detailed. In any given scene, Fielding’s characters become increasingly free of their models and free to be themselves. The bedroom farce analogs of the boudoir scene in Book I are tight, and Joseph and Lady Booby play their parts to specifications; the analogy between MacDuff’s situation and Joseph’s is much looser. The congruence between the events of Fielding’s fourth book and those of Daphnis and Chloe, while completely recognizable, becomes looser still. Step by step, Fielding has moved his book out of the realm of books and closer and closer to what readers can accept as reality. His final chapter, the wedding of Joseph and Fanny, uses a subdued artifice explicitly to repudiate all artifice for the sake of pure nature, now revealed in its richness and in its true identity:

She [Fanny] was soon undrest; for she had no jewels to deposit in their caskets, nor fine laces to fold with the finest exactness. Undressing to her was properly discovering, not putting off, ornaments: for, as all her charms were the gift of nature, she could divest herself of none. (IV.xvi.297)

Fanny’s style is Fielding’s style is Joseph’s style is the style and substance of Joseph Andrews. Expression is the dress of thought, and the body is the clothing of the soul: The word is, like it or not, made flesh. What is covered by clothes and expressed by words – words that veil as much as they reveal – reveals as much as it veils of inward reality.

Like the styles of Commedia and The Faerie Queene, the style and language of Joseph Andrews have mutated from an initial reliance on figuration and rhetoric to an apparent simplicity and an exquisitely artful plainness. This is the hidden style, complexity in the guise of simplicity, multivocation masquerading as univocation, allegorical openness so openly stated that it looks to the unwary like prosopopoeia. Its language is bare, and in Joseph Andrews nakedness is its image: Joseph stripped of his livery by Lady Booby, and stripped of everything he has by the highwaymen; Parson Adams in his nightshirt in Slipslop’s bed and Fanny’s bed; Fanny removing her clothing and discovering her charms.

Because this is allegory, that is not an unequivocal image: Nakedness isn’t only truth, it’s also immodesty, guilt, poverty, unpreparedness, weakness, lust, sin. Fanny’s hidden charms not only motivate and propel Joseph through the course of the novel: The sight of them – initially at least – paralyzes him into the likeness of that statue of Surprise of which we have heard so much. The still center of the turning world is, for Joseph, Fanny’s bosom. This is, after all, a comic novel, and not Commedia. But the point at which rest and motion coincide, the point at which the journey ends and begins, that point is the goal of epic and the home of allegory, and it is, in its lesser degree, Joseph Andrews’s home as much as it is Commedia’s.

Joseph Andrews also shares with all other allegories its intense preoccupation with the mode and terms of its own existence. In very fundamental and exact senses, it is a meditation on the art of the novel, on the nature of fiction, and on the imitation and development of character both in art and in life. Allegory is learned, scholarly even: It grows out of, or by, an internalized awareness of itself as a text in a tradition, in many traditions, as a thing made of words. Allegory never simply aligns itself within a tradition but rather recreates the tradition, re-aligns the tradition, around itself, as Dante does so conspicuously to Virgil and so many of his contemporaries and near predecessors, as Fielding does to Richardson and Cervantes and Longus.

In abandoning the theatre for prose fiction and simultaneously rejecting Richardson’s Pamela and all its works and pomps, Fielding seems to be rejecting utterly, as a goal for literature, the creation of characters whose individuality and power – both as literary figurae and as moral exemplars – arise from the particularity and intensity with which their interior lives are displayed. Classicist that we know him to be, Fielding seems in his fiction to revert to and overtly to imitate an older conception of nature as ideal pattern. It is, however, always a mistake to judge Fielding by our assumptions rather than by his own statements. In the Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, the by-then fully accomplished novelist had some decidedly unusual things to say about his classical icons. He is speaking here primarily of Homer and Hesiod:

The original poets . . . found the limits of nature too strait for the immensity of their genius, which they had not room to exert, without extending fact by fiction; and that especially at a time when the manners of men were too simple to afford that variety, which they have since offered in vain to the choice of the meanest writers. . . . They [the original poets] are not indeed so properly said to turn reality into fiction, as fiction into reality. Their paintings are so bold, their colours so strong, that every thing they touch seems to exist in the very manner they represent it: their portraits are so just, and their landscapes so beautiful, that we acknowledge the strokes of nature in both, without enquiring whether nature herself, or her journeyman the poet, formed the first pattern of the piece.5

This extraordinary passage describes a profoundly creative role for the genius-poet: He calls into being states of consciousness that do not yet exist but which, by virtue of the writer’s fiat, enter reality to become models not only for later, lesser pens but for the productions of nature itself. This is no longer a doctrine of emulation. It’s not even a matter any longer of, in any sense, imitating nature. The artifact is prior to nature, sets the model for nature, shapes subsequent reality. By thinking and wording what had not been – what to that point could not be – the artifact calls the hitherto ineffable into existence.

I have been saying all through this book that allegory reaches out from texts to life, that allegory spills over into reality: I’m saying now that Fielding said the same thing long before me. Nature as Fielding here conceives it is not a static pattern or fixed ideal, but something growing, living, capable of being acted upon by the human mind as well as interacting with it. Most important of all, the human mind is not confined to copying whatever nature may be, but instead freely anticipates the variety of manners, portraits, and landscapes that nature, so guided, later produces. Art leads nature in creating human behaviors and characters and the world they inhabit. Reality therefore is neither fully objective nor fully subjective but the field of play that nature and genius create between them – exactly as allegory would have it to be.

The practice of “the original poets” – especially Homer – was never far from Fielding’s mind. His is the first name invoked in the Preface to Joseph Andrews, and he remains for Fielding the tutelary deity (albeit a deus absconditus) of the comic epic in prose. His heroic usurpation of the force and function of nature – Homer’s achievement of an art that becomes nature – seems to me both goal to which Fielding has dedicated himself in Joseph Andrews and the process he has embodied in that novel.

All allegory strives to reach the condition of reality. Medieval allegory, especially as we see it in Commedia, does so by thrusting inward, toward a world of texts and textuality, through a world conceived of textually and verbally. We won’t misrepresent this to state it in loosely Platonic terms: It is an attempt to break out of a noumenal world and into an ideal one.

Modern allegory conversely points outward beyond textuality, into a world of things and places, into the dark that looms off Thames-mouth at the end of Heart of Darkness. In fact, much of modern allegory seems preoccupied with exploring and rupturing the fragile line between art and life. To do so, it takes a deeply ambivalent and/or multivalent awareness of its own artifice as one of its primary bases.

In terms of the two different cultures, however, these opposite thrusts are identical: Both are attempts to break out of “mere literature” and enter into what each culture conceives of as “reality.”  Fielding writes on the cusp of those two universes, born and educated in one and living into the other, and his allegory is similarly schizophrenic. Fanny embodies and enacts an allegorical Other different from Beatrice, more akin to Colin Clout’s “countrey lasse,” closer still, in bono and in malo, to both Kurtz’s Intended and his savage mistress. Fielding’s allegory works by thrusting simultaneously in contrary directions: outward from the text, out of texts; and inward, into the unknowable human heart, into a life of privacy and retirement, a life of literary silence that eschews “publication,” retaining its secrets and its wisdom within. After Fielding, that inwardness, that privacy – the inwardness of Dante and Beatrice, of Colin and his lass – will be less and less possible. After Fielding, the scope of allegory is ever more outward, from the unknowable heart to its kin, the universe.

 Appendix 3. The Satyricon

“Not bad, not bad at all,” Diotallevi said. “To arrive at the truth through the painstaking reconstruction of a false text.”
……….Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

No Text

The Satyricon is a work I can only believe some benevolent deity – perhaps Swift’s Goddess Criticism – designed expressly for post-modern, post-structuralist, ex-post-facto allegoresis. Its original author and its audience remain conjectural, its intent hypothetical at best. Its subsequent transmitters or digesters or selectors are totally unknown. Their purposes or aims, the principles that guided their culling and/or preserving and/or pruning and/or purging so heteroclite a text, are not even imaginable. As for the work itself: it’s scarcely a text at all. More holes than substance, it resembles a spider web more closely than it does a tapestry. That amounts to what sounds remarkably like the paradigm post-modern artifact: a text that is almost no text, authorless, audienceless, pointless, nearly timeless, incorporating, indeed almost “composed” of, gaps and discontinuities – the text as its own irony, as aporia, language already betraying or defeating or nullifying whatever intent may have attempted to control and confine it. Criticism of such a text is a willfully perverse act, the imposition of the reader’s vision upon its recalcitrant materials. It amounts to connecting the dots, completing the gestalt: creating the pattern that isn’t there. In the case of the The Satyricon, Criticism (or Momus) has been most generous: the pattern that isn’t there is there. No absence has ever been more forcefully present than that of The Satyricon: its holes are its point.

It is clearly not accidental that The Satyricon has gotten more – and more perceptive – critical attention in the past forty years than at any time since the rediscovery of the “Banquet of Trimalchio” portion of the manuscript.1 A lot of that attention has been devoted to discerning traces of the original design, scope, and intent of The Satyricon, and even those critics who have most conscientiously devoted themselves to trying to read the text-as-we-have-it have done so largely in the context of the Neronian-text-that-might-have-been – for example, identifying the literary parody and satire that The Satyricon so obviously contains with court struggles for Nero’s favor, and with specific parodies of Seneca and Lucan.2 Such identifications may well be satisfying to classicists, but for most twentieth-and twenty-first century readers parodies of Seneca and Lucan are just so many more gaps in the text, holes of non-meaning or non-relevance. The porosity of The Satyricon is such that the more meaning scholarship attempts to pour into it, the more aporia it creates for meaning to escape by.

The challenge of a (non)text like The Satyricon is not to put meaning into it but to take meaning out of it: to deal with it on its own terms, to accept it as a composition of gaps: as jazz musicians used to say of Thelonius Monk’s piano style, to play the silences.

Only one reader of The Satyricon (that I am aware of) has done that successfully. Federico Fellini, in his screen adaptation of The Satyricon, has seen its wholeness precisely in its holes. From the darkly-lit opening shot of a huge, bare, screen-filling, and intimidating concrete wall, with a tiny human figure dwarfed and trapped at its foot, to the final sunlit shot of broken fragments of walls, richly painted with human faces and now opening onto green meadow and blue sea, Fellini’s Satyricon (he appropriates the (non)text as his own, as every authentic reader must) understands the aporia as the text: the holes are the point. The gaps are what it says. Holes – and both Fellini and Petronius (whoever he may have been) mean this obscenely as well as philosophically – are to be enjoyed, not deplored. Vacuitas vos liberabit.

Fellini’s vision is no distortion of Petronius’s hypothetical text, but an accurate rendition of it. All through The Satyricon, things are put into other things (to paraphrase Monty Python) in increasingly vain attempts to fill the holes that loom at the center of the whole – but the (w)hole remains. “What are men anyway but balloons on legs, a lot of blown-up bladders?  Flies, that’s what we are. No, not even flies. Flies have something inside. But a man’s a bubble, all air, nothing else.”3

The Banquet of Trimalchio lies at the center of The Satyricon,4 offering course after course of things concealing other things and jokes that have no point: eggs stuffed with orioles, pigs that supposedly haven’t been gutted but which, when slashed open, pour out sausages and blood puddings. Even Trimalchio is stuffed: “I’ve been constipated for days and right now the doctors are stumped…. Right now my bowels are bumbling around like a bull…. There’s not a man yet been born with solid insides” (p 45).5 Trimalchio also reminds his guests of that other hole that awaits them and us, the grave. The irreduceable pragmatism of the ex-slave spurs him to transform his dinner party into his funeral – “Pretend I’m dead,” he said, “say something nice about me” (p 79)6 – turning even that lacuna to profit, as he has everything else in his life. But the point has been made: if the Banquet of Trimalchio is the center of The Satyricon, the hole that lies at the center of the Banquet of Trimalchio is the grave, the (w)hole that waits for anyone who lacks “solid insides.”

Trimalchio and his fellow freedmen, Encolpius and his fellow picaros can eat their fill – and they do, all through The Satyricon – but the void at their center will never be filled until they can consume their own humanity – thus the cannibalism that concludes our text – or go outside the closed world of Roman social order – thus the toga with its broad purple stripe, denoting senatorial rank, that Trimalchio so ostentatiously displays as his burial garment, but which he dare not wear in life. Indeed, those marvelous freedmen, with their splendid and revolting grossness and their all-too-solid humanity, are themselves voids in the compacted body of Roman society. They in effect don’t exist. Their social status is as dubious as their wealth is real.7 The skills by which they earn it have been thoroughly marginalized and ignored by the recognized classes of the Roman world. They exist in the loopholes of the law, and they exist for us in a loophole of literature: the whole Banquet of Trimalchio is the sole episode in all of Classical literature that employs the actual spoken language, vernacular Latin, as opposed to the rigidly codified Latin of the literary genres.

The Banquet of Trimalchio is in itself a lacuna, a gaping hole in the corpus of Latin literature. It excites and fascinates exactly because it throws open a window in the monumental wall of Classical literature, and through its aperture – a camera obscura if ever there was one – we can glimpse the steaming, fetid, vivid life of a whole world otherwise routinely veiled by the gelid Attic night of classicism, an insula unvisited by the minor (or major) Greek poets or the lesser Latin authors.


Classical literature itself constitutes the very first topic of The Satyricon. From its opening fragment, The Satyricon belabors an educational system and a literature that have been hollowed out by an overinflated rhetoric, language stuffed with sound and void of meaning.

“But look here,” I protested, “aren’t you professors hounded by just these same Furies of inflated language and pompous heroics?. . . A boy gorged on a diet like this can no more acquire real taste than a cook can stop stinking. . . . By reducing everything to sound, you concocted this bloated puffpaste of pretty drivel whose only real purpose is the pleasure of punning and the thrill of ambiguity. Result? Language lost it sinew, its nerve. Eloquence died. . . . great language is chaste language – if you’ll let me use a word like ‘chaste’ in this connection – not turgidity and worked-up purple patches. . . . All the literary arts . . . cloyed with this diet of bombast, have stunted or died.” (3-4)8

Language makes itself its own lacuna, and even the professors of literature, as Agamemnon and Eumolpus unhesitatingly demonstrate, only perpetuate its hollowness. The metaphors generated by this opening determine the course of The Satyricon: inflation of language reflects/is reflected in excessive eating, which in turn reflects/is reflected in sexual excesses. Verbal impotence and overinflation correspond to overeating and constipation, which correspond to sexual impotence and all sorts of infertile sexuality. Depraved and/or unnatural appetite dominates in life and the arts: the whole world has “lost its sinew.” Ventus, the wind that inflates Rome’s decadent art, and venter, the bloated stomach that marks Rome’s self-indulgence, provide the punning (quasi)etymological links by and through which Petronius vents his spleen against his cultural canon.

In such imagistic linkages, the basic equivalence of all unnourishing, all a- or anti-vital appetites is established. Established as well are the underlying metaphorics, the essential images that pervade The Satyricon and dictate the course of its “action” through comically unconsummated sexual skirmishes, through the gross and hugely enjoyable banquet of Trimalchio, through its transformation into his lachrymose and rowdy mock funeral, and on to a consummation devoutly to be avoided, the eating of Eumolpus’s body by the legacy hunters of Croton – an act that suitably ends the work by thoroughly literalizing its essential metaphor, thereby violating the order of signifier and signified and creating yet another opening in the flanks of canonical literature.

That body of literature – a strikingly appropriate figure of speech, in this context – is, of course, the context in which The Satyricon transpires. However many more immediate or more specific contexts or referents it may have had for its original audience (whoever or whatever that was), for us it has only one very broad one: the corpus of Classical literature as a whole. Whatever others we may have lost, that paradoxical narrowing of our vision to the widest of Satyricon’s contexts makes clear the proleptically Swiftian nature of Petronius’s work: The Satyricon proceeds by means of an interlocked series of literalized metaphors – bodies of literature and of human beings and of animals, food for life and for ostentation and for thought, classes for literature and for genres, for figures of speech and for figures of thought, for kinds of language and for kinds of people.

The text-as-we-have-it even manages to literalize, to in fact embody, its underlying Epicurean version of the rock-bottom nature of reality: solid bodies, containing and contained by the void. Without the void, as Epicurus by way of Lucretius explains, there could be no motion, and no life.9 With solid insides, Trimalchio dies. Without gaps in the social order, nothing gets done at Rome. Without the lacunae in the text, our Satyricon does not exist. Without holes in the universe, everything is stasis. Vacuitas vos liberabit.

The Satyricon literalizes all sorts of metaphors. For example, one of its structural metaphors is a loose parody of epic in general and The Odyssey in particular – Encolpius driven on his wanderings by the wrath of Priapus and encountering various Sirens, Circes, and Cyclopes in a somewhat random fashion. Recent examinations of The Satyricon have revealed a careful ring structure underlying it, a pattern of composition that links the work even more closely to epic. At the center of that ring-structure in epic is the descensus ad inferos.10

At the center of The Satyricon is the Banquet of Trimalchio, which at once parodies the epic descensus11 and literalizes it. Inferos means “those below,” and “those below” are exactly who Encolpius and his companions visit: those people below, the freedmen who exist below all social ranking, quasi-shades who haunt the fringes of Roman society – and those things below – their language and their doings, which are below the notice of literature and of “intellectuals” like Encolpius and Agamemnon and even of their servant/minion Giton. The swarm of freedmen and slaves who throng Trimalchio’s dining rooms and down his wine literalize the unruly swarm of thirsty shades who press forward to drink the sacrificial blood Odysseus pours for them. Death is crowded in the Classical underworld, crowded as Trimalchio’s house, or the crammed reliefs on a Roman sarcophagus. Trimalchio’s wine oils the tongues of his guests as surely as a ram’s blood frees the voices of Odysseus’s. We hardly even need the host’s reminder that “wine lasts longer than us poor suffering humans. So soak it up, it’s the stuff of life” (44).12 Even the fact of a banquet literalizes some Roman funerary metaphors: remember how many sarcophagi and funerary urns depict their contents at dinner, reclining on a triclinium or holding out a wine cup in a gesture of hospitality or sacrifice.

In The Aeneid and The Odyssey, the heroes go to hell to find out what they need to know to survive and to find their way home, and a good part of what they learn is – in solid Classical fashion – self-knowledge. They confront their pasts (shades of the heroes who fell at Troy) and their origins (Odysseus’s mother, Aeneas’s father) and their ends (Achilles’s bulldog refusal to be consoled for death, the swarm of person-less souls Aeneas sees awaiting bodies). Knowing now what they are, they know also what they can or must do, and are so enabled to retrace their steps (Odysseus) or redo the past (Aeneas faces a new Troy, a new Achilles, again for a foreign bride) and thus escape both from the underworld and from the limits of their previously narrowly conceived selves (Odysseus as sacker of cities, Aeneas as Trojan). In the corpulent Trimalchio and his gross appetites, his fondness for little boys, and his doggerel verse, Encolpius and Asclytus, Giton and Agamemnon encounter themselves writ large, their own doppelgänger – but like all mock-epic heroes they don’t recognize the truth about themselves when they see it.

Encolpius fails to see in the hollowness of Trimalchio’s pretentions the emptiness of his own culture. He doesn’t recognize in the grossness of Trimalchio’s carnality the feebleness of his own, nor in the triteness of Trimalchio’s attempts at self-knowledge (trumpets blaring the passage of time, a skeleton paraded as a memento mori) does he discern any reflection of the shallowness of his own. Encolpius and Asclytus and Giton and Agamemnon – Eumolpus too, even though he isn’t present – have in fact descended to an inferos from which, for them and their world, there is no return. There is for them no exit – hic opus, hic labor est – because they and their class and their culture have created this underworld, and because they and their class and their culture are this underworld. All of The Satyricon transpires within its limits: No gate of false dreams nullifies its comic, bleak truths. The protagonists and the reader enter the underworld through the groves of academe, through the dead rhetoric that shapes language and thought and opens The Satyricon. And whatever favor Mercury, that herder of dead souls, may show Encolpius in restoring his vigor (140), The Satyricon itself never leaves the inferos. Rather, the work-as-we-have-it closes with the slam of a coffin lid, as the Crotonian legacy-hunters prepare to turn themselves into The Satyricon’s final literalized pun/metaphor: humanity will become its own tomb. Following the noblest examples, presented and reinforced by an absolutely correctly used rhetoric, the Crotonians will violate the most basic of taboos and make themselves cannibals, flesh-eaters: sarcophagi.


Readers of Roman satire quite understandably find the beginning of The Satyricon, the denunciation of contemporary rhetoric, very familiar. That topic in that position constitutes the essence of the satirist’s apologia, his explanation of why it is he says the mean things he does and why he isn’t pleased by what pleases everybody else. Persius and Juvenal use slightly different words for it, but the core statement remains the same: I write satire because literature and taste and the times are so corrupted that I must; satire alone of all the kinds speaks honestly and purely. Difficile est saturam non scribere (Satire I.30) – It is difficult not to write satire – is Juvenal’s famous and succinct statement of the case. Auriculas asini quis non habet? (Satire I.121) – Who doesn’t have ass’s ears? – is Persius’s less celebrated but equally total condemnation of his contemporary literature and taste. Both ground their indignation in the bombast they are forced to endure. Both open their respective books of satire – first poem, opening lines – by casting their whole satiric enterprise as a counterpoise to the emptiness of contemporary writing.

Looked at in this light, the first fragments of The Satyricon hint something about the principles of selection that moved the unknown compiler or compilers of the text-as-we-now-have-it. The majority of what survives of The Satyricon either belongs to or has clear affiliations with some of the most conventional topics and themes of Classical satire: corrupted literature and taste, and especially the empty pomposity of debased epic; legacy hunters; women’s sexual excesses and females in power; social climbing, especially on the parts of freedmen, slaves, Greeks, and Asiatics; inconsistency and self-delusion generally and all forms of obsessive behavior in particular, especially greed, gluttony, and lechery. Even major “actions” such as the banquet of Trimalchio can be seen to have at least a root in such satiric staples as Horace’s dinner of Nasidienus – and one could argue, albeit less convincingly, that the wanderings of Encolpius and company owe as much to Horace’s Journey to Brundisium as they do to parody of The Odyssey.

All that is not surprising, of course. The work, after all, is entitled Satyricon, and that is clearly meant to invoke satire just as much as it does satyrs. The later anthologizers or compilers or editors (however they saw themselves) certainly didn’t ignore the priapic aspects of the text, but they do seem to have chosen (presuming there was more to choose from) with an eye to whatever in the work showed a link to more recognizable forms of satire. And that was acute, because their selecting has highlighted and centralized what may well have been more dispersed and less apparent in a lengthier text (this is, of course, totally speculative). The Satyricon as-we-have-it builds itself around the idea of satire: Satura, the full dish (satura lanx) of sacrifice, the first fruits offered to the gods, satura, the medley, the hodge-podge, the indiscriminate mixture, the stuffing, the sausage becomes the literary farrago that tries to satisfy insatiable appetites and depraved tastes, to sugarcoat the pill to make the medicine go down. Trimalchio’s trick dishes whose homely exteriors hide exotic delicacies almost literalize this idea of satire.

The hypothetical anthologist who has bequeathed us The Satyricon we have (incidentally making us legacy hunters too) knew along with Petronius that language is food and that we are what we eat. Consume dead flesh, a hack poet’s will, rather than living language – even that of gross speakers like Trimalchio and his cronies – and you create the night of the living dead, a culture of zombies. To survive, you must clear away the clutter, purge yourself of the corruption, empty yourself of the dead voices. Vacuitas vos liberabit.

The implications of that, in the context of Roman literature, are fair-to-middling revolutionary. There is as little place for Trimalchio’s dinner conversation among the Classical genres as there is for his class in Roman society. In very restricted and stereotyped roles – as panders and petty thieves, as wily servants and minor-league picaros – Greeks and Asiatics, slave and free alike, might find a role in comedy or farce, though never in any of the “serious” genres. Mutatis mutandis, the same thing is true of Greek literature and Classical literature in general. For all of its human range and esthetic accomplishments, Classical literature simply fails to include or find room for a great deal of ordinary reality. In The Satyricon, that reality erupts into literature:  Trimalchio’s bowel movements yield not an iota in importance to anything Cicero or Virgil might have to say. (If that doesn’t strike you as revolutionary, remind yourself how long Trimalchio had to wait before anyone occupied the next stall: Leopold Bloom was next in line.)

The most obvious, and in some ways the most important, aporia in The Satyricon are the holes it creates in the walls of genre. Even its chosen “form” – the mixture of prose and verse that has been only half-canonized under the nom de plume of Menippean satire – breaks form and violates category. Its content, ranging from toilet humor to epic parody, travesty of romance to realistic comedy, does even worse: it deals with things that, canonically speaking, do not even belong in literature, and it juxtaposes them with echoes of and allusions to some of the most revered names and works of Classical antiquity, from Homer through Virgil and right up to Petronius’ contemporaries, Lucan and Seneca. The Satyricon – verse, prose, and lacunae – eviscerates the whole concept of classicism, the whole notion of genre. It is a full-scale assault on the essential actions that underly the process of canon formation, discrimination and exclusion. It turns the Classical ideal of what constitutes literature inside-out to expose its hollowness, and it accomplishes that trick by showing the paradoxical solidity of what isn’t there, the gross reality of what canonical literature leaves out:

[W]ith all these sham heroics and this stilted bombast you stuff their heads with, by the time your students set foot in court, they talk as though they were living in another world. No, I tell you, we don’t educate our children at school; we stultify them and then send them out into the world half-baked. And why?  Because we keep them utterly ignorant of real life. The common experience is something they never see or hear. (3)13

Petronius was not the first or only Classical author to say these things, but he is in the top two. His only model and predecessor in the work of canonical subversion is that great darling of classicists, Horace. The full, revolutionary nature of Horace’s work, especially his Satires and Epistles, hasn’t yet been adequately appreciated – certainly not by non-specialist readers, and hardly by the professionals. In fact, it is really only possible in the light of Petronius’s continuation of the core of Horace’s satire that we can begin to see just how revolutionary Horace really was.

In the Satires and Epistles, Horace creates a self-as-writer in opposition to the norms and canons of his day. He defines himself by what he is not: not politician, not panegyrist, not epicist, “not bound to swear as any master dictates.”14 Horace works from this actively negative stance to deconstruct Rome’s ideal public persona, thereby liberating an anarchic private self, a personality divorced from all the conventional patterns and supports of the political, social, and literary cursus honorum, a personality consequently and necessarily self-creating and self-validating, generative of its own forms rather than imitative of the forms of others.

That persona quite rightly creates its own voice and the “form” to convey that voice. The warm human being who speaks to us through the Satires and Epistles, the urbane Horatian tone, the unique and convincing Horatian voice – those are Horace’s radical invention to embody his totally new subject (how right that word is!) matter.15 Whatever Horace’s claims about Lucilius’s example, the fact remains that for us – and probably for his own age – Horace is unique: his individuality has no predecessors and almost no followers. Nowhere in Classical literature before Horace do we hear the first-personal voice of an “ordinary” individual conceived and presented outside of rigid social and literary categories. And nowhere in classical literature after Horace do we hear it again: it is precisely the personal aspect of Horatian satire that Persius and Juvenal abandon, to withdraw behind the screen of simplistic personae – that of a Stoic prig in the case of Persius and that of an aristocratic mugwump in the case of Juvenal.

The Horace of the Satires and Epistles is at once Trimalchio’s grandfather and his child. As the son of a freedman, Horace was essentially a non-person in Roman social and political terms: technically a citizen, but lacking utterly in status, wealth, significant attachment to a great house – a penniless parvenu. In those terms, his movement from a (naive) youthful allegiance to Brutus and the aristocratic party to a personal attachment to Maecaenas and Augustus is sensible and right: the Caesarean powerbase had been the disenfranchised, that portion of the plebs that the senators usually described as sordida, in opposition to the privileged class. This continued to remain true even into Neronian times,16 and it accounts at least in part for Nero’s bad press: he was a great persecutor of senators and knights and “optimates” (all of whom liked to think of themselves as the totality of “the people”), and the members and adherents of those classes wrote the histories.

If the simple fact of Horace’s closeness to Augustus was a violation of social hierarchies (in Roman eyes perhaps an even greater one than the fact that Horace had commanded a legion: there at least he had had the grace to choose the losing side), his constant references in his Satires and Epistles to the worth of his freedman father is a blatant flouting of them. It amounts to a parody by exaggeration of the pervasive Roman adulation of the sacredness of the paterfamilias. Certainly, it was no small-town auctioneer and ex-slave that Roman piety intended its sons to honor and emulate, and it’s merely an accurate observation to point out that, by means of his very declassé father, Horace’s Satires and Epistles constantly and maliciously rub Rome’s nose in its own mess – smiling all the while, of course.

Such subjects as the lessons his father taught him and the kind of schooling the good man sacrificed himself to provide for his son stand totally outside the categories of Classical literature. There is simply no place in the Classical canon, as Rome received it from Greece, for the kind of homely personal material, recounted from an utterly subjective point of view, which forms the heart of Horace’s Satires and Epistles. The same kind of travesty is the point of even a seemingly innocuous satire like the “Journey to Brundisium” (Satires I.v), where Horace’s accounts of Virgil’s eye troubles and his own wet dreams counterpoint the careful omission of the importance of the diplomatic mission: Horace never mentions what was probably common knowledge in Rome, that this particular journey was undertaken in the first place only because Augustus has dispatched Maecaenas to patch up things with Antony. Even for Horace, vacuitas vos liberabit.

Horace’s self-conscious creation of a “voice,” his sermo pedestris, as he insistently calls it, involves a radical dismissal of the for-his-age canonical kinds of literature and their concomitant forms, levels of style, and contents. His appropriation of the hexameter, the meter of epic and philosophy, of Lucretius and of Virgil, amounts to a total transformation of it, as if the Milton of Paradise Lost should suddenly start speaking in the voice and accents of Robert Frost or Robert Service.

To reduce the hexameter to “chats” (sermones), to describe it as little more than everyday speech, more like prose (sermoni propriora: Sat. I.iv.42) than real poetry – that demands the radical declassifying of the form and language, an artifice denying artifice far more paradoxical and far more fundamental than Virgil’s artful use of the hexameter for his theoretically artless Pastorals. In terms of the Greco-Latin notions of forms and style and diction, it is the first step away from the canonized forms in the direction of “the real language of real men.”

That, in itself, deconstructs and implicitly rejects the classical order. Horace’s Satires and Epistles make that rejection explicit. Horace simply steps outside the canon. He rejects the classes both literary and social. The son of a freedman declares his independence of classicism to create himself as a man freed of the communal and literary frames that bind his world. Horace, by virtue of his many and sustained rejections, redefines himself as outsider, the one who opposes. He recreates himself in the language of what he is not, a paradoxically life-giving language of negation. That language brings into being for the first time a non-contextual or multi-contextual sensibility, isolated and free, independent and alienated.

Precisely that sort of consciousness, however, is supposed to be the centuries-later creation of the novel, which, in theory at least, came into being primarily to embody it. That is to say: Horace invents a new genre or quasi-genre or meta-genre – I mean satire – for his non-classical materials, but it is in fact an anti-genre, a literary kind that exists by the act of deconstruction, by shattering the norms and forms and assumptions of classicism. Classical genres depend upon stasis. They demand a steady state. Satire, on the other hand, is a protean creature, not unlike allegory. It is not truly a genre. It actually has no fixed form. It is firmly definable neither as mode nor as device nor as figure nor even as rhetorical strategy. It exists in and as flux, as the breakdown of canons or the deconstruction of forms. Satire, like The Satyricon, lives in the interstices, and the novel – in classical Latin as in the later languages – is its child, its attempt to generate the form of formlessness. The Satyricon is the progeny of Horace’s Satires and Epistles as surely as Tristram Shandy is the offspring of The Dunciad and A Tale of a Tub.

In his Satires and Epistles, Horace wears the guise of an insider (and is even perceived as such by some of the characters of his own poems), but he defines his own consciousness by means of a consistent refusal of all the “inside” values. Similarly, Encolpius, through whom all of Petronius’s own version of canon-destruction is conveyed, is perceived by Trimalchio’s freedmen-guests as an “insider”: freeborn, educated, “superior,” automatically assumed to be a defender of the cultural and social status quo.

In choosing a third-personal narrative format, Petronius obviously sacrifices the first-personal immediacy of Horace’s poems, but he sustains and extends their program of anti-classicism into an explicit attack, continuous and trenchant, on the whole Classical educational system and the values and world it creates and sustains. Like Plato’s banning the poets from his Republic, Petronius’ central depiction of the vigorous “speech acts” of Trimalchio and his cronies amounts to an attempt to seize control of the curriculum, to transform it and to show exactly what “the common experience” sounds and looks and smells and tastes like.17 Rigid classicists, then and now, find that idea distasteful, but Petronius – or the text, if you disbelieve in authors – will not let us evade it.

The final fragment of The Satyricon uses the wonderfully unreal rhetoric of the schools, with its irrelevant dilemmas of “edicts compelling sons to chop off their fathers’ heads or oracles condemning three virgins . . . to be slaughtered to stop some plague,”18 to move the legacy hunters of Croton – good Roman citizens all, and heirs of Greek culture, to boot – to the most distasteful act of all: cannibalism. And not for survival, but for what is even more important: money.

Just close your eyes and imagine that, instead of human flesh, you’re munching a million. . . . And if it’s precedents you want, there are hundreds of them. The people of Saguntum, for instance, when Hannibal besieged them, took to eating human flesh, and did so, moreover, without the slightest hope of getting an inheritance out of it. And when a terrible famine struck Petelia, the people all became cannibals, and the only thing they gained from their diet was that they weren’t hungry anymore. And when Scipio captured Numantia, the Romans found a number of mothers cuddling the half-eaten bodies of their children in their laps.19

What role the politics of the court or of Neronian Rome might play in this is to me unknowable – but there can be no mistaking the subversive, not to say revolutionary, implications of such a depiction of a society – one whose education, training, and rhetoric cooperate to enable its members to feed on the dead for cash.

The Horace who abandoned his shield and his commission in the army of Brutus to become the apolitical, non-office-holding friend of Maecaenas and Augustus enacted politically and socially a passage across a bridge of time and temperament from a world closed and categorized to a world open – perhaps anarchic – and alive. Literarily, Horace enacted the very same transition in his deconstruction of the aristocratic Lucilius and the heroic hexameter. Petronius performs the same act ritualistically, almost liturgically, in his celebration of the splendid comedy that is the banquet of Trimalchio. Trimalchio and his pals may be surrounded by death, but they are life in the midst of death just as surely as the widow of Ephesus discovers life and love in the tomb of her husband. Unruly, irregular, Petronius’s freedmen – and they are just that, freed men – are as little confined by the Thanatoids (the word is Thomas Pynchon’s) who rule them as their speech is by the rigidities of Latin grammar and Latin literature, whose only hope – alas, unrealized – for a future imperfect they were.

Appendix 2.  The Novel as Polylogue

“The novel as polylogue” is Julia Kristeva’s phrase, from an essay of the same name.1 By it she appears to mean what other schools of criticism call heteroglossia, the presence within a text – usually a novel – of traces of other voices, other systems of signifying, other modes of discourse, different from or counter to the author’s intention. For Kristeva and feminism generally, these voices are those of different aspects of the submerged feminine discernible through the “patriarchal” text. From this and similar feminist points of view, the feminist novel and/or the woman writer and/or the female reader are by definition, by essence, by nature, and by culture automatically and inescapably engaged in counter-writing and counter-reading: They, de facto, constitute the Other. Just as Deconstruction has appropriated and privileged (loathsome usage) the word and concept allegory, so feminism has appropriated and privileged Other. Any reading or writing performed by a woman enacts alterity, transpires within the space of the Other, in some sense speaks the Other.

I have not had much to say about feminist criticism2 to this point – not because I regard it as insignificant, but rather on the prudential basis of rationing the potential confusions with which my case about allegory has to deal. To this point, the questions that feminist criticism or a feminist perspective could raise about allegory have been to my mind similar enough to those that would be raised by Deconstruction or Marxism or a Lacanian psycholinguistic critique, the three main roots or affiliations of feminist literary criticism, to be dealt with implicitly along with consideration of those (small-o) others. Properly speaking, there really is no such independent entity as feminist literary theory, only feminist criticism, which is largely the critical methodology of one or more of those schools – frequently with a large infusion of Roland Barthes on the erotics of reading and writing – informed or shaped by a feminist point of view. What is relevant to this study is that in fact feminism has, as I’ve already suggested, in a peculiar way appropriated the concept of the Other as its own, as the key “signifier” – that itself is a loaded term – of what the feminine is.

For a large number of feminists, the idea of the Other is purely binary and oppositional. Within what is (almost obsessively) referred to as “Lacan’s symbolic order” – i.e., within the framework of ordinary discourse, of everyday language understood as culturally conditioned and therefore patriarchal – the masculine is identified as the speaker, the subject, the signifier, the phallus (the primary signifier), while the feminine is described as silent, absent, even fictive, the referent or the object, the signified.3 It is neither oversimplifying nor dismissive – though many feminist readers will no doubt think so – to describe this conception of the feminine-as-the-Other as a specialized (and thereby, to my mind, subtilized and more pointed) version of the Deconstructionist “dangerous supplement,” that oppositional, antinomian absence-that-is-a-presence, the invisible trace by which opposites manifest themselves in each other. From the point of view of allegory, the only thing wrong with such a notion of the Other is that it’s too limiting: the allegorical Other may begin from such simple binary oppositions, but it scarcely ends with them.

Pale Fire is a good case in point. The apparent structure and contents of the novel seem definitively patriarchal: a male poet, an authority figure, whose long poem meditates on his own life and, even more significantly, on the death and absence of his daughter, all of which – poet and poem together – are the object of adulation and adaptation by another male character whose preoccupation with “manlier pleasures” (109) practically evaporates the daughter, and even the poet, out of the poem and substitutes for them the figure of a misogynist, homosexual autocrat, banished from his homeland but still the object or subject of excessive reverence and hatred, adulation and pursuit. Nabokov, of course, with his roots in the liberal wing of the Russian ancien regime and his notorious contempt for the vulgar reductiveness of Freudian psychoanalysis, seems the ideal writer to produce a text ripe for feminist counter-reading, and Pale Fire seems destined to be that paradigmatic text – as, to a very important extent, it most undeniably is.

Far from this constituting a “counter-reading,” however, I would argue that this is deliberate, conscious, in fact one of the many reader-entrapment games that Nabokov plays upon us in this most heavily booby-trapped of all his novels. But – and this is a very big “but” indeed – Pale Fire is also a “feminist” text, a text that pre-empts the space of feminism as one among its many incorporated counter-territories. The absent feminine and the lost kingdom are not only cognates for each other, territories that echo each other, but they are the two key elements that force the disintegration and predicted re-integration of personality that “Charles Kinbote” undergoes in the novel’s closing pages. Pale Fire includes the revenge of the suppressed feminine in its own body.4 That is to say, Pale Fire incorporates the feminist Other along with Others in its textual strategy for breaking through the merely binary, for escaping from the cul-de-sac of Zembla and New Wye, Charles Kinbote and Charles the Beloved, male and female, writer and reader, reality and fantasy.

“In the destructive element immerse” makes sound advice in allegory and in psychotherapy and probably in psycholinguistics too, whether we consider the destructive element to be allegory or dogmatic criticism or the feminist Other or textuality itself, so let us consider a text that not only forces us to do just that but also, like Pale Fire, strives to break out or break through several distinct set of polarities: J. M. Coetzee’s novel Foe. The title already does much, by creating a clearly binary, adversarial situation: the friend and the foe, the one and the other, perhaps even self and other. Foe identifies the book for us by naming the book and its relation to us. We will be reading adversarially: the book will struggle against us, not to give itself to us. Indeed, reading the book will show us that its title is loaded, boobytrapped, in ways we could not initially know: Foe is ambiguous, oblique and contrarian even, in that it also names a person (Defoe) who is not the subject, not the center of the book, and moreover names him by only part of the name by which he is normally known to us, names him further as he appears – in part – to the heroine and protagonist of the story (Susan Barton). Partial name and whole name, name and role, adversary and author and book, the text itself: All these are Foe.

The word resonates with possibilities of significance. Foe – because Coetzee’s narrative is antagonistic to, divergent from the data of the “actual” Defoe’s narratives that constitute some of Foe’s areas of reference: most obviously Robinson Crusoe, but also Captain Singleton, Colonel Jack, Moll Flanders, even The Apparition of Mrs. Veal, and the most powerful and strangest of attractors for Coetzee’s story, Roxana. Let it be noted too that Robinson Crusoe, which functions for the first half of the novel as the primary referent for its narrative (Roxana assumes that role less obviously but all the more powerfully in the second half) is itself no simple datum.

Looked at purely structurally, Robinson Crusoe is itself already a novel of doublings and doubleness: two journeys, two rescues, Crusoe and Xury, Crusoe and Friday, Xury and Friday. The same holds true for Roxana, which is built of rhythmic repetitions of actions and doublings of characters (of which some become quite important to Foe): Roxana and Amy, Roxana and the Quaker, Roxana and her daughter, Amy and the daughter. Beyond structure, there are the signifying events of Robinson Crusoe – marooning, survival, and rescue – and the rich figural penumbra in which those are located – the alluring and dangerous sea, the island itself, isolated and wild, yet nurturing, at once an exile and a refuge – and the near-symbolic figures by which the deeds of the story are enacted – the civilized man and the savage, the Christian and the pagan, the cultivator and the cannibal, technological man and pre-scientific man – in the total absence of either women or Woman (unless She is figured in the island itself). And beside the “facts” of Defoe’s narrative, by what Robinson Crusoe has become in the imaginations of its readers, it provides Coetzee access to an almost mythic level of signification: The figural importance of Crusoe in the imagination of even minimally literate Westerners and the significances that have been discovered in or read into that figure – Christian man, economic man, capitalist man, Western Imperialism, etc. – make Defoe’s narrative itself a richly resonant foil for Coetzee’s mordant fiction of a tight-lipped, underachieving Cruso and an aggressively verbal Susan Barton.

And foe too, because the richest and strangest of the novel’s areas of reference and strange attractors are the materials of contemporary literary theory itself. The title hints that also: Foe begins to deconstruct Defoe, to reduce the writer and his corpus – telling word! – to their component parts and their hidden opposites. After that, the simple discovery that Coetzee’s protagonist, his castaway, is a woman suffices to move us into the precincts of feminist theory, of “herstory” as the lost and echoing territory dimly discerned through and in the body of Defoe’s “his-story” of Robinson Crusoe.

Foe enacts in its narrative and in its protagonist’s thoughts all the traumas of dissociation and re-integration that Kristeva’s essay describes. The struggles, the anguish, of feminist reading and the antagonisms of Deconstructionist reading, the wrestlings with a language that resists, the attempts to make “story” a property of the self, to extend hegemony personally or sexually or racially, or to escape – personally, sexually, racially – the hegemony of another person, another thing, another story: Foe’s narrative does/is all those things.

In Coetzee’s retelling, the saga of Crusoe’s island becomes the simultaneously told/untold/untellable story of Cruso’s island, inherited and remembered by the woman who briefly joins him there. She sees the island as stubborn, inert fact, resisting “simple telling” and needing art to make it live. Foe sees the fact of it as real enough, live enough in itself, but insufficient, only a piece of a larger story, an element of structure in a saga that embraces it but goes beyond it. Coetzee’s novel, in fact, consistently works in terms of the conflicts and tensions between polar visions of language and story: not just history and herstory, but fantasy and fact, memory and dream, phantom and fiction, all of which the novel comes to see – and prods us to understand – as false dichotomies, not so much paired opposites as points on a spectrum, all equally true, all containable with the charged, transforming space of allegorical language.

……….‘At last I could row no further. My hands were blistered, my back was burned, my body ached. With a sigh, making barely a splash, I slipped overboard. With slow strokes, my long hair floating about me, like a flower of the sea, like an anemone, like a jellyfish of the kind you see in the waters of Brazil, I swam towards the strange island, for a while swimming against the current, then all at once free of its grip, carried by the waves into the bay and on to the beach.
……….‘There I lay sprawled on the hot sand, my head filled with the orange blaze of the sun, my petticoat (which was all I had escaped with) baking dry upon me, tired, grateful, like all the saved.
……….‘A dark shadow fell upon me, not of a cloud but of a man with a dazzling halo about him. “Castaway,” I said with my thick dry tongue. “I am cast away. I am all alone.” And I held out my sore hands.’5

This marvellous, entrancing prose opens Foe. It starts us with an unnamed, unidentified “I,” a body of pain, and an almost hallucinatory immersion in the sea, in waters that are hinted by the similes (flower of the sea, anemone, jellyfish) to be the “I”‘s native element. Withdrawal from that element, whether construed as liberation from it or expulsion, and entrance into the “strange island” amount to religious salvation, beginning a new life, entering heaven: “I” is “grateful, like all the saved”; she (she because of her petticoat) sees “a man with a dazzling halo about him.” Finally, “I” names herself: “I am cast away. I am all alone.” It is a wonderful passage, both in its prose and what that prose does to the reader and in its passing from the stages of ship life (itself only an implication supplied by the immediately engaged and collaborative reader, who infers it from the boat which is in turn implied by the rowing) through sea life to island life, wonderful in its poetic, trance-like rhythms, wonderful in its creation of movement against a deep, undefined background of time and space, wonderful in its motion towards a paradoxical definiteness and precision, the naming of the unnameable, the identifying of the indefinable. The style, the language of Coetzee’s passage work much the way Auerbach described the effect of the Abraham and Isaac story6 in his seminal though erroneous distinction between Biblical and Homeric style. It is a passage that promises mysteries, that seems to bear us from body to spirit, from this world to the next, from univocation (blisters are blisters) to paradox: the land of “all the saved” is the refuge of “all alone.”

Even before we learn that the island is Cruso’s – and we find that out quite quickly – we know we are reading a text mediated by literature and by its own (by which I mean its “real” author’s) consciousness of literature. It is not simply the ‘literariness’ of the locus of the desert isle, though even the narrator (who constantly protests that she is no writer, is incapable of writing, even as she writes the book we read) is aware of that readerly expectation and quickly distinguishes between this isle and our more idyllic, less “realistic” associations.7 Rather, it is the action that begins the story that locates us so firmly in the context of literature: leaving the boat and entering the sea. The boat itself is almost an absence, a textual aporia, present only in the now-terminated act of rowing and in its trace in the forlorn word “overboard.” The ship of which that boat is remnant, synecdoche, and symbol is a complete absence, to be provided in the tale only in memory, only as a datum lost, an aporia preserved.

The boat is lost: Foe transpires in the sea and in the island, and it begins with the narrator going overboard. The completion of the act of abandoning ship, going overboard is a desperate act, an extreme act – as, for instance, Lord Jim discovers. To abandon ship is to leave everything of what one is and has and knows. To leave the boat is to leave the body, to abandon the barque of the soul and to enter the destructive medium, the mind/spirit/subconscious ocean of non-differentiation, origin and end of life. To leave the boat is to withdraw from the ship of state, to exile oneself from social order and the political world-as-it-is-constituted. To desert the ship of fools is to quit the rowdy world of social beings, to surrender the fatuous pursuits of everyday life, in favor of solitary immersion in the waters and the entry into a strange new life beyond them. To abandon that Narrenschiff is, I suggest, to leave the raft of narrative as well, to give up the safety of the vehicle – of story and of history, perhaps of language itself – to explore the depths on whose surface the flimsy craft of narrative floats and to discover the nature, the attraction, of the “strange island” that emerges, solid and unmoving, from those depths.

If it is in fact unmoving, in any sense. More than once the narrator refers to the island as a ship: “the rocking persisted, the rocking of the island as it sailed through the sea and the night bearing into the future its freight of gulls and sparrows and fleas and apes and castaways, all unconscious now, save me” (26). And Cruso’s island is not, by a wide margin, the only island that Foe deals with. “The world is full of islands, said Cruso once. His words ring truer every day” (71). There is the island England, first a refuge and then an isolation, from which the narrator – by this point long self-identified as Susan Barton, and so to be from here on named – seeks to liberate Friday. In the wide world of things, memory creates islands everywhere: “Was Bahia an island in the ocean of the Brazilian forest, and my room a lonely island in Bahia?” (51). Foe himself is islanded, isolated in the space where he writes, a space that shares the properties and natures of both island and ship:

The room is barely furnished. . . . The table and chair stand on a platform of boards before the window. From the door of the attic to this platform, boards are laid to form a narrow walk-way. Otherwise there are only the ceiling-boards, on which one treads at one’s peril, and the rafters. . . .
……….I think of you [Foe] as a steersman steering the great hulk of the house through the nights and days, peering ahead for signs of storm. (49-50)

Not surprisingly, Susan’s Foe sees the island as a boat: “By itself [the island] is no better than a waterlogged boat drifting day after day in an empty ocean till one day, humbly and without commotion, it sinks” (117). And, of course, every ship is an island too, a refuge and a prison in the vastness of the sea: the ship from which Susan and her dead captain – inviting symbol, that! – are expelled by a mutinous crew, the ship that liberates Susan from the island and simultaneously confines Friday. One step beyond that and each self is, contrary to John Donne’s opinion, very much an island, separated from every other human being by the untellability or unintelligibility of history or herstory; isolatoes as Melville calls them – Cruso on his island, Friday in his silence, Susan in her simultaneous certainties and confusions.

The “real” island in Foe is rapidly being assimilated to the literary idea(s) of island, as islands have appeared in western literature from The Odyssey to Gulliver’s Travels, from The Tempest to Omoo and Typee to This Island Earth. In the literature of the west, islands are as ubiquitous as they are paradoxical, desert and at the same time full, each unique and isolated, each expansive and inclusive enough to embody the world. In Foe, the process of symbol-making, of turning the “factual” island into a sign of something else, begins with the very first mention of the island. Susan’s first, implicit identification of the island makes it a Paradiso, even though she later comes to think of it as Inferno: “I was silent. But I thought: We are all punished, every day. This island is our punishment, this island and one another’s company, to the death” (37).8  More to the point, perhaps, and certainly more directly connected to the concrete details by which significances enter into Coetzee’s fiction, Cruso’s constant occupation, the building of endless bare terraces, useless without seed for planting, both distances this Cruso from Defoe’s endlessly pragmatic, practical, and productive Robinson and at the same time links this island with Dante’s terraced island of Purgatorio, wherein sinful souls work out their salvation – the latter, tellingly, the very word that Susan first applies to her arrival at Cruso’s island and later to her departure from it.

Over against such overt acts of symbol-generation stands the bald and unyielding “factuality” of Foe ‘s dominant area of reference, Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe, a fiction grounded in its turn on the “actual,” “real-life,” “historical” adventures of Alexander Selkirk. Whatever readers have made of Robinson Crusoe since the eighteenth century, Defoe’s whole endeavor in that book rests on the twin premises of the reality of the island and what happens in it and the reality – the factuality, the truth, the mimetic stability – of the language that sets it forth. For Defoe, the island is a real place and a real thing: It comes to have a symbolic dimension – and only one – in Crusoe’s understanding of the divine providence that led him to it. That symbolism in no way usurps or even mitigates the reality of the island for either Crusoe or Defoe, and the presence of a pattern of divine providence in the “real” events the book retells in no way affects its author’s evident faith in the ability of language to accurately present phenomena and noumena, things and the human perception of things.

The language of Robinson Crusoe, like the language of all of Defoe’s other fictions, is – or is supposed to be – transparent, each word a precise counter conveying a precise meaning. Certainly, subsequent readings of the book have attached very little significance to Crusoe’s isolated and singular act of symbolism. Even where subsequent readings of the novel have seen it in its entirety as “symbolic” or “mythic,” the “fact” of the island experience has been the dominant, almost exclusive, basis for those interpretations. This is true of all the major readings of Robinson Crusoe, whether they be Marxist or Capitalist, whether they see the book as a child’s adventure story or a cultural myth.9

For Susan Barton, however, Cruso’s island becomes a place of memory and imagination, a complex symbol in need of explanation, a story wanting its telling: She insists on its reality too, but most when it is becoming not just itself, as it always was for Defoe’s Crusoe, but a sign for other things: “I do not know how these matters can be written of in a book unless they are covered up again in figures” (120). Susan’s language, as opposed to Defoe’s, is from the first figurative, sliding away from bare facts to signs and symbols, similes and metaphors. She uses language evocatively, to produce auras of feeling and nuance, to suggest meanings or at least the possibilities of meaning beyond the bare letter of the text. If Defoe’s language is transparent, Susan’s is a veil.

On the third hand, the language Coetzee uses of the island makes it into a complex symbol at the same time that it is an entity utterly non-symbolic, at once a real and a fictional island, a self-explanatory “fact” and a cryptic, teasing lie or memory or dream. Coetzee makes Foe’s island and Foe’s text into the battleground of mimesis and semiosis. Their warfare in Coetzee’s novel is not resolved (if it is truly resolved at all) until the multiplex moment when the narrator (who by this point may no longer be “Susan Barton,” or at least not the same “Susan Barton”; but of this more below) returns to the sea of silence to confront fully the book’s central, uncommunicating signifier, the mute Friday, in a place that may or may not be Dante’s Hell, may or may not be fiction: “But this is not the place of words. Each syllable, as it comes out, is caught and filled with water and diffused. This is the place where bodies are their own signs. It is the home of Friday” (157).

In Inferno, Dante encountered souls that were their own signs, souls that had taken the form and texture of the bodies in which they sinned and in them for eternity enacted their choice of sin and punishment, without equivocation, without figuration, indeed – until Dante’s arrival and poem – without language. In addition to covert references, by means of the island, to Dante’s Paradiso, Purgatorio, and Inferno, Foe explicitly mentions Dante and his Inferno once, at a key moment late in its narrative. Susan and Foe are in bed together and talking about whether dreams are our nightly descent into our darker selves “and other phantoms too” (Foe’s opinion) or merely “memories of my waking hours, broken and mingled and altered. . . . As real, and as little real, as the memories themselves” (Susan’s view). Foe speaks:

……….‘I read in an old Italian author of a man who visited, or dreamed he visited, Hell,’ said Foe. ‘There he met the souls of the dead. One of the souls was weeping.“Do not suppose, mortal,” said this soul, addressing him, “that because I am not substantial these tears you behold are not the tears of a true grief.”‘
……….‘True grief, certainly, but whose?’ said I – ‘The ghost’s or the Italian’s?’ (138)

No one who has followed me this far in this book needs to be told that here Coetzee touches on some of the most complex issues in allegory at the same time that he broaches the central topics of modern theoretical debate. He conflates in the space of a single page the ideas of memory, dream, conscious and unconscious imagination, fiction, realism, reality, truth, truth of expression, truth of content, figuration, and the relation of figuration both to – to use the old-fashioned but still serviceable terms – its vehicle and its tenor. Just for good measure, in the following half page he links all of this with life, appetite, and erotics:

……….‘Is that not why ghosts return: to drink the blood of the living?  Is that not why the shades made your Italian welcome?’
… ……Instead of answering, Foe kissed me again, and in kissing gave such a sharp bite to my lip that I cried out and drew away. But he held me close and I felt him suck the wound. ‘This is my manner of preying on the living,’ he murmured. (139)

Ghosts, and the desires of ghosts, and even the ghosts of desire haunt Foe. Early in the book Susan describes herself as “a being without substance, a ghost beside the true body of Cruso” (51). She thinks of the girl who claims to be her daughter as a ghost summoned or sent by Foe (132-33), and even wonders whether she herself is a “phantom” (133).

Friday’s putative cannibalism links him too with the bloodlust of ghosts, even as Foe’s own “manner of preying on the living” connects him as writer with such life-eating phantoms, vampires of the spirit. It is a wonderful figure, and perfectly sums up Foe’s use of figures: On one hand, it is undeniably a perfectly transparent image of the writer’s desire to transpose life to the page, to make the phantoms of his fiction live;10 on the other hand, the number of other elements that Coetzee relates to it absolutely prohibit our construing the figure in any so narrow and univocal a way. The issues of substantiality and truth, signification and signifier, whose grief is expressed or whose desire is fulfilled, are no less complex, and no less complexly presented, that they are in Commedia or any other allegory.

In Defoe’s telling of it, the story of the island was Crusoe’s story. Susan Barton has tried to make it her story: “Do you think of me, Mr Foe, as Mrs Cruso or as a bold adventuress? Think what you may, it was I who shared Cruso’s bed and closed Cruso’s eyes, as it is I who have disposal of all that Cruso leaves behind, which is the story of his island” (45).

Despite that, Coetzee’s narrative makes clear, and Susan comes to acknowledge, that the central story of the island is Friday’s story. The quest for that story, the effort to explain Friday or enable him to explain himself, and thereby to explain and understand the island, gradually takes over the novel. It becomes the dominant element of Foe’s story, usurping the primary place both of the island narrative itself and of those other quest analogues (or polylogues) that resonate against Defoe’s other tales – principally, the quest of the daughter of Roxana (whose “real” name is Susan Barton) for her mother, echoed significantly in the doubled actions of the central portions of Foe: As Susan, abandoning her own previous quest for her daughter, now seeks Foe, she is in turn sought by a girl she can’t or won’t recognize as her daughter.

Nevertheless, despite that additional Defovian narrative strand, the intellectual quest for the “reality” of Friday controls and even synthesizes the final movement of Coetzee’s novel, and that quest is itself paradoxical: What is sought – Friday’s story – is the sound of silence, the speaking of the unspeakable, what Dante the pilgrim had to go to Hell to see. It is aporia itself: “‘In the letters you did not read,’ I said, ‘I told you of my conviction that, if the story seems stupid, that is only because it so doggedly holds its silence. The shadow whose lack you feel is there: it is the loss of Friday’s tongue’” (117).11

The Novel as Pollywog

A pollywog is a larval amphibian. So is Foe, so is allegory. Both this specific novel and the larger form or kind that is allegory mediate between the extremes of language totally undetermined, pure sound without meaning, and language overdetermined, words as property, bound to a single, inflexible meaning. Friday will not move when Susan tells him to bring more wood for the fire; he responds only when Cruso says firewood, because “‘Firewood is the word I have taught him…. Wood he does not know’” (21). On the other hand, the island – like Prospero’s, like the entrance to Inferno – is full of noises:

[T]he wind . . . day after day whistled in my ears and tugged at my hair and blew sand into my eyes, till sometimes I would kneel in a corner of the hut with my head in my arms and moan to myself, on and on, to hear some other sound than the beating of the wind; or later, when I had taken to bathing in the sea, would hold my breath and dip my head under the water merely to know what it was to have silence. (15)

As Susan most significantly remarks at an earlier point in the novel,

[I]f the company of brutes had been enough for me, I might have lived most happily on my island. But who, accustomed to the fullness of human speech, can be content with caws and chirps and screeches, and the barking of seals, and the moan of the wind? (8)

The question remains a legitimate one, even though two immediate answers to it are Friday and Cruso. Certainly, neither the taciturn Cruso nor the totally mute Friday provide Susan with, or seem to feel the need of, anything approaching “the fullness of human speech.” “This is not England,” Cruso tells her; “we have no need of a great stock of words” (21). Nevertheless, contrary to his single-word, single-meaning intercourse with Friday, Cruso’s conversations with Susan are both various and variable, imprecise and inconsistent:

[T]he stories he told me were so various, and so hard to reconcile one with another, that I was more and more driven to conclude age and isolation had taken their toll on his memory, and he no longer knew for sure what was truth, what fancy. . . . So in the end I did not know what was truth, what lies, and what was mere rambling. (11-12)

Memory becomes crucial for Susan: At one point she upbraids Cruso for failing to make paper and ink for himself (17-18) so that the particularity and the particulars of his story might not be lost, a fate she seeks to avert for herself by her strenuous efforts both to tell her story and to have it told “right” by Mr Foe. Nevertheless, she ends up exactly where she found Cruso:

……….‘In the beginning I thought I would tell you the story of the island and, being done with that, return to my former life. But now all my life grows to be a story and there is nothing of my own left to me. I thought I was myself and this girl a creature from another order speaking words you made up for her. But now I am full of doubt. Nothing is left to me but doubt. I am doubt itself. Who is speaking to me? Am I a phantom too? To what order do I belong?  And you: who are you?’ (133)

Foe answers this only with parables and puzzles that baffle Susan as thoroughly as his sense of a story, which is quasi-Aristotelean, quasi-structuralist and universalist (see 116-17), defeats her sense of a story as a particular truth, a special reality. He is her Foe in every sense: what he calls descending into our darker selves to meet phantoms, Susan calls dreaming and memories (138). Foe drives her at one point to assert her fundamental reality in a protest every bit as pertinent to the reader outside the novel as the reader/auditor within it:

……….‘I am not a story, Mr Foe. I may impress you as a story because I began my account of myself without preamble, slipping overboard into the water and striking out for the shore. But my life did not begin in the waves. There was a life before the water which stretched back to my desolate searchings in Brazil, thence to the years when my daughter was still with me, and so on back to the day I was born. All of which makes up a story I do not choose to tell. I choose not to tell it because to no one, not even to you, do I owe proof that I am a substantial being with a substantial history in the world. I choose rather to tell of the island, of myself and Cruso and Friday and what we three did there: for I am a free woman who asserts her freedom by telling her story according to her own desire.’ (131)

If our narrator is “not a story,” if her life didn’t begin in the waves, we poor readers are in serious trouble, lacking even the most basic of data on which to base any sort of judgment about this strange text we are reading. If, on the other hand, we consent to the evidence of printed pages as opposed to printed words and insist that “Susan Barton” is a story, that “she” has no life before the opening of her story, then her statements within that story push us into a very adversarial relationship to it, making us foe as well.

At the same time, her statements call most determinedly into question the status of the story and language we are reading, forcing us to wonder, as Susan Barton herself similarly does, whether we are not here encountering “a creature from another order” (133) – that is, fiction itself, story itself, perhaps even language itself, conceived as radically, fundamentally different from and implicitly opposed to what we each know ourselves to be at our innermost beings. We are being pushed and prodded to see every attempt at self-expression as a self-betrayal, a falsification, a lie, a fiction – and so on forever in an endless möbius strip of simultaneous assertion and betrayal of truth.

It is of course the narrator’s language itself, with its constant echoings off and against the body of Defoe’s novels, that creates both the “order” we read and the possibilities of other “orders” separate from but interpermeable with it. The doublings of Coetzee’s plot reverberate the doublings of Defoe’s plots, creating an infinitely looping series of references, echo within echo, calling to each other and of each other, but never exactly the same. Susan’s speech enacts erotics in language, simultaneously a mimesis of desire and a semiosis of pure need, the need to fill the void and the desire of the void to be filled. Her desire is, purely and simply, that her story be told, and she bends all her efforts and all her language, and would bend all of Foe’s, to fulfill that desire.

The story I desire to be known by is the story of the island. You call it an episode, but I call it a story in its own right. It commences with my being cast away there and concludes with the death of Cruso and the return of Friday and myself to England, full of new hope. Within this larger story are inset the stories of how I came to be marooned (told by myself to Cruso) and of Cruso’s shipwreck and early years on the island (told by Cruso to myself), as well as the story of Friday, which is properly not a story but a puzzle or hole in the narrative (I picture it as a button hole, carefully cross-stitched around, but empty, waiting for the button). Taken in all, it is a narrative with a beginning and an end, and with pleasing digressions too, lacking only a substantial and varied middle, in the place where Cruso spent too much time tilling the terraces and I too much time tramping the shores. (121)

The story of Friday is a void, and the middle of Susan’s narrative is missing, and as a whole it is surrounded by voids of which she chooses not to speak. A large portion of the point of all of Coetzee’s echoings of multiple Defoe novels – and this is emphatically true of his use of Robinson Crusoe – is our constant, conscious or subliminal sense of how much that we know to be in them Foe leaves out. Isolated presences – textual islands – make us aware of massive absences. Whatever Susan’s story may be, Coetzee’s novel is a narrative stitched together of holes, a tale basted together not of fragments, like The Satyricon, but of voids alone, aporia abounding.

To say that Susan’s language and, thereby, Foe as a whole enact erotics in language is also to say that they enact erotics of language, that the novel’s language becomes a charged field of desire and need, attraction and repulsion. Indeed, even on the purely stylistic level, the language of Foe is peculiarly seductive, beguiling in its seeming simplicity. The atmosphere of the novel is charged with a tension at once seductive and threatening – remarkably so for a novel in which explicit sexuality occurs only twice or thrice, and is each time quite chastely – not to say coolly – rendered. But each time is also filled with significances of another sort. In the first coupling, of Susan and the convalescent Cruso, Susan remains quite passive, even indifferent – “So I resisted no more but let him do as he wished” (30) – and in her recounting uses the episode for a meditation on chance and control, the self and the other, the aporia of our lives themselves:

We yield to a stranger’s embrace or give ourselves to the waves; for the blink of an eyelid our vigilance relaxes; we are asleep; and when we awake, we have lost the direction of our lives. What are these blinks of an eyelid, against which the only defense is an eternal and inhuman wakefulness? Might they not be the cracks and chinks through which another voice, other voices, speak in our lives? By what right do we close our ears to them? The questions echoed in my head without an answer. (30)

This link of the sea with sexuality is repeated by Susan in her account of the next most explicit sexual encounter in the novel, on board the ship bearing herself and the now nearly comatose Cruso back to England:

I lie against Cruso; with the tip of my tongue I follow the hairy whorl of his ear. I rub my cheeks against his harsh whiskers, I spread myself over him, I stroke his belly with my thighs. ‘I am swimming in you, my Cruso,’ I whisper, and swim. He is a tall man, I a tall woman. This is our coupling: this swimming, this clambering, this whispering. (44).

Sex and the sea and sleep alike open holes in one’s life and holes in one’s story, alike cause loss of control and loss of direction. The final sexual episode in the novel is far different. In it, Susan asserts control both sexually and intellectually: She enacts the male Muse she needs to “father” – the word is hers – her story. First Coetzee establishes this metaphorically:

……….‘Do you know the story of the Muse, Mr Foe? The Muse is a woman, a goddess, who visits poets in the night and begets stories upon them. In the accounts they give afterwards, the poets say that she comes in the hour of their deepest despair and touches them with sacred fire, after which their pens, that have been dry, flow. When I wrote my memoir for you, and saw how like the island it was, under my pen, dull and vacant and without life, I wished that there were such a being as a man-Muse, a youthful god who visited authoresses in the night and made their pens flow. But now I know better. The Muse is both goddess and begetter. I was intended not to be the mother of my story, but to beget it. It is not I who am the intended, but you. But why need I argue my case? When is it ever asked of a man who comes courting that he plead in syllogisms? Why should it be demanded of me?” (126)

A notable passage on several counts. Several times in a short space (all on 126), Susan refers to Foe as “the intended” or “my intended.” No reader of allegory can hear that phrase without thinking of Kurtz’s Intended, to whom he confided all his plans and to whom is left his story (or at least part of it), and I find it hard to believe that any English-speaking African novelist could be unaware of the allusion. Whether the usage is conscious or unconscious, it pulls into the orbit of this story yet one more quest story equally concerned with true and false roles, true and false reports, and even true and false gender roles. That, compounded by the vivid and unavoidable pen/penis collocations in the passage move the reader toward a gender-scrambling reconception not just of the Muse but of the author/writer and of our present narrator, Susan Barton.

Feminist readers will also probably discern – with ample justice, I think – more than a trace of the presence of the “Phallic Mother” in this congeries of allusions. Be that as it may, the reversal of sexual roles here posited in metaphor, Susan very shortly after makes graphic fact when, claiming “a privilege that comes with the first night” (139),12 she “straddles” Foe to beget her story: “‘It is always a hard ride when the Muse pays her visits. . . . She must do whatever lies in her power to father her offspring” (140). Not surprisingly, this encounter leads the passive Foe to muse on the sea and another of its aporia:

……….‘You wrote of your man Friday paddling his boat into the seaweed. Those great beds of seaweed are the home of a beast called by mariners the kraken – have you heard of it? – which has arms as thick as a man’s thigh and many yards long, and a beak like an eagle’s. I picture the kraken lying on the floor of the sea, staring up through tangled fronds of weeds at the sky, its many arms furled about it, waiting. It is into that terrible orbit that Friday steers his fragile craft. . . . Friday rows his log of wood across the dark pupil – or the dead socket – of an eye staring up at him from the floor of the sea. He rows across it and is safe. To us he leaves the task of descending into that eye.’ (140-41)

The sexually passive Susan of the novel’s beginning experienced the interruption of her private consciousness and the intrusion of other people’s voices. Here, in the reverie of the sexually passive Foe, that intrusion of the Other explicitly becomes his and Susan’s assumption or completion of Friday’s task. The duel of Foe and Susan, their mutual parrying of and marrying with the rights of authorship, their gender and role reversals, their attempts to explain to and instruct each other about the true center of the story, all amount to an enactment in narrative of the psychodrama of “I” positing “myself,” an assertion of self that all too often results in the loss or eradication of self.13

That Susan loses herself is indisputable: She, who has been the novel’s “I” from its very first sentence, is in its final, fourth section replaced by another “I,” an “I” that sees Susan from the outside, first as an old, almost mummified corpse lying in bed alongside Mr Foe (though neither is named), then again as a dead body in a bedroom of the house of “Daniel DeFoe, Author” (155), and finally – in a reverie or vision or transpersonal merging triggered by reading a sentence on a paper on a table in that house (see page 155) – as a bloated corpse, floating, trapped beside “her dead captain” in the cabin of a sunken ship.

One could argue, with a degree of correctness, that this narrative movement enacts the dissolution and reconstitution of the “I,” even as a specifically/specially feminist phenomenon, even with the particulars and particularity that a critic such as Kristeva ascribes to it. Certainly it seems clear to me that Coetzee is engaging those or similar psychoanalytic and psycholinguistic ideas here, as he has been engaging specifically – though by no means exclusively – feminist issues and contentions throughout Foe. What is wrong with such a reading or even such an emphasis is that it omits Friday – which may be appropriate, because Friday has become the center of a book stitched of voids. He has become Susan’s “shadow” (115); he grows into a constant burden for her like the Old Man of the River (147-48). He replaces Foe at his desk, “with Foe’s robes on his back and Foe’s wig, filthy as a bird’s nest, on his head” (151).

Friday’s story, the truth of Friday, is the true story of the island, and “The true story will not be heard until by art we have found a means of giving voice to Friday” (118). The “executive” portion of Foe’s narrative ends with Foe and Susan attempting to teach Friday to write. These are its final lines:

‘Is Friday learning to write?’ asked Foe.
‘He is writing, after a fashion,’ I said. ‘He is writing the letter o.’
‘It is a beginning,’ said Foe. ‘Tomorrow you must teach him a.’

A and O, Alpha and Omega, beginnings and endings: Everything the novel contains is bound up in the mystery of Friday.

That mystery, in the way of many other allegories, invites self-entrapment by means of facile answers. The most facile of all, in this book, is to follow the line of naive Marxist readings of Robinson Crusoe and understand Coetzee’s Friday as a ready-made symbol of the Third World or former colonial peoples or the horrors of racism or the victims of whatever oppression current preoccupations have chosen to focus on, of the myriad always available. Such a reading has the advantages of both simplifying a difficult novel and making readers feel good about themselves, therefore it will no doubt not only be popular but strongly defended as well – but the novel simply will not allow it.

What support that reading are Friday’s color and the fact that almost every white person in the book except Susan and Foe is interested in him only as a slave – and even Susan and Foe use Friday as a servant, if not an outright slave. What argue against that reading are Susan’s unquestionably sincere – if ineffectual and frequently misguided – efforts to liberate Friday, the responsibility for him that she accepts (to the extent of feeling that she is his slave: “When I am rid of Friday, will I then know freedom?”[149]), and all the ambiguities of Friday’s history and status. Was he a cannibal? Who enslaved him, Arabs or Europeans? Who mutilated him, and how? Was he mutilated or born mute? Did Cruso rescue him or imprison him? Does he follow Susan by choice, by necessity, by habit, by perversity, by dullness? Does he desire freedom? Has he any desires at all? Friday is an engima in Foe, and enigmas do not serve very well as symbols, unless they are to be symbols of the unknown: For that, Friday will serve very well indeed.

Foe says that he and Susan must complete Friday’s task and descend into the undersea eye of the kraken. Susan corrects him:

……….‘Friday sailed all unwitting across a great mouth, or beak, as you called it, that stood open to devour him. It is for us to descend into the mouth (since we speak in figures). It is for us to open Friday’s mouth and hear what it holds: silence, perhaps, or a roar, like the roar of a seashell held to the ear.’ (141-42)

Susan’s elision of the great undersea mouth of the kraken and Friday’s mouth is illuminating: Friday’s mouth has held for her, from Cruso’s first revelation of its mutilation, the fascination of the abominable. Despite her protests about her inability to write, Susan Barton manages to put together for her Mr Foe a pretty fair epistolary novel, and she shows herself no tongue-tied, bashful maiden in debate either. Susan is at home in words. Even though the meaningless, unending noise of the wind in the island may drive her to seek silence beneath the sea, alogia is for her the Other, with all the simultaneous attraction and repulsion that implies. The “very secretness of his loss” (24) fascinates her, both in itself and as a sign of the “more atrocious mutilation” (119) of which she later has evidence. Friday is mute, mutilated, “unmanned” (119). His dark body conceals the secrets of the island, of Cruso, of his own origins and history. It speaks no language but itself, the irreducible, inexplicable language of what it is.

He is Other than Susan, but not in the simplistic, feminist way, as male, as dominator, as phallus. He is Other than Foe also, neither man nor woman, free nor slave, not Caliban and not Ariel. If he represents anything, it is some tertium quid, some third thing not comprehended by purely binary systems, by mere sequences of antitheses. He is not Susan’s opposite but her shadow, not Foe’s surrogate but his travesty. Friday is oxymoron. He is enigma. His dark mouth does not enunciate, does not reveal. Rather, it conceals: That is its function.

The black body of Friday functions in Foe as that text that echoes of lost islands and lost histories and lost selves.14 Neither Susan nor Foe can give voice to those losses: Nothing makes those absences present, save in their absentness. Like Friday’s tongue, they are lost forever, except that they are saved forever as absences. In the dissolving and recreating of the speaking “I” that is the emotional, logical, rhetorical, stylistic, and narrative climax of Foe, precisely those absences are brought to the fore and highlighted as the ongoingness, the outreach, the eruption out of language alone that the novel has been striving for.

Susan’s first reactions to Cruso’s island cast it as salvation; later, escape from the island was for her salvation. The laconic Cruso, she remarked, had grown indifferent to salvation (14). In one of her earlier attempts to teach and enlighten Friday, Susan offers him a kind of salvation in the telling of his story: “Is not writing a fine thing, Friday? Are you not filled with joy to know that you will live forever, after a manner?” (58). The salvation that writing offers depends crucially on words, on language, on exactly what Friday lacks. How then is Friday to be saved? Because he will be saved, he has been saved, he is here on the page being asked questions he has no way of answering (not unlike a reader questioned directly by a present-in-his-absence writer, wouldn’t you say?).

Friday may have lost his tongue but he has not lost his ears – that is what I say to myself. Through his ears Friday may yet take in the wealth stored in stories and so learn that the world is not, as the island seemed to teach him, a barren and a silent place (is that the secret meaning of the word story, do you think: a storing-place of memories?). (59)

Salvation modulates to saving modulates to storing modulates to story modulates to history modulates to herstory. Language, then, offers storage, saving, salvation. In the two – disparate? complementary? alternate? dual? specific and general? microcosmic and macrocosmic? – endings that Coetzee offers for Foe, the key action is in broad terms the same: the articulation of Friday’s silence. In the first, the unnamed “I” puts an ear to the still-living Friday’s mouth:

At first there is nothing. Then, if I can ignore the beating of my own heart, I begin to hear the faintest, faraway roar: as she [Susan] said, the roar of waves in a seashell; and over that, as if once or twice a violin-string were touched, the whine of the wind and the cry of a bird.
……….Closer I press, listening for other sounds: the chirp of sparrows, the thud of a mattock, the call of a voice.
……….From his mouth, without a breath, issue the sounds of the island. (154)

This is not human speech: no human language is articulated “without a breath,” and what are produced here are all purely the sounds of nature, and largely inanimate nature at that – wind and waves. Nevertheless, whatever they are, all are clearly intelligible and representable in human language, as they are here. Friday’s “story” is the island, pure and simple – waves on a beach, wind in the bushes, cry of a bird.

The second ending is far Other. Friday is found half-buried in sand, deep in the undersea wreck:

[T]his is not a place of words. Each syllable, as it comes out, is caught and filled with water and diffuses. This is a place where bodies are their own signs. It is the home of Friday. . . .
……….His mouth opens. From inside him comes a slow stream, without breath, without interruption. It flows up through his body and out upon me; it passes through the cabin, through the wreck; washing the cliffs and shores of the island, it runs northward and southward to the ends of the earth. Soft and cold, dark and unending, it beats against my eyelids, against the skin of my face. (157)

Neither is this human speech, nor is it translatable into discourse. In the hell where bodies are their own signs – Dante, at least, thought that was what Hell is – the only words available are bodies: untranslatable, unparaphrasable, perhaps unsavable, perhaps allegories. After all the competing or contradictory claims of Robinson Crusoe and of Foe, we come to Friday’s tale. Just as Coetzee’s narrative moved us chronologically back before the writing of Robinson Crusoe, just as his title Foe moved us historically back before the “real life” Daniel Foe added the class – and classy – prefix to his name, so this ending moves us back before the events Coetzee’s own novel narrates.

Susan Barton and her captain are here: they never left the ship, she never found the island, there never was a Cruso or a Crusoe. But there is Friday all the same, Friday the figure of silence, in the place of silence. Friday moves us back chronologically, psychologically, or ideologically before language, back to a point when sign and thing, sign and reality, coincided, when there was no language to mediate between them. What comes out of Friday’s mouth is death gas, the deadness of things in themselves, the numbing end that envelops the earth and all that is in it. That is hell. That is the place where bodies are their own signs. That is the home of Friday.

And yet, and yet: Nothing is ever unequivocal in allegory. Friday is preserved for us in language. The tool of mediation represents immediacy. There is not the slightest hint of a question of realism being involved here, though the whole movement toward this surreal ending starts in realism. The narrator, the “I,” enters the house of “Daniel DeFoe, Author” – so marked by a small plaque – as any London tourist might, then, on a landing, stumbles over the body of a girl, enters a room, sees a dead couple in bed and dead Friday in a corner, opens a dispatch box and spies papers in it – all as any London tourist might.

Bringing the candle nearer, I read the first words of the tall, looping script: ‘Dear Mr Foe, At last I could row no further.’
……….With a sigh, making barely a splash, I slip overboard. Gripped by the current, the boat bobs away, drawn south toward the realm of the whales and eternal ice. Around me on the waters are the petals cast by Friday. . . .
……….With a sigh, with barely a splash, I duck my head under the water. Hauling myself hand over hand down the trunks, I descend, petals floating around me like a rain of snowflakes. (155-56)

The sentence “At last I could row no further” is the last of the narrator’s many near-hypnotic repetitions or quasi-repetitions of the novel’s opening. It differs significantly from all the others in that it is offered as quotation, while its continuation (“With a sigh, making barely a splash, etc.”) is presented as the words of the now-present “I” – that is, the words of somebody other than the Susan Barton we have read all through the earlier parts of the novel.

After all, this “I” has just seen Susan Barton dead, lying beside the dead Foe, and has just read the opening of Susan Barton’s manuscript. It is problematic whether this final “I” is another, recreated, reintegrated version of Susan Barton or a novelistic projection of J. M. Coetzee imagining Susan Barton or some other entity entirely: The point is, rather, I think, that we have “crossed over,” entered another space, entered the precincts of the Other.

Modern allegory strives to create a language, a polywog space, that is neither/between/both semiosis and mimesis, nominalism and realism, the “true names” of things and the signs of them. This final “I” may well be the phantom of Susan Barton revisiting the memory of Susan Barton, the ghost of Susan as she exists and has always existed in the mind of the author – in which sense this and every other novel is well and truly ghost-written.

Whatever she may be, Coetzee’s text presents us with a palpably unrealistic, overtly implausible situation, one that – as a conclusion especially – resolves nothing and problematizes everything. It is a conclusion that can only work in literature and for literature (a wicked category these days, one that correct thought would not allow to exist) and that thereby implicitly claims for literature specifically – perhaps for language generally – a special status, and exemption from the ordinary rules of evidence and behavior.

The fact that it works, that the novel is wonderful and the conclusion deeply satisfying, is the novel’s own argument of the correctness of its vision and its premises. Language’s choices are not simply between mimesis and semiosis, Defoe’s version of the island or Susan’s. If poetry is more than just poets, language is more than the theories of it. However language may in fact work – and here it seems to straddle semiosis and mimesis, nominalism and realism, structuralism and post-structuralism, as comfortably as Susan rode Foe – language functions with remarkable efficiency as exactly what this novel suggests it is: storage, saving, salvation. Foe illustrates this quite simply. After all the alternations and conflicts of history and herstory, after all the theoretical considerations of what language is and does, after all the unresolvable contradictions wherein allegory resides, what survives at the end of Foe is – quite simply – story. That endures, whatever we may say about it.


These four essays contain material that I moved out of the body of the book because they diverted focus from the main thrust of my argument. I am nevertheless publishing them here because they cover texts and points of view that I found interesting in themselves and ancillary to my main exploration of allegory.

The first, Frederic Jameson versus Lord Jim, covers some of the major points of my differences with Jameson’s very influential take on that Conrad novel.

Print Appendix 1

The second, The Novel as Polylogue, discusses questions raised by feminist criticism, most specifically that of Julia Kristeva. It uses J. M. Coetzee’s fascinating novel Foe as its case in point.

Print Appendix 2

The third, The Satyricon: No Text, Context, Pre-text, attempts to come to terms with Petronius’s picaresque-before-its-time narrative. I originally approached this text thinking it might be an allegory and finally persuaded myself it wasn’t, but found the whole investigation so intriguing that I couldn’t bear to just file it away, so here it is.

Print Appendix 3


.The fourth, Joseph Andrews: Where Allegory First Meets the Modern World, I found intriguing because of that novel’s reproduction in miniature of so many of the concerns of allegory at large. It also figures importantly in my imagination because of its chronological position as a sort of hinge between medieval allegory and what becomes of it in the modern world. Many of the foci of this study animate this short – and terribly underestimated – novel.

Print Appendix 4

Appendix 1:  Frederic Jameson versus Lord Jim

 In any discussion of Lord Jim, Frederic Jameson1 is an unavoidable presence. I was strongly tempted to write most of my account of the novel as a metacommentary – to use Jameson’s own word – on his metacommentary on Lord Jim, so perceptively has he analyzed and presented the difficulties and tensions of Conrad’s text, and so obtusely has he interpreted them.

Jameson’s perceptions and analyses are limited only by his own formidable intelligence, and hence tend to be acute, while his interpretive acts are limited by the rigidities of his presuppositions. He understands interpretation “as an essentially allegorical act, which consists in rewriting a given text in terms of a particular interpretive master code” (10) – i.e., what he calls interpretation is what I call allegoresis, and that, in the completely reductive way he thinks of it, amounts to simple cipher substitution, the most mechanical sort of code-breaking.

For him, Marxism is the transcendent viewpoint that totalizes all other approaches, so the proper interpretation of Lord Jim has to yield the predictable socio-political lessons he finds in it. I have already had enough to say about cipher-substitution as an interpretive method not to beat that horse again. Let it suffice at this point to say that I do not quarrel with Jameson’s ability to deduce his conclusions from Conrad’s text, but I utterly reject them as any kind of interpretation of Lord Jim, and certainly not a definitive one. They are one set of competing possibilities among many, and not the most central or most persuasive by far.

Jameson nicely lists a variety of approaches to the novel (208-209), beginning with:

the ‘romance’ or mass-cultural reading of Conrad as a writer of adventure tales, sea narratives, and ‘popular’ yarns; and

the stylistic analysis of Conrad as a practitioner of what we will shortly term a properly ‘impressionistic’ will to style

and moving on to “other influential kinds of readings”:

the myth-critical, for instance, in which Nostromo is seen as the articulation of the archetype of buried treasure;

the Freudian, in which the failure of Oedipal resolution is ratified by the grisly ritual execution of Conrad’s two son-heroes (Jim and Nostromo) by their spiritual fathers;

the ethical, in which Conrad’s texts are taken literally as books which raise the ‘issues’ of heroism and courage, of honor and cowardice;

the ego-psychological, in which the story of Jim is interpreted as the search for identity or psychic unity;

the existential, in which the omnipresent themes of the meaninglessness and absurdity of human existence are foregrounded as ‘message’

and finally, more formidable than any of these, the Nietzschean reading of Conrad’s political vision as a struggle against ressentiment,

and the structuralist-textual reading of Conrad’s form as an immanent dramatization of the impossibility of narrative beginnings and as the increasing reflexivity and problematization of linear narrative itself.”

 To this list we should also add Jameson’s own interpretation of the novel, which – he claims – supercedes and indeed either includes or precludes all the others: that the “aestheticizing strategy” (230) of Conrad’s prose effectually disguises the real content of the work, an “examination of what an act and what a temporal instant really are” (262), and that:

Conrad’s work finally becomes contiguous to the elaborate presentation and self-questioning of the British aristocratic bureaucracy in Ford’s Parade’s End, and uses much the same anecdotal form of social scandal to deconceal social institutions otherwise imperceptible to the naked eye. In both works, therefore, the existential ‘extreme situation’ (the Patna’s bulkhead, World War I) is less a laboratory experiment designed to expose the inner articulation of the act and of the instant than the precondition for the revelation of the texture of ideology.” (265)

The texture of ideology, of course, is what Jameson is really interested in. For all his perceptiveness about Conrad’s language, Jameson’s analyses display the same classic signs of flight from the text that personification readings of The Faerie Queene exhibit. For example: Conrad’s single paragraph describing the pilgrims boarding the Patna “urged by faith and the hope of paradise,” leaving their homes “at the call of an idea” (Lord Jim, 13)2, elicits from Jameson a 12-paragraph, 9-page excursus, ostensibly on “Conrad’s discourse” (245).

This begins with the mind-bending observation that Conrad’s choice of narrative detail here – i.e., Islamic pilgrims rather than any other passengers – “has a substantive meaning in its own right, which is constitutive for the text” (Jameson, 246). Can this really be news to anybody? It is a point so obvious as not to even need remark. This does not deter Jameson, who then moves through “the nineteenth-century ideologeme of aesthetic religion,” with mentions of Chateaubriand, Flaubert, Renan, and Malraux, before settling on Max Weber’s Sociology of Religion (247-248). From there (that is only the third paragraph), Jameson takes us to Marx, Max Scheler, and Karl Manheim, and a discussion of the separation of value from work and the commodification of labor, the experience of meaninglessness and nostalgia for the sacred, and from there finally back to Lord Jim, where, with one final excursus into Lukacs’ Theory of the Novel, “we may now reinvest the language of Lord Jim with something like its original ideological and semantic content” and learn that the phrase “the call of an idea” serves as one counter in a four-cornered opposition of activity and value, not-value and not-activity.

This whole section, including its diagram, seems remarkably close to the kind of rigidly exclusionist thinking Oedipa Maas gets trapped in when she falls into the language of the Aristotelean and scholastic square of logical opposition. Insofar as any of what Jameson says is true, it is also self-evident in Conrad’s textual contrast of degraded Western crew and devoted Eastern pilgrims. What Jameson completely misses in the passage is the significant figurative joining of the pilgrims in their faith to the sea itself, an object and image that he elsewhere in his essay makes much of, to very little point.

In a similar manner, Jameson connects Jim’s leap from the Patna into the lifeboat with his earlier – in school – failure to leap into the boat and consequent non-participation in the rescue. He does not, oddly enough, connect either of those jumps with Jim’s leaps out of a boat and onto the riverbank at his entrance into Patusan (176) or out of Rajah Allang’s stockade. In fact, he seems to conflate that last-named act with Jim’s storming Sharif Ali’s stronghold, and so describes Jim as escaping from the stockade by climbing it (257). Nor does he connect the other half of the act, entering the boat, with Jim’s initial passage by boat into Patusan (175) or his final passage by boat from his own home to accept Doramin’s justice (298).

After his leap out of the stockade and his subsequent leap over the creek, Jim seeks refuge with Doramin (183). One could argue that the gestalt of the narrative topos makes his final arrival at Doramin’s by boat (near the end of the Patusan portion of the novel, to accept Doramin’s judgment upon him for the death of Dain Waris) the completion of that leap that extricated him from the stockade.  All this parallels, in the earlier half of the novel, the way Jim’s jump from the Patna culminated in the subsequent trial and judgment that complete the action of that leap. All of these refracted actions affect each other’s significance in the same way that the various narrative topoi of The Faerie Queene modify, laminate, and illuminate each other’s meaning.

I could give more examples, but my point should be clear: simply too much is left out of Jameson’s verbose lucubrations for any of them to serve as a reading of Lord Jim. If they are offered simply as one reader’s (Marxist) meditations on the novel, that is one thing, and readers may make of that what they will – but if they are offered as an interpretation of the novel, that is another very different thing, and a very erroneous, misleading thing at that.



Chapter 9: After Word


Pynchon’s congeries of ritual and comedy, mystery story and Mystery play, religious language and secular fact – in short, the whole complex of strange attractors that creates the intellectual currents and eddies of The Crying of Lot 49 – returns our pilgrimage through allegory to its earliest roots and uses. Allegory serves as a veil to hide deep truths, holy secrets, mysteries, from the eyes and ears of the profane. Jesus recounts the parable of the sower and concludes: “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear” (Matthew 13.9). Why do you speak in parables (Vulgate, parabolas), the disciples ask him. Jesus responds:

Because it is given unto you to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but unto them it is not given. . . . Therefore spake I to them in parables, because they seeing, do not see: and hearing, they hear not, neither understand. . . . For this people’s heart is waxed fat, and their ears dull of hearing, and with their eyes they have winked, lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their hearts. (13.11-15)

Jesus’s language is parabolical rather than straightforward precisely so that its meaning may stand in plain view and yet remain unknown. It is revelation garbed as apocalypse, the overt hidden and displayed within the covert. The knowledge reserved for the elect is reserved – preserved secret and separate even as it is published – by virtue of their ability to hear and understand, to see and perceive. What constitutes the thickest veil of allegory’s meaning is the predictable laziness and obtuseness of most of its audience, “waxed fat . . . and dull of hearing.” The complacency of an audience that knows it already knows it all blocks the reception of the new gospel: Jesus has no more need for undercover work than allegory does for the standard devices of figuration. The simplest of indirections – parables, parallels, byways, curves and arcs and leaps of language – constitute misdirections for an audience predetermined to hear only what it already knows and to read only what it expects to read.

In the realm of allegory as in the realm of religious mystery, indirection does the work of misdirection, and apparent communication amounts to miscommunication, and it does so just as deliberately as in Jesus’s seemingly transparent parables. Allegory is unabashedly an elitist mode: who has ears to hear, let him hear; the rest of you, get out. The epiphany comes to the reader prepared for it, the reader who is “in the know,” who speaks the language – and the language is ordinary language, which everyone speaks. Its very ordinariness is its disguise. The allegorical text does not distinguish itself at the outset from any other text. It wears no sign that says “Allegory: Read Me Other Wise.” At the beginning, its devices and figures, its style and diction, seem no different from any other text’s: nothing intrinsic to them but, rather, what it does with those elements makes a text an allegory.

Allegory creates itself in operation: like pure negativity, it is not an entity in itself but a process, an action whereby old meaning – expected, conventional, predictable, safe – is evacuated and room is prepared for new meaning or new meanings.1 What is crucially important to recognize is that this is not accomplished by any special means or any devices unique to allegory. All the devices of conventional rhetoric and conventional figuration stock allegory’s arsenal – but no more than that. Allegory has no secret weapon. Indeed, in a very profound sense allegory has no secrets at all. Everything is in plain view, just as it is at the opening of The Faerie Queene – and just like Red Crosse Knight and Una, most readers flee from the plain into the shadowy coils of errancy and error. The flight from the plain statements of the allegorical text is understandable. Allegory is contrary: what it plainly says all too often contradicts our received notions of the way books are supposed to work. It flies in the face of our conventional readerly expectations. Dante the Pilgrim and Red Crosse Knight should be personifications. The meaning of Heart of Darkness ought to be inside and paraphrasable, a message for us to take back outside the text and display as our trophy: See? I read it – I got it!

In all other forms of speech and writing – save the lie – language and figures of speech work to clarify meaning, to fix it and intensify it, to underline it and call attention to it, to present it forcefully or significantly or movingly. Only allegory runs counter to all the rhetorical uses of language and opposes the primary purpose of rhetorical figuration. Only allegory uses all the tools of figuration and all the disingenuity of plain speech to conceal meaning, to hold it back, to make the auditor and audience work for it.

Only by watching the simple words of allegory with the intensity and patience and receptiveness of a secularized via negativa can one see the transformation by which a novel or a poem or a play becomes an allegory – in part, because it only becomes an allegory in the reader, when the reader has at last learned enough of its language to be “in the know” – and in part too because the qualitative change that metamorphoses ordinary language into allegory results from simple quantitative changes, from the sheer accumulation of conventional figuration (and disfiguration), from the piling up of metaphors and images and attractors until they achieve a kind of linguistic and intellectual critical mass, a conglomeration of data and linkages that superinforms the language, defeats the simple-minded cipher-substitutions of conventional criticism, and produces – intellectually and verbally – simultaneous fission and fusion, connection and separation, explication and complication, clarification and obfuscation. At that moment, in the ebb and flow of that dual activity, in the reader and in the text, allegory comes into being.

Allegory comes into being at that point as a metalanguage or paralanguage contained within and surrounding, penetrating, pervading ordinary language and conventional literary language. Allegory transforms its own medium, re-natures it as an immedium. This means that there exist, simultaneously and apparently indistinguishably (in micro, at least) two radically different modes of literary figuration. Conventional literary figuration (the sorts of metaphor and symbol that animate, for instance, most of Wordsworth and Coleridge), is roughly consonant with other modes of discourse, at least insofar as its aims and general methods are concerned. No matter how conscious it may be of the slipperiness and multivalency of words, such figuration works to formulate meaning, no matter how complex or subtle, to fix significance, to emphasize and clarify. It does so by empowering quotidian language, exploiting the nuances and ambiguities of words, linking the familiar with the unfamiliar. All that is within the ken of ordinary language and of “discourses” as diverse as poetry and philosophy and history, fiction and advertising. This kind of figuration depends upon, in fact presupposes, a tacit contract, an agreement between text and reader or speaker and interlocutor, that both are speaking the same language. That basic bond functions as the least common denominator and the glue that holds such discourse together: its banner and motto and war-cry is the semi-punctuational “You know what I mean?” of everyday speech.

That is the mode of figuration, familiar and unchallenging, from which most allegories begin and which, characteristically, they very quickly subvert and undo. Allegories start by showing that they are speaking another language, the language of Other, and that “speaking the same language” is merely the veil that conceals them. The radically different figuration of allegory, of which this study is only the shallowest scratching of the surface, impoverishes language to enrich it, disfigures it to energize its (fictitious) factuality, overcharges language with referentiality to render it paradoxically but effectively immediate, while at the same time using all the uncertainties introduced by mediation not to whittle away meaning but to increase it, to hyper-enrich the informational load that words can embody. Its banner depicts a muted post horn.

For all that allegory does to and with texts, to and with language, allegory is not and never can be a purely textual or linguistic matter. Texts are the material cause of allegory; readers are its final cause. Allegories are embodied in texts potentially and actualized in readers when all of each allegory’s data and linguistic manipulations, all its strange attractors and verbal figurations and disfigurations, coalesce in moment of understanding and comprehension in the mind of a participatory reader. Until that point, allegory is merely latent, a possibility, at most a process, awaiting the consciousness that will – and can – activate it.

When that consciousness approaches, when it empowers the allegory to come into being, it effects a fusion and fission of its own, and what it brings back “to the world” from the allegory is no message but a perception, a view: a worldview, a gestalt perhaps, but more a sense of the way things fit together, a sense of different patterns and shapes “in the world” than were perceived before that reader’s consciousness “entered” the book. The mind that has passed through allegory, that has participated in allegory, is changed by allegory, and it returns to itself different from what it was, like a book’s hero after a long and arduous journey. In a manner of speaking, it returns almost home.

At the end of the most recent modern allegory, Vineland, after Prairie has won back her mother and her family, she ritually re-enters the forest, seeking vision, awaiting a visitation from the spirit of Brock Vond, the disruptive lover of her mother, whose shade, like those of The Odyssey’s unwelcome suitors, has already been conducted to the underworld. In some of Pynchon’s loveliest, most magical prose, Prairie drifts to sleep:

The small meadow shimmered in the starlight, and her promises grew more extravagant as she drifted into the lucid thin layer of waking dreaming, her flirting more obvious – then she’d wake, alert to some step in the woods, some brief bloom of light in the sky, back and forth for a while between Brock fantasies and the silent darkened silver images all around her, before settling down into sleep, sleeping then unvisited till around dawn, with fog still in the hollows, deer and cows grazing together in the meadow, sun blinding in the cobwebs on the wet grass, a redtail hawk in an updraft soaring above the ridgeline, Sunday morning about to unfold, when Prairie woke to a warm and persistent tongue all over her face. It was Desmond, none other, the spit and image of his grandmother Chloe, roughened by the miles, face full of blue-jay feathers, smiling out of his eyes, wagging his tail, thinking he must be home.

Much that Vineland has long ago set in motion converges on this moment: themes of identity and its discontinuities, of inheritance and its losses, history and its repetitions and changes, gender and its mutations, as well as narrative and ideological attractors as various as all the novel’s Odyssey parallels and differences, and all its play with Ulysses too, and all the grade-B Lassie movies that underlie it – Odysseus awaking to find himself returned to Ithaca, his faithful dog Argus’s recognition and pathetic death, Molly Bloom’s erotic night-time reverie and remembrance, Lassie tracking down her family over hundreds of miles, the book’s persistent animism (everything lives in Vineland) and especially its persistent, serio-comic anthropomorphization of Desmond the dog, grandson of Chloe (and Daphnis?), who closes the book for us, “thinking he must be home.”

He isn’t, of course, and neither are we. Allegory doesn’t let us “go home” again, not to things as they were. We can return from allegory; we can withdraw from the text; but when we turn back from it to ourselves, we will find – as Desmond will too – that “home” has changed. Just as it is for Odysseus, the price of our nostos is – entre nous – a new nous. We have been initiated: we can hear and see now. We can reclaim our names from the Witness Protection Program or from Polyphemos’s curse or Hera’s wrath – but the egos those names cover have been changed, changed utterly by immersion in allegory, in undifferentiatedness. Allegory makes us, however briefly, Other – and that experience, I hope you now see, is not the goal but the origin of allegory.


“What language was that?” I said to Melanie.
“He makes it up,” she said. “He likes the effect of subtitles. In his book, The Flickering, he says that under our ordinary speech there are always invisible subtitles in an unknown tongue.”
……….Russel Hoban, The Medusa Frequency
Viola: Thy reason, man?
Feste: Troth, sir, I can yield you none without words; and words are grown so false, I am loath to prove reason with them.
……….Twelfth Night, III.i.25ff
As a rule, however, theoretical controversy is unfruitful. No sooner has one begun to depart from the material on which one ought to be relying, than one runs the risk of becoming intoxicated with one’s own assertions and, in the end, of supporting opinions which any observation would have contradicted. For this reason it seems to me to be incomparably more useful to combat dissentient interpretations by testing them upon particular cases and problems.
……….Sigmund Freud, The History of an Infantile Neurosis
George: Or rather, the words betray the thoughts they are supposed to express. Even the most generalized truth begins to look like special pleading as soon as you trap it in language.
……….Tom Stoppard, Jumpers
I know what I said, and I did not say that.
……….Hank Williams, Jr., “Big Mamou”

Chapter 8:  Sabbath

Here are two quotations that pose, in very different ways, problems of borders crossed and realities confused.

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint: now, ‘tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
……….Epilogue, The Tempest

……….The father was huddled in a shellhole on the steep cliffs of the Anzac beachhead, Turkish shrapnel flying all over the place. Neither Baby Igor nor Murray the dog were in evidence. “Now what the hell,” said Oedipa.
……….“Golly,” Metzger said, “they must have got the reels screwed up.”
……….“Is this before or after?” she asked, reaching for the tequila bottle, a move that put her left breast in the region of Metzger’s nose. The irrepressibly comic Metzger made crosseyes before replying.
          The Crying of Lot 491

Closure in allegory is no less problematic and no less rich than opening. Closure, after all, is just another form of enclosure, and allegory resists it as insistently as it opposes any other sort of limit. In Prospero’s final speech, the facts of the stage and the “facts” of the drama merge completely to make his statements literal and metaphoric, exact and figurative, at the same time in the same words. The actor will be trapped in the role, the mage fixed on the “bare island” of the stage, unless the audience accepts the magical power thrust outward to them from that stage and uses it to intervene in the action, ending the game by entering it, reproducing Prospero’s magical gestures to free the actor trapped inside Prospero as Ariel was trapped in the tree, turning the play of the play into the earnest of “real life,” granting indulgence “As you from crimes would pardon’d be.” The audience extends the action of the play outside the play and the stage by replicating the actions of Prospero on the stage. The Tempest doesn’t close so much as it opens, spills over into its audience and makes that audience complicitous in its actions – as in fact the audience has been at least from the moment in the second scene when Prospero told Miranda, and reminded us, that everything we see on that stage is an illusion that “convinces” us only because we conspire with it. Prospero’s epilogue is no afterthought but the logical, the allegorically necessary, opening out of The Tempest into the wide world of journeys and storms the audience inhabits.


Indeed, allegorical closure is usually just such a form of opening: characteristically, allegories simply stop rather than close, and they stop by enacting their ontological openness rather than their textual containment. They break the confines of whatever super-form or meta-form has seemed to hold them. In the final analysis, allegories cease to exist as words on a page in order to – and because they have – come into existence as a gestalt in their reader. Mimesis and its shifts – the jump from acting to enactment, reading or seeing to participating – create and are created by allegory and its discontinuities. One could make a strong case for allegory’s arising from and by discontinuities of the very sort that conventional narrative and conventional notions of narrative or history or logic will not tolerate. Pynchon’s marvelous juxtapositions of disparate acts and discrete orders of being in The Crying of Lot 49 illustrates such discontinuities and disjunctions clearly: even in so small a fragment of the work as the few lines quoted above, the anti-logical, anti-sequential intersections of sex and soap opera, historical events and personal losses, public and private, past and present, events and their representation produce not merely comedy but the conflation of what we normally regard as separate levels or versions of reality.

Aspects of reality that we normally accept as equally “true” but that we keep separate, compartmentalized, crash together in Pynchon’s prose with disorienting impact. Even when we view the phenomena in question – for example, the sexual drive and the comic urge – as continuous even though separate, like color bands in a spectrum, or separate and ranked, hierarchical, in the manner of steps on a ladder, their forced collocation, their enjambment, in fiction has the same disordering effect upon the reader. It enacts in prose boundaries crossed and proprieties violated, expectations upset, with consequent shattering of the conventional readerly relation to the text – which is exactly why allegory uses the technique. Allegory jumps intervening steps and shades to juxtapose extremities: the events in Baby Igor’s grade-Z, World War I movie – themselves already at a remove from the historical events they draw on (“I know this part,” Metzger told her, his eyes squeezed shut, head away from the set. “For fifty yards out the sea was red with blood. They don’t show that.” [35]) – actually affect the actions of Metzger (formerly Baby Igor) and Oedipa in the present. The sequential and narrative discontinuities enacted epigrammatically by the jumbling of reels (reals) in the Baby Igor film both mirror and anticipate the narrative, logical, and sequential discontinuities in which Oedipa here participates and in which she – and we – will wander for the rest of the novel. She – and we – will become an Ariadne who has lost the thread, trying to figure out the pattern of the labyrinth in order to make sense of it and get out of it.

Allegory as a form or mode or genre – whichever it may be – takes as its most fundamental assumption the reality of a multiplex, multivalent universe. It accepts even the possibility that that convolute universe is ultimately patternless, or at best so vast and so intricate as to overflow the human mind. And as its second most important assumption (you can reverse the priorities if you like), allegory posits the co-equal reality of the human mind’s propensity for pattern-finding or pattern-making. So in embodying and reflecting the universes in which they transpire, allegories often make themselves into a gestalt or incorporate significant gestalts within themselves. Every gestalt requires three things: enough data to make a pattern or patterns possible; enough lacunae to make any single pattern evitable; and a mind to perceive or create a pattern or patterns. Unlike other kinds of writing whose formal structures and patterns of imagery or figuration exist “objectively” – i.e., as factual elements of a text, as constructs of language and images without lacunae – allegory creates its most significant structures “subjectively,” in the minds of its readers. More conventional forms of literature cannot afford the gestalt-gaps and discontinuities that allegory builds on because they are striving after what Deconstruction denounces as “the teleology of controlled meaning.” Allegory is not so striving, though it is much more ambitious. In the finite system that is any literary text, allegory creates the possibility of infinite variation, infinite signification, by its constant inclusion of the single most powerful variable available to it: its reader.

Discontinuities are the heart of allegory and its seedbed. Discontinuities, aporia, lacunae, gaps, holes, disparities, misfits, incommensurabilities, inappropriatenesses, indecorums, irregularities, illegalities, incongruities, illogicalities, irrationalities, contrary-to-fact conditions, impossibilities, paradoxes, ironies, allegories: they arise out of and create each other. Typically, even in their barest littera, allegories engage the actions of opening, disclosing, enlarging, freeing, moving on. Allegories tend to be written at those historical junctures when the world-as-it-is-perceived-to-be no longer meshes with the available descriptions (or prescriptions) of the world-as-it-is-supposed-to-be, which is one of the reasons that a criticism that is only historically driven or historically determined can never fully comprehend them. Like St. Paul reviewing the Torah, such criticism refuses to recognize gaps and discontinuities. Rather, like Paul, it disguises them as transmissions and inheritances. Contrarily, allegory focuses itself and us precisely on the gaps in the transmission, on what is left out of the heritage. Allegory wants to lead us into the free spaces between the dots and dashes of preordained codes, into that open, unstructured indeterminacy that Pynchon will image, in The Crying of Lot 49 and in Gravity’s Rainbow, as dt, the nanosecond in which change takes place.

So strong is the readerly tendency to resist allegorical openness that it can make whole generations of readers – strong readers as well as weak, appreciators as well as agonists – simply look past obvious gaps and disparities in search of a putative and highly suspect regularity and/or orthodoxy. Where is the whole body of the medieval church and what is its role in Dante’s salvation? Where is all the praise of prudence that criticism has imagined in Joseph Andrews? The closer one looks at even a marginally allegorical text such as Fielding’s first novel, the more one sees incommensurabilities masquerading as narrative cohesion. Putting aside for a moment the large-scale alterations of narrative mode that sharply distinguish book from book in Joseph Andrews,2 consider only the incongruities and utter, bald, artificiality of the interpolated tales of “Leonora, or the Unfortunate Jilt,” and of Leonard and Paul, or of Adams’s and Wilson’s midnight symposium on The Iliad, or even of the argument of the poet and the player. These are only the formal disparities that the novel incorporates, and indeed only the largest-scale examples of those: such incongruities and indecorums continue down to the minutest levels of style and paragraph structure.

Of course most such elements and events can be accounted for, can be made to fit: that has always been the principal endeavor of conventional criticism in this and similar cases. But such apologetic efforts ignore – as most criticism has continuously chosen to do – the most glaring characteristic of elements like these, which is their misfit, their inappropriateness. In an author like Fielding, who knew his Aeschylus and his Aristotle at least as well his characters do, these “failures” of basic plot unity are egregious – as they are meant to be. They are there to shock us out of our readerly lethargy and to prod us out of our safe patterns and to shove us willy-nilly into the freedom of the structureless void, where only our own energetic efforts to understand can create new patterns to replace the exploded old ones. “The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up.”3


Lord Jim incarnates a paradigm of the lacunate allegorical text, a narrative shot through with rents and fissures in continuity and point of view, fragments of fictional perspective encapsulating a crucial central void, which is Jim’s apparent – apparent because never actually narrated – jump from the Patna. As Frederic Jameson so acutely remarks in his landmark essay on Lord Jim, Conrad’s novel is:

a privileged text in this respect – a kind of reflexive or meta-text – in that its narrative construes the “event” as the analysis and dissolution of events in some more common everyday naive sense. The “event” in Lord Jim is the analysis and dissolution of the event. . . . We have understood very little about this narrative unless we have come to realize that even that “real story” itself is for Conrad hollow and empty, and that there is a void at the heart of events and acts in this work which goes well beyond simple anecdotal mystification.4

Even in its largest structures, Lord Jim is fissured, divided between the Patna and Patusan stories, fragmented into detective story and adventure story, popular romance and high literature. The interpretations fostered by those differing and often antagonistic elements of Conrad’s text are equally varied and antagonistic. Jameson concisely categorizes and describes them for us:

[T]he “romance” or mass-cultural reading of Conrad as a writer of adventure tales, sea narratives, and “popular” yarns; and the stylistic analysis of Conrad as a practitioner of what we will shortly term a properly “impressionistic” will to style. . . . we can distinguish other influential kinds of readings: the myth-critical, for instance, in which Nostromo is seen as the articulation of the archetype of buried treasure; the Freudian, in which the failure of Oedipal resolution is ratified by the grisly ritual execution of Conrad’s two son-heroes (Jim and Nostromo) by their spiritual fathers; the ethical, in which Conrad’s texts are taken literally as books which raise the “issues” of heroism and courage, of honor and cowardice; the ego-psychological, in which the story of Jim is interpreted as the search for identity or psychic unity; the existential, in which the omnipresent themes of the meaninglessness and absurdity of human existence are foregrounded as “message” and as “world-view”; and finally, more formidable than any of these, the Nietzschean reading of Conrad’s political vision as a struggle against ressentiment, and the structuralist-textual reading of Conrad’s form as an immanent dramatization of the impossibility of narrative beginnings and as the increasing reflexivity and problematization of linear narrative itself. (208-209)

To this list we should also add Jameson’s own interpretation of the novel, which – he claims – supercedes and indeed either includes or precludes all the others: that the “aestheticizing strategy” (230) of Conrad’s prose works to disguise the real content of the work, an “examination of what an act and what a temporal instant really are” (262), and that

Conrad’s work finally becomes contiguous to the elaborate presentation and self-questioning of the British aristocratic bureaucracy in Ford’s Parade’s End, and uses much the same anecdotal form of social scandal to deconceal social institutions otherwise imperceptible to the naked eye. In both works, therefore, the existential ‘extreme situation’ (the Patna’s bulkhead, World War I) is less a laboratory experiment designed to expose the inner articulation of the act and of the instant than the precondition for the revelation of the texture of ideology. (265)

Clearly, no one ever accused Jameson’s prose of an esthetizing strategy. The “texture of ideology” seems – and is – far removed from the texture of Conrad’s prose, and Jameson’s comments on that prose are often – too often – also at a far remove from its details. For instance: Jameson’s remarks on the episode of Jim’s escape from Rajah Allang’s stockade focus on “the inner structure of this event” (257), which for him is revealed in Jim’s maintaining that in the midst of it all “he slept – perhaps for a minute, perhaps for twenty seconds, or only for one second” (Lord Jim, 183). Jameson construes this whole section in the light of this brief oblivion and uses it as springboard for a meditation on time and on the existential absence of “any irreducible temporal present or presence at the heart of a project” (259). The “act itself suddenly yawns and discloses at its heart a void which is at one with the temporary extinction of the subject” (260).

Now, this is an interesting extrapolation from Conrad’s text, and is even, in the particular of Jim’s falling asleep, compatible with it. But it itself enacts a “temporary extinction of the subject”: It is not a reading of Conrad’s text, certainly not in its entirety. What happened to all the other particulars of the episode, the facts of the compound, the geography of the escape, Jim’s specific actions? None of these is adequately accounted for, and several are not even mentioned. Jameson’s exegesis reads parts of the episode well enough. The emphasis on time is certainly there; after all, Jim is repairing a clock just before he makes his escape. And the void is there, if you are willing to take Jim’s falling asleep for a moment as “the extinction of the subject.” But does that observation, even in Jameson’s terms, explain the inner structure of the event? I say not, for the simple reason that it leaves too much out – as must every ideologically bounded reading of Lord Jim, or of any other text worth bothering with.

We need to have the episode in its entirety before us. Jim is being detained in Rajah Allang’s stockade, and has been there apparently for several days.

They did actually bring out to him a nickel clock of New England make, and out of sheer unbearable boredom he busied himself in trying to get the alarum to work. It was apparently when thus occupied in his shed that the true perception of his extreme peril dawned upon him. He dropped the thing – he says – ‘like a hot potato,’ and walked out hastily, without the slightest idea of what he would, or indeed could, do. He only knew that the position was intolerable. He strolled aimlessly beyond a sort of ramshackle little granary on posts, and his eyes fell on the broken stakes of the palisade; and then – he says – at once, without any mental process as it were, without any stir of emotion, he set about his escape as if executing a plan matured for a month. He walked off carelessly to give himself a good run, and when he faced about there was some dignitary, with two spearmen in attendance, close at his elbow ready with a question. He started off ‘from under his very nose,’ went over ‘like a bird,’ and landed on the other side with a fall that jarred all his bones and seemed to split his head. He picked himself up instantly. He never thought of anything at the time; all he could remember – he said – was a great yell; the first houses of Patusan were before him four hundred yards away; he saw the creek, and as it were mechanically put on more pace. The earth seemed fairly to fly backwards under his feet. He took off from the last dry spot, felt himself flying through the air, felt himself, without any shock, planted upright in an extremely soft and sticky mudbank. . . . The higher firm ground was about six feet in front of him. “I thought I would have to die there all the same,’ he said. He reached and grabbed desperately with his hands, and only succeeded in gathering a horrible cold shiny heap of slime against his breast – up to his very chin. It seemed to him he was burying himself alive, and then he struck out madly, scattering the mud with his fists. It fell on his head, on his face, over his eyes, into his mouth. He told me that he remembered suddenly the courtyard, as you remember a place where you had been very happy years ago. He longed – so he said – to be back there again, mending the clock. Mending the clock – that was the idea. He made efforts, tremendous sobbing, gasping efforts, efforts that seemed to burst his eyeballs in their sockets and make him blind, and culminating into one mighty supreme effort in the darkness to crack the earth asunder, to throw it off his limbs – and he felt himself creeping feebly up the bank. He lay full length on the firm ground and saw the light, the sky. Then as a sort of happy thought the notion came to him that he would go to sleep. He will have that he did actually go to sleep; that he slept – perhaps for a minute, perhaps for twenty seconds, or only for one second, but he recollects distinctly the violent convulsive start of awakening. He remained lying still for a while, and then he arose muddy from head to foot and stood there, thinking he was alone of his kind for hundreds of miles, alone, with no help, no sympathy, no pity to expect from anyone, like a hunted animal. (181-183)

Jim’s escape from Rajah Allang’s stockade is an extraordinarily dense episode. Where to begin with it? Let us start with the clock: “Mending the clock – that was the idea.” In its most literal manifestation, the broken “nickel clock of New England make” serves as a crystalline Conradian objective correlative, summing up Jim’s situation: he lives in suspended animation, pacing Rajah Allang’s stockade, doing nothing, killing time. He has passed outside the sphere of the mechanized world, the Western world of clock time and the worked metal objects – like the clock, like the Patna’s bulkhead – that measure and contain lives.

Jim lives in stopped time and has so lived, ever since he jumped from the Patna – a jump he cannot remember (“‘I had jumped’. . . He checked himself, averted his gaze . . . ‘It seems,’ he added.” 81). Here, after his flying leap over the stockade fence, he briefly falls asleep – that is, into a void, which like the central void of his moment of jumping from the Patna defines the missing subject at the center of Conrad’s narrative. The moment that is present in its absence, whose presence is an absence; the arc of the leap that bears the jumper across orders of being, across lives; the stopped time of broken faith and abandoned duty, of opportunity missed, of hesitations forestalling action, and of thinking freezing the thinker and the moment – all these can be released only by a movement out of time entirely, a passage out of the fixed present moment of clock time and into a different sort of timelessness, an absence of time marked by an absence of self-consciousness, an absence of reflexiveness, and an absence of Westerners.

The step-by-step and largely inadvertent pilgrimage that Jim makes in answer to his exacting faith takes him counter to the movement of time and the sun, eastward to beginnings and to the dawn of time, of human time at any rate, back to a Homeric world and out of the world of Shakespeare – “The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,/ That ever I was born to set it right” – whose Hamlet has haunted the pages of Lord Jim at least since Stein started paraphrasing key bits of it (“This wonder; this masterpiece of Nature. . . . Man is amazing, but he is not a masterpiece” [149]; “How to be!  Ach! How to be” [153]). Jim moves back before interiority and before self-consciousness, if you will, before the soliloquy and the interior monologue, to a world where ideas come to one seemingly from the outside, “without any mental process as it were.”

At the same time, that world is – is, not figures – those mental processes. Like the Homeric world it mimics, Conrad’s Patusan and Conrad’s prose actively and insistently “foreground” everything, externalize interior acts.5 Figuration and its submerged meanings, its implied “insides” of language and ideas and persons, come earlier in the novel, in the world of clock time and incontrovertible facts.  Back then, at the trial, Jim cannot externalize his thoughts, cannot say what he means, and his interior reality can only be described figuratively:

The facts these men were so eager to know had been visible, tangible, open to the senses, occupying their place in space and time. . . . and something else besides, something invisible, a directing spirit of perdition that dwelt within, like a malevolent soul in a detestable body. He was anxious to make this clear. . . . He wanted to go on talking for truth’s sake, perhaps for his own sake also; and while his utterance was deliberate, his mind positively flew round and round the serried circle of facts that had surged up all about him to cut him off from the rest of his kind: it was like a creature that, finding itself imprisoned within an enclosure of high stakes, dashes round and round, distracted in the night, trying to find a weak spot, a crevice, a place to scale, some opening through which it may squeeze itself and escape. This awful activity of mind made him hesitate at times in his speech. (24)

Jim’s situation in Rajah Allang’s stockade literalizes the imagery that had earlier described his mind: in Patusan he is literally “alone of his kind” – whatever kind that may be. He even “flies” as his mind does in the earlier passage: the earth flies back from his feet, he takes off, he feels himself flying through the air. We read those statements as hyperboles, as trite figures of speech, but their literal statement concretizes and realizes what Conrad had earlier depicted metaphorically as the frenzied activity of Jim’s mind seeking to break its enclosure. The two passages both polarize and pollute each other: in the “real” world of the Patna debacle and the trial, figurative language dominates an investigation into the facts. In its mirror image, in a world of romance, facts usurp the place of figures, actions the functions of thoughts. That the two passages are intimately connected is perfectly clear; how they are connected, and what the linkage means is much less so. The reader’s problem is what and how to make of this particular breaching of separate and seemingly discrete orders of being and modes of writing about them. Precisely in such knotty collocations lie the seeds of allegory in Lord Jim.

These are not yet all of the faces of the interpretive box: the linguistic stockade of Conrad’s prose makes a more substantial enclosure for the reader than the flimsy palisades of Rajah Allang’s courtyard do for Jim. In complex and mysterious ways, the simple physical setting of the stockade is charged with potential significance by its replication of Conrad’s earlier description of Jim’s mental processes, but exactly how and what that significance is does not surrender itself easily to a reader. So too, echoes of Jim’s Hamlet-like hesitations come home to roost in his mending the clock, which is in itself an action rich in other sorts of significance – for instance, the implications about existential time that Jameson seizes upon. Beyond and before these, there is also the matter of Jim’s imprisonment, both as a narrative fact and, at very least, as a quite transparent psychological and even sociological metaphor – and its significance is further compounded by its forming one more link in the chain that binds Jim to his doppelganger, Gentleman Brown, who later confesses to him:

“This is as good a jumping-off place for me as another. I am sick of my infernal luck. But it would be too easy. There are my men in the same boat – and, by God, I am not the sort to jump out of trouble and leave them in a d—d lurch. . . . I am here because I was afraid once in my life. Want to know of what? Of a prison. That scares me, and you may know it – if it’s any good to you. I won’t ask what scared you into this infernal hole. . .” (275-276).

Brown’s repetition of “jump,” besides stirring in Jim memories of his own fateful jump from the Patna, feeds even greater resonance back into the episode of Jim’s escape from the stockade, because his meeting with Brown takes place at the same spot. Conrad’s language once again insists on our seeing the interconnectedness of all these events, their as-it-were simultaneity in the phase space of allegory:

They met, I should think, not very far from the place, perhaps on the very spot, where Jim took the second desperate leap of his life – the leap that landed him into the life of Patusan. . . . They faced each other across the creek, and with steady eyes tried to understand each other before they opened their lips. . . .”

“‘The fellow started at this,’ said Brown, relating to me the opening of this strange conversation between those two men, separated only by the muddy bed of a creek, but standing on the opposite poles of that conception of life which includes all mankind.” (273-274)

As you can see, this later incident even retrospectively tells us explicitly what we all infer in the earlier episode, that the creek embodies some kind of boundary and that Jim’s crossing that creek enacts a transition from one state of being to another, a transition considerably less clear-cut but just as profound as Dante’s in crossing Styx or Lethe. But primarily this meeting with Brown emphasizes the linkage of the leap from Rajah Allang’s stockade with Jim’s jump from the Patna. It makes us see the structural sutures that bind the two supposedly opposed halves of the novel together, each built around an initiatory leap and a subsequent trial and judgment. They are opposed only as mirrors are opposed, as all allegorical replications echo and alter, echo and distort.

Jumping is, according to Jameson, “symbolically invested and privileged for Jim” (262): that is true, and it is so not just because of the young Jim’s daydreams of heroism and glory, but because of what the jump is in itself. As in all allegories, the literal meaning of almost everything that appears to be figurative is primary. Jumping is breaking gravity, sailing through the air without support, rising – however briefly – from the earth. It is starting, in both senses of that word: getting a jump start and jumping because startled. It is seizing an opportunity.

More than anything else, it embodies transition: covering distance, crossing boundaries and obstacles, overcoming impasses. One jumps out of one’s skin. One makes a leap of faith. One jumps at an opportunity. A jump is a bridge across the void and a void bridge: both a bridge over nothingness and a bridge that isn’t there. A jump enacts aporia reversed, a gap turned inside out. Jim’s failure to remember or to acknowledge his leap from the Patna amounts to a gap within a gap, an abortion or misdirection of the jump that compounds his failure to jump at all during the emergency aboard his training ship. Within the structural symmetries of Conrad’s supposedly disorganized novel, two such botched jumps can only be set right by two “correct” jumps: i.e., Jim’s first and second jumps into Patusan (which is only, lest its most obvious signification be missed, the Patna with “us” aboard6).

Moreover, Conrad has shaped the jump in Lord Jim into a central gestalt, a gestalt that, in turn, gives the novel its peculiar and variable shape for each reader. The whole action of jumping in Lord Jim falls into several parts, all of which are present prototypically or archetypically in the first jump episode aboard the training ship: the jump takes place 1) from a ship or boat; 2) in a crucial situation, a crisis or turning point; 3) into a boat; 4) finally, into a trial or review that culminates in a judgment on the conduct of the jump. All of these elements are present in the earliest version of the jump, Jim’s missed opportunity of heroism. In a gale, with a collision between two vessels spotted from Jim’s training ship, others leap into the rescue boat while Jim hesitates and moves too late.

“Too late, youngster.” The captain of the ship laid a restraining hand on that boy, who seemed on the point of leaping overboard, and Jim looked up with pain of conscious defeat in his eyes. The captain smiled sympathetically. “Better luck next time. This will teach you to be smart.” (8)

Conrad also presents that gestalt in its entirety in the Patna episode, though there judgment is separated from the jump by a large lapse of time, and paradoxically precedes the jump in the sequence of the narrative. Jim’s disastrous jump from the Patna both ironizes the pattern and fulfills it, voids the gestalt and revalues it simultaneously. The Patna jump culminates in the negative judgment of Big Brierly’s court – but it doesn’t end there, because Jim’s jump spawns others, sends echoes of itself rippling off through the world of the novel. Jim’s jump causes Brierly’s and necessitates Jim’s own subsequent jumps, his flights from post to post and place to place and his final, definitive – of himself if nothing else – jump from the sea into Patusan.

To use the old-fashioned seaman’s expression, Jim jumps ship into Patusan. That is the figurative way of describing Jim’s entry into his world of romance and reality, and its value for us, its truth to the narrative, lies in the fact that it conceptualizes the entire Patusan half of the book as what in essence it is, a single entity, a gestalt, Jim’s leap of faith from the world he has betrayed into a world he may be able to save. The “factual” jump the narrative gives us is something else again. This jump begins the process of reversing and voiding the Patna jump by both inverting the roles of the faithful and the deserters and by revaluing, once again, the act of jumping itself. Jim is being conveyed upriver in a dugout canoe:

At the first bend he lost sight of the sea with its labouring waves forever rising, sinking, and vanishing to rise again – the very image of struggling mankind – and faced the immovable forests rooted deep in the soil, soaring towards the sunshine, everlasting in the shadowy might of their tradition, like life itself. . . .

“‘I suppose I must have been stupid with fatigue, or perhaps I did doze off for a time,’ he said. The first thing he knew was his canoe coming to the bank. He became instantaneously aware of the forest having been left behind, of the first houses being visible higher up, of a stockade on his left, and of his boatmen leaping out together upon a low point of land and taking to their heels. Instinctively he leaped out after them. At first he thought himself deserted for some inconceivable reason. (175-176)

This jump delivers Jim, the deserter now deserted by the formerly faithful “native” crew, to the agonized judgment of Rajah Allang, from which he escapes by his subsequent jumps – themselves subdivisions of the whole jump gestalt, replications and multiplications of the primal, defining act of the Lord Jim cosmos – from the stockade and across the creek.

Both of those jumps in their turns have been necessitated by the facts of Jim’s entering leap in Patusan, which both omits a key element of the jump gestalt, the leap into a boat, and delivers Jim to the judgment of the wrong person, Rajah Allang rather than Stein’s friend Doramin. The latter element is partially corrected in Jim’s escape from Rajah Allang’s stockade, after which he makes his way to Doramin, but the former, crucial pieces of the gestalt, the entry into a boat and the subsequent judgment of Jim’s conduct, are not supplied, and the pattern of the gestalt is not completed, until Jim once again enters into a boat, to be paddled by the faithful Tamb’ Itam, to face Doramin and his final judgment. Thus the whole narrative of Jim’s Patusan adventure is contained, whole and entire, within the frame of the jump gestalt, within a parenthesis in time and space, within the arc of a leap.

Jim dozes in his upriver passage just as he remains oblivious to his peril in Rajah Allang’s stockade, just as he “slept – perhaps for a minute, perhaps for twenty seconds, or only for one second” (183) during his escape. These naps, like his blanking out of his actual jump from the Patna, create voids around the central fact of the jump itself, isolate it and emphasize its liminal nature. Jim’s jumps carry him across borders, into and out of worlds, into and out of alternate geographies and histories, different spaces and times.

Time stops and starts again several times in Lord Jim, in the languorous decay of his convalescence ashore and in the enduringness of the pilgrims’ faith, but nowhere does time start anew so dramatically and so importantly as in Patusan, which is, as I remarked before, the Patna enlarged to include us, a ship so vast that there is only one way that Jim or any of us can jump from it. In the stopped time of the stockade and the broken clock, Jim suddenly gets the alarm to work: “the true perception of his extreme peril dawned upon him” (181) and “without any mental process” (182) he leaps over the palisade. He jumps again, and this second jump “plants” (the word is Conrad’s (182) him deep in the mud – and “It was only when he tried to move his legs and found he couldn’t that, in his own words, ‘he came to himself.’“ (182)

Jim awakens first to his danger, then to himself, and he will awaken again, to a consciousness of his uniqueness, his solitude, his exile, in short, to the total truth of his situation in Patusan and in life, after he extricates himself from the mudbank and lapses once more into the brief oblivion of sleep. It is the fact and the manner of his delivery from the mudbank that defines and characterizes the new time, the new world, that begins for Jim on the far side of the creek. Jim is a creature of mud, almost buried alive in it, covered with it from head to toe, blinded by it, “a shiny heap of slime” (182). Time telescopes: he remembers the stockade as a long-ago phenomenon, and he longs to be back there, “mending the clock” (182). Conrad’s language in describing Jim’s struggles to escape from the mud transforms his efforts into the birth throes of a titan:

He made efforts, tremendous sobbing, gasping efforts, efforts that seemed to burst his eyeballs in their sockets and make him blind, and culminating into one mighty supreme effort in the darkness to crack the earth asunder, to throw it off his limbs. (182)

Jim becomes a giant Adam, born of the slime of the earth, and awakening to Eden and exile simultaneously, arising at once to the dominion of Adam and the punishment of Cain:

[H]e arose muddy from head to foot and stood there, thinking he was alone of his kind for hundreds of miles, alone, with no help, no sympathy, no pity to expect from any one, like a hunted animal. (183)

Whatever all this may mean – and it obviously means in multiple directions – its language is cosmogenic: Jim’s birth pangs and Conrad’s prose create a “new heaven and new earth,” a whole new sphere of action for a protagonist whose primary attribute is that he is “one of us.”

The body of criticism that has accreted around Conrad in general and Lord Jim in particular abounds in clichés to describe this aspect of Conrad’s writing: “dreamlike quality,” “nightmare world,” “mythic drama” and so on. Such phrases convey a certain truth or half-truth about Lord Jim, but not the heart of what Conrad’s language is doing, not the core of the purposes it serves. Lord Jim, to put it plainly, is a prototypic modern allegory.

As such, it adapts and renovates many (if not all) the techniques of, for instance, Spenserian allegory (including, again for instance, Spenser’s device of the narrative topos, which become Lord Jim’s gestalt). As such, it plays with and transcends the conventional binary categories of its world as thoroughly as The Faerie Queene explodes and implodes the polarities of its age: Renaissance reason and passion, spirit and body, angel and animal dichotomies, all of the ideological pairings that Spenser adapts and exploits, transform in Conrad’s prose into conscious and unconscious, rational and irrational, civilized and wild, inhibited and free, us and them, reflecting putatively modern thought systems putatively different from their Renaissance antecedents, but just as rigid in their binary, exclusionist logic, and just as manipulable by a conscientious allegorist.

As a prototypic modern allegory, Lord Jim employs language and deploys style in the service of multivalent signification – just as Spenser and Dante did. Conrad’s language generates charged fields around individual events and images and ideas, makes them into strange attractors. Spenser, within his cultural set, can begin with icons that already contain meanings or allow meanings; Conrad must establish or create those meanings around null points. For Conrad, the world may well be a text to be read and interpreted, but it is a blank text, a tabula rasa to be filled with human meaning only by human action, and therefore the world, for Conrad, is a text we extrapolate from, read out from, because by itself, at its heart, it is void, null, empty of all meaning save the meaning we bring to it and take from it again.

For Conrad, for modern allegory, the world is not, cannot be, what it was for Spenser, a book already filled with writing, traced with signs and symbols pointing to a meaning hidden in it and them. Thus the key difference between “traditional” and “modern” allegory lies not in anything they do, but in the underlying nature of their textuality. Traditional western allegory deals with a world already conceived as textual, as readable. It points inward, toward a world of texts and textuality, and it seeks, by achieving a kind of critical mass of texts, to implode signification to a single, blinding point of unitary and multiplex vision – Spenser’s punning, multiplely meaning “Sabbaoth’s sight,” Dante’s Beatific and Beatricic Vision. One way to verbalize this thrust of traditional allegory is Platonically: it seeks to break out of a noumenal world – the phenomenal has been left well behind – and into the sphere of the One which is also in our limited human terms the Other.

Conversely, modern allegory seems to point outward, beyond textuality: Lord Jim is one of us, and we are – if nothing else – extra-textual. That quite succinctly indicates modern allegory’s final goal and sphere of operation, more often than not: we, not God, constitute modern allegory’s major One and Other. Because this is so, much of modern allegory’s energy seems to be invested in exploring and rupturing the fragile border between life and art, and to do so modern allegory takes a deeply ambivalent or multivalent awareness of its own artifice, its own writerliness, as one of its primary bases. Thus the prose of modern allegory often moves readily – and easily, as in the case of Conrad – between the poles of a sharply observed “realism” and an evocative “impressionism.” This is, of course, a dichotomy as false, as escapable or as transcendable as any other allegory deals with, as verbally “true” and as “phenomenally” false as the distinction between traditional and modern allegory, which, in the terms of their two different cultural universes, are engaged in the very same enterprise: to break out of “mere literature” and into what each culture considers “reality.”

For Conrad, the accomplishment of that rests on the quasi-Jungian perception that the individual is at heart universal, the paradox of the coincidence of the One and the Many – or, to put it in more appropriately allegorical terms, the One and the Other. For Conrad and his allegory, this perception is the real entry into the worlds of myth and dream and reality. The “dream-like quality” of a book like Lord Jim rests not in the incidents or appurtenances of the tale but in Conrad’s mode of conveying their simultaneous uniqueness and universality.

The world of dream and myth is breached not by universal experiences and cosmic acts, but by totally individual circumstances and commonplaces – the mud of a riverbank rather than the arms of some Faulkerian cross. To be truly one of us, Jim must be utterly alone. Conrad criticism makes too much of the “us” in “one of us” and not enough of the “one” (or of the “us” in Patusan, for that matter). Us is a collective: one is not. We are in the myth just as Jim is. He both is and is not us – no Everyman, but nevertheless “one of us” in all the paradoxical splendor of that formulation.

Dream and myth depend on the kind of ritual repetition by which the commonplace is transformed into the sacred, like the priest at Eleusis showing a stalk of wheat. Allegory depends on the kind of repetition with variation by which the commonplace original is transvalued yet preserved intact, kept in play in a constantly expanding field of meaning – exactly, in fact, what I have been describing as the fate of Jim’s jump in Lord Jim. In his escape from Rajah Allang’s stockade, Jim is some sense recapitulates his personal past, the events that have made him uniquely Jim; at the same time and in the same acts, he frees himself from the world of time and history in which those events have bound him to be this specific and unique Jim, this Jim of failure and betrayal.

In entering Patusan, Jim surrenders his specialness – the Caucasian racial superiority that separates him from the “natives,” the class superiority that separates him from the Old Robinsons and German skippers and Gentleman Browns – just as he surrenders his western-ness and his time-rootedness: he carries, and surrenders, an unloaded gun; he surrenders to Rajah Allang; he flees to Doramin – and Marlow, who keeps saying he is one of us, begins to see him as Homeric. His immersion in the mud also constitutes his baptism into primitive reality and an Iliadic world of love and war – and, inevitably, a world where glory and long life constitute a binary set of which Jim and we, like Achilles, can choose only one pole, a world like that of the Iliad where the acceptance of one’s uncommon, common humanity is also the acceptance of the universal fate of one’s own unique death.

Marlow may call Jim and his Patusan Homeric, but mythic or romantic or fairy-tale-like would describe them as well. The Patusan episodes of Lord Jim are as book-derived as are the materials of the young Jim’s daydreams,7 or the saga of Stein’s youthful adventures among the islands of the East. Indeed, fairy tale seems to fit the case best of all: in this distant never-never-land, the misfit becomes an all-conquering hero. He is loved and guarded by a beautiful young maiden, Jewel (even her name is significant in the context of fairy tales), through whose power he becomes lord of the land. He acquires a dark and powerful Father in Doramin, and a great friend and constant companion, a brother and almost a second self, in Dain Waris, who later dies as a consequence of his acts (compare Achilles and Patroclus, Gilgamesh and Enkiddu). He has a gnomish servant, Tamb’ Itam, who accompanies him everywhere. He defeats a pair of comic devils, Rajah Allang and Sherif Ali, and is in turn defeated – or triumphs? – in a confrontation with his shadow self, Gentleman Brown (compare Aeneas and Turnus, an encounter every bit as ambiguous, in terms of victory or defeat, as Jim’s and Brown’s).

Even the “veiled bride” that Jim weds in death (and whose imagery has pervaded the Patusan episodes) can be related to fairy- and folktale motifs,8 as can Stein’s ring, the talisman that first gains him admission to Doramin and that lies at his feet in death. All of these acts can be construed as transpiring as much on a psychological level as in myth or fairy tale (if there is any real difference among those). Jim’s almost-ritualized meeting with Gentleman Brown in particular enacts that confrontation with the truth of the self that lies both at the core of many myths (consider Oedipus, or Spenser’s Houses of Recognition, or Kinbote and Gradus) and at the heart of analysis.

It is very, very wrong – it is hopelessly inadequate – to understand that episode exclusively as virtuous Jim’s confrontation with evil as personified in Brown, or as simple, innocent nature undone by the corruption of civilization as embodied in “Gentleman” Brown. Certainly those ideas are present – but Conrad’s prose prods us to see Jim seeing himself in Gentleman Brown, Jim viewing himself wholly and truly, Jim therefore himself integrated and complete as he could not have been before his entry into the dark forest and the ancient land. More than anything else in the novel, it is this meeting that completes Jim, that frees him from his past and himself, that enables him to do what he could not do in the Patna episode, to accept responsibility for his act and to confront Doramin’s judgment.

Because he has come to self-knowledge, he can complete the leap that brought him to Patusan in the act that literally and figuratively separates him from Patusan – and us – forever. He can accept his own death because it embodies, it enacts, in the most literal and the most sophisticated senses, not separation but communion:

People remarked that the ring which [Doramin] had dropped on his lap fell and rolled against the foot of the white man, and that poor Jim glanced down at the talisman that had opened for him the door of fame, love, and success within the wall of forests fringed with white foam, within the coast that under the western sun looks like the very stronghold of the night. Doramin, struggling to keep his feet, made with his two supporters a swaying, tottering group; his little eyes stared with an expression of mad pain, of rage, with a ferocious glitter, which the bystanders noticed; and then, while Jim stood stiffened and with bared head in the light of the torches, looking him straight in the face, he clung heavily with his left arm round the neck of a bowed youth, and lifting deliberately his right, shot his son’s friend through the chest.
……….The crowd, which had fallen apart behind Jim as soon as Doramin had raised his hand, rushed tumultuously forward after the shot. They say that the white man sent right and left at all those faces a proud and unflinching glance. Then with his hand over his lips he fell forward, dead. (299)

Modernism and post-modernism have provided many categories under which to recognize Jim’s absurd, heroic act. The available models include everything and anything from grade-B movies – Ronald Coleman saying “It is a far, far better thing I do than any I have ever done” – to Kierkegaard’s Abraham to Camus’s stranger’s wish for jeering crowds at his execution. But none of these fully comprehend or fully explain Jim’s death, because Jim dies as he has lived, inarticulate, “with his hand over his lips.” Conrad’s veiled bride image and the mythic archetype of the mother/wife/destroyer merge in Jim’s death, in the fullness of his self-knowledge and self-communication. He has been initiated into the mysteries of the unspeakable, the incommunicable. He has entered the haven of allegory.

Jim’s final act illustrates the kind of logical and psychological distances that he – and we – have crossed. It is impossible to say whether his act is rational or irrational, victory or defeat, motivated by despair or courage, responsibility or evasion, civilized codes or savage impulses. It is almost certainly both and neither, both and more, of each of those binary choices, all and none of all of them, just as Jim himself is, in Stein’s and Jewel’s views, both false and true. For Marlow too Jim remains an enigma. Lord Jim the character and Lord Jim the book climax in a moment of incommunicable knowledge. This is summed up in the final gesture of Jim’s life and death: “Then with his hand over his lips he fell forward, dead.”

The hand-to-his-lips attitude in which Jim is frozen could register shock, or pleasant surprise, or the suppression of speech. In classical times, the Egyptian Horus – a solar deity, victor over the forces of darkness, and a god of illumination in all senses of the word – was frequently depicted in statuary as a youth with his fingers to his lips: the gesture was understood as representing the necessity of “mystical” silence.9 It is unlikely in the extreme that Conrad was aware of this; nevertheless, Jim’s gesture ironically speaks for itself, expressive of Jim even in its ambiguity, as Jim, ever inarticulate, was never able to do for himself.

Lord Jim is almost obsessively concerned with the problems of knowledge and coming to knowledge: coming to know one’s self, coming to know another’s inner reality, trying to judge or express one’s own or another’s inner reality. Jim struggles to express and explain himself. Marlow struggles to understand and explain Jim, to express his inner reality – and so do Stein, and Jewel, and Gentleman Brown, and Big Brierly, and the court. The task of expressing Jim’s inner reality amounts to the core undertaking of Conrad’s novel, which is for that reason a novel about the near-impossibility of writing a novel – in ways more fundamental and more important than the fashionable cliché.

Lord Jim, like all allegories, is not about hermeneutics: it is hermeneutics. It enacts hermeneutics, and it forces its readers to do so too. It brings us, as it brings Jim, to the verge of that knowledge that can be perceived but not spoken, apprehended but not articulated. In that sense, Lord Jim embodies and enacts allegory in the “modern” idiom, just as certainly and just as clearly/obscurely as Dante’s Commedia does in “traditional” terms. Jim’s unspoken knowledge joins ranks with the pilgrim’s unspeakable vision as the end and source of allegory, synchronous closure of text and opening of meaning. In precisely that sense, allegory – all allegory – is not hermeneutical: allegory is hermeneutics, the thing itself.

Allegorical closure is no less problematic and no less rich than allegorical opening. In Prospero’s final speech, the facts of the stage and the “facts” of the drama merge completely to make his statements literal and metaphoric, exact and figurative, at the same time in the same words. The actor will be trapped in the role, the mage fixed on the “bare island” of the stage, unless the audience accepts the magical power thrust outward to them from that stage and uses it to intervene in the action and end the game by turning it into earnest.

The audience extends the action of the play outside the play and the stage by replicating off-stage the actions of Prospero on-stage. The Tempest doesn’t close so much as it opens, spills over into its audience and makes that audience complicitous in its actions – as in fact the audience has been at least from the moment in the second scene when Prospero informed us that everything we saw in the first scene was a lie and an illusion. From that point on, we can have no illusions about the “reality” of anything we witness. It can “convince” us only because we wish it to, because we conspire with it, just as we conspire with the fictive reality of a novel.

Prospero’s epilogue is no afterthought but the logical, the allegorically necessary, opening out of The Tempest into the wide world of journeys and storms the audience inhabits. Just so, the 50-odd pages of Marlow’s post-mortem of Jim are no mere elaboration of his last sight of his friend (“For me that white figure in the stillness of coast and sea seemed to stand at the heart of a vast enigma” [241-42]). Rather, those pages are the extension of that vision outward to us, the focal point of the process by which we readers come to see the elaborate ways in which, if Jim is “one of us,” we are therefore one of him.


Indeed, allegorical closure is usually just such a form of opening: characteristically, allegories simply stop rather than close, and they stop by enacting their ontological openness rather than their textual containment. In the final analysis, allegories cease to exist as words on a page because they have become a gestalt in their reader. Mimesis and its shifts – the jump from acting to enactment, from reading or seeing to participating – create and are created by allegory and its discontinuities. Pynchon’s marvelous juxtapositions of acts and orders in The Crying of Lot 49 illustrates this clearly: even in so small a fragment of the work as the few lines quoted at the beginning of this chapter, the anti-logical, anti-sequential intersections of sex and soap opera, historical events and personal losses, public and private, past and present, events and their representation, work not merely to create comedy but to flood us with “reality,” to saturate us with what we normally regard as separate levels or versions of reality, differing aspects or even realities of such different natures that we normally think of them as totally distinct.

In our conventional readerly habits, we expect a fiction, a novel, to select one of these versions and to achieve its “realism” by fulfilling the norms, the self-restricted criteria, of the perspective it has chosen. Pynchon instead exposes the unreality of all of the “realisms” by invoking them all, simultaneously and as texts. Quasi-archetypes and half-memories – of personal experiences and cultural bric-a-brac, of seduction scenes, of heroic children with faithful dogs, of the historicity and horror of “The Great War,” of Saturday matinees in cheap movie houses, as well as, later in the novel, of western movies and pentecostal visitations, bloody Jacobean plays, and cold-blooded political intrigues – destroy the antiseptic enclosure of literature’s usual partial realisms by throwing down the walls to admit the interpenetration of all realities. All the discrete yet continuous levels and aspects of “reality” come flooding into Lot 49 by way of the artistic – and I use the word in its broadest possible sense – vehicles and conventions that normally bear and isolate them. And those vehicles, whether they be bad movies, accurate history, political analogy (e.g., the Peter Pinguid Society and the John Birch Society), or Biblical event, furnish the pre-texts, the areas of reference, the strange attractors that shape The Crying of Lot 49’s narrative and our oddly conflicted readerly expectations of it.

The events in Baby Igor’s grade-Z, World War I movie – themselves evocative of the historical events they draw on (“‘I know this part,’ Metzger told her, his eyes squeezed shut, head away from the set. ‘For fifty yards out the sea was red with blood. They don’t show that.’“ [35]) – actually affect the actions of Metzger (formerly Baby Igor) and Oedipa in the present. The epigrammatic jumbling of reels (reals) in the Baby Igor film anticipates the narrative, logical, and sequential discontinuities in which Oedipa will wander for the rest of the novel, discontinuities present in the narrative precisely because Pynchon has eschewed the unreality of “realistic” fiction’s unitary frame of reference and selective standard of verisimilarity. Oedipa – and we with her – will become an Ariadne who has lost the thread, trying to figure out the pattern of the labyrinth in order to make sense of it and get out of it. Oedipa never accomplishes that by the time the narrative stops, but we readers do, because we are one with Oedipa just as we are one with Jim:  We are One, and also Other, just as allegorical narrative is One and also Many.

Much – much too much, in fact – has been made of the potential religious symbolism with which Pynchon lards the text of The Crying of Lot 49. Even astute readers of allegory like Maureen Quilligan have fallen into the Pentecostal pit and read the ending of Lot 49 as if it were a revival meeting and Oedipa Maas were about to make a decision for Christ, if not meet him face to face; or as if the crying of lot 49 were equivalent to the Apocalypse in its sense of world-end rather than in its sense of The Book of Revelations – an even more egregious error.10 It would be pretty to think that such a view of the novel was generated by profound respect for allegorical tradition, that modern critics, having correctly identified one of the novel’s ancestors as allegory, were solicitously aligning Pynchon’s heroine with Spenser’s narrator in their patient awaiting of the full revelation of the Sabbaoth God. No one has even remotely suggested that affiliation, however. Realistically, it seems that the religious reading of The Crying of Lot 49 is the simple result of misreading the novel, of opting for only one, or of willfully suppressing the second of the binary choices that the novel consistently offers us, and of failing entirely to see that Pynchon also presents us with, at very least, a tertium quid, and perhaps a quartum and a quintum too.

Take just the religious language of the novel as a case in point. While some of its overtly Christian references have gotten almost all the critical attention, Pynchon’s “theology” in The Crying of Lot 49 is a lot more ecumenical than that, hinting – and not only in The Courier’s Tragedy’s parodies – at diabolism as well as other vague sorts of anti-religions or loosely “theosophist” cults: vide Pierce Inverarity’s secular testament, which becomes for Oedipa a gospel to be decoded and explored, the sacred scripture encapsulating all of America and all of truth, perhaps all there is to know. Vide Jesus Arrabal and his anarchist miracle (120). Vide, at the end of the book, the hieratic Loren Passerine and the rite he enters upon. Vide also such incidental mentions and chance meetings as the “hieroglyphic streets” (181) of America and the perhaps muddled recollections of old Mr. Thoth – Thoth being, you will remember, the ibis or baboon-headed Egyptian god whom later tradition credited with inventing numbers and letters; the Greeks thought of Thoth as a god of learning, wisdom, and magic, and linked him in those capacities with Hermes, who was not only psychopompos, the conductor of souls to the underworld, but also the patron and source of esoteric knowledge (thus Hermetic philosophy).

The ubiquitous “hieroglyph” (52) of the muted post horn obviously reinforces this pattern of reference all throughout the novel. Indeed, The Crying of Lot 49 even skews its Christianity in odd directions, as in its excursus on Dr. Diocletian Blobb and the Scurvhamite text of The Courier’s Tragedy, wherein Puritan Christianity is presented not only as word-enamored or word-enslaved but also as determinist, dualist, mechanist, and Manichean: i.e., Christianity is reinterpreted as a purely binary system, salvation or damnation being the result of the operations of a sort of cosmic Maxwell’s Demon.

This seems to an instance of opposites transforming into each other: a spiritual religion based on the superior reality of a non-corporeal world turns inside out into a mechanical, materialist cult. The novel shows us the opposite version of this process then in the Nefastis Machine, wherein a purely mechanical, material process is meant to be controlled immaterially and mentally by a properly “sympathetic” or “sensitive” medium. In that sense then Scurvhamite Christianity and its word-obsession – which becomes Oedipa’s focus too – mirrors John Nefastis’s obsession – which is a concentrated icon of the circuit-board world’s focus – exactly as the Trystero mirrors Thorn und Taxis and the Pony Express and the US mail service, and all obsessions, all over-riding centers of belief or motivation, share equally in the religious, the hieratic, the magical.

The final reflection of this perverse religious syncretism in the book is the actual crying of Lot 49: 49 is certainly the Pentecostal number, but the occasion of the auction is hardly Easter Sunday,11 and the celebrant of the rite seems more Egyptian than Christian: “Passerine spread his arms in a gesture that seemed to belong to the priesthood of some remote culture; perhaps to a descending angel” (183). The “pale, cruel faces” of the attendees and Loren Passerine’s own appearance – “his eyes bright, his smile practiced and relentless” – do not suggest any meek and Christian Holy Spirit, brooding dove-like over the abyss, but rather point to more hawk-like deities: I mean Horus, the falcon-headed god (actually, his head is a sparrow [i.e., passerine] hawk’s) – a solar deity who defeats Set, the god of darkness and evil, who may be his own brother and dark antagonist.

Horus is a god of illumination, in both senses of the word, and as such a fitting deity to preside over the final actions of a heroine who has wandered in the dark so long as Oedipa. In attending the auction, Oedipa emulates her namesake – and not for the first time – in seeking the will of the gods, consulting the oracle. Her chief activity, as more than one reader of the novel has remarked, is sorting, an action that links her closely with Maxwell’s Demon, particularly in this final scene of the novel, where she is enclosed in the sealed auction room, “looking at the napes of necks, trying to guess which one was her target, her enemy, perhaps her proof” (183). Immediately before she entered the auction room, Oedipa, even more Demon-like, “stood in a patch of sun, among brilliant rising and falling points of dust, trying to get a little warm” (183). Now demons are always an iffy proposition, and in The Crying of Lot 49 sorting is hardly innocent either, as Stanley Koteks tells Oedipa:

……….“Since the Demon only sat and sorted, you wouldn’t have put any real work into the system. So you would be violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics, getting something for nothing, causing perpetual motion.”
……….“Sorting isn’t work?” Oedipa said. “Tell them down at the post office, you’ll find yourself in a mailbag headed for Fairbanks, Alaska, without even a fragile sticker on you.”
……….“It’s mental work,” Koteks said, “But not work in the thermodynamic sense.” (86)

Communication may well be the key, as John Nefastis will later tell Oedipa (in a direct comment on the Demon in the box: 105), and as her own immediate connection of sorting with the work of the Post Office here implies, but puns and ambiguities keep impeding it: the dual meanings of work, the distinct meanings of entropy in thermodynamics and in communications, the resemblance of their equations – the latter a mathematical pun, if you like.12

Even sorting is a pun, and a profoundly important one in The Crying of Lot 49. Sorting is distinguishing, separating, categorizing, even cataloging (cf. Genghis Cohen and the stamps), but it is also investigating, discovering, illuminating, predicting: taking one’s sortes, reading the lots – fraught word, for this novel. That is one of the ironies of the Nefastis Machine: The word nefas in Latin means not merely blasphemous or impious, but in its adjectival form – nefastus – it primarily designates days on which judgments cannot be rendered, assemblies held, or auguries taken. So just as Oedipa stared at the portrait of James Clerk Maxwell on a “sortes” machine from which no auguries should be taken, just so she sits, at the end of the novel, staring at the backs of heads and the napes of necks, sorting her enemies, herself become the Demon she sought to consult, awaiting – in the novel’s titular and final puns, the sale of a bunch of forged stamps, the making public – the communication – of the hidden mysteries of her lot.

Pynchon piles puns on top of puns to open up depths in language for the reader exactly as the action of the novel opens up holes in quotidian reality for Oedipa. Everything – even the words we use to describe and control everything – comes to take on an aura of mystery, an air of the uncanny, comes to share equally in religion and in magic, in the uncertainty of powers – be they divine or diabolical, mechanical or human – beyond our knowing and control. For the reader, The Crying of Lot 49 haunts language the way the Trystero haunts Oedipa.

The Crying of Lot 49 has consistently flirted with the concepts of mystical illumination in the dual disguises of modern language and ancient metaphor. Oedipa’s first epiphany offers the reader San Narciso perceived as a circuit board, a thoroughly twentieth-century image that, through Oedipa’s mental vision of her husband Mucho at his radio station – “Communication is the key” (105) once again, or rather “Communications are” – modulates to the hieratic vision of a disk jockey as priest and seer, “with movements stylized as the handling of chrism, censer, chalice might be for a holy man, yet really tuned in to the voice, voices, the music, its message, surrounded by it, digging it, as were all the faithful it went out to” (25). She seeks, throughout the novel, an illumination, a vision, that here as throughout the novel “tremble[s] just past the threshold of her understanding.” The world, for Oedipa, is increasingly charged with potential significance, with meanings she wishes to know but can never quite grasp. This first vision sets the pattern for all her attempts at illumination:

She thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out). (24)

The resemblance of the circuit board and the streets of San Narciso is a visual pun, parallel to the mathematical pun of the resemblance of the two entropy equations, and in both cases the coincidence promises revelation and illumination. (To true believers: Oedipa has her doubts about the Nefastis box, though she rarely seriously questions her own juxtapositions.) In both cases, the light fails to go on. The revelation is aborted – in both cases, in all cases – by Oedipa’s passivity.

There’s no limit to what Oedipa could find out from the printed circuit, or San Narciso, or Pierce’s will – “if she had tried.” Oedipa hardly makes a devoted, obsessive detective of the sort Lot 49’s Grade-B mystery plot seems to demand: not really very Demonic, she is consistently distracted by happenstance, allowing one line of inquiry to fade indiscriminately into another, consciously or unconsciously refraining from asking some questions, not pressing others, finally simply and fearfully ceasing to want to know specific answers, even uncertain, up to the very last minute, whether or not she will actually attend the auction.

And she makes as poor a mystic as she does a researcher. Mystical illumination comes at the end of a via negativa actively pursued, an iter mentis ad deum that involves the painful, conscious, step-by-step disengagement of the would-be mystic’s affections and thoughts from personal desires and fears to refocus the mind fully and selflessly upon the One. Oedipa’s career parodies that. In hearing the news of Driblette’s death, she responds only passively, ambiguously, narcissistically:

Even a month ago, Oedipa’s next question would have been, “Why?” But now she kept a silence, waiting, as if to be illuminated.
……….They are stripping from me, she said subvocally – feeling like a fluttering curtain in a very high window, moving up to then out over the abyss – they are stripping away, one by one, my men. My shrink, pursued by Israelis, has gone mad; my husband, on LSD, gropes like a child further and further into the rooms and endless rooms of the elaborate candy house of himself and away, hopelessly away, from what has passed, I was hoping forever, for love; my one extra-marital fella has eloped with a depraved 15-year-old; my best guide back to the Trystero has taken a Brody. Where am I?
……….“I’m sorry,” Bortz had also said, watching her.
……….Oedipa stayed with it. “Did he use only that,” pointing to the paperback, “for his script?” (152-53)

They are stripping from her. She surrenders nothing of herself, and perceives the horrors (Driblette’s suicide, Hilarius’s past and present, Mucho’s addiction) and comedy (the child star runs off with a child) of their actions only as her losses. What Oedipa fears most is precisely the price of mystical illumination, precisely the cost of productive research: the sacrifice of self, the expense of spirit in pursuit of the Other. She “left it alone, anxious that her revelation not expand beyond a certain point. Lest, possibly, it grow larger than she and assume her to itself.” (166)

Oedipa is emphatically not one of the currently fashionable de-centered selves; if anything, she is far too securely, far too timidly and fearfully self-centered. The kinds of excesses the other characters of Lot 49 enact embody various species of selflessness – often grossly exaggerated, sometimes grotesque, occasionally repulsive – that Oedipa flees, and all those excesses have relation to intellectual or mystical illumination, whether the route be art (Driblette, Remedios Varo) or politics (Mike Fallopian, the young Hilarius), alcohol (too many characters to mention) or drugs (Mucho, Hilarius) or science (Nefastis, Hilarius) or scholarship (Bortz, Genghis Cohen). Each concretely manifests an aspect of coming to knowledge, of the process of vision, a process which Pynchon comically opens to Oedipa in her initial encounter with Metzger, but from which synesthesia and déreglement du sens Oedipa consistently thereafter flees. Granted, most of her invitations to it, like Nefastis’s “Come on in on the couch. The news will be on any minute. We can do it there” (107), are fairly unappealing. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Oedipa is as frightened by the visionary as she is by the real, and she does her best to avoid both:

She wanted Hilarius to tell her she was some kind of a nut and needed a rest, and that there was no Trystero. She also wanted to know why the chance of its being real should menace her so. (132)
……….“I came,” she said, “hoping you could talk me out of a fantasy.”
……….“Cherish it!” cried Hilarius, fiercely. “What else do any of you have?” (138)

Knowledge and insight, research and mysticism: vision, trance, hallucination, DTs, schizophrenia, and paranoia – all are parodically or comically linked in The Crying of Lot 49 as ways of breaking through the mere surface of things into a reality or realities presumed to underlie that surface, to give that surface literal and figurative depth and meaning. Each of these offers something Oedipa wants, and each, in its extreme form, embodies a way she will not go, an illness – Oedipa’s view of it – that she will not contract. For Oedipa, the rapture of vision equals the seizure of epilepsy. That pun, with its opening to both possibilities, remains Pynchon’s, while the unequivocal, pejorative vision of attack and amnesia are Oedipa’s:

She could, at this stage of things, recognize signals like that, as the epileptic is said to – an odor, color, pure piercing grace note announcing his seizure. Afterward it is only this signal, really dross, this secular announcement, and never what is revealed during the attack, that he remembers. Oedipa wondered whether, at the end of this (if it were supposed to end), she too might not be left with only compiled memories of clues, announcements, intimations, but never the central truth itself, which must somehow each time be too bright for her memory to hold; which must always blaze out, destroying its own message irreversibly, leaving an overexposed blank when the ordinary world came back. In the space of a sip of dandelion wine it came to her that she would never know how many times such a seizure may already have visited, or how to grasp it should it visit again. Perhaps even in this last second – but there was no way to tell. She glanced down the corridor of Cohen’s rooms in the rain and saw, for the very first time, how far it might be possible to get lost in this. (95)

Later Oedipa wonders whether the “clues” she finds during her 24-hour descent into the underworld of San Francisco (the antithesis and mirror image of circuit-board-orderly San Narciso) are “some kind of compensation,” like the epileptic’s “secular announcements,” signs left to “make up for her having lost the direct, epileptic Word, the cry that might abolish the night” (118). Pynchon’s ironies run deep. “The cry that might abolish the night” is also – the noun demands it – the crying of lot 49, which may equally well bring either illumination or the night. The sip of wine that triggers Oedipa’s sudden quasi-Proustian perception of the void, of the presence of gaps and absences in her own life, is made from dandelions that grew in an old cemetery that has now been ripped up and erased, replaced by a freeway.13 Oedipa’s awareness at this point of this paradoxical persistence of the vanished connects directly with her last perception in that same chapter, stirred by Genghis Cohen’s remarking:

……….“In spring, when the dandelions begin to bloom again, the wine goes through a fermentation. As if they remembered.”
……….No, thought Oedipa, sad. As if their home cemetery in some way still did exist, in a land where you could still somehow walk, and not need the East San Narciso Freeway, and bones still could rest in peace, nourishing ghosts of dandelions, no one to plow them up. As if the dead really do persist, even in a bottle of wine.14 (98-99)

The dream, the nightmare that Mucho could never tell her without the anodyne of LSD, was, simply “the sign . . . of the National Automobile Dealers’ Association. N.A.D.A. Just this creaking metal sign that said nada, nada, against the blue sky” (144).

As the novel moves toward its final opening, Oedipa lists – in a perfectly orthodox logical square of opposition – the four possibilities that as she sees it confront her: that there actually is massive underground anti-system; that she is hallucinating; that it is all a plot against her, arranged by Pierce; or that she is imagining such a plot.

Those, now that she was looking at them, she saw to be the alternatives. Those symmetrical four. She didn’t like any of them, but hoped she was mentally ill; that that’s all it was. That night she sat for hours, too numb even to drink, teaching herself to breathe in a vacuum. For this, oh God, was the void. (171)

For those who have long forgotten their undergraduate logic, remember that the square of opposition is a traditional mode of expressing the possibilities of immediate inference from a premise.15 Its putative validity rests on two pillars: first, our old friend the principle of non-contradiction, that a thing cannot be true and not true in the same respect at the same time; and second, that all valid conclusions are already contained within the premise. To spell it out: Oedipa’s entrapment within the logical box of her four alternative statements means that she is no longer proceeding inductively, by the gathering of evidence that would lead to conclusions, but deductively, reasoning from premises already obtained or simply held downward to the conclusions already formulated by and within her premises. She has abandoned the empirical method, scientific method, to enter the self-contained world of formal logic. The square of opposition, for Oedipa and for the reader, constitutes the logical and linguistic equivalent of the Nefastis Machine. It enacts Oedipa’s acceptance of a rigid and merciless enclosure, her entrapment within a totally binary system. That, oh God, is the void.

In The Crying of Lot 49, the void is very full, just as the underworld is very crowded in The Odyssey and in Vineland.16 Oedipa has located herself smack in the center of that paradoxically crowded vacuum, like that busy little Demon in its empty box, sorting, sorting, sorting: hot from cold, friends from enemies, true from false, real from imagined, fact from fiction – just as if they were really different, just as if the polar oppositions themselves were real. For readers, those very questions, those for-Oedipa-fundamental distinctions, open on a readerly void, the deconstructionist never-never-land of textual unreliability, linguistic betrayal, logical derangement. We readers are reading a fiction made up variously of facts (Remedios Varo, the Dardanelles campaign, Thurn und Taxis), quasi-facts (the Peter Pinguid Society, the Pony Express, the Nefastis Machine), and outright inventions (Oedipa Maas, Pierce Inverarity, Metzger, etc.). Just breaking these novelistic data into those three groups already demonstrates – for us at least – the invalidity of Oedipa’s binary distinctions.

Some of the data of The Crying of Lot 49 present themselves to us as participants in two worlds, both fact and fiction, true and false. Indeed, I would argue that once Pynchon assembled all these phenomena into a novel, they all, at that instant and by that act, began to participate in both worlds, to become the amphibious entity that we know as artistically wrought prose. And we readers consciously or unconsciously assent to this and – unlike the reluctant Oedipa – join the conspiracy. We embrace the fictions as facts, at least to the extent that we make obvious inventions like Oedipa our anchors and focal points in the narrative. It is about these aspects of the novel that, as readers, we have the fewest doubts, the most minimal confusions. We take the overt fictions as our baseline for our own sorting of true and false, real and imagined, fact and fiction within the “facticity” of the overarching fiction. The fundamental muddling of the supposedly separate, putatively inviolable binary categories of fact and fiction replicates itself on every conceivable level of discourse, both within and without the novel, in the reader as in the book. Welcome to the void of allegory.

Oedipa’s overt, almost obsessive, attention to problems of textuality reflects and acts reflexively upon the reader’s attention to the text of The Crying of Lot 49. Before we ever begin mimicking Oedipa in seeking recondite meanings in small phrases and actions or pursuing cryptic connections through the text and its many subtexts, Oedipa replicates within the text our conventional readerly attentions and inattentions.

It may have been an intuition that the letter would be newsless inside that made Oedipa look more closely at its outside, when it arrived. At first she didn’t see it. It was an ordinary Muchoesque envelope, swiped from the station, ordinary airmail stamp, to the left of the cancellation a blurb put on by the government, Report All Obscene Mail To Your Potsmaster. Idly, she began to skim back through Mucho’s letter after reading it to see if there were any dirty words. “Metzger,” it occurred to her, “what is a potsmaster?” (46)

Oedipa scarcely regards the inside of Mucho’s letter, but instead scrutinizes its envelope, and after noticing something there, on the outside of the letter, she returns to its text to search that for things connected to the outside phenomenon. Moreover, she does all this before she ever fully realizes or appreciates the genuine oddity (that curious misspelling) of the external item that caught her eye.

And of course she never really takes into account the implications of its externality or the ironies of her own shifting focus, from the contents of Pierce’s will to the envelope of Mucho’s letter. It is probably redundant at this point for me to point out that this tiny letter-and-envelope incident puts us back in touch, once again, with some of the most traditional language of conventional, outside/inside, allegorical theory, the envelope or integument or husk that enwraps or envelops or conceals the putative kernel of alleged allegorical meaning. In yet one more bursting of binary bonds, Pynchon tropes this conventional language, tropes even Conrad’s redisposition of it: his fiction locates its key signifiers not within the tale, not even in its envelope, but on and as something outside even that, the stamps and their cancellations, things pasted or imprinted on the envelope as a sign and symbol of the message’s fitness for delivery and of its having been delivered.

Nor does Pynchon’s linguistic jest-and-earnest stop here. Using what forms a characteristic strategy of all his fiction, Pynchon (like his master Swift) compounds his meaning, and significantly complicates the reader’s problems, by literalizing the underlying image or metaphor of the very figures he is troping. Like so much else in The Crying of Lot 49, delivery too is a pun, meaning on one hand mail (that too a pun, and so on endlessly) delivery and on the other hand birth. Late in the novel, for instance, references to Oedipa’s childlessness accumulate: Grace Bortz thinks Oedipa’s harassed look betokens children; Oedipa passes herself off as Grace Bortz and tells a San Francisco physician she thinks she’s pregnant; and, perhaps most important, in view of the novel’s playing with religious imagery, “Your gynecologist has no test for what she was pregnant with” (175). Delivering the mail, delivering a message, delivery as birth, even delivery as freedom or salvation: all are operative meanings, indeed to some extent cognate meanings, within this novel. All take off from and expand upon the fundamental kernel-and-husk, envelope-and-contents image and opposition, and all do so in the direction of externalizing the internal, bringing to the surface that which was hidden deep within, letting out what was imprisoned. Oedipa never understands any of this. She continues to wrap herself in multiple layers of clothes, to insulate herself, to hide within whatever she can find, despite the fact that most of what she learns points the way outward.

Most of Oedipa’s discoveries are of the outside, the underside, the flipside of the life and world she has known, and she has a great deal of trouble determining whether she or those she thinks of as the others – the Trystero, the drunk in San Francisco, Inamorati Anonymous, Max Fallopian and the patrons of The Scope – are the insiders. Needless to say, Pynchon makes that a problem for readers too: “The act of metaphor then was a thrust at truth and a lie, depending where you were: inside, safe, or outside, lost. Oedipa did not know where she was” (129).

Neither does the conscientious reader. Inside what? or outside what? are totally relevant and fundamentally unanswerable questions at this and many other points of the simple narrative of this short novel. To cite just one important complication: John Nefastis tells Oedipa that entropy is a metaphor that Maxwell’s Demon (a prosopopoeia, but who’s counting?) makes “objectively true” (106). The Crying of Lot 49 generates complexities disproportionate to its small size because from the outset it makes its allegorical heritage part of its subject matter. By – among other ways, to be sure – using the language and imagery of religion, it moves the process of revelation and initiation to center stage, and makes itself, over and above anything else it may be, an allegory built out of allegories, and primarily religious allegories (or works that have been thought allegories) at that. That, among other reasons, is why the novel closes (and implicitly opens itself) with the possibility of pentecostal visitation: Pentecost is revelation, initiation, illumination, confirmation, all in one, and all of which are relevant to Oedipa’s narrative quest. But most important of all, Pentecost is the gift of language, the gift of tongues, the descent upon the initiated apostles of the fiery tongues of the spirit (parodied explicitly in The Courier’s Tragedy), which confer the miraculous ability to speak so that all hearers, of whatever class or education or nation, will understand what has been said in their own language – which, I hasten to point out, is exactly the modest goal that all allegories seek, and the only way, if there is any even provisional truth to what I have been arguing, the only way they can accomplish their ends and succeed, as allegories.

The Crying of Lot 49 makes the problem of interpretation its central subject. It does this in peculiarly but not exclusively literary ways, principally by making its initiatory action result from a text – the letter Oedipa receives – that in turn focuses Oedipa upon another text – Pierce’s will – which rapidly becomes the center of her attention and the regulator of her actions.17 More than that: Pierce’s will becomes the instrument by which Oedipa becomes aware of significances that she had not noticed before and of mysteries she never suspected. The will itself becomes one of those mysteries, a document demanding understanding and explanation. The will makes Oedipa aware for the first time that there is a problem of interpretation, and from the knowledge of her ignorance Oedipa becomes a seeker – timorous and halfhearted, it is true – after revelation and illumination.

In purely literary terms, which are quite appropriate here, Oedipa’s seeking is grievously flawed. She searches for allegorical illumination with conventional critical tools, looking always for the one-to-one correspondences of prosopopoeia, and ending up thereby trapped in the closed box of that scholastic square of opposition discussed above: either the Trystero is real, or she’s imagining it, or Pierce invented it to plague her, or she’s imagining that. From that kind of logical box there is no exit: the Demon can only sit and sort endlessly. Whether it be plot or paranoia, conspiracy or craziness, Oedipa, trained by her mentors “Secretaries James and Foster and Senator Joseph” (104) and equipped with all of the apparatus of conventional criticism (she was “just a whiz at pursuing strange words in Jacobean texts” [104]) demands whole-meaning systems: whatever it is, it all has to make sense all the time. Oedipa, along with most criticism since Aristotle – for whom, not at all by the way, Oedipa’s namesake was paradigmatic in formulating the norms of criticism – insists on regularity, on uniformity, on a peculiarly restrictive sort of esthetic dominated by the logic of an ineluctable either/or, by the unbendable principle of non-contradiction and the exclusionist, self-contained logic it generates: in short, she must have an orderly system, at whatever cost to sanity.

At least since Aristophanes, systems and system-builders have been among the favorite targets of satirists, in whose company it is only fair to number Pynchon. If half of Lot 49’s literary ancestry is allegory, the other half is certainly satire. Allegories and satires by themselves are complicated enough. When they copulate, however, their union produces monsters and wunderkinder, and The Crying of Lot 49, like most of Pynchon’s book-length fictions, is just such a prodigy. Jonathan Swift, Pynchon’s great master in this bastard form, has demonstrated all its potential for brilliance and opacity, and from many critics of Swift we can learn embarrassing lessons in how not to read Pynchon. The kinds of false binary choices that Swift offers us – fool or knave, Yahoo or Houyhnmhm – can help us to realize that Oedipa’s alternatives of conspiracy or paranoia and readers’ choices of meaninglessness or divine plan are equally false. They recreate exactly the kind of false dilemma that Gulliver faces in confronting Yahoos and Houyhnmhms. To put it simply: those are not the only alternatives. Gulliver himself is a third. That significantly parallels Oedipa, who is named not just for a riddle solver, but for a riddle solver whose answers were of exactly the sort Swift suggests through Gulliver. To the sphinx’s riddle, Oedipus’s response is “man”; to the oracle’s mystery, the solution is himself. What is Inverarity’s bequest? Who can answer Oedipa’s questions? Oedipa’s name, rather than anything she reads or sees, is our best clue to that.

Systems and system-builders and Swift furnish useful clues too, clues to some of Lot 49’s most fundamental concerns. Just as behind the limpid prose of Pynchon’s Vineland there lurks the strange attractor of Homer’s Odyssey (especially its Telemachiad), so hidden behind the barrage of twentieth-century cultural bric-a-brac that ostensibly serves as Lot 49’s pre-texts, beneath all the modern movie plots and mystery novels and Mircea Eliade, there lies the strange attractor of Swift’s A Tale of a Tub.

The two texts share a significant number of narrative and ideological counters, and the ones they share are central to both; in fact, are constitutive of both. In Swift, the narrative device of a Will to be executed, understood, dealt with, analyzed, come to terms with, which serves as both the central spring of the action and the link to all the “digressions.” The matter of the digressions themselves – made narrative from the beginning in Pynchon as it becomes narrative at the end in Swift – focuses on criticism, interpretation, modernism, digressions themselves, and madness. The principal targets of the satire in both cases include the narrators (Swift’s mad hack and Pynchon’s Jamesian, nearly-Oedipa authorial voice) as well as religious and philosophical and political empire builders, who are characterized as deluded, insane, ridden by their own whole-meaning systems to such an extent that they either wish to convert the world to their belief or are solipsistically sunk in themselves. Both texts in turn flog all these targets by means of a pervasively deployed imagery and metaphorics of insides and outsides, fools or knaves, Sartorists or Aeolists, wearing one’s vices “Inlaid or Emboss’d.” Every Peter has his Jack, every Sartorist his Aeolist opposite number: so too every Thurn und Taxis is opposed by a Trystero, every Hilarius by a Nefastis, every Oedipa seeking a way out of the tower by a Mucho burrowing within. The strange doublings of Pynchon’s text – e.g., the duality of entropy; Fangoso Lagoons, Lake Inverarity, and the Lago di Pieta; Echo Courts and San Narciso; Manny di Presso and Metzger – all have their roots deep in Swift’s elaborately sustained parodic binomialism. Even the Nefastis Machine, that most modern of Oedipa’s tormentors, can be traced to Swift’s parodic, punning literalizations of ordinary religious language (anima, spiritus) in The Mechanical Operation of the Spirit.

Allegories are works written in traditions, and Swift stands at the head of at least one of the traditions Pynchon invokes for himself. One could argue in fact that Swift’s satires stand at the head of the whole modern tradition of allegory, at least in their deployment of a parodic binary logic in the service of exploding both the modes and tools of conventional reading and the “totalizing” (to use that fashionable word for once in its proper sense) systems that result from them. This does not in any small sense alter what The Crying of Lot 49 is or modify what it says: rather, this ancestry and its presence within Lot 49 as a strange attractor establish what the novel is and says.  They ground the book and inform it.

Let me press this point of the importance of A Tale of a Tub to The Crying of Lot 49. Swift’s characteristic satiric method – and it is his nearly exclusively – involves the literalization of the phrases and figures of ordinary discourse so that his characters and his prose both “say what they mean” and mean a great deal beyond what they say. We’ve already looked at some of this back in Chapter five. A quick and simple example of it can be found in the fourth book of Gulliver. The commonplace definition of man is animal rationale, the rational animal. Fine: so Swift provides his readers with a totally rational, completely affectless quadruped to demonstrate the inadequacies of that definition. His treatment of terms like “spirit” and “inspiration” in A Tale of a Tub is far more complex than that, but it grows from a similar, simple base of literalization. Pynchon deploys the same sort of tactic in Lot 49 on terms like entropy. He literalizes both its meanings as close to simultaneously as he can, so that – to choose just one very clear instance – he can make W.A.S.T.E. equal communication. Loss of energy = increase of information. Trash = mail.

The world of Lot 49 is a pun, ordered and disordered simultaneously. Swift’s satire forces its narrator to intolerable binary choices to educate its readers beyond them, to make its readers realize alternatives, to push readers to see a tertium quid. Pynchon’s allegory does that too, and goes even a step further: it tries to make us see that we are dealing not with either/or but with both/and. Thus the most basic building block of The Crying of Lot 49, its narrative – our old friend the integument, the envelope – is neither/both an outside nor/and an inside, neither/both a vehicle of meaning nor/and the meaning: it – the fiction – is a double-edged metaphor for both life and art (which is why Oedipa is both wrong and right to “read” life as a text).

So firmly rooted in this tradition of religious and artistic satire is The Crying of Lot 49 that Pynchon plays boldly with his antecedents, turning their texts and their actors into his characters and their actions. Pierce Inverarity sounds like a prosopopoeia. His surname is a synchronous oxymoron, a localized pun: Inverarity = “into truth,” as in “pierce into truth,” and “untruth,” as in lie. This seeming personification figure’s will propels Oedipa to such action as she is capable of. His will and the old drunk sailor, who passes on to Oedipa the responsibility of a final letter to his wife (his will?) and thereby opens her to as much revelation as she is capable of, between them tap into some of the deepest sources and richest potential fields of meaning for Pynchon’s novel.

The drunk’s DTs send Oedipa into an intellectual fugue that carries her from the sailor’s delirium tremens to their literalization, “a trembling unfurrowing of the mind’s plowshare” (128), to the connection of that with miracle (specifically the paradoxical in name and action St. Narcissus, “The saint whose water can light lamps”), to clairvoyancy, to paranoia, to dreams, to the word, to metaphor (“a thrust at truth and a lie”), to memories of school and the dt of calculus, which stands for time differential (“a vanishingly small instant in which change had to be confronted at last for what it was”), to the “high magic” of “low puns,” to loneliness, death, and extinction, and finally to a W.A.S.T.E. can to deliver the sailor’s letter.

In that process she too suffers delirium: “Trembling, unfurrowed, she slipped sidewise, screeching back across the grooves of years.” (129). This recasting of memory as delirium and vision seems to me specifically to recall Oedipa’s earlier moment of perception, sparked by Genghis Cohen’s dandelion wine (95), in which she also linked memory and vision, vision and absence, and which concludes also with the imagery of plowing and the persistence of the vanished: “a land where . . . bones could still rest in peace, nourishing the ghosts of dandelions, no one to plow them up” (99). Later in the book, very near the end, Oedipa realizes that if all she has seen and suspected is real, the only way she can relate to it is “as an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia” (182). It has taken all the posthumous efforts of Pierce the Plowman to drive Oedipa out of her rut – and of course, there is a coarse sexual sense to that too, because in Pynchon, just as inspiration cannot happen without rhetorically ordered words, the spirit operates only in and through bodies, even when they are, as in this case, an inert Maas that resists transformation into a sacramental Maas.

Not for nothing does Pierce’s letter find Oedipa idle in Kinneret-Among-The-Pines. Kinneret is the farthest limit of the Promised Land, the running-out of the heritage at the edge of the most salt sea:

From thence they shall come eastward to the sea of Kinneret:  And shall reach as far as the Jordan: and at the last shall be closed in by the most salt sea. This shall be your land with its borders round about. (Numbers 34.11-12)

Heritage and disinheritance, the will and the bankruptcy of the Testament, the promise and exhaustion of the inheritance and the land, the last dribbling out of the Puritan new covenant at the edge of the most salt sea: all these, filtered through centuries of English satire, prosopopoeia, and allegory, constitute the latent and overt contents of the narrative of The Crying of Lot 49.

There was the true continuity, San Narciso had no boundaries. No one knew yet how to draw them. She had dedicated herself, weeks ago, to making sense of what Inverarity had left behind, never suspecting that the legacy was America. (178)

The New World replicates the Promised Land of the Old Testament, Pierce’s will miniaturizes/parodies/replicates the New Testament at the same time that it tropes the will Swift’s unnamed Father leaves for the instruction and guidance of Peter, Martin, and Jack, at the same time that it distantly recalls Will the Dreamer’s vision of Piers the Plowman, the only man who speaks what he means and means what he says. Everything – and everything is in this little book – comes down to language, which is both the inside and the outside, the will and the testator, the envelope and its contents, the truth and the lie. In any other novel, forged stamps could only deliver news from nowhere: in this one, with its odd congeries of subtexts and strange attractors, the most profound news may well be that which is never delivered – as is usually the case in allegories.

The archetypal allegorical problems – the relations of insides and outsides, envelope and contents, fiction and truth, language and meaning – are consistently framed, both outside and inside allegories, as binary choices. Such Swiftian false dilemmas belong, by right, in Lot 49, to Maxwell’s Demon, the great separator of opposites and accumulator of information. The demon in the box, in both the mechanical or electronic and the sexual senses of the word, becomes Oedipa’s plague and temptation all through the novel, from the mixed reels of the televised showing of Baby Igor’s movie and the reverse striptease and semi-comatose seduction that accompany it, to her perception of San Narciso as the printed circuit board of a computer, to the mailbox bearing the magical letters W.A.S.T.E. that she searches for, to the Nefastis Machine and its inventor’s graceless proposition, to Oedipa’s final emulation of Maxwell’s Demon, closed in the box of the auction room, waiting to make her binary choice, to sort the pieces of information that the actual crying of lot 49 may reveal.

Puns and their literal meanings – especially the literal meanings of words and phrases and statements that we normally take figuratively – play crucial roles in all allegories, but in none more prominently than in Lot 49. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow looks like Buddha: an enlightened one, but also a pagan idol. Maxwell’s Demon is, among other things, also a real demon, with a demon’s capacity to delude and ensnare, a spiritual (or at least only quasi-corporeal) entity entirely consistent both with the pervasive pan-theological or ecumenical religious imagery of the novel and with its scientific imagery. By the same token, Pierce Inverarity’s will is, among other things, an abstraction of volition, an incomprehensible – we’re never permitted to read the document – relic of a vanished person’s mind, as well as just Pierce Inverarity’s list of bequests, the written expression of the heritage he would pass on.

That his will enslaves Oedipa only shows the weakness of her will: she ends the novel as she began it, passively waiting for revelation just as she waited to be rescued from her tower – Thurn, Torre – where she was formerly only her own prisoner but is now besieged by the Trystero. Like the Demon, Oedipa doesn’t really do anything: she is only busy, and she identifies herself ironically more accurately than she knows when, just before the auction, she tells Genghis Cohen “I’m only being a busybody” (182). Reading mysteries is a good escape from serious thinking: living mysteries – and the plot of Lot 49 is a classic the-witness-died-before-he-could-name-the-killer cornball – living mysteries of that kind is a good escape from yourself. In that context, if Oedipa’s name means anything at all, it should remind us that, quite literally, she can’t escape from herself any more than Oedipus could – or, for that matter, any more than Narcissus could.

Oedipa’s persistent seeking for revelation and explanation outside herself is an error of just the same order. She is named, after all, for a man who always found the answers to his puzzles in himself, however uncomfortable that knowledge may have been. But Oedipa looks for enlightenment outside herself – at books, wills, envelopes, trash containers, portraits of James Clerk Maxwell – just as she waits for some external power to free her from her imaginary tower, wherein, it is worth pointing out, usually resides the maiden who is the goal of the quest, not the maiden who has undertaken a quest: it’s hard to do much questing without leaving home (or is it? That’s one of the paradoxes that readers of Lot 49 must resolve individually, each time they read the book). Not surprisingly, Oedipa’s quest is always frustrated.

The Crying of Lot 49 painfully establishes a gestalt, quite consistently maintained, of imminent but always aborted communication, from the grand symbolism of the muted post horn through the comic mixing of the reels of Baby Igor’s movie to the more ominous deaths or disappearances of Driblette and Mr. Thoth and the burning of Zapf’s bookstore. And for a while at least, The Crying of Lot 49 turns us all into replicas of Oedipa. We too grow suspicious of coincidences. We search for significance in casual presences and equally casual absences. We hunt for clues, for patterns – and the major pattern the alert reader finally sees is not the one Oedipa sees. She can discern conspiracy, or, if that is not true, paranoia: we begin to see someone looking in the wrong place for the wrong thing, we begin to recognize a gestalt of quest and frustration, of clues followed until the key clue disappears or aborts or misfires. The fine touch lies in the fact that, like Oedipus until very, very late in Sophocles’ play, Oedipa’s faith in her detective powers and in the certainty that the truth lies outside her never wavers: at the end of the novel, she still pursues her clues.

As in many allegories, an important part of the strategy of The Crying of Lot 49 is to implicate the reader into the work, not by means of a naive identification or empathy with the hero but by inducing in us a kind of mirroring of the protagonist, the sort of replication of the novel’s and the protagonist’s essential action that we have just been discussing. In The Crying of Lot 49, this implication of the reader works so pervasively, from so early on in the narrative, that it completely usurps the role played by framing and the transgressing of frames in other allegories. That is, we are caught up in the narrative by the same device that distances us from it, just as the mediation of the stage, in The Tempest, both initiates us into the cosmos of the play and by its violation (in the first and second scenes, in the epilogue) re-aligns us with it, or just as the multiple narrators and perspectives of Lord Jim or Heart of Darkness or the donning and slipping of masks and tones and stylistic/grammatical relations at the beginning of Pale Fire conduct us into those works, simultaneously attracting and repelling us, drawing us near and pushing us away. So we in effect “become” Oedipa, imitating her assiduous cryptographic activity. Like Oedipa, we begin to divine connections, to suspect meanings behind the surface of things. We start looking for clues, for patterns, and like Oedipa, we encounter constant frustration, a sense of meaning hovering just beyond our comprehension. Unlike Oedipa, we learn from this frustration of expectations – we would have to be poorer readers than she not to notice it. It pushes us away, distances us from her:  We want to know more actively than she does.

To the reader, it should be clear that Oedipa has had all the revelation she is going to get when she observes, on her way into the auction room, that Genghis Cohen’s fly is unzipped: that, after all, has been exactly the pattern of all her other attempts to trace down clues. At the end of the trail, she has always found not revelation but copulation, or at least the offer of it. In the sexually punning sense of the words that has hovered just below or above their commonplace metaphoric meaning, that has been the demon in the box that Oedipa has had to contend with, a demon whose binary choices are between revelation and copulation, as was clearly demonstrated by Oedipa’s encounter with John Nefastis and his machine.

It is a significant set of alternatives, because in some ways they are not alternatives at all: revelation and copulation are for Oedipa effectively the same. What Oedipa seeks in revelation is the copula, the connection, the “is” statement, the datum that will let her say X is Y, Trystero is real, the surface is false, she is right. She wants the connection that will let her pierce through the surface of things into the heart of their darkness and return with the kernel of their meaning. Oedipa desires, with all the lust of a Roland-Barthesian reader, the certainty and univocation of personification. She (and Pynchon, to be sure) charges with a heavy freight of eroticism her search for an escape from her tower, from Pierce’s will, from the multiple layers of clothing with which she insulates herself, but the search, however erotically conducted, is not aimed at any grand passion – unless it is a passion for order, for clarity, for unmitigated connotation.

But allegory does not convey meaning in that way, nor will it allow you to impoverish the richness of either the depth or the surface of things so easily. Therefore, the auction at which Oedipa awaits her revelation is exactly that, an auction. And Oedipa is not there to bid, to participate, to act; only to watch, to wait, to interpret, to read the event – “to be a busybody,” as she herself says. For Oedipa, a static truth lies beneath a deceiving surface, and the surface is clue or symbol that she, as a disengaged observer, can follow inward to the heart of the mystery. Whodunits reveal their secrets that way, but allegories don’t. They don’t signify in that crude, symbolic manner. They enact their meaning and they entrap their reader in that meaning, just as Oedipa’s quest has enacted meaning that the reader has learned by, at least in part, replicating. Oedipa has learned to read the muted post horn univocally, as a symbol for the Trystero; the reader understands it multivalently as, among other possibilities, an image of frustrated communication, an ideogram of stifled art, and a paradoxical symbol that does in fact communicate meaning in its depiction of silence.

Beneath the notice, faintly in pencil, was a symbol she’d never seen before, a loop, triangle and trapezoid, thus:

It might be something sexual, but she somehow doubted it. She found a pen in her purse and copied the address and symbol in her memo book, thinking: God, hieroglyphics.” (52)

A circle and tangent, a triangle and quadrangle: From the reader’s point of view, the ideogram might as well be an abstract expression of the action of the novel and of Oedipa’s final situation vis-a-vis her “symmetrical four” alternatives. It might be a meaningless doodle. But Oedipa perceives it from the first as a symbol, that is, as in itself a blank, a void, to which meaning not-necessarily-intrinsic to itself must be attached. The meaning she finally attaches to it – she reads it as a sign of the vengeance of Trystero upon Thurn und Taxis – is unequivocal, however mysterious her Trystero may be.

But hieroglyphics, as every literalist knows, are sacred writings, scriptures, and scriptures are notoriously difficult to interpret and rarely unequivocal. We can read this hieroglyph in relation to the last trumpets, which will blow “at the round earth’s imagined corners” in the Apocalypse that a lot of Pynchon criticism wants to see in this novel. We can read it as a peace symbol, like any other negating image: the trumpet of war silenced. We can see it as an emblem of art muffled, voices silenced – either by the “Industrial anything” (51) Fallopian opposes or by the likes of Fallopian and his followers. It could represent failed communication, signals and messages stopped at their source and undelivered.18 We can see it too as a pure anti-symbol, an abstract image of negation, a sign cancelling itself, voiding its own meaning – in that sense, the concise emblem of language itself, language already deconstructed, language flying apart into the opposing meanings of puns and negations. Above all, we can grasp the muted post horn as a symbol of symbols, an ideograph of symbolism, an image demanding and denying significance and signification at the same moment, by the same means, and in this way too imaging language, deconstructed and irrational, showing its irrationality and multiplicity at every moment, and thereby – thereby – showing also how deeply and accurately it reflects, embodies, conveys reality and real meaning.

The muted post horn is a speaking picture, the instrument that plays at the Deaf-Mute dance, and the reader hears it clearly enough, hears it as clearly as the Deaf-Mute dancers at the Convention hear the “unthinkable order of music” (131) they all dance to, despite Oedipa’s fears of collisions. Once again, Oedipa’s failure to consider any aspect of the muted post horn but the single one she selects enacts important meaning in the novel: all those other possibilities are as available to her as they are to us.

So too Oedipa enacts meaning once more at the novel’s close: she waits, as in essence she has always waited, for release from her tower, for an external force to shatter the shell of her world – and the simple fact is, the novel has conditioned us by now to anticipate that nothing will happen. Perhaps this time we will be wrong. Perhaps a revelation will come. After all, Oedipa, for all her inertia and her fear, is here, is still, however timidly, questing. If revelation does come, we readers will not be given it, because ours is the harder quest of working through the allegory, each for him or herself, each as alone as Oedipa ever was. These final paragraphs of The Crying of Lot 49 carry us back to the very beginnings of allegory, to allegory as rhetorical and grammatical kin of riddle and enigma and irony, allegory as a veil over meaning rather than a spotlight on it. Whatever revelation Oedipa may or may not get (remember that her namesake did finally find out what he sought, and the knowledge cost him his eyes and his homeland), she will certainly have to continue waiting until she learns, as the reader by now knows, that the choices, in allegory as in life, are always greater than either/or. Oedipa will have to continue waiting in the limbo of her passivity, trapped inside Clerk Maxwell’s binary box, until she can hear the music of a muted post horn – which is, in itself, no mean symbol of allegory.

Chapter 7:  Beasts and Men

Ere long she fownd, whereas he wearie sate,
To rest him selfe, foreby a fountaine side,
Disarmed all of yron-coted Plate,
And by his side his steed the grassy forage ate.
He feedes vpon the cooling shade, and bayes
His sweatie forehead in the breathing wind,
Which through the trembling leaues full gently playes
Wherein the cherefull birds of sundry kind
Do chaunt sweet music, to delight his mind.
          Faerie Queene, I.vii.2-3

So as he was pursuing of his quest
He chaunst to come whereas a iolly Knight,
In couert shade him selfe did safely rest,
To solace with his Lady in delight:
His warlike armes he had from him vndight.
          Faerie Queene, VI.iii.20

Thence passing forth, not farre away he found,
Whereas the Prince himselfe lay all alone,
Loosly displayd vpon the grassie ground,
Possessed of sweete sleepe, that luld him soft in swound.
Wearie of trauell in his former fight,
He there in shade himselfe had layd to rest,
Hauing his armes and warlike things vndight,
Fearelesse of foes that mote his peace molest.
          Faerie Queene, VI.vii.18-19

No infant, on waking far after its hour, so suddenly rushes with face toward the milk, as then did I, to make yet better mirrors of my eyes, stooping to the wave which flows there that we may be bettered in it.1
          Paradiso XXX. 82-87

Taking off armor, in The Faerie Queene, always enacts multivalency. It embodies unmasking as well as disarming, baring the truth as much as lowering the guard. It presents vulnerability in all its senses, bad and good and neutral, moral and psychological, ethical and narrative. It enacts opening, unclosing, disclosing, as well as unclothing, stripping, baring, revealing everything that should – and shouldn’t – be seen. Taking off armor betokens unreadiness and readiness for anything, the failure of discipline and the transcendence of discipline, the abandoning of a role and duty and/or openness to all roles and duties. It shares all the ambivalence of nakedness: innocence and guilt, shamelessness and modesty, nature at once unfallen and fallen.

These, of course, are all reasons why The Faerie Queene in particular, and allegory in general, are always and especially the form (or genre or mode) of openness, to which nothing is more opposed in practice or in theory than any program of closure. This of course is also why allegory is so uniquely the language of The Other, the space of The Other, in all its richness and multiplicity. For instance: allegories have been engaged with The Other in its feminist sense at least since The Odyssey, whose rashly self-identified No-Man hero has to pass through all the stages and tests of unmanhood – Circe, Calypso, Nausicaa, Teiresias, the Shades, the beggar disguise, Penelope – before he can reclaim his now altered identity, no longer “sacker of cities,” but now “father” and “son” and “husband.”

Because it is a form of openness, allegory has never conceived or even utilized The Other exclusively in the feminist sense – not even in The Odyssey – because it has always understood The Other not as only adversarial but as ultimately assimilable to The Same, conformable to The One – as witness the dazzling role reversals of Thomas Pynchon’s gender-bent version of The Odyssey, Vineland, which tropes Homer’s poem most pointedly in terms of sexual roles and identities.2 Pynchon’s text wears its Homeric strange attractors lightly, comically, and they compete for the reader’s attention with others just as strange and just as attractive – that, after all, is part of the mechanics or physics or co(s)mics that make allegory – but they incarnate The Other in Pynchon’s allegory just as surely as they form part of its own self-conscious literariness, its peculiar and gymnastic con-textuality.


For all that allegories are so deeply and complexly committed to textuality and to literariness, to the condition of existing as words arranged on pages with a long, invokable history of other such words before or behind them, all allegories reinvent for themselves their own literary history and redefine for themselves the precise status of their literariness. Every allegory is self-contradictorily self-contained and dependent. Each exists in relation, if not to every other allegory, at least to a self-selected congeries of stories, social systems, poems, plays, customs, movies, politics, fables, folklore, myths, jokes, histories, religions, dialects, styles, paintings, beliefs, statues, philosophies, slang, hypotheses, and sciences – plus a handful of irreducible facts, like life and death. By its selection of its fields, each allegory creates, even as it defines, the conditions of its own existence. This paradoxical referentiality and independence create both the self (the text) and its world (that text’s particular history of textuality) at the same time, all the while insisting on the autonomy of each.

This strange posture gives to allegory, at first glance, a deluding appearance of finitude: that it chooses some things and omits others seems to point to a kind of closure, to limitation, and ultimately perhaps to allegory’s confinability, to its commensurability with some system of literary or linguistic measurement, to its conformity to some theory as yet unborn or unarticulated. No such luck, I think. Chaos theory warns of the probability of infinite variation within a seemingly finite system containing only a few variables. Allegory’s paradoxical self-referentiality is not a stopping point but a starting point: it might be better called efferencing. It is the working basis of all the rest (and they are many) of allegory’s paradoxes, the generator of an ongoing series of “efferences” within the text – bifurcations, the mathematicians would call them – that propel the allegory’s meaning onward and outward beyond the closures of word and page and story, that set in motion a process of doubling and redoubling, unfolding and infolding, that will ultimately reach beyond textuality into what we are pleased to call reality (if we give our own thinking that much credit).

The three “disarming” texts quoted from The Faerie Queene at the head of this chapter furnish apposite illustrations of what I’m trying to describe here. Looked at from purely narrative or rhetorical points of view, what Spenser has created in these texts amounts to a narrative “topos” (for lack of a better word), an action sequence of relatively fixed verbal and physical components, the whole usable or adaptable to a variety of characters and situations. Whether the knight is Arthur or Calepine or Red Crosse, he sprawls upon the ground: he is sometimes even characterized as being “loosely displayd.” He lays his armor aside: the word “undight” appears most of the time, and the armor is frequently “warlike,” in stark contrast to the pleasaunce in which the knight finds himself. He relaxes and briefly forgets his quest and/or his warrior status: “rest” and “delight” are the key words. He is frequently, but not always, accompanied by a woman: in the case of Red Crosse Knight, Duessa disguised as Fidessa; with Calepine, Serena. Finally, the seemingly idyllic interlude is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of an (usually) unanticipated foe: Orgoglio, the Blatant Beast, Turpin. The nature of this foe or the threat he/she/it poses usually makes explicit the danger or temptation that has been implicit in the preceding topos, and the subsequent interaction of the foe and the protagonist of the topos serves as a spring to propel the poem’s further narrative development.

The Faerie Queene is rich in such narrative topoi. They include such particularly multivalent actions as the maiden encouraging her warrior, the maiden circled by (frequently ambiguous) admirers, the protagonist learning about him- or herself from a face-to-face interlocutor, even the fight with an animal-monster, of which there are three versions in Book I alone, and of which Calidore’s struggle with the Blatant Beast in Book VI is an especially significant variant. The maiden-encouraging-her-warrior topos begins with Una’s attempts to rouse Red Crosse in his struggle with Error, passes through (to stay just in the confines of Book I) the avatar of Duessa as Fidessa calling out in the middle of Red Crosse’s fight with Sans Joi, and concludes with Una again, this time snatching the knife from Red Crosse’s hand and upbraiding him for his weakness in his debate with Despaire. The latter sequence also initiates the topos of the protagonist learning about himself from an interlocutor: Red Crosse attains his first real self-knowledge through Despaire’s analysis and depiction of his derelictions. In Book I that process culminates in Red Crosse Knight’s parallel interview with the blind hermit Contemplation, who informs him fully about his character and identity. Its numerous manifestations in later books include actions as diverse as the priest of Isis’s explanation of Britomart’s dream and Calidore’s conversation with Melibee about the joys of the retired life.3 The topos of the maiden encircled by admirers encompasses an even wider scope: starting with the court of Lucifera, it passes through Una and the Satyrs, the court of Philotime and the Bower of Bliss, the Temple of Venus and the House of Busirane, the Tournament of Beauty, the pastoral dances of Book VI, and the dance of the Graces on Mount Acidale.

These by no means exhaust the narrative topoi that Spenser creates or adapts for his poem, but they are sufficient to make the point: such narrative and verbal theme-and-variation constitutes one of the most fundamental building blocks of the poem. These topoi are not simply an ornament or a verbal device: what I am describing is a phenomenon at once rhetorical, narrative, and structural: not a vehicle of meaning only, but a way of meaning, a component of meaning, even meaning itself. And the manner of Spenser’s use of this phenomenon amounts to a literary – or, if you prefer, verbal – version of what chaos theory describes as self-similarity across scale. Each usage preserves basic elements of the root topos: that is what provides the self-similarity. But each usage also alters the circumstances, characters, and significance of the topos: that is what parallels the differences of scale within physical systems. Nor do the correspondences with chaos theory stop there. At the same time that it is generating these similarities-with-differences, Spenser’s usage approximates the kinds of mathematical bifurcations of events that take place within analyses of turbulent systems: division and replication (in The Faerie Queene, of characters and actions; in physical systems, of things and conditions) lead to further division and replication until flow “degenerates” into turbulence, within which there occur paradoxical or anomalous pockets of order – not unlike the stately marriage of the Thames and the Medway in the confusions of Books III and IV, or the orderly dance of the Graces in the midst of the disorderly pursuits and fortuitous catastrophes of Book VI. The same principles that create disorder in the first place also give rise to order. The interwoven dance of the Graces provides the template for the confusing interlacement of character and narrative at the heart of The Faerie Queene.

The Graces can in fact serve quite well as an example of The Faerie Queene’s joyous immersion in the destructive element of textuality. First and foremost, the Graces exist textually, literarily, artistically, before Spenser ever deals with them. Before Spenser incorporates them into his poem, the Graces have a long history as rather recondite figures of classical myth, as icons in the plastic arts, and particularly as richly interpretable figures in Renaissance continental art. Inevitably, they enter The Faerie Queene trailing some of that learned commentatorial nimbus of glory with them:4 Colin Clout provides some of it in his gloss to Calidore about the creatures he has seen dancing (VI.x.21-28). In addition to this, Spenser himself has “textualized” the Graces already within his poem: they appeared first in a dream vision, albeit a false one, in the First Book of The Faerie Queene. Worked upon by Archimago’s temptations, Red Crosse Knight dreams that Venus and the Graces lead Una to him, “a loose Leman to vile seruice bound” (I.xlviii). This distinctly carnal “incarnation” of the figure significantly complicates the subsequent appearance of the Graces in The Faerie Queene, at least insofar as their unbreakable link to Venus is concerned.

The place and circumstances in which the Graces make their major appearance in Spenser’s poem only adds to their “bookishness,” their hyper-textual mode of being: Mount Acidale serves a classical locus of poetic inspiration, the haunt of the Muses for whom the Graces seem, in Book VI, to be substituting or with whom Spenser is conflating them. In fact, as Spenser well knew (see Epithalamion 310), Acidale is properly the name of a stream, not a mountain – another magical fountain of which poets must drink, another “destructive element” in which the poet, be he Spenser, Colin Clout, or Calidore, must immerse5 if any poem is to result. So Spenser’s Graces exist within his book as creatures of the book, at the same time that they are, in some way or another, begetters and creators of the book. After all, “Colin Clout” is an alter ego for and a textual interpolation of Edmund Spenser: like the Graces, he has an existence prior to and outside The Faerie Queene, and like the Graces/Muses and Acidale stream/mount, his task is primarily making books and poems, not starring in them.

Unless, of course, the books and poems in question are pastorals, as Faerie Queene VI emphatically is – in which case the makers are very much a piece of the made, and “How can we tell the dancer from the dance?” is very much a question to be asked. Pastoral is a peculiarly rich form for the Renaissance. As a genre, pastoral approaches the thorny issues of truth and artifice in very complex ways. The account of each pastoral’s coming into being, which it customarily encapsulates within itself, seriously complicates the status and nature of pastoral’s textuality. Spenser in Faerie Queene VI takes full advantage of these aspects of pastoral. The last generated of the classical genres,6 pastoral comes into being as the form of nostalgia for a past, lost world, but a world that never was – egalitarian, simple, peaceful, suffused with music and poetry, alive with the usually benevolent presences of the gods, non-laborious, without violence or pain other than the pain of unrequited love. Because it is the creation of urban courtiers, in a time and place where real sheep and real shepherds, with all their attendant dirt and stink, were hardly unknown entities, pastoral is, from its very beginning, a genre of artifice, a genre that “falsely” transforms a known squalid reality into purity and grace, a poetry that consciously, even blatantly, uses every sophisticated poetic device to pose as artless. It is a very reasonable supposition, however, that neither Theocritus nor any of his followers ever believed for a second that sheep herding was a glamorous or even hygienic activity. (See Touchstone and Audrey for more on this subject.) A major part of the fun of pastoral for its practitioners must have been its startling, contrary-to-fact transformation of the most unpromising materials into the most elegant and refined poetry, the artistic tour de force it accomplishes by its paradoxical simplicity.

The internalized figure of the poet as shepherd and singer was present in pastoral from the start: the pastoral elegies of Bion and Moschus merely confirmed and made explicit what was already there in Theocritus. And an internalized awareness of its own artifice was already present in Theocritus’s Idylls. (See especially the first seven, the so-called “Coan Idylls.”) Subsequent classical versions of pastoral compounded its already dense self-referentiality: deliberately, by weaving into it overt and covert political content (Virgil), and inadvertently (Virgil again, in the famous Fourth Eclogue), by providing a channel for the infusion into pastoral of a whole body of Christian and Biblical imagery, themes, and figures – the shepherd/psalmist David, Christ the Good Shepherd, even Christ as the Lamb of God, the whole idea of the priest/pastor – that dramatically expanded the whole range of poetic pastoralism. Elizabethan England compounded that referential density yet further by quasi-officially adopting pastoral as the mode by which the Queen and her subjects construed each other, converting the props of pastoral poetry into the clichés of court decorum and transforming the pastoral disguises of Hellenistic poets and courtiers into the pastoral masks and masques of English poets and courtiers. They did this so pervasively and so successfully that the terms of pastoral – especially its erotic politics – become virtually interchangeable with the terms of court politics.7 The courtier-shepherd and Eliza, his unattainable goddess/shepherdess/beloved, exist almost as fused figures in the poetic politics and politic poetry of the period.

Against that rich background Spenser creates the pastoral world of Faerie Queene VI and the dance of the Graces to the piping of Colin Clout. By this point in the narrative, The Faerie Queene has already become its own source, its own pre-text and area of reference, even its own strange attractor. The dance of the Graces here near the end of the poem as we have it answers quite symmetrically the dance of the Graces in Red Crosse Knight’s dream near the beginning of the poem. It corresponds too, in position and in significance, to Red Crosse Knight’s vision, in the tenth Canto of Book I, of “The new Hierusalem” (I.x.57), a vision which, like Calidore’s sight of the Graces, Red Crosse is only briefly allowed before having to return to the more mundane tasks of serving his lady and conquering his monster, again like Calidore.8 Just as the Hermit Contemplation explained the New Jerusalem and his identity and goal to Red Crosse Knight, Colin Clout explicates the Graces for Calidore:

These three on men all gracious gifts bestow,
Which decke the body or adorne the mynde,
To make them louely or well fauored show,
As comely carriage, entertainement kynde,
Sweete semblaunt, friendly offices that bynde,
And all the complements of curtesie:
They teach vs, how to each degree and kynde
We should our selues demeane, to low, to hie,
To friends, to foes, which skill men call Ciuility.

Colin’s explanation quite evidently makes the Graces the sources and teachers of courtesy in its broadest application, as Book VI has been assiduously construing it for us. In that light, the figure taking the place of the absent Venus at the center of the knot of the Graces ought to be the ambiguous “soueraine Lady Queene” (VI.proem.6), Elizabeth Gloriana, whom the poet of the whole work – that is, the “Spenser” who creates both Faerie Queene and Colin Clout – has identified as “So faire a patterne . . . of Princely curtesie” (VI.proem.6). Colin confirms this in its full ambiguity by apologizing to “Great Gloriana, greatest Maiesty” (VI.x.28) because the lady he pipes for at the center of the Graces is not herself but “a countrey lasse” (VI.x.25), whose “Diuine resemblaunce, beauty soueraine rare,/ Firme Chastity” (VI.x.27) and numerous other virtues have “graced her so much to be another Grace” (VI.x.26). So Spenser’s other Elizabeth usurps the place of the Shepherdess Eliza and/or Queen Gloriana at the climactic moment of vision in The Faerie Queene as we have it, and the poet’s complex interweaving of the “real” world outside the poem – the world of courtly politics and pastoral fictions – with the “fictive” world of the poem – the world of courtly politics and pastoral fictions – coalesces in a triumph of the personal and subjective over the public and objective, the individual over the communal, in the celebration of the most communal of all virtues.

That celebration, moreover, takes the form of – literally: but then what else could it be, in allegory? – of  “dis-gracing” Elizabeth/Gloriana, of asserting the authority of the author/subject over the subject/sovereign.9 This is an extremely subversive moment in the narrative of The Faerie Queene, but it also a typically allegorical one: it subverts the assumed order of the “real” world by exposing the vulnerability of the powerful to the very symbols they manipulate, and it subverts the assumed order and orthodoxy of the “readerly” world by forcing us to see the coincidence of things we thought were orders apart – not just Acidale and the New Jerusalem, but Spenser’s/Colin’s “real-life” country lass and Acidale and the New Jerusalem, and Venus and Gloriana and Elizabeth and Elizabeth. By using the language of conventional literary compliment to undo literary conventionality and to force us to read what the words say, the Acidale episode stands on their heads all the assumptions we have been making about the values of the poem and the airtightness of Faeryland. Like the vision of the New Jerusalem in Book I, the dance of the Graces at Mount Acidale depicts and narrates the source of the values from which The Faerie Queene springs. Unlike the vision of the New Jerusalem, which concludes with the simple postponement of those ultimate values, in the dance of the Graces those final values are completely transvalued, transformed into something else – which is, of course and exactly, the dance of the Graces.

In that central literary critical text of the English Renaissance, George Puttenham’s The Arte of English Poesie, the device that is allegory is assimilated to the fact – image, role, metaphor, and reality – of the courtier. Puttenham contradictorily describes it as “Allegoria or the Figure of false semblant” and “the Courtier or figure of faire semblant”10 (299). Its work is dissimulation and disguise, “a duplicitie of meaning or dissimulation under covert and darke intendments” (154), “that our wordes and our meanings meete not” (186). In the Elizabethan court and in Elizabethan poetry, a common form of that dissimulation was the use of pastoral, in which, as Louis Montrose succinctly puts it, “amorous motives displace or subsume forms of desire, frustration, and resentment other than the merely sexual” (“Gentlemen and Shepherds,” 440). In The Faerie Queene, Spenser bonds shepherds and courtiers even more tightly by making his own Book of the Courtier a pastoral excursus from the Biblical and romance codes that have largely governed the rest of the poem.

I think we are entitled to conclude that two things equal to the same thing are equal to each other. Allegory is a courtier; a courtier is a shepherd; ergo, pastoral is allegory, the figure of faire and false semblant. The Graces, remember, among the other things they teach, include “Sweete semblaunt” (VI.x.23). The convergence and implosion of all these strands and vehicles of meaning in the Mount Acidale episode results in the overt contradiction of the “courtly” premises of the proem and the displacement, the disgracement, of Elizabeth Gloriana, who in the proem is posited as the center from whom courtesy flows out to the court and the world. Spenser’s acknowledgement that it is he who demotes her and replaces her with one of the least of her own subjects – he claims his responsibility for this rebellion or discourtesy by means of his textualized self, Colin Clout – is impolitic and anti-courtly. By its honesty and straightforwardness, it inverts both the techniques and the goals of both the courtier’s and the allegorist’s dissimulation and indirection. It is an act that, in guise of courtly politeness and poetic grace, remains at once simple, rude, and rustical – just what one would expect of a shepherd.

It is also an act that uses doubleness and duplicity in the service of integrity. In the largest sense, everything that happens in The Faerie Queene, everything that is The Faerie Queene, grows out of the initial division of Red Crosse Knight and Una “into double parts” (I.ii.9) by the immediate agency of Archimago and the ultimate agency of life – even fictive life.11 The virtue that governs the first book of Spenser’s poem is not just Holiness, but also Wholeness: completeness, inclusiveness, integrity, unity – Oneness, if you like. That Wholeness, that unity, is not attained in Book I, or if it is attained – that depends on how you understand Red Crosse Knight’s and Una’s betrothal/marriage – it cannot be sustained. Wholeness collapses, implodes. Unity bifurcates. Not only are Una and Red Crosse divided, but the unity or integrity that Red Crosse and Una embody and enact breaks down into its component parts. Each part in turn must be learned or mastered piecemeal, in its component parts, by other knights and ladies. These characters in turn replicate Red Crosse and Una in their own peculiar circumstances and scales and embody and enact bifurcations and divisions of those two “archetypal” phenomena. Archetypal here carries not only its Jungian sense, but especially the scientific and physical senses of establishing the initial conditions of the poem. Una and Red Crosse Knight constitute the initiatory conditions that determine the nature and dimensions of the system that flows from them.

The poem’s prolific multiplication of characters and incidents emerges naturally from its radically restricted initial conditions: “A gentle knight was pricking on a plaine.” The profound simplicity and integrity of that vision is never again attained in The Faerie Queene, because even there, even at that point of still-unitary, still-whole vision, stillness has already been shattered. At the outset of the poem, stillness has already surrendered to motion, to flux, to flow. Indeed, had it not, there almost certainly would have been no poem, at least as we know “poem.” From that premise, the rest is inevitable: flux, flow, turbulence will remain dominant in The Faerie Queene and in the poet’s reality until “that same time when no more Change shall be,” when “all shall rest eternally/ With Him that is the God of Sabbaoth hight” (VII.viii.2).

Only when change and motion cease,12 when the host of things returns to their single spring – the paradoxical “God of Sabbaoth,” the monad of polymorphs – only then can there be true rest, the shadow of which the poem’s heroes seek each time they remove their armor. Only with the paradoxical vision of the coincidence of multiplicity and unity, the One and the many, Wholeness and division, stillness and motion, Sabbaoth and Sabbath, can The Faerie Queene truly end. This is why and what Spenser prays for in his poem’s last line: “O that great Sabbaoth God, graunt me that Sabaoths sight.”

The language and ideas of chaos theory are not simply a modern jargon that I am attempting to overlay on a poem readily explicable in other terms. What chaos theory has exposed to our view as the rules of behavior of complex, seemingly disorganized physical systems also serves, mutatis mutandis, to explain the behavior of large, complicated, and seemingly disorganized verbal systems. Chaos theory has invented nothing: what it has been opening to our view has always existed. The patterns, the systems, the behaviors that govern seemingly random action have always been there. We have simply not known about them: we have lacked the concepts and the language to talk about them.

We have lacked the language – but allegory hasn’t necessarily been so handicapped. Allegory exists precisely for this purpose: to talk about that for which we have no language, to lead us to apprehend concepts we cannot yet formulate or verbalize – which is a part of my difficulty here. What I am trying to suggest is that the deep structure of The Faerie Queene, the language and behavior of The Faerie Queene, all point to Spenser’s grasping concepts and ideas that we now can recognize as key elements of the theories that explain “chaotic” behavior, that reconcile order and disorder within the same system. I do not presume to say – at least not with any certainty – whether Spenser realized these ideas consciously, so as to be able to formulate them to himself in some way, or whether his conscious comprehensions were supplemented by un- or pre-, sub- or supra-conscious apprehensions, so that what I am calling the deep structure of the poem remained subliminal for him, latent in the poem he imagined. Nor can I affirm either that such behaviors are peculiar to his poem or that they constitute an inescapable part of the deepest structure of all allegory – though this last is my belief.13 But I can and do say that the patterns are there in the poem, that the language is there: in the terms he had and with the tools he had, Spenser and his poem are talking about and narrating the orders and disorders, the samenesses and differences that Chaos theory describes.

So are Dante and his poem.


The symmetries and consonances of Dante’s great work have, over the centuries since the poet fell silent, drawn clamorous attention to themselves. Indeed, it is impossible on even a superficial reading of the poem not to notice them, and it requires only the smallest realignment of readerly perspective to begin reconceiving them as fractal similarities. One could easily go further and argue, intelligently if a bit facilely, that the analogous relation of microcosm to macrocosm and the whole medieval system of correspondences across orders and across history – the root ideas that are conventionally understood to underlie Commedia’s internal symmetries – can themselves be construed as a perceived pattern of self-similarities across scale, a pre-scientific mode of discerning the order inherent in apparent chaos. It will be no more than belated justice if such a reconceptualization brings us to realize that medieval thinking could be not only subtle (which criticism has been willing to concede for some time now) but also “correct,” according to the most contemporary (and therefore momentary) notions of correctness.

Dante, however, is interested in more than subtlety and much more than correctness, and as much as he is interested in similarity across orders and across history, he is also much more deeply concerned with differences from order to order and with the shattering of historical typology, or rather its implosion to a single unreplicable moment. That moment most readers assume they know. They assume it to be the one that all orthodox readings of Commedia demand: the Incarnation and death of Christ. Certainly in Dante’s schema the fact of the Incarnation is historically, theologically, and psychologically central: it has left ineradicable marks in Hell and Heaven and the human mind. For all that, however, the Incarnation is not the central event of Dante’s poem. In Commedia, the coming of Christ plays a poor second fiddle to the advent of Beatrice, whose incarnation and appearance in Florence constituted the central event of Dante’s life and art, whose arrival in Hell precipitates the action of Commedia, whose arrival in Purgatorio provides the poem’s emotional climax, and whose withdrawal in Paradiso completes the poem’s self-closure. If the whole, complex edifice of the Commedia were to be construed as Dante’s exfoliation of the content of a single word, that word would be Beatrice, not Christ.14

Beatrice arrives three times in Commedia: once to Virgil in Hell, as Virgil recounts to Dante (Inferno II.52-126); once to Dante on earth, as Beatrice herself reminds the poet (Purgatorio XXX.109-138; XXXI.49-63); and once in the Terrestrial Paradise (Purgatorio XXX.22-48 ff) – that is, twice in memory and once “in fact.” In heaven she will disappear from Dante’s side as Virgil disappears at the moment of her arrival in the poem, as Statius disappears, unremarked, after that. In the relatively short space of the poem in which she is present in propria persona, Beatrice takes over Virgil’s role as guide and teacher of the pilgrim. That, however, scarcely explains her importance to Dante or to his poem: to truly grasp that, we must look with non-Singletonian eyes at what Charles Singleton has so aptly described as “the pattern at the center.”15

Beatrice materializes in Purgatorio in the place of Christ. She fills the empty space in the chariot, the empty spot in the procession, arriving in glory, with angels scattering flowers, to the voices of an angel chorus. Dante’s similes compare her arrival to a dawn and to the Final Judgment (XXX.13-27).

We go back thus to that expectation as to a thread that can guide us through all this by revealing to us, as we move along it, the certain outline of a poet’s intention. We expect Beatrice. But all the while everything, the pattern of the whole, the image of time immobilized and expectant at its center, all seems to call for Christ. (Singleton, Elements, 50)

And here now, at the center, where the very configuration of the procession itself has seemed to call for Him, here now, as angels strew a cloud of flowers in the air and shout Benedictus qui venis, here Beatrice is at last given to us by the very image which, so long before, had given Christ in His coming… (Elements, 51)

At last there is someone in triumph upon the chariot at the center. What in so many ways was called for is now delivered. A pattern is fulfilled. It is not Christ who comes. It is Beatrice – Beatrice who comes as Christ. (Elements, 52)

It is a figure almost too transparent in the way it reveals a poet’s intention. There may be no mistake about it. The coming of Beatrice has completely fulfilled the demands of the pattern. As Christ will come at His second coming, so does Beatrice come here: in a cloud of glory, at the end of time and at the center of time – to judge. The analogue is complete. (Elements, 53)

The analogue is more than complete: it’s overflowing. It’s overflowing because (as Singleton himself is very aware: Elements, 50) Christ is already present in the procession as the gryphon who pulls the chariot that Beatrice comes to occupy. Dante’s figures (as Singleton was always wont to warn us) are rarely transparent, and “a poet’s intention” is no easily knowable thing. The sequence of the procession, however, is an ascertainable datum, and in that procession the gryphon pulls the chariot that Beatrice arrives in glory to ride: it is her triumphal procession, not Christ’s. She, not Christ, judges Dante, and she forgives him, just as she interceded for him and even “harrowed Hell” for him (“For this I visited the gate of the dead”: XXX.139). Beatrice does not appear as Christ though she acts like Christ – indeed, she acts for Christ, and in place of Christ, and that is no negligible phenomenon. Christ is in fact significantly absent from Commedia as an agent, though present as a historical datum and a theological entity, while Beatrice is pervasive in the poem.

Singleton is quite correct in postulating a pattern at the center of Commedia, but it is no orthodox pattern of analogues for Christ. There are precious few analogues of any kind in Commedia, even in the spiritual and linguistic halfway house of Purgatorio, where Dante the pilgrim must learn to see – and Dante the poet to speak – in ways other than the literalist vision and univocation of Inferno. Nevertheless, Beatrice’s place in the procession constitutes as literal a datum as anything else the pilgrim sees and the poet reports of Purgatorio, and as such it requires just as much attention to its literal statement and placement as Singleton gives to the chariot’s.16 That placement argues, the whole poem argues, that Beatrice supercedes Christ and replaces the priests – at least for Dante. For Dante, Beatrice is the agent of salvation and the channel of grace. She is Dante’s intercessor and guide, without benefit of clergy, without consultation with Christ. In the procession, the gryphon awaits and looks to her. The chariot bears her; the gryphon draws it. To take the statements of the poem literally, we must conclude that Christ acted during a single historical moment that had and continues to have eternal consequences, but that moment is past and Christ is now passive, as withdrawn and symbol-shielded (the gryphon) as any other aspect of the godhead. As the pilgrim’s final revelation in Paradiso shows, Christ is the avenue by which humanity is grafted onto divinity; equally clearly, the action of the poem declares that Beatrice is the portal through which divinity affects humanity.17 Beatrice, not Christ, is now the active agent of salvation in human time and history. That is what the text says, and – as I’ve had other occasions to say in this study – honi soit qui mal y pense.

The dimensions that Dante assigns Beatrice shouldn’t surprise us: Beatrice has been for Dante always the embodiment of otherness, of The Other in all its richness and strangeness. Her role in Commedia embraces, but is not confined by, all the conceivable feminist senses of The Other. Most especially, her Otherness includes a complete reversal, a total transvaluation, of all the conventional linkages of the female in the conventional medieval systems of correspondences. It is not enough to point to the shadowy figures of the Shekinah and Wisdom – Sapientia, Sophia – to explain her attributes in the poem: that merely trivializes how radically Other they are by assimilating them, and through them Beatrice, to a logocentric, Christocentric theology. Dante does not minimalize the difference in gender between Christ and Beatrice as the theology of the Logos erases the gender of Wisdom. On the contrary, Dante maximizes it18 as he maximizes the role of matriarchy in the godhead: Heaven, after all, is an image of Mary, the multifoliate rose, and since images do not lie in Paradiso (even when they are not “true”), Heaven then is, in some sense not yet clear, Mary, female, woman, Other. Commedia, like all allegories, is a much stranger work than orthodoxy wants it to be.

In the terms in which we have talked about allegory, Commedia is the poem par excellence of liminality, of borders and borderline states and of the crossing of borders, even their transgressing. Fractals are all borders, and pilgrims inveterate and unavoidable crossers of them. The borders of life and death, this world and the other, hell and purgatory and heaven are fractal dimensions, resembling each other across the borders of scale and nature and existence that separate their orders, and Dante the pilgrim crosses them all, with a quite irregular passport and very dubious guides.

Even Virgil wonders about Beatrice’s appearance in hell, Cato questions both Dante’s and Virgil’s right to enter purgatory, and everyone everywhere wonders about Dante’s corporeal journeying. He crosses Acheron, he passes over Styx and Phlegython, he bypasses the circling river of ocean, crosses Lethe and Eunoe, drinks of the river of light – all limits, all borders, all Jordans (which imagery the poet does not use) – that mark off states and conditions the pilgrim has no right to, does not belong to, should not be able to see. Each border crossed, each liminal transgression or trespass, brings him only to another border, in an infinite, synchronic and synoptic progression and recession that in the last line of the poem loops back to the poem’s beginning, to return the pilgrim – now about to become the poet – to his and our starting point, his and our first borderline, the entrance to the poem.

Transgression and trespass brought Dante – and us – to our wanderings in the obscure thickets of figuration, and only transgression and trespass will deliver us from them. In the ecology of Commedia, purging souls move slowly upward, heavenly souls move where they will, and only the damned are fixed, confined forever within the borders of their order, locked into their unrelenting choices – if you will, imprisoned in the armor of their univocal vision. The poet and the reader who accompanies him must constantly change their minds – resonant phrase! – as they change their perspectives. The pilgrim, the poet, and the reader – Commedia’s most holy trinity – together must cross all the borders, ford all the rivers, because it is only in the poem’s final fractal dimension – the repetition of the trespasses, outside the text, in the reader – that the pilgrim’s journey and the poet’s repetition of it can finally come to rest.

Most of the rivers Dante crosses mark the limits of linguistic orders and their attendant, prerequisite modes of perception. Charon contains within its borders a world perceived and expressed corporeally. Its language is a form of dialectical materialism, embracing everything that those words imply to twenty-first-century ears about political acuteness (the characters of Inferno are more preoccupied with the realpolitik of Dante’s world than those of any other sphere) and esthetic or spiritual obtuseness. The surprises for the reader – and the pilgrim – come first with the realization “that people of great worth were suspended in that limbo”:19 Virgil himself, Homer, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, characters of classical literature and history (Aeneas, Caesar), and the philosophers, Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, and many others. All are people of words, of the word which, for Dante’s age, was second only to the Word in authority and prestige; and the pity their plight evokes in Virgil’s face shakes the pilgrim. He is moved even more deeply, to the point of swooning, by his meeting next with Paolo and Francesca and hearing from them the story of the treacherous book – “Galeotto fu’ il libro e chi lo scrisse” (V.137) – that moved them to the sin that damns them. None of this is allegorical – at least not by itself. Encountered in their sequence these statements/events are entirely literal. They contain meaning, it is true, but that meaning is in no way other than what the characters say and do.

All this changes with the crossing of the sea to the island and mount of Purgatory. For one thing, Dante doesn’t in fact cross that sea, thereby perhaps escaping the fate of Ulysses, who is damned precisely for doing so. Dante’s sea crossing is metaphoric, figurative: even though the very first words of Purgatorio describe the poet’s progress to this narrative point and physical place as a sea journey,20 the reality of his pilgrimage has been the dramatic descent into the pit of hell and re-ascent up the ladder of Satan’s body. So we have re-entered a realm where there may be a distance between what words literally say and what they mean, where a literal falsehood may yet be a true statement. Dante signals this change and what it may imply in multiple ways at the outset of Purgatorio – for instance, in his plea for the resurgence of  “dead poetry” (la morta poesi, I.7) and his parallel contrast of the serene sky over Purgatory as opposed to “the dead air that had afflicted my eyes and breast.”21 The pilgrim now sees “alively,” and consequently his language is alive.

But this aliveness is ambiguous, troubling. Dante’s figure of the sea journey rings false. It has the hackneyed sound of the “cammin’ di nostra vita,” the ring of the clichés of the dark rhetorical woods where the poet first lost his way and became a pilgrim. The way by which Dante reached Purgatorio is so much more wondrous than anything that the imagery of rough seas and little barque can convey that the figure belittles the reality instead of enhancing it – and that gulf between what the pilgrim has done and what the poet says about it should be deeply disturbing to the attentive reader. Has Dante learned nothing from his tour of Hell? Are we really right back where we started, wandering in dead language and pointless figuration? At very best, the “poetic” metaphors of the barque of genius and the cruel sea only point to the duality of the pilgrim’s “factual” arrival at the island of Purgatory and the poet’s mental, memorial, figurative revisiting it in his narrative, a duality we nowhere felt nor were in any way troubled by in Inferno (odd solace, that). The very opening lines of Purgatorio create a tension between the reader and the text, an unease between the reader and the narrator, that all the narrator’s apparent and convincing relief at his escape from hell cannot dispel.

In turn, the first consequences of the narrator’s new – or old – way of seeing and speaking, this new and troubling relation of language to “truth” or “reality,” involve a reappraisal of some of the things the pilgrim and his fellow-travelers learned in Inferno. This reappraisal takes the form of a narrative and/or figurative reprise of some key elements of the Inferno story. For instance: as at the very beginning of the poem, when the pilgrim found himself unable to mount the slope and Virgil appeared to guide him out of his quandary, so here in Purgatory the august figure of Cato quickly appears to explain what must be done and to show the way up the mount of Purgatory.22

Cato clearly parallels Virgil both as classical author and as guide – but Cato also de facto contradicts and revises some of the data we acquired in Hell. Why isn’t he in Limbo with Aristotle and Plato, or King Latinus and Brutus? What did he know or believe that they didn’t? This is the first inkling we have that Virgil may have left something out in his account of why the “virtuous pagans” are in Hell: he is, after all, an interested party. Cato, however, by his mere presence in Purgatory, even more pointedly critiques the completeness of hellish knowledge: Cato is a suicide, a fact that Virgil specifically calls to all our attentions by his mention of Cato’s death “in Utica, where you did leave the raiment which on the great day will be so bright.”23 That raiment is of course Cato’s body, which, according to everything we know to this point, ought to be hanging on a branch in the grove of suicides.

Why it and he aren’t there remain mysteries that are not solved by facile references to his love of liberty: that is not the condition for salvation in any orthodox Christian universe, however admirable it may be in pagan or Christian contexts. Even Virgil’s reference to Cato’s formerly beloved Marcia, and the old man’s indifference to her – “Now that she dwells beyond the evil stream no more may she move me, by the law that was made when I came forth from there”24 (when was that? what law?) – reprise and reverse Paolo and Francesca’s romantic devotion to each other – harshly, it seems to most readers, but nevertheless from a perspective that reinforces how great is the gulf, how radically different the angle of vision, that separates the saved from those “beyond the evil stream.”

Even Dante’s and the purgatorial souls’ response to Casella’s song – “all rapt and attentive to his notes,” “as if naught else touched the mind of any” – draws Cato’s immediate rebuke: “What is this, you laggard spirits? What negligence, what stay is this? Haste to the mountains to strip off the slough that lets not God be manifest to you.”25 Purgatorio may be the realm where “dead poetry” revives, but clearly that doesn’t mean that poetry is automatically virtuous: the perspective of the second cantica of Commedia isn’t the same as that of the first, but it isn’t the same as “this world’s” either. Vision and revision is the order of the day. Indeed, Dante the poet goes out of his way to force us to an awareness of these revisions by his pointed use of the word galeotto to describe the angel who pilots the ship of souls to the shores of Purgatory (II.27): its only other appearance in all of Commedia occurs in Francesca’s denunciation of the book that misled her. The moral ambiguity of poetry and the pilgrim’s ambiguous responses to it – the ambiguity pointed sharply by where he is – link the beginnings of Inferno and Purgatorio in a similar concern with the status of art.

That concern will be differently oriented in Purgatory, with its almost living sculptures and Dante’s increasing visions, than it was in Hell. Dante’s ascent in Purgatory will be toward an experience of the Word and the Book as lived and living things, while art in Hell was defined as, and confined by, contrapasso. By contrapasso I mean to indicate not simply the conventional notion of Dantesque punishments as condign retaliations, sinners punished in and by the form of their own sin, but also the fundamental idea of Inferno itself, the mode of writing of Inferno, as contrapasso in the sense of counter-poetry – that is, understanding passus not only as suffering but, as it is commonly used in Medieval Latin, as a division of a poem, a canto in effect. Inferno and its contrapasso are therefore anti-poetry, poetry inverted and frozen into language utterly without connotation, and therefore without any possibility of transcendence.26 John Freccero argues that the vast difference that he – quite rightly – perceives between the poetry of Inferno and Purgatorio results from “a gradual attenuation of the bond between poetry and representation, from the immediacy of the Inferno to the dreamlike mediation of the Purgatorio to the attempt to create a non-representational poetic world in the last cantica.”27 I would differentiate slightly but significantly in the light of what I have been postulating about allegory. It is not a question of representation, because immediacy of representation is a poetic problem everywhere in Commedia. It is a different problem in different places, and the nature of those topical differences rather than representation itself accounts for the different poetries of the three cantiche.

In Inferno, language does not, cannot, pass beyond itself to other meanings or Other meaning, save through the pilgrim’s or the poet’s or the reader’s personal associations: of itself, it is limited strictly to a bare denotation. In Purgatorio, where language once again approximates the conditions of language in this world, it re-acquires the dimensions of simile and metaphor: it can and does pass beyond itself to similar or related meanings – as when Virgil’s use of the word galeotto to describe the angel pilot reminds us of Francesca’s use of the same word to describe the book that led to her sin, or when Beatrice’s eventual appearance draws into the orbit of Commedia all of her actions and significance in the Vita Nuova. The language of Paradiso presents the hardest case. In another essay, Freccero says “The structure of the cantica depends, not upon a principle of mimesis, but rather upon metaphor.”28 Again, I agree in part and I distinguish. Metaphor depends upon relations of like to like. Paradiso, contrarily, is built out of language that passes beyond itself to Other and totally different meaning. Hell is literal language without figuration; Heaven is literal language that is all figuration, real and unreal, true and untrue, simultaneously, like the bank of flowers that metamorphoses into a river of light, or the M that becomes a talking eagle. Hell is total consonance, complete coincidence of language and phenomenon. Paradiso is total disparity: disparity and incommensurability are its mode and its point. Freccero is absolutely right in saying that “paradise and the poem are co-extensive” (“Introduction to Paradiso,” 212), but they are co-extensive not in the manner of metaphor, which is similitude, but in the manner of allegory, which is difference.

The language of Paradiso could not exist in the poem without the bases of hellish and purgatorial language to build upon, and our understanding of purgatorial language in particular is still quite unfinished. The arrival of the angel’s barque in the second canto of Purgatorio has other effects on the language and perspectives of Purgatorio than those we’ve yet discussed. For one thing, the ship with its sails of angel wings almost over-literalizes the nautical metaphors that Dante used to describe his own poetic arrival at Purgatory in the first Canto. At the same time, it also reprises, in bono rather than in malo, the physical description of Satan with his mighty wings – “sails at sea I never saw so broad”29 – fanning the frozen sea of Cocytus. A negative simile proffered in the realm of total literalism becomes, in Purgatorio, a metaphor literalized. The hymn sung by the purgatorial souls – In exitu Israel de Aegypto (Psalm 113 [114]) – recalls the mordant adaptation of the hymn Vexilla regis prodeunt to Satan and his wings at the beginning of Inferno XXXIV. Finally, for readers of the letter to Cangrande, the hymn serves too as a dramatic reminder of what that text claims is the status of literal and allegorical statements in Commedia – with, of course, the allegorical content of conventional narrative here forming the literal level of this narrative, and thereby calling into question the whole order of allegory in the poem as a whole. (Not to mention the fact that the psalm also provides a means for the poet to textualize his own exegesis, should anyone wish to pursue that line of inquiry.)

Nor is that enough for Dante: at the same time that all that metalinguistic byplay is going on in the first two cantos of Purgatorio, the poet is also introducing into his narrative elements that assimilate the entrance into Purgatory, and the subsequent ascent of its mountain, with the classical descent to Hell, particularly – as one might expect – as Virgil depicts it in Aeneid VI. The reed that Dante needs to bear about his person and that grows anew as soon as plucked replays the Virgilian Golden Bough. The three-fold attempt of Dante and the soul of Casella to embrace recalls Aeneas’s encounter with the soul of his father Anchises in the Virgil’s underworld.30 What was the fact of the first cantica becomes the metaphor of the second, except – of course – it isn’t a metaphor.

As this profusion of hymns, songs, literary allusions, and dubious metaphors seems to imply, the status and nature of artistic language constitute central concerns for Purgatorio. Casella, and Virgil before him, are only the first of a string of artists and poets and patrons – Sordello, Nino Visconti, Conrad Malaspina, Oderisi, Statius, Bonagiunta, Guido Guinizzelli, Arnaut Daniel – that Dante will encounter as he climbs the terraces of the mountain toward his fated meeting with Beatrice. She, of course, is as much the creation of Dante’s own poems as the garden in which he finds her is the creature of literary and Biblical (though Dante would not have made the distinction) tradition. Indeed, the debat of Dante and Beatrice in the locus amoenus of the Terrestrial Paradise, the procession in which Beatrice first manifests herself to him,31 the mode of figuration of that procession and that garden: all these amount to encounters with books and the Book, words and the Word, artistic figuration and divine typology. Purgatorio epitomizes the lectura Dantis: the reading of Dante, Dante’s reading.

Purgatory, even the arboretum of the Terrestrial Paradise, shares the same mode of figuration, the same patterns of rhetoric, with the selva oscura of the poem’s beginning, because both exist in time and space and matter, while Hell and Heaven exist in spirit and eternity – sort of. In eternity, both language and being attain the limits of their capabilities, exhaust their potential. In Inferno, this exhaustion of possibility is signaled by language shorn of all connotation, by a language univocally wedded to a very physical imagery, by, in short, a univocation of vision and speech. In Paradiso, the exhaustion of possibility is conveyed by unending openness, by words and images that insist that they both are and aren’t true at the same time: Dante sees what he sees, but what he sees is conditioned – almost created – by the limits and capabilities of his vision. Everything that Dante sees in hell, the home of falsehood, is literally true as he sees it. Everything he sees in Heaven, where there can be no lies, is false as he sees it. Between those two points lie the dark wood of rhetoric and the garden of the Word, where the mystery of the Incarnation – the Word become flesh and dwelling amongst us – both complicates and explicates language and being.

Every basic pattern in the poem plays with these same paradoxes. The pilgrim’s descent to Hell is in fact, at every step of the way, an ascent – not just morally or metaphorically but “actually,” physically, in that he is with every apparent step downward drawing nearer to Purgatory. The ascent of Mount Purgatory is simultaneously a descent into language: the form and function of the terraced mount and the Tower of Babel coincide. Only in Heaven does the motion of ascent coincide with the fact of ascent, in any and all senses, and there the summit of the pilgrim’s clear vision is the realization of Heaven as the means of God’s descent to man: Heaven as the multifoliate rose, i.e., Heaven as Mary, the channel of the Incarnation, the figure in which the Word becomes flesh, the vehicle whose tenor was God. The final image that Dante records in the poem is the negative of that: three coinciding circles of different colors, containing the human image in its own color (XXXIII.115-132) – God pregnant with man, Incarnation apotheosized and stood on its head, difference and sameness coinciding simultaneously and in multiple respects. In short, allegory again.

The pilgrim’s situation in Paradiso is remarkably like the pilgrim’s dilemma at the very beginning of Commedia. He is wandering in a selva, bright this time rather than dark, clear rather than obscure, but a selva nevertheless, and one, like the one at the poem’s opening, wherein words themselves, the pilgrim’s language, and the poet’s figures do not bear a literal relation to things. Each is a selva where the silva of rhetoric does not correspond to the silva of reality. In Paradiso the abstractions of geometry – the three circles – may replace the abstractions of iconography – the three beasts – and the apotheosized human likeness may transcend the uncertain “shade or living man” (od ombra od omo certo: Inferno I.66), but the pilgrim’s wish and way are still obstructed by the limitations of his own vision, and his movement is still checked by external reality until divine grace moves him onward. Sameness and difference, difference and sameness, and we’re not out of the selva yet.

And this – though it may be false to orthodox theology – is true to the Incarnation. Indeed, in a very fundamental and quite precise sense, the Incarnation is allegory: saying one thing and meaning another, the One and the Other locked in the same articulation, the disjunct conjunction by which the world is bound. Dante says this, as clearly as allegory can say anything, in his nearly final vision of the universe as book:

In its depth I saw ingathered, bound by love in one single volume, that which is dispersed in leaves throughout the universe: substances and accidents and their relations (costume), as though fused together in such a way that what I tell is but a simple light. The universal form of this knot (nodo) I believe that I saw, because, in telling this, I feel my joy increase.32

In his highly unorthodox prayer to Beatrice (Paradiso XXXI.79-90), Dante employs the same root word – nodo, knot – to refer to the linking of body and soul: death is “l’anima . . . dal corpo si disnodi” (89-90). The same knot that binds the leaves that hold the words that become flesh also ties the soul to the body, the spirit to the flesh, the letter to the spirit. The secret at the center of Commedia is not the eternal sameness of God but the eternal fixity of Hell and the eternal mutability of a God that cannot find enough forms in which to exhaust itself, enough words in which to say itself. The univocation of Hell is a travesty, a parody, a reductio ad absurdum of that God’s endlessly varied, endlessly differentiated self-saying – of which allegory is the inevitable medium. For that reason too, for that reason above all, Dante calls his poem Com-media.

Chapter 6:  Fishes and Fowls

This reminds me of the ludicrous account he gave Mr. Langton, of the despicable state of a young gentleman of good family. “Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats.” And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favorite cat, and said, “But Hodge shan’t be shot: no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.”
……….James Boswell, the Life of Samuel Johnson, quoted by Vladimir Nabokov as the epigraph to Pale Fire

A discussion of reverie is not easy even in the language in which the reverie took form. It is inseparable from the personal past of memories and images which belongs only to the dreamer, and each word he uses is colored by this past. And since a reverie, as Bachelard suggests, is inseparable as well from the language in which it was dreamed, a translation is especially difficult. The very nature of the dreamer’s language has shaped the reverie.
……….Daniel Russell, from the Translator’s Preface to Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos

Yes, words really do dream.
……….Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie

To risk both prosopopoeia and redundancy at once (probably not for the first and certainly not for the last time in this work), allegories create themselves in a condition of literariness. They exist first and foremost as literature, as words written – and, moreover, written in a tradition or, even more often, in many traditions. They consciously or even self-consciously mediate themselves. This is not as trivial an observation, nor as self-evident or self-explanatory a truth, as it may at first glance seem. There are works that “know” they are written and works that do not: allegories are usually “hyperconscious” of their status as literature.

Self-conscious mediation means that, in contrast to a naive realism which tries to persuade readers of the literal truth of what it says (“I was there, I saw this”), or more sophisticated realisms that seek to present the truth of memory or perception (“This is the way I recall it, this is the way it appeared”), allegories raise questions from the outset about the nature, reliability, and consistency of their own verisimilitude (i.e., their level of reality) and their formal status (history? fiction? fable? romance? report? exemplum? confession?). Non-allegorical works more often than not seek to present themselves to the reader in univocal disguise, as if they were not primarily literature1 but something, some single thing, else: letters, confession, police report, history, slice of life. They seek to stake a claim to a “realism” of content – the essence of what they recount is true – by means of a form (letter, report, etc.) whose primary or normal function and contents are factual. Allegories on the other hand problematize both their formal status and their relation to “reality” to such a degree that the effect, in allegory, of those two aspects of a work is the polar reverse of their effect in non-allegorical kinds of writing: instead of providing assurance, framework, orientation toward the words and their meanings, they totally destabilize the text, rendering a univocal readerly relation to it impossible. These twin areas of dubiety and ambiguity in turn force readers to confront, in a special way, a single huge and multifaceted question: what, in any sense, am I reading?

This, of course, is the fundamental question of all reading, and – as I suggested at the very outset of this study – allegory acts as a synecdoche for all reading, all problems of interpretation, insofar as it poses the question to us, or forces us to pose it to the text, in peculiarly pointed and potentially rich ways. Texts other than allegories facilitate the answer – indeed, to some extent prompt facile answers – to that basic question by framing the reader and the work univocally: “You are reading a novel in the guise of an autobiography”; “You are reading a fable of life under fascism”; “You are reading a historical fiction written only to be made into a movie starring Danny De Vito and Cher.” To confine ourselves for the moment only to these formal (what kind of book is this?) and verisimilar (what relation to the world as I know it do these words bear?) aspects of that basic question, allegories go a very different and much more complex way than the vast majority of non-allegorical texts. Allegory breaks all the frames and opens all possible horizons by providing either no answer at all to the formal question or many competing, perhaps-in-strict-logic incompatible, answers to it. Similarly, allegory adopts a very uncertain, essentially indeterminable stance vis-a-vis “reality” or its stepchild, literary realism.

These strategies have consequences both within the text and without: they not only problematize the “identity” and the “truth” of the allegorical text, but they also problematize the status of all literary genres and the status of what we are pleased to call “the real world.” Allegory does this simply by denying, ignoring, or complicating any fictive claim of immediacy and invoking instead multiple, equivocal media to rupture the relation of text and reader. By multiplying the artificial frames surrounding the text, allegory removes the real borders that separate subject and object, readers and meanings. By layering and laminating and complicating its narrative voices, allegory breaks through the medium of the narrator into the space where “words really do dream.”


In drama, as to some extent we have already seen in The Tempest, mediation is provided, automatically as it were, by the fact of the stage. No matter how much breached or opened by dramaturgy, the stage always forms a middle ground between the reality of quotidian life outside the theater’s or tent’s or ring’s doors or flaps or circles and the un-, ir-, super-, supra-, hyper-, or para-reality of the author’s and the audience’s internal fantasies and dreams. The physical space of drama is: it exists, its actors exist, the words they say and the actions they perform and the ideas and images they conjure exist, physically and externally, even though in a way far different from the externality of words on a page that we read internally. They are “real” even though we the audience know they are not “real” in the same senses or sorts of senses that either the contents of the day’s news or the very different facts of our personal victories or defeats are real for us. Nevertheless, the drama’s qualified reality itself becomes, in hands like Shakespeare’s and plays like The Tempest, a perfect image of mediation, an enactment of mediation, a tautological presentation of theater itself in its self-generating and self-consuming redundancy: pleonasm as plentitude, want become desire, dearth made dear.

Prospero’s fielding percentage is a lot better than the Ancient Mariner’s: the latter “stoppeth one of three,” while Prospero catches a whole boatload. The tempest that miscarries Shakespeare’s internalized audience of wedding guests and sailors figures the stage illusion that transports its audience and translates its author’s reveries and dreams into their local habitations and names. In that precise sense and that sense of precision, all art is translation. This is both not news, and also the exact reason The Rime of the Ancient Mariner isn’t an allegory: it does nothing to problematize, to enrich or impoverish, to undermine or verify, its status as fable and its parabolic relation to a conventionally defined reality. But the tempest that Shakespeare uses to figure his stage illusion does so by confessing its illusionary nature and thereby exposing and repudiating its own illusionality. By revealing the fact that it is illusion, The Tempest specifically calls attention to its medial reality and mediatory function. The Tempest strips bare the artifice of the stage and makes its audience look the mediator square in the face: it makes its audience confront exactly what is “real” and “unreal” about what it is and does. It transports and translates, all right, but to different ends and different destinations from those its passengers assumed. In that precise sense, all allegory is translation, a transport from a known language to an unknown tongue.

Allegory’s “symbol” in The Tempest, if it has one at all, is neither the play’s titular storm nor the poor, bare island of the stage, but the battered, unremarked-upon vehicles that transport the mage and his audience to the island in the first place and bear them from it at the end: Prospero’s “rotten carcass of a boat” (I.ii.146) and the “brave vessel” (I.ii.6) that Miranda saw sink beneath the waves. In a thoroughly allegorical fashion, those images – that image? that mage? – both request and resist translation: in addition to being “real” boats, one of which we “actually” see in the play’s first scene and the other that Prospero makes us and Miranda imaginatively see in its second scene, they both both “are” and “aren’t,” for instance, both the body and the state, and no locution that lacked either connotation would translate or even read either of them aright. They remain, as so much allegory so often does, language dreaming: startlingly clear, concrete, and specific vehicles of remarkably uncertain, imprecise, and various tenors, like Lord Jim’s Veiled Bride, or Charles Kinbote’s romantic Zembla, or even Joseph Andrews’s modest, inarticulate, illiterate Fanny.


Pale Fire confronts readers with problems of its formal status and relation to reality right from the start.2 For openers, there are two texts sharing the same name, one a poem in rhymed couplets by one John Shade (this text here to be distinguished as “Pale Fire”) and the other the total text (here to be designated Pale Fire), which is apparently a novel (since, outside the text, we know its author, Vladimir Nabokov, primarily as a novelist) and which comprises a Foreword, Shade’s poem, a Commentary thereon, and an Index. The “author” of Foreword, Commentary, and Index, Charles Kinbote, may well be mad, and his comments seem – at first blush, at least – to have very little to do with Shade’s poem. Why that should even concern us – this is all a fiction, after all – is an interesting matter of readerly psychology, and seems to indicate that we are subconsciously according Shade’s poem some kind of extra-textual reality, a higher level of reality than we allow Kinbote’s commentary. This is further complicated by other, extra-textual data: the poet Shade bears some unsettling resemblances to Robert Frost, and the possibly mad Kinbote has affinities with Nabokov himself (exile, e.g., or attitudes toward Freud and toward the Soviets).

Is this a roman à clef?  Perish the thought – but the thought won’t perish, no more than will any of the other possibilities for explaining (away) the book’s uneasy relation to familiar genres or familiar life. From one point of view, Pale Fire exists as a text on/in/of translation, a shared reverie conducted in simultaneous translation by two people with no language in common. Viewed from this angle, Pale Fire comes as close as any text I know to language dreaming itself, to the pure, random play of words creating out of themselves chance skeins of meaning which in turn generate other threads of sense to finally weave together a tissue of semi-coherent narrative. From another point of view, Pale Fire is – also and simultaneously – no such thing, but a novel rigorously worked out to its last logical jot and tittle, as artfully plotted and bound together as any Victorian triple-decker, and just as scrupulously delineative of the characters and motivations of its protagonists.

Pale Fire manages to be and to do such contradictory things while at the same time playing formal games of impressive complexity and magnitude: first and most obviously in its parodic reproduction of the form and contents of a scholarly edition of a major poem by a major poet; second in its appropriation of one of the English language’s most artificial forms, the heroic couplet, for some of its most humdrum (not to say pedestrian) subject matter; next in its juxtaposition of that body of quotidian contents with the elaborate romance and fairy tale hokum of Kinbote’s commentary (the true stuff of the deepest-dyed melodrama: a dashing, beloved prince driven into exile by plots and cabals, persecuted by evil conspirators, masking his nobility in the guise of a commonplace teacher); and finally the marvelous reversal of roles, implicit and explicit, in the admirer/commentator’s reading his own life into the poet-of-his-admiration’s autobiographical opus – as if Johnson had written his own life, while Boswell paid no attention to that but insisted instead that the poet write his erstwhile biographer’s life. As the editor whose commentary theoretically transports Shade’s “abstruse/ Unfinished poem” into clear prose, Kinbote shows himself a translator of the school of the often-cited Conmal, whose Zemblan apparently produces or renders a Shakespeare English readers never knew. Even that idiosyncratic Shakespeare is pressed into dual, ambiguous service: Kinbote’s talismanic Zemblan edition of Timon of Athens persistently reminds us both of his own comic, personal translation of Timon’s flipflopping philanthropy/misanthropy into consistent misogyny and pedophilia and of both Pale Fire’s and Timon’s formal problems of authorship, since Timon is a play widely believed to be what Pale Fire poses as, the work of two hands; and the nature and extent of Shakespeare’s part in it is a vexed scholarly question indeed.

Beyond that, of course, Pale Fire right from the start complicates and problematizes its level of reality in dizzying ways. The Foreword’s first paragraph establishes quite nicely the fictive reality of plodding scholarly reporting and authority, stating only facts or seemingly verifiable descriptions. The second paragraph continues in that same vein, with only two appositional words raising any eyebrows or questions: “Canto Two, your favorite” (13). Who is you? and how did he or she get in here? Is it the reader, i.e., me? Can’t be: I haven’t read the poem yet, and so don’t have any favorite canto. No one else has read it yet either (Shade, Sybil, and Kinbote, perhaps an editor or two: those are the only exceptions we will learn of), so even though the grammatical form of the second person is unquestionably used here, the remark cannot apply to an audience or readership outside the text. That leaves only the editor and commentator Kinbote, who has not yet introduced himself – and if it is he who is meant by his own use of “your,” that is a strange and disturbing mode of referring to oneself. Whoever is meant – and I don’t know that we can ever be certain – that simple little apposition constitutes a major roadblock and disruption in the text. It makes the first of many fissures in the scholarly frame and simultaneously begins the process of estranging the reader from any relationship of simple trust or naive credulity vis-a-vis both text and narrator.3

The third paragraph gives us more to chew on. The totally third-personal first paragraph yielded briefly to a startlingly disruptive second person in the second paragraph: the third paragraph begins again with that calm, factual-sounding, authoritative third person, only to quickly collapse into a distressingly vivid and present first person.

A methodical man, John Shade usually copied out his daily quota of completed lines at midnight but even if he recopied them again later, as I suspect he sometimes did, he marked his card or cards not with the date of his final adjustments, but with that of his Corrected Draft or first Fair Copy. I mean, he preserved the date of actual creation rather than that of second or third thoughts. There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings.

That second, periphrastic, explanatory, and implicitly apologetic second sentence gives the reader a little tremor of dubiety. Why not say it clearly in the first place?  Didn’t the editor take the trouble to rewrite and polish his text?  Or did he intend, perhaps, to unbend a little here, to shed some of the formalities of academic discourse?  A small thing, as I say, but it nevertheless creates a set of nuances to which readers have already been sensitized by the previous paragraph’s violations of tone and/or grammatical relation and/or formal status.

In any event, anything we may think about that second sentence is rapidly swallowed up in wonder at the third. That “very loud amusement park” cannot distract the editor any more than his telling us about it flabbergasts us. The modulation of first persons so far – “I suspect” leading to “I mean” – has done nothing to prepare us for this sudden manifestation, this incarnation almost, of a “real” person, distressed, distracted, perhaps on the verge of losing control. So powerful is its effect, so much does Nabokov accomplish with so few words, that it cannot be described unequivocally: it’s comic, it’s confusing, it brings readers up short. It disorients us: why is he – whoever he is – telling us this? It doesn’t belong in here: it’s the kind of detail that belongs in a novel, or a report, or a letter, but not in a scholarly preface.

At the same time that all those effects of the sentence are making us suspicious/dubious/worried about the bona fides or qualifications of our editor, the simplicity and directness of what and how the sentence says and what its saying implies tend to make us, for the first time, perceive our editor as a “real” human being rather than a mere scholarly function: it excites a compassion to answer its implicit suffering. Of course that mention of amusement park is hopelessly, ludicrously, comically inappropriate to a Foreword to somebody else’s poem: still, it suddenly confronts us with the “fact” that we are reading a “real” human being rather than a safe, univocal, unchanging (and therefore unsurprising, unthreatening, unimplicating) narrative voice. The violation of the established voice and format (impersonal scholar, factual edition) by the intrusion of a radically different voice and its implied form (a distracted? annoyed? helpless? angry? nervous? neurotic? indefinable but inescapably personal voice from the precincts of fiction or confession) has the paradoxical effect of making this second voice, this new aspect of the persona, more rather than less real to us, more persuasive and welcome than our unthinking (unthinking because we automatically accept each text on its own premises, at least initially) assent to or acceptance of the original, dry-as-dust scholarly voice.

Our third or fourth thought, if not our first, is, of course, that the man may be mad or on the way to it – after all, why wasn’t this too edited out? – but it’s too late to worry about that: we’ve already gratefully accepted the relief from John Shade’s meticulous and boring index cards (Shade’s use of and way with index cards, by the way, mirrors exactly Nabokov’s own practice in writing). Just as Kinbote – to give him the name he will assign himself – is going to translate Shade’s mock-Frostian epic of the uneventful life into the dashing, melodramatic biography of Charles the Beloved, we have been transported from the safe precincts of a scholarly edition to the wilds of psychobiography (whether “fictive” or “factual” at this point we can’t tell). What Kinbote is going to do to Shade’s poem, from this point on, parallels or embodies what Nabokov is going to do to us and his book (a small instance of fractal self-similarity across scale and dimension – but of this, more later).

Instead of being able to uninvolvedly read the poem and the book as artifacts – as objective data, as things external to ourselves, as museum pieces – we are going to have to come to terms with them as lived, as live, as living. Nabokov makes them over into texts enacting and demanding a strenuous, involved, implicated readership, texts coextensive with the lives of their two narrators (Shade and Kinbote) and by implication coequal to the imaginative lives of their readers. That Kinbote’s readerly acts are, in conventional terms, bad criticism, overt wrestings of Shade’s orthodox text to his own heterodox purposes, only adds to Nabokov’s comedy: they parallel quite exactly the kinds of interpretations that Shade makes, within his poem, of the equally recalcitrant data of “reality.” Both Shade and Kinbote are what Harold Bloom would approvingly call “strong readers” or “strong misreaders,” and the convergence of their seemingly divergent or opposed discoveries of pattern and meaning in the heteroclite materials they are each confronted with is one of the most important of Pale Fire’s many iterated doublings (all of them, too, richly understandable as fractals). Shade’s vaporings about an afterlife and pattern in the universe, about a “fantastically planned,/ Richly rhymed life” (969-70) and “the verse of galaxies divine,/ Which I suspect is an iambic line” (975-76), are based upon his perceptions of coincidence and pattern in what he originally took to be random and chaotic:

But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found. (806-15)

Insofar as we readers take these lucubrations at all seriously – even with the provisional seriousness of fiction – we are thus entrapped by our own logic or lack of it to extend the same respect, the same seriousness, to Kinbote’s discovery, within the warp and woof of Shade’s poem, of the covert subtext of Zemblan melodrama. On one hand we as readers are being encouraged to strike out boldly on our own interpretive paths, seeking our own “consonne/ D’appui” (967-68); on the other, the apparent sadness of Kinbote’s seeming paranoid fantasy should warn us away from any such attempts – a classic allegorical trap for the unsuspecting reader. Thus do we of wisdom and of reach by indirections find directions out. Kinbote reads literature “rightly” (you may well ask, sez who?) by his active immersion in it, by his intense involvement with it. “In the destructive element immerse” is good advice, and Kinbote’s imagination and the life he constructs out of it appear to have been shaped by much the same sort of romance that shaped Lord Jim’s imagination and life. Kinbote reads literature “wrongly” by trying to dominate it, by trying to make it over into his kingdom and his image.4

If any readers think that Pale Fire depicts only an aberration of interpretation, a unique fictional instance that cannot really represent any possible relation of textuality to what we call reality or of reader to text, our contemporary criticism ought to thoroughly disabuse them. When Swift created the great-grandfather of Pale Fire in his Tale of a Tub volume, his satire was predictive of the shape of things to come, and Charles Kinbote is not the least of his progeny. At the end of Pale Fire, Kinbote doesn’t merely vanish: he changes his name, goes to Yale, and writes The Book of J.5 Honi soit qui mal y pense, eh?

Kinbote, in one respect, is merely a middle term in a long series of replications that starts, for the purposes of this novel, with Shade. What Shade does to the data of “reality” in his poem Kinbote does to the data of Shade’s poem in his commentary, and Nabokov does in turn to the data of both in his creation of the book: Shade, Shade’s poem, Kinbote, Charles the Beloved – all these are the raw “data” from which Nabokov constructs the richly patterned, interwoven fabric that is Pale Fire. Put it another way: Nabokov is and does outside the book what Shade is and does inside it – and we readers, by the same token, are and do outside the book what Kinbote is and does within it.

As in every allegory, we are implicated. We are one set of the many fractals that constitute the allegory, which entraps us, lures us, seduces us, cons us into doing what its characters do, perhaps what it does. We are incorporated into the allegory’s self-similarity, thereby breaking all the bounds and frames of fiction and “art,” erasing the borderlines between “art” and “reality.” We do what Nabokov does, what Kinbote does, what Shade does, and – somewhere in all those self-similar doings – allegory occurs. Pale Fire both shows and performs all that and leads us to perform it too. In truth, Pale Fire is a book that – as much as allegory ever does – comes close to spelling it all out for us, by making us act it all out.


Despite or in addition to the prominence and importance of Shakepearean allusions throughout Pale Fire, the Eighteenth-Century ancestry of much of Nabokov’s verbal play shows itself in many places throughout the novel, in everything from the couplet form itself, to the use of the Pope’s and Swift’s semi-mythical Zembla, to various other more-or-less recondite puns and place names: Wordsmith College, Judge Goldsworth, Mandevil Forest. The overall form of the novel, a poetic text with pseudo-learned commentary, derives directly from Scriblerian projects such as The Dunciad Variorum, and its rich verbal play shows clear affinities to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Even specific characters are linked in specific ways to specific Neoclassical texts: Gradus, for instance, is at one point described in language that patently echoes Hobbes’s depiction not of the individual but of the collective, the commonwealth:

Mere springs and coils produced the inward movements of our clockwork man. He might be termed a Puritan.6 (152)

So pervasive is the presence of Eighteenth-Century materials in Pale Fire that we are thoroughly justified in assuming that both specifics of particular works and the general formalisms of Eighteenth-Century and early Romantic literature serve as yet one more battery of the multiple literary frames that Pale Fire both exploits and violates.

In particular, Swift’s Tale of a Tub volume (including the titular work, The Battle of the Books, and The Mechanical Operation of the Spirit) looms large as a frame and foil for much of Nabokov’s work. Kinbote most certainly functions as a mad narrator in the tradition of A Tale of a Tub’s Hack, who reinterprets the universe by the light and in the image of his own mind. The interplay of poem and commentary in Nabokov’s work can legitimately be construed as affectionate parody or straightforward adaptation of the interplay of tale and digression in Swift’s, particularly with regard to the way Swift’s tale of the three brothers’ dealings with their father’s will and the Hack’s commentary on it illuminate and/or obscure the practices of reading and interpretation. Of Swift’s announced twofold targets in A Tale of a Tub, abuses in religion and abuses in learning, Shade’s poem, preoccupied as it is with the question of an afterlife and the evidences of providential plan, tallies neatly with the ostensible religious concerns of A Tale of a Tub’s narrative sections, while Kinbote’s commentatorial lucubrations can easily be seen as discharging the other half of the Swiftian commission. Such matters are by no means straightforward in either author, however, and Shade’s many reflections on his own art of poesy and Kinbote’s frequent, spirited defenses of his own Zemblan brand of Orthodox Christianity certainly render the border between the two concerns highly porous – just as it is in Swift.

Nabokov shows an allegorist’s reluctance to use even the complex materials that he draws from Swift in anything like a simple or straightforward manner: all is skewed and seemingly misapplied. For instance, Kinbote, as I have just said, seems often to function as a narrator in the mold and manner of the Tale’s Hack, who, in Swift’s work, identifies himself quite closely with the beliefs of the youngest brother, Jack, who is distinguished, as a kind of populist fanatic and extremist, from the aristocratic, Roman-Catholic practices of the oldest brother Peter and the Protestant via-media-ish beliefs of middle brother Martin. Nabokov brings precisely those relationships explicitly to bear not on Kinbote, however, but on the Extremist Gradus – Jakob Gradus, alias Jack Degree, whose “father, Martin Gradus, had been a Protestant minister in Riga” and whose uncle’s name is Roman (77). At their simplest – and nothing about such allusions or appropriations is simple – such reverberations of Swift’s text within Nabokov’s or of Nabokov’s against Swift’s point to a subterranean linkage of Kinbote and his seeming antithesis Gradus, just as the seeming opposites Jack and Peter come to resemble each other in Swift’s Tale. But that is only a starting point for the many possible resonances of Swiftean materials in Pale Fire.

Nabokov in fact never merely borrows or simply alludes, any more than any other allegorist does. Everything taken is transformed, either in its adaptation or in its context. For instance: if Swift’s Hack is “the freshest of all the Moderns” and the spokesman for all that is new, Kinbote amounts to his utter opposite, explicitly in politics and religion and, given his taste for Housman and Tennyson, implicitly in art as well. We are allowed to get comfortable with that inverted relationship for most of the novel: during most of the book, Kinbote follows the Hack at a distance, sharing his mental instability but not its forms or predilections. Their silhouettes are alike, so to speak, though the particulars of their appearance differ radically. Then, three paragraphs from the end of the book (conspicuously in symmetry with the disturbing third opening paragraph), we encounter the actual voice of the Hack himself: “Yes, better stop. My notes and myself are petering out”7 (300).

That is shock enough, to run head on into the very persona who first embodies – in English at least – the utterly book-generated being, a being who writes himself into and out of existence by means of his pen and his commonplace book. But immediately before him, in Nabokov’s text, we encountered a different, new persona, a sort of carnival barker and tent revivalist, who modulates – if that is the word – from his Zemblan nurse’s adage (“God makes hungry, the Devil thirsty”: whatever that may mean) to “Well folks, I guess many in this fine hall are as hungry and thirsty as me, and I’d better stop, folks, right here.” The reader may be pardoned for wondering who this guy is and where he came from and what “fine hall” he’s talking about, as well as what “folks” he’s addressing. Whoever he is, he ain’t Kinbote, who would never commit that “hungry and thirsty as me” solecism. The disorientations generated by this volley of schizophrenic non-sequiturs are then capped by the appearance, right after the voice of the Hack himself, of what seems to be the Hack’s mock-Drydenic voice, an eloquent if self-pitying writer who laments his sufferings, prays for his countrymen, and mourns his poet in relatively dignified, elegaic language:

Gentlemen, I have suffered very much, and more than any of you can imagine. I pray for the Lord’s benediction to rest on my wretched countrymen. My work is finished. My poet is dead. (300)

This impersonation, this further distancing of the idea of fixed identity, in turn segues – by means of an artfully placed second person (“‘And you, what will you be doing with yourself, poor King, poor Kinbote?’ a gentle young voice may inquire” 300) – to a final, purely first-personal paragraph wherein schizophrenia triumphs as the artistic and personal freedom of self-creation:

God will help me, I trust, to rid myself of any desire to follow the example of two other characters in this work. I shall continue to exist. I may assume other disguises, other forms, but I shall try to exist. I may turn up yet, on another campus, as an old, happy, healthy, heterosexual Russian, a writer in exile, sans fame, sans future, sans audience, sans anything but his art. I may join forces with Odon in a new motion picture: Escape from Zembla (ball in the palace, bomb in the palace square). I may pander to the simple tastes of theatrical critics and cook up a stage play, an old fashioned melodrama with three principles: a lunatic who intends to kill an imaginary king, another lunatic who imagines himself to be that king, and a distinguished old poet who stumbles by chance into the line of fire, and perishes in the clash between the two figments. Oh, I may do many things! History permitting, I may sail back to my recovered kingdom, and with a great sob greet the gray coastline and the gleam of a roof in the rain. I may huddle and groan in a madhouse. But whatever happens, wherever the scene is laid, somebody, somewhere, will quietly set out – somebody has already set out, somebody still rather far away is buying a ticket, is boarding a bus, a ship, a plane, has landed, is walking toward a million photographers, and presently he will ring at my door – a bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus. (300-301)

The fusion of modes of existence and levels of reality here is dizzying, raising to a complex intellectual level – by means of multiplexly literalized puns – the simple case of “mistaken identity” on which the climax of the narrative turns. Kinbote is disguised king is perhaps a version of Nabokov, who may also be present – a piece of him, at any rate – in the poet/creator Shade, and who has already nebulously appeared on the fringes of the narrative by way of his own character from another novel, Professor Pnin. The whole of Pale Fire is now unabashedly “this work,” of which Kinbote acknowledges himself as much a part as the “two other characters” whose deaths offer him a potential model. Kinbote’s projected stage play sounds remarkably like the book and tale we have just read, even to its insistence on the intrusion of illusion/delusion into “reality’: its poet perishes “between the two figments.” All identity is mistaken identity: Nabokov has walked us through the looking glass, through the mirror of Zembla, “of Semblerland, a land of reflections, of  ‘resemblers’” (265), into a non- or anti-Aristotelean world where the principle of non-contradiction no longer holds, a world where things and people can both be and not be in the same respect at the same time – can, in short, be both themselves and Other. Nabokov takes us into an allegorical world of infinite openness and infinite resonance, a space dominated by self-similarity across scale, across genres, across roles, rather than by self-identity.

Self-similarity frames Pale Fire, offering a border of no fixed location. The final paragraphs of the book reflect, without duplicating, its opening paragraphs. The antepenultimate paragraph confuses the speaking voice, identity, and role of the narrator just as the third paragraph from the opening does. The intrusive second person – here at the end that altogether alien voice solicitously asking Kinbote his plans – serves the same pivotal purposes as the intrusive second person does in the work’s opening paragraphs. It here leads to the novel’s final paragraph, a wonderful piece of Nabokovian magic prose that in key respects is the mirror image – i.e., the reversed image – of the grammatically third-personal, psychologically impersonal first paragraph of the work. This last paragraph is dominated grammatically by the first person but

ideologically by personality construed as a thing, identity understood as a garment to be donned and put off. In the various roles that “Kinbote” envisages as possibilities for himself – not roles, but identities, psychologies, personalities: persons in short – he and we see subjectivity objectively: we view the first person as and in the light of the third. This is why the paragraph and the book culminate, appropriately and beautifully, with Pale Fire’s obsessive agent of the third person, of the Other understood as opposite and opposition, antithesis and contradiction: Gradus, the man of degrees, the evil gray man who destroys the good gray poet, the man of steps and procedures and method, who is nevertheless an Extremist, and lives and moves and has his being in Kinbote’s and the novel’s extremity.

But the poet too is a man of steps and procedures and method, and Gradus’s approach, all through Kinbote’s commentary, has been exquisitely meshed with, linked to, almost identified with, the forward progress of the poem and the poet’s work of creation and composition – facts Kinbote remarks on more than once. And he remarks on them in more than the sense of noting the coincidences: Kinbote creates the coincidences. Whether Gradus the character is or is not Kinbote’s creation, the Progress of Gradus is, and it is Kinbote’s poem as much as “Pale Fire” is John Shade’s.

His departure for Western Europe, with a sordid purpose in his heart and a loaded gun in his pocket, took place on the very day that an innocent poet in an innocent land was beginning Canto Two of Pale Fire. We shall accompany Gradus in constant thought, as he makes his way from distant dim Zembla to green Appalachia, through the entire length of the poem, following the road of its rhythm, riding past in a rhyme, skidding around the corner of a run-on, breathing with the caesura, swinging down to the foot of the page from line to line as from branch to branch, hiding between two words (see note to line 596), reappearing on the horizon of a new canto, steadily marching nearer in iambic motion, crossing streets, moving up with his valise on the escalator of the pentameter, stepping off, boarding a new train of thought, entering the hall of a hotel, putting out the bedlight, while Shade blots out a word, and falling asleep as the poet lays down his pen for the night. (78)

Marvellous prose, incantatory prose, that incarnates Gradus as a perfectly synchronous aspect of Shade’s verse and – speaking of synchronicity – at the very same time makes the verse a perfectly transparent metaphor for Gradus’s journey. The fusion becomes almost airtight, its expression verges on tautology, when Gradus – or Shade – boards “a new train of thought,” a phrase that functions with total accuracy both as clichéed metaphor and as literal statement, and both in the sense of the poet’s string of ideas and his commentator’s provision of transportation.

Although Gradus availed himself of all varieties of locomotion – rented cars, local trains, escalators, airplanes – somehow the eye of the mind sees him, and the muscles of the mind feel him, as always streaking across the sky with black traveling bag in one hand and loosely folded umbrella in the other, in a sustained glide high over sea and land. The force propelling him is the magic action of Shade’s poem itself, the very mechanism and sweep of verse, the powerful iambic motor. Never before has the inexorable advance of fate received such a sensuous form (for other images of that transcendental tramp’s approach see note to line 17). (135-36)

Not only is “that transcendental tramp’s approach” itself a powerful example of the “iambic motor,” but the twofold meaning of “tramp” therein – the steady rhythm of Shade’s verse, Gradus the seedy sojourner – completely fuses the utterly alien (to Shade) and extra-poetic creature of Kinbote’s mind and/or memory with Shade’s most intimate, most personal and private, most intensely and peculiarly Shadean activity: with what Gerard Manley Hopkins would call his “selving.”

This to say that in Pale Fire (the book, as opposed to “Pale Fire” the poem) it is certainly pointless and probably erroneous to talk about levels of reality. The progress of the poem and the approach of Gradus are interchangeable, equivalent: one of the connotations of his name, after all, is Gradus ad Parnassum,8 which is itself at least ambiguous, at most an oxymoron  – literally, the steps to Parnassus, the legendary peak of poetic inspiration, home of the Muses, and equally literally the name of a pedestrian handbook of poetic imagery, long the crib of schoolboys and the vademecum of hacks and poetasters. As readers, we cannot distinguish between the reality of Shade and the reality of Gradus (after all, we really only have Kinbote’s word for either of their existences) or between the reality of Kinbote and that of Charles the Beloved, between the poet and his killer and the king and his killer (“kinbote means regicide” in Zemblan: “‘a king’s destroyer’… a king who sinks his identity in the mirror of exile is in a sense just that” [267]). So too, it is naive in the extreme to talk about Pale Fire in terms purely of creation, even in terms of self-creation: every self-creation not only mirrors the creator but also and synchronously calls forth its mirror image, its other and The Other, the destroyer who will shatter that image. Even Gradus will “meet, in his urgent and headlong flight, a reflection that will shatter him” (135). Kinbote’s Zembla may be “that crystal land” (“Pale Fire,” 17), “Semberland, a land of reflections” (265), but the revolution that tumbles Charles the Beloved begins in its “famous Glass Factory” (120) and Gradus himself had failed in the glass business (151-52). Note too that it is “the false [italics mine] azure in the windowpane” that initiates all the action of “Pale Fire,” and consequently of Pale Fire, its magnified reflection.

Shade, devotee of doubleness that he is – not for nothing does he write couplets – “duplicate[s]” his self and room on the “crystal land” of fresh snow via the medium of “dark glass” (“Pale Fire,” 5-2). St. Paul too knew something about that kind of seeing and its limitations, and the echoes of the Pauline “Now we see through a glass darkly”9 ought to be enough to warn readers about the accuracy of Shade’s visions. After all, however we take the name Shade – and the presence of wife Sybil certainly provides spectral connotations that run well beyond simple sun-shadow into the deeper darks of the classical underworld and those few heroes who have toured it and returned to tell – it bespeaks neither clarity nor brightness nor light nor substantiality. As the goal of Charles the Beloved’s and/or Kinbote’s quest, Shade remains a curiously ambiguous datum, a poet-seer – the Latin word vates says it best – of dubious insight, incommunicative to Kinbote in life and disappointing to him in the afterlife of his poem. Even narratively Shade is ambiguous: the pairing with Sybil makes him the object of a descensus ad inferos, the kind of descent to hell undertaken by Aeneas to obtain enlightenment and direction – neither of which this Shade provides.10 On the other hand, his status as poet and Kinbote’s admiration for his poetry make the approach to him – especially via the adulterated pastoralism of Appalachia and New Wye – a kind of personal gradus ad Parnassum for Kinbote, and one can conclude that, indeed, the commentator on “Pale Fire” did find a kind of poetic inspiration there – though he also finds The Other that dissolves his identity and ends his life at Wordsmith College.

Indeed, in that sense Shade’s poem finds its fulfillment in the concluding dissolution and opening of Kinbote’s personality to multiple possibilities. “Pale Fire” starts with and from a multiplication of selves: the “I” who speaks is – the poem uses the copulative verb – “the shadow of the waxwing slain,” it is “the smudge of ashen fluff,” yet it “Lived on, flew on” to “duplicate/ Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate” (1-6). If we can accept as profound – or at least as significant – statements like those in verse, what is so preposterous or so difficult about Kinbote’s valedictory schizophrenia in prose? Shade’s initiatory verses preserve firmly the separateness of the “I” which sees the death of the waxwing (Bombycilla shadei, as Kinbote “belatedly” realizes) and watches its reflection in “that crystal land.” Kinbote’s final words transcend that division by accepting the fluidity and transience, the malleability and multiplicity of the “I” that endures. Commenting on “Pale Fire” 131-32, Kinbote remarks,

Today, when the “feigned remoteness” has indeed performed its dreadful duty, and the poem we have is the only “shadow” that remains, we cannot help reading into these lines something more than mirrorplay and mirage shimmer. We feel doom, in the image of Gradus, eating away the miles and miles of “feigned remoteness” between him and poor Shade. He, too, is to meet, in his urgent and blind flight, a reflection that will shatter him. (135)

The poem is a shadow – Shade’s shade – yet Gradus is a Shadow too, and the Shadows shadow Kinbote. The mirror image is false, the distance is feigned, and waxwing, Shade, and even Gradus are “shattered” – wonderful word – by the proximity of the images they cast, the reflections they create. The revolution that begins in the Glass Factory starts by breaking mirrors, and not the last of them is that “mirror of art,” that “glass of nature” wherein we see our own faces.


Pale Fire weighs several other versions of art in its own particular scale and finds them wanting. Conventional allegorical theory gets as short – albeit comic – shrift from Nabokov as does conventional symbolism. Eystein’s portrait of Count Kernel, Keeper of the Treasure, offers the finest and the funniest instance of both of these:

Eystein showed himself to be a prodigious master of the trompe l’oeil in the depiction of various objects surrounding his dignified dead models and making them look even deader by contrast to the fallen petal or the polished panel that he rendered with such love and skill. But in some of these portraits Eystein had also resorted to a weird form of trickery: among his decorations of wood or wool, gold or velvet, he would insert one which was really made of the material elsewhere imitated by paint. This device which was apparently meant to enhance the effect of his tactile and tonal values had, however, something ignoble about it and disclosed not only an essential flaw in Eystein’s talent, but the basic fact that “reality” is neither the subject nor the object of true art which creates its own special reality having nothing to do with the average “reality” perceived by the communal eye…. At this spot hung a portrait representing a former Keeper of the Treasure, decrepit Count Kernel, who was painted with fingers resting lightly on an embossed and emblazoned box whose side facing the spectator consisted of an inset oblong made of real bronze, while upon the shaded top of the box, drawn in perspective, the artist had pictured a plate with beautifully executed, twin-lobed, brainlike, halved kernel of a walnut.

The two Soviet professionals could be excused for assuming they would find a real receptacle behind the real metal. At the present moment they were about to decide whether to pry out the plaque or take down the picture; but we can anticipate a little and assure the reader that the receptacle, an oblong hole in the wall, was there all right; it contained nothing, however, except the broken bits of a nutshell. (130-131)

We are, of course, back with our old friends the husk and the kernel again. This time the kernel is doubled – surely no surprise in this novel – in Count Kernel and literalized in his eponym, that wonderfully anatomical “twin-lobed, brainlike, halved kernel of a walnut.” The husk too is doubled, perhaps tripled, in the painting itself, in the real panel worked into the trompe l’oeil surface, and in the nutshell. And this time the kernels are outsides rather than insides, the surface of the picture rather than its deep content. That, in turn, is singularly literalized in the whilom outsides, the “broken bits of a nutshell,” hidden in the painting’s actual secret compartment, itself, in its turn, concealed by a real – not an artificial – panel. Anyone tempted to take Kinbote’s words about the relation of art to reality as a transcription of Nabokov’s own beliefs or practices had better think long and hard about the complexities generated by this send-up of the conventional language of artistic semiosis – especially since, after all these relations are sorted out, the conscientious reader is still left with the problem of identifying that “essential flaw in Eystein’s talent” or Kinbote’s perceptions.

In fact, Nabokov doesn’t stop even with this. While this passage renders the conventional imagery of allegory and/or allegoresis utterly meaningless, it retroactively charges with significance the immediately preceding episode of the discovery of the hidden passage in the back of the closet. That closet and its hidden contents will, of course, reappear as Charles the Beloved’s avenue of escape immediately after this account of Eystein’s painting, so this whole excursus on art and reality, surfaces and subtexts, is framed by the discovery, exploration, and use of the treasure (there is literally one of those there too: see p. 125’s “sixty-five-carat blue diamond”) hidden among the detritus in the closet. That treasure is a subterranean passage that leads, by means of yet another sort of descent to hell (“The dim light…was now his dearest companion, Oleg’s ghost, the phantom of freedom…. The pool of opalescent ditch water had grown in length; along its edge walked a sick bat like a cripple with a broken umbrella…. And…there had somehow wandered down, to exile and disposal, a headless statue of Mercury, conductor of souls to the Lower World” [133]), out of the palace-prison and into the theatre – and there, tactfully, we ought to leave the matter.

We can’t, of course, because the action is too rich, too ambiguous, to go unremarked. The King goes into the closet – and the sexual implications of that should need no explaining – and Kinbote emerges. Palace/Prison/King here, Theatre/Freedom/ Kinbote there, and an underground passage connects them – a passage discovered in childhood and forgotten for years, repressed by change and loss until rediscovered in the pressure of greater loss – and the Jungian and even Freudian implications of that should need no explaining. Just don’t stop with the theatre only, which is merely a preoccupation of critics, and don’t think that all underground or underworld passages are necessarily good or liberating. Gradus is a member of the underground, and Kinbote’s mind is certainly the underground or underworld through which Shade’s poem passes to emerge as the stuff of the commentary. The same action appears on another scale, in a farcical dimension, in the subterranean passage of the “near ham” French sandwich and greasy French fries through Gradus’s intestines to emerge as the “liquid hell” (282) that almost aborts his mission. All of these and more conform to the fractal patterning of allegory: they constitute the literary equivalent of self-similarity across scale, and as such they amount to, in this particular form, some of the basic building blocks of this particular allegory, just as, as a generalized phenomenon, they are the basic building blocks of all allegories.

That means, of course, that no allegory has a predetermined or determinably finite form or shape: the scale is potentially endless, with each replication contributing at once a link of similarity and a measure of difference to a “whole” that is never entirely whole and never incomplete. Pale Fire offers no exception to this process. As we have already seen, the replications spill out of the literary “frame” to affect or infect us, and we renew and extend the pattern of similarity and difference each and every time we read the text. But Pale Fire does yet more than that. Pale Fire is not a book about the making of art, as one of the cliché gushes of twentieth-century criticism seems to pronounce any even semi-important work. The creation of art is a critic’s preoccupation, not an artist’s and not art’s. If the greatest works of literature and music and dance and sculpture and painting were only concerned with their own making, there would be precious little reason for the rest of us to pay any attention to them at all.

Pale Fire does involve artistic creation, but largely by the way: what it’s about is what most serious thinking is about, what all allegory is always about – self-creation, and world-creation, and the nature of reality. That’s why Pale Fire (and every other allegory) is open-ended rather than closed: not only because closure is in some senses impossible for it, but because closure is a betrayal of it, a denial of it. Allegories lead to freedom, to openness, to the bursting of forms and cocoons and the liberation of new life. That’s why Shade’s poem, written throughout in that form of perfect closure, the rhymed couplet, ends with an unrhymed line. That’s why Kinbote’s commentary ends with a welter of new possibilities limited only by the possibility of new and more potent opposition – always yin and yang, always the new possible seen as/by/through/in the new opposable.

That’s why the novel ends not with Kinbote’s vision of possibility for himself but with the Index, the last entry in which is the simple, wistful “Zembla, a distant northern land” (315) – a beginning, not an ending. Why an Index?  Because it is the simplest contemporary mode of parataxis, a sequential order that neither implies nor demands form, order, valuation, or differentiation. It presents only an open field of equally important data: connect them how you will, why you will. The data of the Index are the raw material of universes, awaiting the different fiats that will arrange them, inflect them, decline them into languages and worlds. An Index is words, only words, and therefore all we need.

We will not begin fully to comprehend allegory until we are willing to posit not only that aspects of chaos theory are useful for illuminating its “internal” workings, but that the basic concepts of chaos theory – the emergence of order and disorder from the same causes, fractal dimensions, all the mathematical probabilities of flow and turbulence, the weirdly beautiful asymmetries of Mandelbrot sets, the pull of the strange attractors – are at work both in the writing and in the reading of allegories. To accept that is truly to let the genie out of the bottle.

Chapter 5: Sun, Moon, and Stars

When an allegorical work is near what passes for its closure, it characteristically achieves, or manipulates the reader to perceive, some sort of coalescence, a merging of hitherto separate strands of meaning into a paradoxically unitary apprehension. Equally characteristically, at what passes for its beginning, it creates, or manipulates the reader to realize, some sort of dissolution, a breaking up of what had been or was customarily understood to be unitary or unequivocal or simple or clear.

Allegory starts by shattering the givens of the reader’s world and the presuppositions of conventional writing. Allegory opens – literally, literally – by undermining its own medium of expression, by forcing its readers to question the very language they read and the images/ideas that language manifests. Allegory’s beginning is always a kind of pre-positioning, a reorientation not just of the reader but of language – and literature – itself toward a set of “objects” (subjects is probably truer) widely different from those of conventional writing and conventionally used language. It does that most subversively by forcing readers to deal with, to “come to terms with,” what its words – all words, any words – actually say.

Therewith she spewed out of her filthy maw
A floud of poyson horrible and blacke,
Full of great lumpes of flesh and gobbets raw,
Which stunck so vildly, that it forst him slacke
His grasping hold, and from her turne him backe:
Her vomit full of bookes and papers was,
With loathly frogs and toades, which eyes did lacke,
And creeping sought way in the weedy gras:
Her filthy parbreake all the place defiled has.
……….(The Faerie Queene I.i.20)

        While I was ruining down to the depth there appeared before me one who seemed faint through long silence. When I saw him in that vast desert, I cried to him, “Have pity on me whatever you are, shade or living man!”
“No, not a living man, though once I was,” he answered me…. “I was a poet, and I sang of that just son of Anchises who came from Troy after proud Ilium was burned….”
……….“Are you, then, that Virgil, that fount which pours forth so broad a stream of speech?” I answered him, my brow covered with shame. “O glory and light of other poets, may the long study and the great love that have made me search your volume avail me! You are my master and my author. You alone are he from whom I took the fair style that has done me honor.”
……….(Inferno 1.61-87)1

I must warn the Reader, to beware of applying to Persons what is here meant, only of Books in the most literal Sense. So, when Virgil is mentioned, we are not to understand the Person of a famous Poet, call’d by that Name, but only certain Sheets of Paper, bound up in Leather, containing in Print, the Works of the said Poet, and so of the rest.
……….(The Battle of the Books, “The Bookseller to the Reader)2


 Allegory is preoccupied to the point of obsession with the formal status of books and authors, a corollary of its unrelenting concern with language itself. It is a truism so obvious as to verge on idiocy that allegories are woven of language, but apparently considerably less plain to many readers is allegory’s conscious (one could almost say self-conscious) concern about the nature and workings of language, its iterated and reiterated interest in what words and figures and books actually mean and how they mean it. Allegories are books made out of other books, or perhaps – more broadly and more accurately – texts made out of other texts, pre-Derridean, pre-Fishian self-deconstructing artifacts pasted together “of parasitical presences – echoes, allusions, guests, ghosts of previous texts,”3 pre-Bakhtinian colloquia where heteroglossia rules, where competing voices are given all the scope they need to show their capabilities and their limitations.

Allegories in all times and places remain fascinated by the remarkably unstable medium by which meanings make their way from the mind of an author to the physical pages of a physical book to the mind of a reader, and perhaps then in a further replication from the mind of a reader to the pages of another book to the mind of yet another reader, and so on potentially ad infinitum. Allegories (to be prosopopoeic about it) are right to be so preoccupied: what they are bearing witness to and participating in is an improbable transformation of totally incompatible states. A noumenon – a thought, an idea, a meaning – emerges out of some unknowable condition of indeterminacy or undifferentiation. It gains articulation and acquires a unique specificity within a mind – as a pure noumenon, that is – and then yet more mysteriously enters a condition or state of phenomenality: it is made thing, metamorphosed, incarnated first in language, then in writing, then in a book. Finally, it returns to the state of noumenon as the integrated or re-integrated mental property of some other being entirely, of a reader and understander who disengages the meaning from the book, the writing, the language, and possesses it in (if not its original, at least) a noumenal condition.

The Renaissance would have recognized that procession as a Platonic emanating triad,4 a process whereby a mental datum becomes a physical thing becomes a mental datum. Speaking purely logically, it can’t happen. It’s impossible. Ideas and things aren’t convertible states like gaseous and solid: they are different orders of being, species so differentiated they can’t hybridize – but they do, and they don’t breed mules. The fertility of their offspring is what constitutes the danger of Error’s spawn, the wonder of Virgil’s book, the futility of the Bookseller’s warning. What better person to urge the pure phenomenality of books than the man who makes and sells their physical manifestations? Who more likely to warn us against thinking of the person, the mind, that lives in them than the man whose main interest is the making and selling of their material bodies? And how perfect that his warning should preface a tale that so comically reminds us of just how very lively those “Sheets of Paper, bound up in Leather” really are.

Most allegories begin with an encounter with books or a bookish encounter, the difference between the two turning largely on who it is who makes the first contact, the protagonist of the allegory or its reader. Devotees of science fiction will hear in the phrase “first contact” not-too-distant echoes of sci-fi’s almost cliché way of referring to the human race’s first meeting with alien beings: I intend them to apply with full force to the confrontation, in allegory, of protagonist and reader with other books, each and all of which constitute alien beings enfolded within the text, versions of The Other that protagonist and reader alike – alike – must, most literally, “come to terms with.”

In the Commedia, the protagonist Dante’s first encounter is with the book from which he has learned his style, Virgil. His second is a reading lesson in substance, the rock-graven words over Hellgate. His third encounter is a properly bookish one in substance and in style, the colloquy with Charon on the bank of Acheron, which shadows the similar meeting of Aeneas and the Sybil with the ferryman of the underworld in Aeneid VI. The protagonist’s fourth encounter recapitulates the poet’s literary education: he meets all the books he admires – Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan; Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato. In his fifth encounter, his first in Hell proper, the pilgrim confronts a pair of lovers who touch him so nearly that he swoons and falls “as a dead body falls” (5.ult.), a condition all too appropriate for where the pilgrim is and who and what he is meeting: the adulterous lovers Paolo and Francesca, who are damned by the agency of a book, a love story – “A Gallehault was the book and he who wrote it; that day we read no farther in it” (5.137-38).5  Readers should need little reminder that the love Dante’s writings have celebrated up to this point was likewise adulterous, and that Dante prided himself on the seductiveness of “the fair style” in which he wrote it.

The reader’s bookish encounters in Commedia begin even earlier, starting in the poem’s first line with the metaphor of life as a journey, an image trite already in the thirteenth century, and further vitiated by being tacked to its own explanation (cammin di nostra vita). The dark wood and the straight way lost are similarly obvious and conventional, not to say hackneyed, “literary” locutions. If those “figures” (they are barely such) wear their meaning obviously and prepare the reader for more such easy identification of tenor and vehicle, the next set of figures the reader encounters are anything but obvious and totally upset all such expectations: the leopard, the lion, and the she-wolf remain of uncertain meaning to this day, even though they appear to be emblems or icons, classes of figures which normally bear simple and rigidly fixed, in fact codified, significations.

That defeating of conventional readerly expectations readies us for the verbal and logical strangenesses that immediately follow: a place “where the sun is silent” (meaning it doesn’t shine? perhaps, but bizarre); “one who seemed faint through long silence” (the figure might appear faint, but how could the pilgrim guess the cause? and why would silence make anyone faint?); the pilgrim’s immediate guess that this might not be a living human being (hardly the first thing that springs to mind on seeing a stranger); the pilgrim’s subsequent identification of the shade as 1) Virgil the producer of artistic language (“that fount that pours forth so broad a stream of speech”), 2) the author of the volume that has been the pilgrim’s study (in both these two instances the language and the book are something separate from the man, something made by him), and 3) “he from whom I took the fair style that has done me honor.”

In this latter instance, the language and the man, the book and the author, are beginning to merge together in the way they must to prepare for Virgil’s role as guide to an underworld ultimately derived from the one he described in Aeneid VI. The figural function of Virgil in the Commedia is precisely (though not exclusively) to embody the encounter of thought and thing, body and spirit, physical book and mental meaning. For Dante, Virgil embodies and enacts allegorical mediation, a mediation whose complexity can be almost adequately expressed in the ambiguities of simple statements like “I’m reading Virgil” or “Virgil is Dante’s guide to the underworld.” Before those ambiguities become fully operative, however – that is, before readers can starting making such quasi-allegorical formulations for themselves – their conventional assumptions and expectations about both language and allegory must be deflected and realigned to conform with what Commedia will in fact make of both; that is the reason for all these word-oriented, figura-centered, bookish encounters that preface or “pre-position” the main actions of the narrative.

The Faerie Queene begins with a similar tattoo of books and book-begotten figures. Even if we disregard the proem, which opens with an overt allusion to, almost quotation from, the opening of Virgil’s Aeneid (which functions in this context as a reminder of Spenser’s poetic career to date) and goes on to mention “antique rolles” and Tanaquill and Arthur, Jove, Venus, Cupid, and Mars, before concluding with a plea for inspiration and a reminder of the rhetorical artifice and effort that shape the poem – even if we disregard all that (and that is asking a lot), our first readerly encounters in the poem are with figures who appear to be emblems or icons but who very quickly begin behaving in non-iconic and anti-emblematic ways. The descriptions of Red Crosse Knight and Una may invoke for us ideas of the Christian soldier and the Pauline armor of God and images of Christian humility and innocence, but surely every reader is amused, puzzled, and made uneasy by the anomaly, the inappropriateness, of

Behind her farre away a Dwarfe did lag,
That lassie seemd in being euer last,
Or wearied with bearing of her bag
Of needments at his backe. (I.i.6)

The Dwarfe belongs to a whole different iconic and literary kingdom than do Una and Red Cross Knight, and his presence here is an early signal of the unsteady commingling of Biblical and romance narrative that The Faerie Queene is undertaking.

Spenser very quickly makes the instability that mention of the Dwarfe initiates6 quite present to the reader by employing the second half of the Dwarfe stanza to activate a third literary realm, one dominated by pagan mythological references with a decidedly erotic tinge:

                    Thus as they past,
The day with cloudes was suddeine ouercast,
And angry Ioue an hideous storme of raine
Did poure into his Lemans lap so fast,
That euery wight to shrowd it did constraine,
And this faire couple eke to shroud themselues were fain.

Even the sharp break in subject matter in this stanza is itself one more indication of the instability and unsteadiness of focus in the poem: the abrupt redirection of readers’ attention from iconically presented individuals to classicized, eroticized (nearly personified) landscape supplements and reinforces both the movement of the narrative (i.e., from ambiguous “plaine” to confusing forest, with all that we said in the last chapter that “forest” can imply) and the movement of signification, from clear-cut (but subliminally troubled) figuration to clearly presented disproportion between tenor and vehicle.

Indeed, looked at closely, Spenser’s figuration shows that it is in fact enacting this subliminal disratio between figure and meaning: the untried knight with the evidently iconic armor demonstrates that as at least one among its several possible meanings. And, even more paradoxically, the figural disproportion is itself figurally present in the Dwarfe, in his straggling, in his romance or fairytale provenance and nature intruded into a to-this-point religious tableau. The Dwarfe destroys the tableau, just as “his” stanza breaks apart into radically disjunct halves. Spenser’s figures, considered formally as such, are enacting the inadequacy, the unsteadiness, the instability of all figuration as it enters the precincts of allegory, here shadowed by the forest itself, the outside which surrounds the “outside” of the armor, the dark wood of this life in which Dante wandered, the matter – silva (forest, woods, matter) – of real human existence outside of the “plaine,” the matter – silva – of rhetoric in which all language is inescapably immersed.7

Even beyond all that, an extraordinary number of book-generated expectations are being met, set in motion, and frustrated in these few lines. Red Crosse Knight and Una, who had been traveling “on the plaine,” now leave that apparently straight road for who knows (at this point) what troubles. Those two, who had been presented to us quite singly, as entities complete in themselves (we didn’t even know Una was there “on the plaine” with Red Crosse Knight until the fourth stanza), have suddenly become a “faire couple,” with all the emotional freighting that phrase is capable of in a context where Jove’s anger takes the form of a sexual pouring into “his Lemans lap” – an image that is further complicated by its unavoidably summoning memories of Danae and Jove’s shower of gold. That curious mixture of wrath and eroticism is itself further adumbrated by the repetition of the ominous verb “shroud,” which suggests both a death-shroud and that the “faire couple” are somehow emulating or mimicking, in micro, what has happened in macro, as the clouds “suddeine ouercast” the day. All of these ambiguities, moreover, are contained and held within a larger, explicitly literary frame, one that itself generates yet more ambiguities and destablilizes Spenser’s text yet further: the beginning of Aeneid IV, the story of the love of Dido and Aeneas, that other “faire couple” who were also driven by some Roman gods to take shelter from a storm, with, of course, ultimately disastrous results.8 For the reader approaching this poem with at least a nodding familiarity with the conventions of romance and the contents of Virgil and the Bible, these first six stanzas are utterly disorienting: one set of expectations after another is raised only to be set aside, generated only to be frustrated and superseded – all just as it is at the beginning of Commedia.

Jonathan Swift has the marvelous gift of not only making this whole process explicit but of making it funny too. Swift takes what allegorists do with more or less straight faces and gives it to madmen and clowns, obsessives and narcissists, who enact unwittingly and unconsciously what the allegorist – or anti-allegorist in this case – does with full awareness. The laminated opening of A Tale of a Tub illustrates this quite clearly: “An Apology” precedes a “Postscript” precedes a “Letter of Dedication from the Bookseller To the Right Honourable, John Lord Sommers” precedes “The Bookseller to the Reader” precedes “The Epistle Dedicatory, to His Royal Highness Prince Posterity” precedes, finally, “The Preface,” which, in turn, precedes “Section I: The Introduction.” Besides all the overt and obvious play with the physical apparatus and appearance of contemporary books, each of those successive usherings into the book is primarily concerned with and talks obsessively about the book, this book, A Tale of a Tub, what has gone into its making, what sort of reception it has had, what it means, the books it derives from, and the books it has in turn spawned. The closer – physically and durationally – the reader approaches to the actual tale itself, the more A Tale of a Tub obsesses about the tools of writing, the mysteries of language, the artifices of rhetoric, the depths of wisdom that can be concealed beneath the cover of words and the outsides of figures.

Not for a second are readers allowed to forget the “bookness” of the book they’re reading. They are immersed in the process of making the book, including that most mysterious and often not successful process by which “wit” passes from one mind to another via the printed page:

…I have remarked, that nothing is so very tender as a Modern piece of Wit, and which is apt to suffer so much in the Carriage. Some things are extreamly witty to day, or fasting, or in this place, or at eight a clock, or over a bottle, or spoke by Mr. What d’y’call’m, or in a Summer’s Morning: Any of which, by the smallest Transposal or Misapplication, is utterly annihilated. Thus, Wit has its Walks and Purlieus, out of which it may not stray the breadth of an Hair, upon peril of being lost.” (26)

The consequence of this circumscription of the motility of wit is that readers are urged not to put themselves in the same mental state as the writer but in the same physical state, “to sharpen [their] Invention with Hunger,…a long course of Physick, and a great want of Money” (27). The process that begins here will culminate in the peculiar “bookness” of The Battle of the Books, the total reification of the idea of book and the ideas in books into “certain sheets of Paper, bound up in Leather.”

All of this, of course, is ancillary to the account of Peter, Martin, and Jack’s doings in the matter of their father’s will. This seemingly apparent and transparent fable overtly analogizes the stances of the three major divisions of Christianity vis-a-vis the Bible, the central book of Christian culture: thereby A Tale of a Tub offers itself to the reader as, in excelsis and most literally, an encounter with books and bookishness. But more is involved than that, since the action of the executive portions of the Tale turns on the three brothers’ confrontation with and reaction to the intentionality of the Will and their wrestlings with and wrestings of its and their own meanings (a wonderfully prophetic parody, by the way, of Bakhtin’s notion of dialogics), while the thrust of the meditative portions9 of Swift’s text turns obsessively on how meaning is to be found and promulgated: how and what texts mean, in short – the central problem of every allegory for every reader. If it is true, as Hillis Miller remarks, that “Deconstruction is not a dismantling of the structure of a text but a demonstration that it has already dismantled itself,”10 then A Tale of a Tub is not merely a deconstructive work but a full-scale presentation of deconstruction in action, dismantling in the guise of “mantling” (both verbally and sartorially, it should go without saying, given A Tale of a Tub’s chosen figurae), allegory simultaneously lifting and lowering its veil.

This climaxes, early in the Tale of a Tub, in the narrator’s explanation of how and why the Tale came to be written. Fear that the “Wits of the present Age” might “pick Holes in the weak sides of Religion and Government” prompts plans “for taking off the Force, and Edge of those formidable Enquirers.”

To this End, at a Grand Committee, some Days ago, this important Discovery was made by a certain curious and refined Observer; That Sea-men have a Custom when they meet a Whale, to fling him out an empty Tub, by way of Amusement, to divert him from laying violent Hands upon the Ship. This parable was immediately mythologiz’d: The Whale was interpreted to be Hobbes’s Leviathan, which tosses and plays with all other Schemes of Religion and Government, whereof a great many are hollow, and dry, and empty, and noisy, and wooden, and given to Rotation. This is the Leviathan from whence the terrible Wits of our Age are said to borrow their Weapons. The Ship in danger, is easily understood to be its old Antitype the Commonwealth. But, how to analyze the Tub, was a Matter of difficulty; when after long Enquiry and Debate, the literal Meaning was preserved: And it was decreed, that in order to prevent these Leviathans from tossing and sporting with the Commonwealth, (which of itself is too apt to fluctuate) they should be diverted from that Game by a Tale of a Tub. And my Genius being conceived to lye not unhappily that way, I had the Honor done me to be engaged in the Performance. (“The Preface,” 24-25)

This curious passage marks the formal beginning of that “Performance,” and it has in one linguistic event conflated the importance – and something of the meaning – of Dante’s and the reader’s sequential encounters with trite metaphor, worn-out imagery, failed personifications, and the univocal words spelled in the rock of Hellgate. Like all those actions, these half dozen sentences play with the ways language denotes and connotes. They confound the formal status of statements of fact and statements of meaning. They raise and defeat readerly expectations, systematically – or anti-systematically – cutting out the supposedly solid ground of simple signification from under the reader’s and the prose’s feet. Item: the comically inappropriate imagery of the whale “laying violent Hands upon the Ship,” which is not only funny in itself but has the secondary – or perhaps it is primary? – effect of causing readers to at least momentarily disconnect the actual form of words from what is being said:  i.e., despite the obvious fact that whales do not have hands, we all “know” what the narrator means by the statement, so we, as good readers, reading for the gist, the meat of the passage, almost automatically discount or disregard the literal statement the narrator makes. That is trap #1 in this short passage.

Item: “this important Discovery,” the “Custom” of diverting the whale with a barrel, becomes, in the very next sentence, a “parable” to be “mythologiz’d”: i.e, what was offered to us as a statement of fact (however implausible) is immediately construed by the Grand Committee and the narrator as a symbol, as a figura in need of explanation. Item: the explanation of the now-deemed mysterious “parable” proceeds from almost synonomy – the linking of the whale with leviathan with Hobbes’s Leviathan – to cliché – the ship as the ship of state – to total breakdown – the failure to find a meaning for the tub and the decision to retain its literal denotation in the midst of figurative connotation. That is, the interpretive act performed by the Grand Committee and the narrator is both obvious to the point of banality and self-contradictory: they come up with an impossibly mixed figura wherein interpretive and literal elements are forced to coexist in a totally unsteady state – unsteady because readers more readily accept the “factual” implausibility of the tub-as-diversion as a symbol than either the ship or the whale, because the tub as an entity made into a symbol has in itself less innate or intrinsic or conventional meaning than either the whale or the ship, and therefore demands all the more that the text attach significance to it, because the tub as literally and figuratively a hollow container demands to be filled.

This is trap #2: the whole relationship of statements, of verbal formulas, to their usual realms of denotation and connotation is here being upset. The reader from this point on cannot rely on the “factuality” – fictitious to be sure – of anything the narrator says, nor can the reader take refuge in easy symbolism to escape the unreliable littera, because the narrator insists on what is most unsatisfactory, the literal meaning of the tub, of which, his “Genius being conceived to lye not unhappily that way,” it is now his task to write the tale it is our task to read. Our readerly temptation here is quite similar to what we were drawn to in the case of the whale’s “violent Hands,” but now on a much larger scale. As either good readers or inattentive ones, we are almost automatically beginning to disregard the literal statements of the text – they, after all, are difficult, uncomfortable, not easy to reconcile with each other – and substitute for the text’s actual statements the kinds of relationships and meanings our conventional readerly expectations prompt us to. So then, we start to understand and classify this passage as a satire of the fuzzy-mindedness of the Moderns, of whom this narrator is an example; and having said that we are then free to pay no further attention to what text and narrator actually say and do – that is, by categorizing the genre of the text, we “free” ourselves to begin to treat language with the same cavalier disregard for its actual statements that the narrator demonstrates. To justify our disregard of the literal statements, we call our text a satire: the narrator accomplishes the same thing by calling his text a parable.

Trap #3 is the most insidious of all. Without most readers noticing it, the narrator has provided the very meaning for the tub which he said could not be found: “The Whale was interpreted to be Hobbes’s Leviathan, which tosses and plays with all other Schemes of Religion and Government, whereof a great many are hollow, and dry, and empty, and noisy, and wooden, and given to Rotation.” So the tub represents “Schemes of Religion and Government,” and the text has done what it said it couldn’t. Or has it? Just how separable from the idea of “the Commonwealth” are ideas of religion and government – especially in Swift’s day? Indeed, even figuratively, how far is the Commonwealth from such “schemes” if one can be depicted as a ship and the other a barrel, both of which are “hollow, and dry, and empty, and noisy, and wooden, and given to Rotation”  (if the last quality troubles you as applied to the ship of state, let me remind you of the narrator’s remark about “the Commonwealth, which of itself is too apt to fluctuate11). After all, it is the danger of the whale’s “toss[ing] and play[ing] with” the ship that prompts diverting it with such a micro-ship as a tub. So linguistically and logically, literally and evidentially, complete meaning is available within the passage, even in terms of the rather arbitrary assigning of signification that the Grand Committee and the narrator indulge in – yet the narrator denies or overlooks those available meanings and opts for, instead, a literal meaning which readers respond to as not literal at all but as an open-ended figura, a signifier whose meaning remains unknown.

Readers fairly consistently overlook that readily available meaning for the tub and for the title too – because, I think, it is once again an uncomfortable datum, one that defies their expectations of Swift and this text. After all, the very first page of “An Apology” assures us that A Tale of a Tub was written against “numerous and gross Corruptions in Religion and Learning,” (1) by which words most twentieth-century readers have been content to believe that Swift – Swift, not the narrator – established his Anglican orthodoxy. Not for the first or the last time in this book, I say piffle. What follows that assertion, a few short sentences after, is the famous analysis of the Tale as bifurcated, “Abuses in Religion… set forth in the Allegory of the Coats…. Those in Learning by way of Digressions,” a separation of subject matter and modes that is inaccurate on several counts and at least disingenuous on several more.12 What precedes the assertion, a few short sentences before, is a largely ignored, wonderfully comic and complacent piece of egoism that ought to serve to identify the writer here not as Swift but as yet one more of his mad personae, if not the very one responsible for the point of view of the Tale:  “Therefore, since the Book seems calculated to live at least as long as our Language and our Tast admit no great Alterations, I am content to convey some Apology along with it.”  The availability of Church and State as formulas and concepts interchangeable with (at the farthest remove, as synecdoches for) “Schemes of Religion and Government,” the textual and linguistic logic that links wooden ship and wooden tub, the figural design that parallels tub and ship as objects of the whale’s sport – all those considerations demand an enlargement of our notion of A Tale of a Tub’s satiric targets beyond the unnecessarily narrow confines of Swift’s (or his narrator’s) putative respect for Anglican niceties.

“Abuses in Religion and Learning” are unquestionably among the satiric targets of the work, but they are so in subversive ways and degrees, enmeshed in what amounts to a total logical/rhetorical (or, if you prefer, philosophical/linguistic) critique of the ways we read and the ways we write. That critique from the outset aims specifically and devastatingly at the traditional Augustinian husk-and-kernel interpretative paradigm and all its attendant figural implications: that much at least is one of the clearest significations of the multiple layers of introductory and apologetic pieces prefixed to the Tale, of the imagery of the tub itself, and of the motif of insides and outsides that both set in motion.

As with Dante’s figural and linguistic encounters at the opening of Inferno and the reader’s parallel encounters at the start of The Faerie Queene, the figural gyrations that Swift puts us through at the start of A Tale of a Tub amount to the set of reading lessons that we need in order to respond intelligently to the texts that follow them. Each of these “introductions” constitutes each allegory’s attempt to shatter our a priori assumptions about the validity or invalidity of particular codes and ways of meaning. Each is its own way of making us confront language’s simultaneous revelations and concealments without the crutches of our pat explanations and refuges, whether those evasions take the form of simple readerly inattention or sophisticated notions of genres and their workings. Each of these openings encodes an interpretive paradigm for its text, and each challenges some paradigms we might bring to it.

Allegories insist on being read on their own terms, which are generous ones – generous enough to allow the possibility of multiple “right” readings, but still strict enough to prohibit some demonstrably wrong ones. Anyone who reads Commedia as a dream vision or The Faerie Queene as only personification or A Tale of a Tub as only ironic is wrong, plain and simple. Conversely, the more readers can learn from each of those work’s openings about their unique alignments of language and meaning, about the peculiar relation of figure and signification that each is erecting and demolishing for itself, the more right each of their understandings of the texts will be. Each and every allegory exists in a singular linguistic universe, and each must be approached on its own linguistic and figurative terms – each time. This why I have refrained as much as possible from specific interpretive readings of specific allegories: any interpretation I offered would be less than provisional – ephemeral at best, good for one ride only. For the rest of this study I will point out as much as I can about how allegories work as a class and how some specific allegories go about some specific activities, but I will not be volunteering “exhaustive” explications of any of them: I doubt that is even possible.


How to read is what at least part of every allegory is about. How to construe a text, how to interpret evidence, how to draw an inference, how to understand a “fact”: the problem of how to “read” anything at all, everything at all, anytime at all, catalyzes allegories, and allegories in turn “analyze,” in the most literal sense, the “genres,” literary or cultural or allegedly ontological, that define the limits of the askable and knowable. A Tale of a Tub does this explicitly and overtly. The Battle of the Books repeats its inquiries and dissolutions in reverse:  Where A Tale begins by construing “facts” (ship, whale, tub) as “parable,” The Battle starts by a priori “factualizing” a metaphor (the battle of the books).

Indeed, The Battle rests on an even more fundamental reification, the literalization of one of our most common figures of speech, a figure so trite that for most readers/users it has lost all its figural dimensions: our habit of metonymizing author and works. We say, as a statement of fact, without intending metaphor or imagery, “I’m reading Virgil” or “I’m reading Swift,” meaning that we’re reading a work of Virgil’s or of Swift’s; meaning even more accurately that we are at this moment actually, physically reading, as the Bookseller points out for us, “certain Sheets of Paper, bound up in Leather, containing in Print, the Works of the said Poet,” a single, specific text in one particular edition, arrangement, and format; meaning, underneath all that, that in some way, mysterious and indefinable as it may be, that we are “reading” – coming to know and understand – Virgil the poet and Swift the satirist and the two human beings – their intellects at least – that animate and exceed, overflow, hyperinform, and “overdetermine” those two generic categorizations; meaning thereby that the trite figure of speech we use so casually is ultimately no figure at all but a statement of fact. Dante capsulizes, concentrates, all that in his “figure” of Virgil: Swift expands it, expatiates upon it, in all the prefatory materials of A Tale of a Tub and the parallel, more succinct laminates that recall and re-activate key concerns of A Tale and thereby induct us into The Battle of the Books.13 The two works stand in relation to each other as specific to general, minor premise to major premise, proof to argument, practice to theory, part to whole, definite article to indefinite: the battle to a tale.

From the outset, the Bookseller’s apparently innocent remarks undermine the assumed relation of rhetorical discourse, or parable or metaphor or fable, to “history” – itself a mode of rhetorical discourse – and to “factual” reality – the latter increasingly seen as/made into a mode of discourse itself. The Bookseller proceeds from certainty and general context (“The … Discourse … is unquestionably of the same Author,14 … written about … the Year 1697, when the famous Dispute was on Foot, about Antient and Modern Learning”[139]) to specific context (the Phalaris controversy and Wotton’s, Bentley’s, Temple’s, and Boyle’s roles in it). This sentence immediately follows the one just quoted and precedes the Bookseller’s pregnant warning against mistaking books for persons:

At length, there appearing no End of the Quarrel, our Author tells us, that the Books in St. James’s Library, looking upon themselves as Parties principally concerned, took up the Controversie, and came to a decisive Battel; But, the Manuscript, by the Injury of Fortune, or Weather, being in several Places imperfect, we cannot learn to which side the Victory fell.

This sentence awards the books the very standing as persons that the Bookseller’s warning seeks to deny them. There exists no distinction – at least not in rhetorical status – between the uncertain outcome of the (fictional) battle and Wotton’s and Bentley’s previously mentioned (factual) attempt “to destroy the Credit of Aesop and Phalaris”: both are the doings of authors in and about books, and in both cases, “we cannot learn to which side the Victory fell.”

This destabilization of our kind and degree of knowledge is immediately compounded by the actual narrator of the “Discourse,” who in his very first remarks undermines the genre that every reader has been content to rely on for what few certainties and firm perspectives the work affords:

Satyr is a sort of Glass, wherein Beholders do generally discover every body’s Face but their Own; which is the chief Reason for that kind of Reception it meets in the World, and that so very few are offended with it. (140)

The mirror of art fails to reflect what is right in front of it, and causes no reflection in its beholder: not only is its didactic function utterly discredited, but even its referentiality is denied, its relation to the reality upon which it is putatively based undermined. Its only purpose becomes, implicitly but clearly, to provoke anger and fury,15 and yet when it succeeds at that, when its targets have been “whipt into Froth,” what remains beneath that froth “will be fit for nothing, but to be thrown to the Hogs.” For readers who have been comforting themselves that they understand all this farrago, that it is a satire on the Moderns and not, heaven forefend, upon themselves, this is utterly discommoding: they find themselves by that very fact numbered among the imperceptive who fail to see themselves in the glass – and if they get annoyed at that, they can then count themselves among the pitiful “Brain[s], that will endure but one Scumming,” – Swift has a genius for the most offensive possible word – ready to “bubble up into Impertinence” and become food for hogs. Those pathetic wretches at least have enough wit and knowledge for one skimming: how much worse off are those modern readers who, by virtue of superior theory or greater historical knowledge or simple critical acumen, get to the end of this whole passage without ever realizing that they are involved? There is more than one reason for the narrator’s complaint, in A Tale of a Tub, about “a superficial Vein among many Readers of the present Age, who will by no means be persuaded to inspect beyond the Surface and the Rind of Things” (40).

The surface and rind of The Battle of the Books offers, in its smaller scope, almost as many layers as A Tale of a Tub, though here the laminates are of a different order or, more accurately, here the initiatory layers of the narrative subvert different orders. The “Full and True Account of the Battel” begins with a barrage of portentous apothegms, historical generalizations, and debasing analogy. The first two of these are couched in resolutely prosopopoetic language: “War is the Child of Pride, and Pride the Daughter of Riches;” invasions travel “from North to South, that is to say, from Poverty upon Plenty,” lust and avarice are “Brethren or collateral Branches of Pride.” The third adopts “the Phrase of Writers upon the Politicks” to present a simultaneously over-inflated and debased Aesopian fable about “the Republick of Dogs” and the causes of dissension therein (“one great Bone,” “a Turgescency in any of their Females”), all of which returns the reader, with perfect rhetorical circularity and logical self-closure, to the abstractions of Poverty, Want, and Pride.16 The writing to this point is self-consciously pleonastic. Swift employs fairly obvious devices of amplification to say the same thing in several different ways, though the omnipresent Swiftian irony and the omnipresent Tub-ian subversion work here to return us to the language and rhetorical mode of the opening sentences with their essential point contradicted: war is the result of pride issuing from poverty and want rather than from riches.

All of this, however, serves only as prolegomenon to the account of battle, to which the narrator now segues by means of an extraordinary rhetorical sleight of hand:

Now, whoever will please to take this Scheme [which one?], and either reduce or adapt it to an Intellectual State, or Commonwealth of Learning, will soon discover the first Ground of Disagreement between the two great Parties at this Time in Arms; and may form just Conclusions upon the Merits of either Cause. But the Issue or Events of this War are not so easie to conjecture at. (142)

To be periphrastic: all this inflated language and analogical hokum serves only to demonstrate that the quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns arises from the Moderns’ envy of the Ancients’ greatness, but that’s not the point of this report. So Swift’s narrator resolves the major issue, the cause of the war, in and by a rhetorically circular argument which is then dismissed as an aside, an irrelevancy, to an account of the events which are results of, symptoms of, that cause – a procedure which seems to subvert quite openly the priorities of logic and importance, and to nullify yet more (if that is possible) the status of the narrative’s opening rhetoric by stripping it of applicability to the subject at hand. Moreover, the narrator then goes on to offer one more account – this time putatively “factual” and “historical” – of the origin of this war, the tale of the quarrel about possession of the higher peak of Parnassus. Every reader accepts this account as metaphor or analogy or fable based on imagery or symbols derived from Classical literature, but the narrator offers it as reality, the factual ground of the “figures” that have preceded it.

Even more important, in a rhetorical and logical movement reminiscent of the crucial identification of terms that opens A Tale of a Tub, the narrator offers this “history” of the war for the top of Parnassus as the factual ground for the ambiguous “figures” that follow it, the books themselves.

In this Quarrel, whole Rivulets of Ink have been exhausted, and the Virulence of both Parties enormously augmented. Now, it must here be understood, that Ink is the great missive Weapon, in all Battels of the Learned, which, convey’d thro’ a sort of Engine, call’d a Quill, infinite Numbers of these are darted at the Enemy, by the Valiant on each side, with equal Skill and Violence, as if it were an Engagement of Porcupines. (143)

Let’s put aside the interesting confusion here about a simple issue (which is the “missive Weapon,” the ink or the pen?). After all, this already amounts to a very long preface to what most readers were from the outset quite willing to accept as a transparent analog for the “real-life” intellectual issues lumped together under the heading of the Ancients-Moderns controversy, so it is little wonder that few readers have bothered to notice that, alas! we have not yet gotten to the books. No, gentle reader, this missive ink (or pen) isn’t a figure for the books – at least it is not so for Swift’s narrator – no matter how much it logically and esthetically looks as if it ought to be. It is rather another postponement of the books, another repositioning of them figuratively and ontologically. Counter to all our expectations, counter even to the rhetorical logic of ink-as-weapon, books have no part in this war – so all this figural paraphernalia too is a digression, all this “background” of Parnassus and its twin peaks is another irrelevancy, serving to remove what will be the central events of Swift’s narrative from any sort of centrality to the main issues.

Every movement toward the center of Swift’s narrative amounts to a simultaneous shunting toward a sideline of the supposedly important intellectual contents of that narrative and a further devolution in the status of figuration and even language itself. Consider the implications for the idea of language of Swift’s simultaneous offering of the hackneyed figure of ink (or pen) as weapon and his separation of that figure from the ideas of books or writing. His subtraction from the metaphor of its tenor, his reduction of it to literalized vehicle alone, does violence to more than the idea of metaphor: it does equal violence to our conditioned responses to figurative language and upsets quite thoroughly our notions of the relation of ideational content to rhetorically or figuratively shaped speech. It subverts or inverts or just plain shatters our comfortable ideas of what makes a good reader and what constitutes a good reading.

So when and how do we get to the battle of the books, and what is its status when we get there? We reach the battle that is to form the subject of Swift’s narrative by way of his making a trope of “trophies,” objects that are by nature already tropes: i.e., words or entities whose meaning has been altered, figurative representations of something other than what they literally are:

…so the Learned, after a sharp and bloody Dispute, do on both sides hang out their Trophies…. These Trophies have largely inscribed on them the Merits of the Cause; a full impartial Account of such a Battel [“A Full and True Account of the Battel…”], and how the Victory fell clearly to the Party that set them up. They are known to the World under several Names; as, Disputes, Arguments, Rejoynders, Brief Considerations, Answers, Replies, Remarks, Reflexions, Objections, Confutations. For a very few Days they are fixed up in all Publick Places, either by themselves or their Representatives [i.e., the trophies of trophies], for Passengers to gaze at: From whence the chiefest and largest are removed to certain Magazines, they call, Libraries, there to remain in a Quarter purposely assign’d them, and from thenceforth, begin to be called, Books of Controversie. (143-44)

These trophies, bearing their full, impartial accounts of the merits of the cause, reverse the relation – richly ambiguous term in this context – of “representative” to event, of figure to meaning. They don’t synopsize events and meanings in a concise symbolic representation but rather the reverse: they re-present events as the erectors of the trophies would have them understood, circumstantially and fully. They relate what happened and an interpretation of what happened. They are texts: not signs of something else but trophies, tropes, turned inside out, not signs but the thing itself. And A Full and True Account of the Battel Fought Last Friday, Between the Antient and the Modern Books in St. James’s Library identifies itself as just such an inside-out trope, exactly that sort of non-sign. The manipulated figural logic of Swift’s mad, manipulated narrator leads inexorably to the literalization of the book – the book understood not as the container of something intellectual or the representation of something else or the embodiment of something intangible, but the book as real(ity).

At this point – and not until this point – Swift reinstates our commonplace way of speaking of books as persons (“I’m reading Virgil”) by introducing the wonderfully wry notion of the Brutum hominis to explain the fact that “In these Books, is wonderfully instilled and preserved, the Spirit of each Warrier” (144). The latter statement (substituting only writer for “Warrier”) is of course exactly the conventional attitude we all bring to books and the way we normally regard them (at least the best of them). Painstakingly, circuitously, we have been guided back to ordinary language and to literal statements, enriched. Swift’s language systematically destroys metaphor and the possibilities of metaphor, systematically subverts our notions of language and logic, to bring us to the point of seeing a book as a book, in its fullest literal reality. And all of this too serves, finally, only as a prelude, only as one more sidetrack, one more irrelevancy, in a work that centers itself on and in irrelevancies. Swift creates a personification narrative that is not really personification, but literalization of our most normal, most habitual modes of speaking, only to bring us to the point that readers have always recognized as the true center of The Battle of the Books, the digression or interruption that is the encounter and debate of the spider and the bee.

If the basic narrative of The Battle constitutes one form of mock-prosopopoeia, the fable of the spider and the bee offers another, the anthropomorphized animal fable (though here both are couched in the rhetoric and style of the heroic, and constitute mock-heroic as well as mock-prosopopoeic and mock-allegorical). The events it recounts – a bee wandering into and escaping from a spider’s web – are the most believable and “realistic” actions in the narrative they interrupt, but their hypothetical status as “real” is undermined not only by the style of their presentation but by the mode of their perception. Aesop, or the book that bears his name, treats them exactly as every reader of Aesop would expect “him” to: he textualizes their encounter, analogizes it, and reads it. He draws a moral from it, finding point for point correspondences between the doings and sayings of the spider and the bee and the bookish antagonists of the larger conflict: he performs the same actions, in fact, that most readers of Swift’s “satire” do, and equally to their own advantage.

Neither Aesop nor most other readers seem to notice or care that, despite their rhetorical certitude and clarity, the battle continues to its muddled and unclear inconclusion around them. The textualization of reality avails here as little as the reification of texts, save to thoroughly fudge the already uncertain border between the two. Both inside and outside the narrative, readers and characters, critics and the books they interpret, all perform the same actions and come to share the same level of reality and the same mode of existence: the Virgil we read is as real as the “we” who read “him” – and vice versa. If we perform the very same acts, for the very same reasons, as the narrators of A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books, how – readerly speaking – are we different from them? We both exist as readers of texts in which we are implicated, texts of which we are part receptor and part generator, part audience and part creator. The important question is not about the objectivity or subjectivity of this text, but how many, or how few, other texts belong in this class and to this text.


Swift’s manipulation of narrator and reader into positions of parallel acuity and obtuseness amounts to a satirist’s version of allegory’s more conventional (if that word is ever applicable to allegory) reversal of mimesis. “Normal” allegory turns the idea of art as the imitation of action upside down and inside out, wrenching the touchstone of truth out of the extraliterary world and setting it up firmly, if multivalently, within the text itself – thereby, by the way, rendering completely irrelevant any of the criteria or even the concept of realism. That the allegorical text is then itself bombarded by qualifications and sapped by contradictions, riddled with pointless rhetoric and tattooed with circular tropes, reduced to words of only the most literal, limited meaning, adds to rather than subtracts from its status as touchstone, base point, ground zero: that’s where allegory starts, but you have to work through a lot of allegory before you can know it.

In allegories less convolute than the Tale of a Tub trio, the reader is led more openly to imitate the protagonist. In most of Pynchon’s novels, for instance, readers become as hooked on the word games and signs as Oedipa Maas, as determined to follow the clues and solve the mystery as Stencil, as obsessed with finding pattern as half the characters of Gravity’s Rainbow. Paranoia is Pynchon’s word for all this: Madness was Swift’s, and both agree in crediting it with “The Establishment of New Empires by Conquest; The Advance and Progress of New Schemes in Philosophy; and the contriving, as well as the propagating of New Religions,” just as both agree in the reader’s thorough complicity in it. Such entrapment is both point and meaning in itself and, at the same time, just a single component of allegory’s multiple strategies for implicating the reader in its workings, for making the reader co-creator of the text as well as co-partner of the text, perhaps even coextensive with the text.

Another way for allegories to accomplish that is by exposing to readers just how complicitous they already are: that is, allegories force readers to confront the ways they are already and habitually shaping texts and completing their meanings by the simple, conventional expectations they bring to them – which most “ordinary” texts, of course, labor mightily to meet and satisfy. Nowhere in allegorical literature is this done more baldly or boldly than in the first two scenes of The Tempest, where Shakespeare, no stranger to puncturing theatrical illusion,17 thoroughly defeats our spectatorial expectations only to make us aware that we are in the hands of a master illusionist. Good attentive audience that we are, we witness in the first scene of The Tempest a violent storm at sea. No matter what else is going on verbally or dramatically – conflicts of authority, differences of response to danger or fear, dialogues about death and fate, sin and forgiveness, value, loyalty, order, subordination, power – everything else in the scene is secondary to the main action of the scene, which is the tempest of the title and to which we as audience give, according to our degree of sophistication and empathy, our qualified or unqualified provisional belief.

We “know” it isn’t a real storm. We “know” the ship isn’t really a ship and that it won’t sink. We “know” the bosun and the king – the actors playing the bosun and the king – won’t die. Nevertheless, on some level, in some way, each and every member of the audience accepts the “reality” of all of those things, in exactly the same way that we have in other plays accepted the “reality” of Oedipus and Othello. Whatever else goes on in Act I, scene i of The Tempest, its primary function is to induct us into the “reality” of this play just as surely as Bernardo and Francisco must lead us into the “reality” of Hamlet or Orlando and Adam must guide us into As You Like It. And we respond to this. We have come to the theatre for this. We desire this special half-way house of belief and disbelief, where we may safely accept the provisional reality of horrors and wonders, so we accept the – always provisional – truth and reality of the events we “see,” a ship sunk with grievous loss of life.

How do we feel then, what do we think, when only a few moments later Prospero assures Miranda and us that what we saw was false? that it didn’t happen? that nobody was hurt?

The direful spectacle of the wreck, which touch’d
The very virtue of compassion in thee,
I have with such provision in mine art
So safely ordered that there is no soul –
No, not so much perdition as an hair
Betid to any creature in the vessel
Which thou heard’st cry, which thou saw’st sink.

We heard and saw also, and we believed: now what are we to think? Analogies of Prospero and Shakespeare, readings of The Tempest as Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage, all ignore how radically the interplay of these first two scenes undermines the foundations of drama. More than undermines: Prospero’s dismissal of the storm, the wreck, and the drownings, the second scene’s identification of all that we and Miranda witnessed as mere illusion – that destroys the possibility of drama, because it is literally true. Everything we saw in the first scene was illusion, a “spectacle” arranged by the “provision of … art.” By pointing out precisely the fact of theatrical illusion, Shakepeare’s Prospero de-theatricizes this most self-consciously stagey of Shakespeare’s plays. He brings us backstage and shows us how it’s done, how the playwright director invents the lines, the prop master Ariel sets the stage, and the gofer Caliban lugs the lumber and brings the coffee. We are meant, from the second scene on, to see the flies and hear the creaking of the pullies, to catch glimpses of the actors changing costume: we have been taken behind or before the illusion and its fictions and we are dealing with the “fact” of drama – at least that is the fiction of this play.

And that’s the rub: fiction undoes fiction, illusion exposes illusion. By violating the unspoken pact between playwright and audience, Shakespeare moves us not out of theatre but deeper into it, into a world where the only reality is theatrical reality, a word-made world where all you have to do you must do in “The time ‘twixt six and now” on the “bare island” of a stage.18 All the strands of meaning that accrete around the play grow out of its acceptance of its own contingency and the strangely limited terms and conditions of its existence. The Tempest embraces theatricality and artifice and creates its reality out of them, and it does so in and by the act of repudiating them. This constitutes its radical Otherness from the life of its spectators and also its bond to them: its alienation is its relation; its uniqueness is also its universality. There is no island in the world like Prospero’s: a true statement in all of its senses. There is no world that isn’t an island like Prospero’s: also a true statement.

So we as audience are divorced from the play, separated from it, repudiated by it in its transgression of our agreement – and yet we as audience are pinned to our seats, ever-so-willing co-conspirators as the play continues to show us how gullible we are, what cheap tricks – old clothes on a line, forsooth! – will take us in, how helpless we are in the hands of an old stager. We laugh, and we nod, and we love it, not the least bit uncomfortable dealing with an illusion about making illusions that alter “reality” – until at the end of the play our “reality” is altered and, via the epilogue, we enter the play world: indeed, we become the magicians, releasing Prospero from his exile by our applause – Clap if you believe in Tinkerbell. Our “good hands” free Prospero from his island, our “gentle breath” sends him offstage, just as Ariel’s winds fill the sails of the ship. Until we join in the play, until we actively demonstrate our complicity, the master of illusion is trapped within the illusion of his role and the limits of his island kingdom, confined within the stage that Shakespeare has created on, or of, the stage. And this is logical, this is right, because we have, willy nilly, knowingly or unknowingly, all along empowered Prospero and Shakespeare. We have colluded at our own deception and are now asked to ratify the deceit, and we do. As Prospero frees Ariel, we free Prospero. Ariel is “to the elements/…free.”  Prospero is “set…free,” “sent to Naples.”  What, I wonder, are we freed to?


That state of happy confusion – the uncertainty of where, in any intellectual sense, one actually is, coupled with a mild euphoria and the unreasonable certainty that one is in the hands of a master – is not in the least untypical of allegory’s effects upon the perceptive reader. Pleasing as it may be, so subjective a state obviously offers but little help in further sorting out allegory’s intricacies – but it does offer a little. Subjective as it may be, that state of befuddlement – the uncertainty about what is actually going on or what it all means – that confusion is objectively caused. Allegories work hard to bring their protagonists and their readers to precisely that condition, that ground zero where assurance and preconception have been annihilated. Allegories educate their heroes and their readers to know that they know nothing, and at the point at which they realize that they know nothing, their real learning can begin. Shakespeare at the end of The Tempest returns us to ourselves to finish the job, but Shakespeare seems always to have had a higher opinion of our capacities than we deserve: most other allegorists take pains to make sure we recognize ground zero when we’re at it, and some of them, like Spenser, seem to take a positive delight in rubbing our noses in our own ignorance before carrying on with the balance of our instruction.

Certainly The Faerie Queene creates befuddlement in the attentive reader more frequently and more intensely than most other allegories, and not all the confusion can be explained away by the poem’s unfinished condition – which, in the case of allegory, need not mean incompleteness anyway. The complexities of Books III and IV can just as readily be construed as the allegorist’s deliberately created obstacles to reflex reading as confusions generated by unrevised or too much revised material. And Book VI and “The Mutabilitie Cantoes” close The Faerie Queene as admirably as Spenser could have hoped or planned: only readers of the “Yeah, but does Arthur ever get Gloriana?” persuasion can repine at them.

Be that as it may, Book VI comes very late in the poem as we have it and midway in the poem as Spenser, in The Letter to Raleigh, seems to have planned it – in either case, pretty far along, it would seem, to be creating confusions and reducing the patient reader once more to a condition of confusion and unknowing. Yet that is exactly what Spenser does, very thoroughly and quite overtly. More openly than any other book of The Faerie Queene, Book VI is literary in its essence, book-obsessed, even to the extent of offering characters whose names are books and genres and printing houses – Aldus and Aladine, Pastorella, Calepine. Its proem posits the priority of its own fiction over laborious reality: Faeryland supplies strength to the flagging poet, ravishes his spirit, beguiles his “tedious trauell” (Proem VI.i). Only the Muses can reveal to the poet “the sacred noursery/ Of vertue” (iii) and its prize blossom, courtesy, which is travestied rather than embodied by what passes for courtesy in the “real” world. Spenser expresses this through the hoary cliché of the mirror, invoking incidentally to amplify his meaning the language of Sidney’s Defense of Poesy:

But in the triall of true curtesie,
Its now so farre from that, which then it was,
That it indeed is nought but forgerie,
Fashion’d to please the eies of them, that pas,
Which see not perfect things but in a glas:
Yet is that glasse so gay, that it can blynd
The wisest sight, to thinke gold that is bras.
……….(Proem VI.v)

Only in the mirrors of art and of Elizabeth’s pure mind (Proem can “real” courtesy be found, and from that latter source it

                    … well[s]
Into the rest, which round about you ring,
Faire Lords and Ladies, which about you dwell,
And doe adorne your Court, where courtesies excell.
(Proem VI.vii)

So the pattern of true courtesy, the virtue that “spreds it selfe through all ciuilitie” (Proem VI.iv), can be found in Elizabeth and her courtiers, who are also the primary audience of the poem:

Then pardon me, most dreaded Soueraine,
That from your selfe I doe this vertue bring,
And to your selfe doe it returne againe…
……….(Proem VI.vii)

If the “generall end” of The Faerie Queene is, as The Letter to Raleigh phrases it, “to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline,” then the courtier knight Calidore – “none more courteous Knight,/ Than Calidore, beloued ouer all” (VI.i.2) – manifests the poem’s ideal audience, internalized and absorbed into the lessons he teaches and learns, just as Miranda, in her very first reactions to the storm and wreck, manifests and internalizes Shakespeare’s audience into Shakespeare’s – or perhaps Prospero’s – play. Calidore begins his book as the poem’s ideal reader, a creature formed by books, made of books, set loose within a courtesy book and chivalric romance that mutates into a pastoral romance and heroic quest with overtones of mythology and overlays of Biblical narrative, both of the last culminating, along with his quest, in the capture of a monster made of language (“The which did seeme a thousand tongues to haue”; VI.1.9) by means of a Herculean and Christic harrowing of hell – all in a day’s work for your average, run-of-the-mill courtier and reader of Spenser.

What we witness in that sort of generic hyper-enrichment of the text is not the breakdown of Spenser’s control so much as it is the flooding of the text by one particular referential pool, literature itself – by no means the only referential area at work in Book VI, but to my mind the one with greatest attractive power, the dominant strange attractor of the book. Where Book I initiates us into allegory by relentlessly literalizing (e.g., “God helpe the man so wrapt in Errours endlesse traine”; I.i.18), Book VI proceeds by an equally unremitting literarizing, by turning everything into (what in fact it is and must be, in a poem) books or the matter of books. And of all those books that feed into Faerie Queene VI, none – not romance, not the Bible, not the myth of Hercules, not the whole phenomenon of pastoral – is more important than The Faerie Queene itself. Book VI amounts to a structural doppelganger of Book I: as such, it enacts The Faerie Queene’s encounter with its own shadow self.19 Spenser’s poem has become its own referential area, its own strange attractor, closing its own system while at the same time opening itself to endless further bifurcations and duplications. This process does not begin in Book VI – The Faerie Queene has been reproducing and modifying its own elements and episodes almost from the beginning – but Book VI is where the process culminates, where even the poet enters his own book and becomes a denizen of it.

The conventions and associations of pastoral play a crucial part in effecting this naturalization of the poet within the poem. Calidore’s pastoral digression in Cantos ix, x, and xi and the prominence of “natural” characters (e.g., Tristram, the Salvage Man, the “saluage nation” that almost cannibalizes Serena) throughout the book involve The Faerie Queene with genres and traditions that have no connection with epic and only peripheral attachment to romance.20 Pastoral is the genre of artifice, the last articulated of the great classical forms, and the one most enormously enriched by later Christian culture. Pastoral comes into existence as a paradox, a form of nostalgia for a world that never was, a sophisticated courtier’s expression of longing for a nonexistent simplicity. Courtiers Theocritus and Virgil might be, but they and their audience knew what sheep really smell like, and they knew very well that real shepherds didn’t have the leisure for love lyrics or the wealth for gifts of honeycombs or (in all likelihood their master’s) newly weaned lambs, or the inclination toward either. Pastoral is an illusionist form, perhaps the illusionist form, using the artifice of an invented golden-age simplicity to counterpoint the artificiality of the over-sophisticated world that produces it. Several versions – all more or less ironic – of the opposition of art and nature are basic to it, most turning at some key point on the fact that – to adapt Spenser – not just “vertues seat” but reality’s too “is deepe within the mynd,/ And not in outward shows, but inward thoughts defynd” (Proem VI.v). That central fact is pastoral’s strength and its limitation, and Shakespeare, for instance, faces squarely up to that in his brilliant exploitation of orthodox pastoral in As You Like It: Orlando glimpses the outer limits of pastoral when he says “I can live no longer by thinking” (V.ii.55).

That is to say, pastoral makes itself a genre of fantasy, of an alternative reality, of a “nature” that isn’t and wasn’t, a genre of the literary imagination freed from many of the constraints of the canon and the demands of mimesis. Pastoral’s time is a “golden” age not just in the classical sense but also in Sidney’s sense of that word, its space the scope of Sidney’s “erected wit” rather than the world of our “infected will.” As such, the pastoral world, the pastoral poem, is a place of transformation like the forest of Arden, where the quotidian can reveal itself as extraordinary, where any mangy shepherd might disguise Pan, where people can – as Calidore does in The Faerie Queene and Oliver does in Arden – perform that most extraordinary, most quotidian act of literally “changing their minds.” For Spenser’s culture, the most profound form of that “change of mind” was true religious belief and salvation through the ministration of the Good Shepherd Christ, a concatenation of ideas, Biblical texts, and an image that also furnished precisely the most significant and complex dimensions of the post-classical expansions of the literary idea of pastoral.

Finally, not the least of the paradoxes of pastoral is that this self-allegedly simple, illusionistically natural, apparently heathen form became crucial to the career of the Christian epic poet: by the example of Virgil, the progression from pastoral to georgic to epic became the cursus honorum for a serious poet. (Even as late as the Eighteenth century, Pope would conscientiously work through the first two steps without ever quite reaching the third.) That precise aspect of pastoral has been latent within The Faerie Queene from its very first words, which overtly echo Virgil’s autobiographical opening of The Aeneid and draw the explicit parallel between the progress of the two poetic careers:

Lo I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske,
As time her taught, in lowly Shepheards weeds,
Am now enforst a far vnfitter taske,
For trumpets sterne to chaunge mine Oaten reeds,
And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds…
……….(Proem I.i)21

The overt pastoralism of Book VI re-invokes and revives, within the poem, this “extra-textual” pastoralism of Spenser’s personal biography and literary career: the result is the almost inevitable appearance, within The Faerie Queene, of the poet’s earlier pastoral alter ego, Colin Clout. That is to say, the introduction of pastoral as a controlling narrative format in Book VI allows or necessitates Spenser’s textualizing a version of himself as a sort of genius loci, a presiding power within the sub-set or sub-genre or localized pocket of order that constitutes the pastoral portion of his poem.22 This is all the more appropriate and necessary because the poet himself – the poet in, so to speak, propria persona – has already textualized himself rather thoroughly at the outset of Book VI. At the beginning of Proem VI, the poet does not merely posit the priority of Faeryland to “reality,” as I argued earlier. More exactly, he involves himself in Faeryland, implicates himself in it, initiates or inducts himself into it in exactly the same way that Red Crosse Knight and Una were led out of “the plaine” and into the Wandering Wood and so into Faeryland proper:

The waies, through which my weary steps I guyde,
In this delightfull land of Faery,
Are so exceeding spacious and wyde,
And sprinckled with such sweet variety,
Of all that pleasant is to eare or eye,
That I nigh rauisht with rare thoughts delight,
My tedious trauell doe forget thereby…
……….(Proem VI.i; cp I.i.8-10)

This passage accomplishes at least two important things: it activates an analogy between the action past of Book I and the action to be of Book VI, and it sets the poet in motion within his own poem in a manner and a condition strictly analogous to that of his own protagonists.23

If Calidore is in any sense manifesting or enacting within The Faerie Queene a hypothetical or ideal reader of The Faerie Queene, and Colin Clout in any sense plays the poet in the poem, then the major encounter of the two should be an episode of more than slight interest to readers who have remained, in any sense, outside the poem. Certainly the reader who loves The Faerie Queene behaves in a manner strictly analogous to the way the poet describes his own reactions to it, relishing the “sweet variety,/ Of all that pleasant is to eare or eye.” And certainly too, as details pile up and incidents multiply, they lead the reader inevitably to a fair degree of confusion, of loss of direction, just as the heroes of the poem falter in their quests and lose their momentum and direction. Book VI may not be quite the jungle of episodes and the zoo of characters that Books III and IV are, but it offers more than enough plots and protagonists to keep less-than-totally-attentive readers thumbing back every few pages to make sure they know who is doing what to whose what. But beyond that loose analogy, we can legitimately wonder if we as readers have any real stake in the meeting of Colin Clout and Calidore. We can question, in fact, whether Calidore is a stalking horse for us in any but the most formal and most shallow senses.

Those questions are answered – not clearly but at least directly – at Mount Acidale. Colin Clout’s piping and the dance of the Graces explicitly bring into the poem proper the material of the proems, the Muses and “Faire Venus sonne” (I.iii), the “sacred imps, that on Parnasso dwell” (VI.ii), all of the classical paraphernalia of poetic inspiration that has been essentially absent from the body of The Faerie Queene.24 That introduction of the apparatus and even the act of poetic inspiration and creation into the narrative, in the same sorts of terms as they exist in the proems, effectually erases the line between the “inside” and the “outside” of the poem, between the poet/speaker of the poem as a being in “our” world (which we conventionally take the proems to be: the poet standing outside his own poem and praying for the ability to articulate it) and the poet as a creature of and within the poem (which we take all the actors in the narrative to be).

Colin Clout’s apology to “Great Gloriana, greatest Maiesty” for intruding praise of another “mongst so many layes,/ As he hath sung of thee in all his dayes” (VI.x.28) overtly merges Colin Clout as a creature of The Faerie Queene, Colin Clout as a character or persona of Spenser’s earlier poems, the “Spenser” of the proems of The Faerie Queene who and which praise Gloriana, and the Spenser who wrote other poems in praise of the Elizabeth who underlies Gloriana.25 The “outside” of the narrative enters and becomes its inside, becoming a closed, self-contained, and yet seamless, limitless system, a sort of literary Mobius strip. Colin Clout’s piping evokes the dance of the Graces, a dance that precisely enacts that open-ended closure:

          And eeke them selues so in their daunce they bore,
That two of them still froward seem’d to bee,
But one still towards shew’d her selfe afore;
That good should from vs goe, then come in greater store.

I am not trying to say that the dance of the Graces is an analog or metaphor for what The Faerie Queene is at this precise narrative point making of itself. Mount Acidale marks the intersection of several meaning systems within the poem, and the dance of the Graces, among the abundance of meanings it bears and values it embodies, also enacts the poem’s intersection of itself, its simultaneous opening and closing of its own thrust. The pattern the Graces make, the motion they execute, replicates – among many other things – the action of bifurcation, the creation of duplicates and doppelgangers. What moves singly in one direction returns upon itself doubled, split, “diuided into double parts” (I.ii.9) to quote the poet of Archimago’s initial – and archetypal – success.

Note most carefully that the dance of the Graces is not the poem: if there is anything in the episode that could legitimately be considered an analog of the poem, it is Colin’s piping. That piping, in turn, calls into being, or enables, or serves as the stimulus for, the dance of the Graces, and the Graces remain totally free agents, independent of the piper/poet, as Colin explains to Calidore in response to his question about why the maidens disappeared:

Not I so happy, answerd then that swaine,
As thou vnhappy, which them thence didst chace,
Whom by no meanes thou canst recall againe,
For being gone, none can them bring in place,
But whom they of them selues list so to grace.

Unhappy Calidore indeed: for him, as for us poor readers, there can be no escape from the woods to direct vision, no way out of the forest of language and rhetoric to unmediated vision. Calidore immersed himself “in the couert of the wood” and “pleased much his sight” (VI.x.11) exactly as Una and Red Crosse Knight did to initiate the action of the poem, exactly as “Spenser” did in the proem to initiate the action of this book, exactly as the reader has done in every book to this point. Calidore enters the matter of rhetoric to spy on a topos, a pleasaunce, a locus amoenus, peopled by characters of rhetoric, characters who both exist in and putatively create rhetoric. His attempt to free himself of the “couert” of language and rhetoric immediately dispels the vision, undoes the dance:

Out of the wood he rose, and toward them did go.
But soone as he appeared to their vew,
They vanisht all away out of his sight,
And cleane were gone, which way he neuer knew.

This is a richly charged scene, with mighty currents working through it. It mirrors Red Crosse Knight’s vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem with the Hermit Contemplation, down to the detail of each hero, Red Crosse Knight and Calidore, wishing but being unable to stay always with his instructor and host. It mirrors in a different way Red Crosse Knight’s dream of Venus and the dancing Graces leading an all-too-compliant Una to his bed, “Now a loose Leman to vile seruice bound” (I.i.48). It echoes too of the Garden of Adonis and more remotely of the Bower of Bliss as well as the Wandering Wood. In these narrative terms, the Acidale episode is a collector, a magnet, for other narrative places in the poem, and for the meanings and classes of meaning those different places activate.

But before all else, the Acidale episode enacts its primary meaning, as all allegorical narrative must, in its bare littera, and that bare literal statement of narrative amounts to nothing more or less than Calidore’s catching a glimpse of something very beautiful, very puzzling, and very fleeting, and his consequent, unsuccessful attempt to get out of the woods and see plainly. On the literal level, then, as one of the protagonists of The Faerie Queene, Calidore is trying to undo Red Crosse Knight’s initial error and return us, poem and reader, to the state of clear vision, of plain simplicity and univocation from which the poem began – and that is impossible.

On that same literal level, as a type or incarnation or embodiment of the reader of The Faerie Queene, Calidore shares briefly with the poet/piper in the vision of complex motion and meaningful entrelacement that the artwork – the piping, the poem – lures into manifesting itself – and that cannot be sustained: Calidore’s attempt to approach it, question it, know it more fully and more permanently causes it to disappear, vanish, evanesce, so completely that even Colin Clout, for the moment at least, cannot bring it back, cannot put it together again in the same way, because it was never completely under his control to begin with, never entirely his creation at all.

The encounter of Calidore with Colin and the dance of the Graces in the sacred precincts of Mount Acidale enacts in the narrative of the poem the encounter of the reader and the allegory. The Mount Acidale episode embodies and enacts, for us, with us, the abilities and limitations of the poem and the poet and the reader, the triumphs and frustrations of each. The allegory lives in the dance: the motion, the weaving, the pattern makes and unmakes the meaning, and it cannot be frozen, nor can it be interrogated. We readers can no more permanently break free of mediation than Calidore can. We may try to get out of the woods, but we always return to them:

          [Calidore] had no will away to fare,
But wisht, that with that shepheard he mote dwelling share.
But that enuenimd sting, the which of yore,
His poysnous point deepe fixed in his hart
Had left, now gan afresh to rancle sore,
And to renue the rigour of his smart:
Which to recure, no skill of Leaches art
Mote him auaile, but to returne againe
To his wounds worker, that with louely dart
Dinting his brest, had bred his restlesse paine,
Like as the wounded Whale to shore flies from the maine.
So taking leaue of that same gentle swaine,
He backe returned to his rusticke wonne,
Where his faire Pastorella did remaine…

The dart of love, the bite of the Blatant Beast, and the hook of rhetoric all cause similar symptoms, similar rankling, because all are linked in an erotics of language. Calidore falls back from unmediated vison as we readers lapse back into figural language, modulating almost gratefully from Spenser’s transfiguration of the locus amoenus into the more familiar and comfortable space of the erotic pastoral, of the pastourelle. All our attempts to move our “infected wills” to the heights of our “erected wits” are fuddled by the verbal and figural ambiguity of that erection. Just as we are drawn to vision by the desire to know and possess, so we fall back into language from a concupiscence of convention, a yearning for the familiar, the comfortable, for simple Pastorella rather than the deified “iolly Shepheards lasse” (VI.x.16) at the heart of the knot of the Graces. Roland Barthes says “Writing is: the science of the various blisses of language, its Kama Sutra (this science has but one treatise: writing itself).”26 For an allegorist like Spenser, the forest of rhetoric and the jungle of desire are coextensive, hearts of darkness within us and without. In The Faerie Queene, Red Crosse Knight led us into all those dark forests, and we poor readers aren’t out of the woods yet.

Chapter 4: Earth – Entering the Other

By the seventh canto of Book I of The Faerie Queene, our hero Red Crosse Knight has been separated from Una, dallied with the treacherous Duessa, and been conquered by the Giant Orgoglio. Spenser is quite explicit about Orgoglio’s origins and nature: 

The greatest Earth his vncouth mother was,
And blustring AEolus his boasted sire,
Who with his breath, which through the world doth pas,
Her hollow womb did secretly inspire,
And fild her hidden caues with stormie yre,
That she conceiu’d; and trebling the dew time,
In which the wombes of women do expire,
Brought forth this monstrous masse of earthly slime,
Puft vp with emptie wind, and fild with sinfull crime.
(The Faerie Queene, I.vii.9)

Spenser’s account of Orgoglio’s origins ties Red Crosse Knight’s vanquisher firmly to the earth: so much so that critics at various times have suggested the giant “is” everything from (in macro) earthquake to (in micro) man’s most earthy part, the erected penis. Whatever role either of those figurae may play in the total depiction of Orgoglio, what Orgoglio “is” in Spenser’s narrative is what Orgoglio does: he defeats Red Crosse Knight, imprisons him, replaces him as Duessa’s lover and champion. He “is” Red Crosse Knight’s opposite number, his alternative, his Other. Spenser describes Orgoglio’s birth as a parody, a travesty, of Genesis’s account of the creation of man. Orgoglio amounts to no more than earth and air, physical inspiration and expiration, “earthly slime,/ Puft vp with emptie wind.” Red Crosse Knight, though neither he nor the reader knows it at this point, is similarly, literally, earth-born. A Faerie stole him as a child “And in an heaped furrow did [him] hide” (I.x.66), where a ploughman found him and raised him. His real identity, therefore, is George: Ge-orgos, the cultivator of the earth, the fruit of the earth – though the “org-” root suggests an even closer link to Orgoglio, suggests strongly the operation of a bilingual pun that makes both Red Crosse Knight and Orgoglio, appropriately, the embodiments of “pride in a handful of dust.”

To this point in the narrative Spenser’s hero has encountered and made errors. He has even, in some senses, called Error into being but they have been his errors, projections of himself and his singularity, icons embodying ideas progressively less and less general and more and more specific to Red Crosse Knight. To this point in the narrative Red Crosse Knight has been slowly and unwittingly leaving the space controlled by his singularity – thus his separation from Una – and entering a space (a phase space, where chaos rules1) dominated by duplicity, duality, duplication, a space presided over by his opponent, the prototypical opponent, Archimago, and mediated by Duessa. The Knight copulates with Duessa and thereby, in the logic that governs this allegory, creates alterity, calls into being his Other, his kin, Orgoglio. He duplicates himself in The Other that is specific to himself, inspiration reinterpreted and debased as inflation.


The solid ground on which any positive evaluation of any allegory must build is the shifting sand of The Other: The Other conceived in all its open-ended and fundamentally redundant alterity, all that is not us, not ours, not exactly what we mean, not what we said or meant to say, not what we intended, not what we wanted, not what we ever imagined, not what it says there on the page, not what the words signify, not true, not the thing itself, not real, not this: something else. The Other is the primeval nightmare, the multiplex that opposes our singleness, the outside that envelops our inside, the dark that swallows our light. Monsters like Orgoglio are The Other and dwell in The Other. Grendels stalk out of that dark to snuff out Heorot. The shapeless waits in The Other to take on the forms that allow it to usurp our shaped, our known, our own. In the clutch of The Other, clear and univocal speech loses precision, multiplies in connotation, becomes confused, becomes self-contradictory – the telltale taint of The Other – and degenerates (grows) into allegory.2

It’s best to be reductive now, to reduce our problem to manageable proportions. We stalk the literary Other, the Other that allegory can mean or say. What can we, without allegory, say about it? Much, as it happens. For one thing, we can posit its existence, or at least its verbal existence. We can posit its existence as words, or at least as signs, as an encoded, semiotic system of some sort. Why? Because Saying Other, the function by which allegory defines itself, demands the existence of a referential area beyond the literal statements of the text. There must exist an Other to be referred to or drawn upon or signified or indicated. There must be, before our prima facie text, what Maureen Quilligan calls a “pre-text,” an area of reference, a myth or scripture, a sign system or body of knowledge that can be drawn upon or drawn into, likened to or distinguished from, the prima facie text.3 This must exist for the simple reason that without it there can be no Other and no Other Meaning: something other than the literal, immediately comprehensible sense of the words of the prima facie text must be either referred to or borrowed from.

This is not reflex binary thinking: there are no other possibilities, given the constraints of our minimalist definition of allegory. The only remotely conceivable tertium quid is that the words of the prima facie text somehow combine among themselves to generate another meaning which is not definable by conventional notions of metaphor, symbolism, imagery, etc. I don’t question the theoretical possibility of such a phenomenon, but equally I cannot imagine it occurring without externally existing referents to complete the meaning of the pattern or gestalt or configuration of the pre-, post-, hyper-, or meta-verbal construct generated by those words. Even if the final Other created by the allegorical process remains, as the greatest poetry is conventionally thought to be, non-paraphrasable, it must nevertheless be apprehendable – and except for the very few of us who think mathematically, that means at least a rudimentary assemblage of words plus concepts plus pictures (plus perhaps assorted sensual stimuli). These must be “encoded” – already rendered into a textualized or textualizable form – or they are de facto not usable, not available, for allegory. An Other so alien, so radically disjunct that it is not sayable at all can be and often is the goal of allegory, but it can never be its means.

Therefore – and this is a very strict therefore – it follows that insofar as The Other is drawn upon, insofar as it provides an area or pool of reference that spills over to inform the prima facie text, The Other must be encoded. It must be already “literary”: it must exist in a form that readily permits its transference into a literary text, because it is otherwise unusable. It must exist already as a special language, a distinct vocabulary (whether of words or pictures or concepts) possessing the qualities of significance (importance, resonance) and distinction (recognizability, specialness, separateness). Without those qualities, The Other would not be “encoded” and therefore would not be available for allegory. Maureen Quilligan argues that such a pre-text must be a Scripture; indeed, for all practical purposes she limits the usable “pre-text” for western allegory to the Judeo-Christian Bible. I don’t see the necessity for that: the important and necessary qualities, to my mind, are that the area of reference possess authority and recognizability. The Aeneid, for instance, for many centuries in the West served quite well as a tappable area of reference for allegory, as the example of Dante’s poem makes clear, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses could have done the same, as could, with even less formulized and formalized narrative, “the matter of Troy.”

To my mind, to narrow the referential range of allegory in the way Quilligan does is unnecessary and erroneous. Allegory, in my view, can use any texts and any kind of texts for its areas of reference, provided they have achieved a level of cultural centrality, distinctiveness, and recognizability that makes them, for lack of a better word, “alludable.” In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, there are almost as many candidates for usable areas of reference as there are formulators of canons: The Odyssey for Joyce, Hamlet for Stoppard, the grail legend for Eliot, the life and fictions of Daniel Defoe for Coetzee. Even the artifacts of popular culture can serve as “pre-texts,” or, to use the words I prefer, areas of reference, for allegory: Pynchon uses Grade B movie clichés, Auster employs the plots and devices of detective fiction. For the purposes of allegory, even the terms and referents of ordinary discourse and quotidian experience would be available as an area of reference to a text or a genre that did not otherwise employ them (as they are, for instance, in The Satyricon). Particularly in a secularized society, the choice of “sacred texts” tends to be an integral part of the individual allegorist’s total esthetic and ideological vision rather than a universal given.

Areas of Reference

The question that usually arises at this point is how this use of pre-texts differs from allusion, and it is probably a good idea to clarify beforehand just how radically distinctive allegory’s employment of areas of reference really is. It is true that allusion and allegorical areas of reference are alike in that both draw into the prima facie text some other text and “turn it on” there, make it somehow operative within the prima facie text. That, however, is the end of their resemblance. Allusion uses its referential text either locally, for very specific ends (frequently irony) or pervasively, to establish a frame whose values condition the way we understand the actions and characters of the prima facie text. Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel, for instance, offers us an example of allusion used in this manner: Dryden counts on his readers’ registering both the changes he has made from his referential text and the events he has faithfully transcribed or translated from it into his prima facie text. Allusion’s referential text, no matter how complexly used, is in effect an idée fixe, an anchor of meaning: its values, its terms, often even its events and its language bear value, and that value becomes a constant in the prima facie text to which it is imported.

With allegory, referential texts have a totally different status. They may – in all probability will – be used locally, pervasively, and sporadically within the same text. They will never be used universally, uniformly, or systematically, in such a way that actions and characters of the referential text have precise correspondents, part for part, in the prima facie text: readings of Heart of Darkness that attempt to force elaborate correspondences between Conrad’s story and either Virgil’s or Dante’s epic provide an example of this kind of misperception of the relation of an allegorical text to its areas of reference.

The more usual relationship is like that between the actions and characters of The Faerie Queene and the Christian Bible. Biblical narrative – particularly the events and actions of Apocalypse – pervades Book I of The Faerie Queene, yet Apocalypse is not invoked explicitly to inform every action and event of that book: many of Una’s adventures, for instance, as well as the education of Red Crosse Knight in the House of Holiness, lack even loose correspondents in Apocalypse. On the other hand, allusions to (and even parodies of) Biblical events, even events of the New Testament, are hardly confined to Book I of The Faerie Queene: they show up at crucial points throughout the poem, trailing with them their contextual clouds of glory. Yet further: even Red Crosse Knight, who of all the poem’s characters is most closely linked to Scripture, does not always appear within a Biblical frame or context, and when he does, the values he thereby imports into the poem by that context are not always clear. In the whole Orgoglio episode, for instance, while it is relatively easy to assign a role out of Apocalypse to Duessa, no such readily identifiable function can be found for the constellation of Red Cross Knight, Una, Arthur, and Timias: they seem to demand that what is one role in Apocalypse be divided among several players in The Faerie Queene, with no diminution of the contextual relevance of the reference but a with a consequent and highly meaningful readjustment of the accompanying values.

Perhaps the Bible and The Faerie Queene are not the best examples possible for talking about this, because the Bible is – in most modern critics’ imaginations at any rate – an overprivileged, overdetermined text vis-à-vis The Faerie Queene, but the point I am trying to make is that Spenser’s use of it undercuts if not eliminates that total authority and makes it one referential text among many – Arthurian legend, English history, Homeric and Virgilian epic, even pastoral myth – which his prima facie text can activate or be activated by. If I can put it paradoxically, the use of areas of reference in allegory, like the use of Biblical narrative in The Faerie Queene, is simultaneously pervasive and intermittent.4 The Bible is at one and the same time omnipresent in The Faerie Queene and absent from long stretches of it, a shadow barely glimpsed behind the events of Spenser’s narrative, an echo just heard above or behind Spenser’s language.

So when Britomart, late in the poem, berates her eyes for failing to keep alert, for failing to watch one hour with her (, we are brought up short by the echo of Christ in Gethsemane: it puzzles us to see how that fits this situation, puzzles us too with the implication that the apostles were in some sense Christ’s eyes. It reminds us of Una’s diatribe against her eyes much earlier in the poem (I.vii.22-23), in a context where the Biblical allusion would have seemed appropriate but where it wasn’t employed. In a case like this, the Other to which allegory refers manifestly does not function as the clearcut determiner of value that allusion usually is. Rather, it becomes Other not just in the sense of being a text other than the prima facie text, but also in the sense of being alienated from its “normal” identity, becoming Other than itself, verging on self-contradictory, and thereby complicating rather than simplifying the person or event in the prima facie text that allusion would clarify. Its strange Otherness is imported into the prima facie text, which it is in the process of rapidly making over into allegory.

The prima facie texts of allegories play the Other, repeat the events or characters of their areas of reference, much the way minimalist music repeats its notes: with changes of instrumentation and volume, with shifts of phase, with microtonal differences, so the auditor hears one line behind another, one voice around another, the same but different, replicating (making replicates, as in music also, where a replicate is a tone an octave higher or lower than another) but not duplicating, in small and in large, above and below, solo and ensemble. In music systems employing different tuning and scales than conventional western music – e.g., “just intonation” and/or microtonal systems as opposed to “equal temperament” systems – the resonances and overtones of the notes actually played are capable of combining to produce distinct sounds that “have not been played” in any conventional sense. The auditor hears instruments that aren’t there. Similarly, in some minimalist and microtonal music, repetition of identical or near-identical sounds slightly out of phase produces a sense of great variation and depth, even with only a few actual instruments or notes involved.

I am trying to suggest here that similar actions and effects are at work in allegory. The area(s) of reference and the prima facie text call into being (between or among them) a kind of phase space or interphasal space wherein both have equal authority, where the actions of the prima facie narrative are drawn variously into the vortices of either the values implied by the referential areas or the meanings suggested by the conventional thematics of the prima facie text, and where both those noumena are equally modified by the events themselves.

Perhaps the best analogy for all this is the notion, drawn from the arena of artificial intelligence, of ideas as basins of attraction, magnets with unsteady fields of force and indeterminate boundaries or ranges, pulling and releasing, attracting and repulsing. That notion, in turn, is drawn from chaos theory, where the “strange attractor” accounts for turbulence and endless variation, order and disorder,5 arising from the same few principles within a closed system. That, I would argue, is what the interaction of prima facie text and areas of reference do in allegory. In a manner totally unlike allusion, the area of reference in an allegory becomes a strange attractor that frees the prima facie text from any possibility of static correspondences and recreates it as a dynamic system of multiplex and shifting, unstable signification.

The Case of Conrad

 The operations of The Other will vary in every allegorical text, just as the identity of The Other itself will be different, and presented in different terms and perspectives, in each allegory. For instance: the unnamed narrator of Heart of Darkness posits that the meaning of Marlow’s tale lies not inside, like the kernel in a nut, but outside, like a nimbus, a halo. That statement, echoing and at least in part contradicting centuries of conventional allegorical theory, raises far more questions than it answers (more too than we can hope to answer in this chapter alone). Is outside as opposed to inside the true direction of allegory? Does that mean, for instance, inside in the sense of in the reader rather than in the tale? Or do the verbal and stylistic dynamics of Conrad’s and Marlow’s language, the piling up of figures of speech, the sheer accumulation of evocative language, add up to an outside that somehow is, or contains, the allegory?  Does that mean then that allegory transpires in and as purely verbal process? And if allegory does turn out to be rooted in process of some sort, does this in turn imply or necessitate that narrative is its vehicle? Can we extrapolate from these slender reeds and argue that allegory minimally must be built of a narrative and an area of reference? How important then would reader interaction be to allegory?  Of what sort?  Do we, or should we then, read allegories differently than we read other texts? Just what is the reader’s role in allegory? And if, as I’ve been maintaining all along, personification characters do not lead to allegory, what kind of characters do? If allegory does in fact have nothing at all to do with one-to-one correspondences, we evidently cannot ask “what is this an allegory of?” And if that is so, what then can we ask? What is the right question?

We can at least make a start on answering those last few questions. My (I hope by this stage I can say our) repudiation of the one-to-one correspondences of prosopopoeia and Conrad’s narrator’s dismissal of the “kernel” as the heart of Marlow’s tale both work to divorce the idea (and ideas) of allegory from static formulations or relationships. Both free allegory from the mooring of fixed meaning. Both push us as readers and allegory as phenomenon/noumenon precisely in the direction of process. If allegory is in no way necessarily connected with personification, if allegory is not to be found in the point, the message, the insides of its own tale, then allegory, whatever it may turn out to be, has thereby been cut loose from the strings that bind it to any conceivable web of fixed meaning. It exists as a self-contained dynamic system, a system that can only be understood in terms of its own flow.

Symbolism is useless to explain allegory because it is a device of attachment and ipso facto not allegory. If symbolism were adequate to explain allegory, allegory would not be a problem. Readers and critics, from the earliest mentions of allegory, have always stated or implied that it is neither simply symbol nor simply metaphor (though these are hardly simple: you may wish to look at Angus Fletcher on this subject). Likewise, Rosemond Tuve has made very clear that the moral meaning of the text (the lessons or maxims or morals that are deduced from it or exemplified by it: one, at least, of the candidates for the “inside” that Heart of Darkness’s narrator rejects) is not allegory. Indeed, common sense will tell us that, because we do not even need a literary text to draw such morals: for that, life will do as well as literature.

Besides, symbol and allegory are phenomena of a different order: a symbol is device of literature, a figure of speech, a mode of crystalizing meaning – in that respect not entirely unlike personification. While allegory does not appear to be a genre in that it lacks a fixed form, it nevertheless clearly belongs to one of the larger, constitutive classes of literature, insofar as it seems in all observable instances to control the way we read and respond to works in which it preponderates. That is, allegory appears to belong to a class of phenomena that employ symbols and personifications rather than being a member of the class to which symbols or personifications belong.

In action, allegory often behaves a great deal like satire: like satire, it appears free to adapt itself to just about any form it chooses. Like satire, it dictates the mode (or modality? or style? or rhetoric?) of works in which it dominates. Like satire, it may include materials and sections that are not of its own kind. Viewed from the perspective of scale, neither personification nor symbol (nor, for that matter, metaphor or simile) can offer any explanation of allegory: that would be like saying that sarcasm or disease imagery accounted for satire. If this line of reasoning is correct, then no allegory is explicable by any series of equations or substitutions, no matter how simplistic or intellectualized: Kurtz cannot be “Western Man” or “Imperialism” any more than Swann can be decadent French aristocracy or The Red Cross Knight can be Holiness. Those are insides substituted for outsides, personifications, one-to-one correspondences of a sort that are essentially (I mean that word literally) inimical or at least irrelevant to allegory’s way of meaning.

If that is so, what then is allegory? If that is so, where then do we look for allegory? The best possibility seems to be in the observable process or kinds of processes – perhaps dialectical, perhaps linguistic, perhaps some other species entirely – by which meaning embodies itself in event, the process by which things-in-themselves are made to manifest their meaning. This is not symbolism, by which things are charged with meaning, nor is it metaphor, by which the meaning of one thing is transferred to another. I intend something closer, on a literary plane, to the action Gerard Manley Hopkins calls “selving” – the process by which an existent simultaneously displays, in a singular and utterly characteristic action, its intense specificity (its uniqueness even: its haeceitas, in Hopkins’ terminology, the quality that makes it this singular being and no other) and its connections with a world of ideas (it represents, even in some sense embodies, all the existents of its class, and it simultaneously reflects/embodies an aspect of the infinite variety of the One: all very Platonic). In allegory, the case is further complicated (no surprise here) by the fact that the tension and interplay between those two realms is mediated by, in fact takes place within, the shifting apprehensions and comprehensions of the reader. Allegory is and will always be difficult to talk about precisely because it has no steady state: it exists in and as flux, as the sort of unpredictable dynamic system the strange attractor calls into being.

For any sort of corroboration of all this we must first do as Conrad’s narrator advises: we must look at the outside of Marlow’s tale. Not yet at the readers (at least not now), though they are definitely an outside. Not yet at the language in itself, though that too is definitely an outside. Not even at the bare narrative: outside (involucrum, integumentum, envelope, veil) though it may be in conventional allegoresis, that is exactly what the narrator’s warning prohibits. We must look first at what in itself stands essentially – i.e., wholly: existing independently in conception or previously in time – outside of Marlow’s narrative: not at the frame of yachtsmen and London and Thames that the narrative both contains and is contained by, but at what is outside even that, at what is both chronologically and ideologically – even physically – outside Conrad’s tale and prior to it.

Conrad’s allusions and the areas of reference they tap form the outside of his fiction. They are the intellectual containers or ideological frames that enclose the narrative, which is the prima facie text, the ostensible outside, the false face of allegory. They are, if you will, a version or part or aspect of The Other that allegory says: its most visible aspect and, happily for our purposes, its most readily describable and appraisable aspect. Rather than the tale, the narrative, itself constituting the envelope of the allegory, Conrad has interposed a genuine and recognizable envelope around his tale – or to state it more accurately, Conrad has written his tale within an envelope which does indeed bring out its meaning. This envelope profoundly and accurately expresses Marlow’s and Conrad’s narratives by drawing structural, thematic, imagistic, and ideological patterns for Heart of Darkness from Dante’s Inferno and from The Aeneid, specifically from Virgil’s account of his hero’s journey to the heart of darkness, Aeneas’s descent to hell in the sixth book of that poem. Conrad has “commingled” (the word is a favorite one of Conrad’s: it echoes Commedia and in itself signals the action of allegory) Virgil’s narrative pattern with a bit of structural patterning borrowed from Dante’s related pilgrimage into his own heart of darkness to produce a frame – at once narrative, thematic, imagistic, and ideological – exterior to his own narrative, prior to it in time and literary tradition, and perhaps superior to it in signification. This multiple framing, this layering of narratological references looks similar to but is far from identical with what has been called metadiegesis, just as it looks similar to but is different from straightforward literary allusion. That frame is – perhaps it is more accurate to say those frames are, though they function singly – the halo that paradoxically illuminates and in all probability magnifies Marlow’s tale and makes its darkness visible.

Conrad’s Referentiality

It is no news to critics of Conrad that Heart of Darkness draws upon both Aeneid 6 and Inferno for many structural details,6 but to see in them the necessary frames of Conrad’s meaning may well be novel.7 Nevertheless, from the moment Marlow enters the “sepulchral city,” he moves through the realm of the dead. Marlow’s language and the details he presents persistently remind us of his inward progress from the borderland of the grove of death to its most inward stations. Typical of this is one of Marlow’s earliest encounters after his sea journey, his entrance into the shade of a grove of trees, beneath which cluster wraithlike dying laborers: the whole episode at once vividly recalls the huge elm that stands at the margin of Virgil’s underworld, with phantoms beneath its every leaf, and at the same time pointedly differs from it.

            At last I got under the trees. My purpose was to stroll into the shade for a moment; but no sooner within than it seemed to me I had stepped into the gloomy circle of some Inferno. The rapids were near, and an uninterrupted, uniform, headlong, rushing noise filled the mournful stillness of the grove, where not breath stirred, not a leaf moved, with a mysterious sound – as though the tearing pace of the launched earth had become audible.

            Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced within the dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair. Another mine on the cliff went off, followed by a slight shudder of the soil under my feet. The work was going on. The work! And this was the place where some of the helpers had withdrawn to die.
They were dying slowly – it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now – nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom…. These moribund shapes were as free as air – and nearly as thin. (Heart of Darkness, 81-82)

Conrad’s narrative recreates, in a “realistic” mode, details and particulars of Virgil’s mythological landscape.8 The dreams and phantoms that cluster in the dark of the elm tree, “thin lives…in the hollow semblance of a form,” reappear in Marlow’s experience as “black shapes,” “moribund shapes…free as air – and almost as thin,” “brother phantom[s].” The personified abstractions – Grief, Cares, Disease, Hunger, Fear, Death – that Virgil locates at the entrance to hell Conrad literally personifies in the “black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom.”

We must pay particular attention here to the linguistic mode Conrad is adopting, to what he is doing with language and style. These are the clues to his particular kind of replication without duplication. They constitute the means by which he achieves those disruptively interphasal effects of repetition with difference, so that in later (and earlier) events we will see shades of Aeneas and the Sybil even when they are not explicitly invoked. Conrad is here taking a particular kind of data from a particular kind of text and exploiting it in a particular way. Mythological details of the sort that we are used almost automatically to converting into their psychological or metaphysical “equivalents” are being transferred from their locus classicus, the paradigmatic beginning of a paradigmatic descent-to-hell narrative, the kind of narrative that, once again, we all-too-readily translate into moral or philosophical or psychological terms. But Conrad’s transferral both of detail and of event involves the preservation of the – what Dante would have called – littera of Virgil’s text.

The figures that Virgil describes as there for Aeneas are seen in their full literalness by Marlow. Even more so, in fact: what Aeneas saw as phantasms resembling bodies and Dante saw as souls nearly turned bodies, Marlow sees as flesh-and-blood human beings, body and soul and idea together. Aeneas’s spirits in the guise of bodies become for Marlow either scarcely embodied spirits or bodies in the guise of spirits. The terms of Virgil’s narrative do not become metaphors in Conrad’s, or for Conrad’s: what Aeneas saw sub imperio romano (which was, if you will, the mode and species of his vision) Marlow sees sub imperio brittanico (or franco, or belgico: the difference is minor) as well as sub auctore (et auctoritate) virgilii, but just as literally as Dante saw the very same details and event sub specie Christi et sub auctore virgilii. In The Aeneid, Virgil’s spirits look like ethereal bodies. Dante’s spirits in Inferno look and feel like substantial bodies. The unsubstantializing bodies of Conrad’s narrative strike Marlow as spirits. Those three different relationships/perceptions cohere simultaneously in Conrad’s text, the outlines of each visible around and through the others, like overtones in music combining to create sounds that weren’t played, on an instrument that isn’t there. That phenomenon – that lamination of presences in the text and awarenesses in the reader – is exactly the outside of Marlow’s tale, where his and its meaning is to be sought: that phenomenon is where the allegory lives.9

What I am trying to describe here, however complex it may seem, are the bald facts of Conrad’s or Marlow’s prose. That prose is not presenting the descent to hell as a metaphor or figure of any kind: it is narrating it as a fact. This is not arguable. It is not a matter of interpretation. It is a simple matter of what the words on the page say. We readers, in our normal haste and superior wisdom, usually register the details that convey this as metaphoric or hyperbolic: Marlow isn’t really saying that he saw phantoms, but that the people he saw were like phantoms. That judgment, however, will not hold up in the face of a careful look at the gradations of Conrad’s rhetoric. Prior to Marlow’s stepping into the grove of death, he views and transmits a scene of realistic detail bordering on the chaotic – abandoned machinery that looks like dead animals, “objectless blasting,” “a vast artificial hole” and “a very narrow ravine” and the “wanton smash-up” of “a lot of imported drainage-pipes” – that serves to precipitate his movement from the blinding sunlight into the dark. The ordinary, as it has from the start of his journey to Africa (significantly never named in the tale), here verges on the hallucinatory.10 The mental and emotional disorientation that that induces in Marlow frees him to see what is normally dark, the truth that underlies or surrounds ordinary reality. He relates this to us by way of a comment not about what he sees but about the mode of his seeing: “[I]t seemed to me I had stepped into the gloomy circle of some Inferno.” This reference to Dante and his poem rather than to Virgil and his Aeneid explains Marlow’s understanding of the mode and species of his experience, and at the same time both confirms and complicates the literalness of his vision. Conrad carefully brackets what Marlow subsequently sees in the grove of death in such a manner as to underline its literal truth. The precipitating reference to Inferno is paralleled, at the end of this particular phase of Marlow’s journey and vision, by his explicit recognition of the ordinary as visionary:

I didn’t want any more loitering in the shade, and I made haste towards the station. When near the buildings I met a white man, in such an unexpected elegance of get-up that in the first moment I took him for a sort of vision. I saw a high starched collar, white cuffs, a light alpaca jacket, snowy trowsers, a clean necktie, and varnished boots. No hat. Hair parted, brushed, oiled, under a green-lined parasol held in a big white hand. He was amazing, and had a penholder behind his ear.

I shook hands with this miracle…. (Heart of Darkness, 83)

“He was amazing, and had a penholder behind his ear.” That wonderfully laconic sentence, comic in its juxtaposition of an assertion of the extraordinary with the most mundane of details, signals Marlow’s and the reader’s entry (re-entry?) into the world of the ordinary now seen in a totally new light – or rather, dark. Between those two points of perception, in a prose movement that is repeated at many phases of Conrad’s novella, Marlow entered a realm of “spiritual” perception, wherein he and the reader witnessed directly the doings of shades and souls and “ideas” – “as though the tearing pace of the launched earth had suddenly become audible.”11 Conrad’s prose moved us into a world of “shapes” – Plato might have said forms – that constituted one more threshold for Marlow to cross. Each of these thresholds in turn promises revelation, each seems ready to show us The Other – enter here into the heart of the mystery – and each in turn opens finally onto ordinary reality, the outside of things as we know them, an accountant in a white suit. Conrad’s narrative reincarnates Virgil’s descent to hell in its literalness (and it is important to remember here that Virgil too insisted on his hero’s descent in the flesh rather than in the spirit) just as Dante’s version did – not to turn us inward but to turn us outward, not to substitute for our daily phenomena an exceptional noumenon but to show us that phenomena are noumena, that the ordinary is, ipso facto, extraordinary.

Meaning will not be found by piercing through texts and surfaces to dig out a hidden inner reality: meaning lies out in the open, on the outside, and attention must be paid to it. Conrad’s language and imagery drive this point home again and again, both in macro and in micro. The compound or courtyard that fronts the Central Station, for instance, is yet another one of those apparent containers that are actually contained, and whose reality is dwarfed by the greater reality that lies outside them.

Beyond the fence the forest stood up spectrally in the moonlight, and through the dim stir, through the faint sounds of that lamentable courtyard, the silence of the land went home to one’s very heart – its mystery, its greatness, the amazing reality of its concealed life. (93)

Marlow’s language echoes the words of the unnamed narrator’s explanation of how Marlow’s tales mean:

…to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of those misty haloes that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.”  [68]

This echo12 focuses the reader’s attention on the forest itself as the envelope which contains Marlow and the pilgrims. The forest – foris, the outside, what lies outside the walls, the unfenced, outside of ordinary law – becomes the meaning which surrounds the unperceiving pilgrims, whose attention is all turned inward toward a dying fire. Readers of a philosophic bent will be forgiven for hearing in that synopsis echoes of Plato’s fable of the cave: I would suggest that the echoes are true to Conrad’s narrative.


Much of our contemporary critical and linguistic theory treats language as liminal, if not terminal (all puns intended). Not to put too fine a point on it, this confuses the analytic tool for the object analyzed, language used semi-scientifically for all language. More concretely, some languages are more or less liminal than others. French and German are more liminal than English; American English, I think, is even less liminal that its British cousin. Conrad is clearly a writer obsessed with thresholds and limits and the crossing of them, and he uses language not liminally but anti-liminally, to “deconstruct,” if you will, the barriers and limits of ordinary perception. Don’t look inside: look outward; look out. After creating the almost featureless sense of place that opens the Heart of Darkness – the yawl Nellie at anchor at slack tide in a near calm – the very first perceptions the unnamed narrator offers us involve the erasing of horizons, the breaching of thresholds:

The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint…. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. (65)

This featureless waterscape, without hard edges or firm outlines, is significantly similar to Marlow’s description of the situation of his fogbound steamboat just before reaching Kurtz’s Inner Station:

What we could see was just the steamer we were on, her outlines blurred as though she had been on the point of dissolving, and a misty strip of water, perhaps two feet broad, around her – and that was all. The rest of the world was nowhere, as far as our eyes and ears were concerned. Just nowhere. Gone, disappeared; swept off without leaving a whisper or a shadow behind. (110)

In turn, that “white fog, very warm and clammy,” resembles in important ways Marlow’s terse description of his own near-death by fever:

I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire for victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid scepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. (148)

Such imagistic conjunctions of the domestic and seemingly drama-less Thames, the tension-filled up-river approach to Kurtz and his sinister Inner Station, and Marlow’s understated approach to his own “extremity” (to use one of Heart of Darkness’s supercharged terms) work to erase the borders between physical places, physical states, and psychological states. Such prose moves the whole narrative out of a realistically conceived geography and into a dynamic space where physical details can fully embody psychic data, where noumena and phenomena can act upon each other unimpeded by “normal” boundaries and limitations. In this live and unstable phase space, nothing is inanimate: everything “selves,” and in its action attracts and repels whatever wanders into its orbit. The river lives, attracting and threatening, the savage Congo drawing the tame Thames into its shadow. The jungle lives, calling and warning, its “impenetrable darkness” stretching to cover “the greatest city on earth.” Most of all, Kurtz lives, more intensely and more extremely, and therefore attracting and repelling more powerfully than all the other basins of reference – so much so that Aeneas and Anchises and the Sybil, Dante the pilgrim and Virgil the guide and Satan the goal are all drawn into his orbit, sometimes eclipsing him, sometimes eclipsed by him, and sometimes all moving in harmonious rhythm with him.

Conrad’s narrative, the perceptions and prose with which he gifts Marlow, constantly establish walls only to break through them, as if the concept of liminality itself were the ultimate object of Marlow’s ethical and psychological wrestlings. To cite one example more from Heart of Darkness:

On the fifteenth day I came in sight of the big river again, and hobbled into the Central Station. It was on a back water surrounded by scrub and forest, with a pretty border of smelly mud on one side, and on the three others enclosed by a crazy fence of rushes. A neglected gap was all the gate it had. (86)13

This sort of blurring of limits, the imagistic or figural demonstration of the porosity of frontiers, is precisely the function of the much-remarked-upon poetic quality of Conrad’s prose: all of Marlow’s rhapsodies and seeming hallucinations in Heart of Darkness are carefully manipulated to that end. Both fugal language and fugue states work to create or reveal the lacunae in our quotidian notions of reality, to permit us to leave the stockade and enter the forest. Depending on from which side you view them, thresholds are beginnings or endings, limits that close things in or limits that close things out, portals that lead inside or open outward.

Porosity is a two-way street. Literary realisms and the versions of reality to which they are tied are as provisional and as limited as the cultures that create them. The normal purpose of both is to paper over the void, to hide the cracks in “reality” and keep us from thinking about what lies outside our versions of the true. The characters of such fiction and the believers of such theories are all more or less like the agents of the Central Station, “wander[ing] here and there with their absurd long staves in their hands, like a lot of faithless pilgrims bewitched inside a rotten fence” (89), excited by a dying conflagration of muffs and beads, or like Lord Jim repairing clocks inside Rajah Allang’s flimsy stockade while others decide his fate.

This is no more or less true of the realism of the “high bourgeois” novels of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century than it is of, for instance, the “totalizing theory” of Marxism that is used to criticize their oversights. The truly subversive work (of literature or anything else) – the work, I believe, of every allegorist – is to cross the thresholds of theory and belief, to make us see the gaps in reality without the comforting plaster of a back-up system to patch or cover them again as quickly as they’re found. The great image of this openness in Heart of Darkness – and of the dangers it brings to the unprepared – is the Inner Station itself:

Through my glasses I saw the slope of a hill interspersed with rare trees and perfectly free from undergrowth. A long decaying building on the summit was half buried in the high grass; the large holes in the peaked roof gaped black from afar; the jungle and the woods made a background. There was no enclosure or fence of any kind; but there had been one apparently, for near the house half a dozen slim posts remained in a row, roughly trimmed, and with their upper ends ornamented with round carved balls. The rails, or whatever there had been between, had disappeared. (126)

To understand the Inner Station as an image of the erasing of thresholds and limits – as, simultaneously, a literal and a figural representation of openness rather than/in addition to closure – contradicts the logic of the inward journey to the heart of darkness, but our narrator’s early warning that the meaning of Marlow’s tale was outside rather than inside contradicts that logic too. The Inner Station as an embodiment of openness rather than/in addition to closure also, and much more seriously on the ideological level, contradicts the movement and figural logic of the Inferno, which provides so much of its frame of signification. Such duplicity is typical of allegory, and far from invalidating either the inward journey or Inferno as patterns and meaning centers, it enriches both and expands – opens, if you like – their role in the tale. Allegory keeps open as many possibilities as it can, or we can, conceive.

In this respect, Conrad, whom I take to be a modern allegorist par excellence, reveals a core truth about the characteristic use of language in allegory. Conrad’s language in Heart of Darkness constitutes an interface or interphase system, a phase phenomenon transitional between the putatively steady states of subjective and objective, conscious and unconscious, private and communal. Marlow’s consciousness and his perceptions, as I have already hinted, move uncertainly between “normal” and “abnormal” states, between the graphic recording of “realistic” (i.e., physical, empirical) details and almost hallucinatory (i.e., non-material, intuitive) accounts of what underlies the material scene.

He was just a word for me. I did not see the man in the name any more than you do. Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream – making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams….

            No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence – that which makes its truth, its meaning – its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream – alone. (94-95)

Just to complete the movement between all those aforementioned poles, right after these remarks Marlow invokes his auditors’ knowledge of and sight of him – precisely when it so dark they can’t see him – as a guarantee of their understanding of what he is saying.

Pulled by certain ideas, fascinated and led on by forces he doesn’t comprehend, Marlow has entered a psychic space where all is flux, where the outward appearances of ordinary reality constantly elide into surreality. Kurtz becomes for the adult Marlow the same kind of strange attractor that blank spots on the map had been for the younger Marlow, an attractor just like the huge, serpentine river that “fascinated me as a snake would a bird” (71) and drew him to this adventure in the first place. Things alike but different draw Marlow on: first the needs-no-explanation curiosity of a child about blank spots on a map; then, as those spots fill up with names and features, the strange fascination of the adult with the serpent river; and, finally, what becomes both obsession and inexplicable commitment to a man he’s not yet met. Those replications with variations move Marlow literally – literally – from the objective to the subjective, from the known and named world to the un-named and unknown, to the reality that underlies a false and unreal name,14 a movement paralleled by that of the reader who follows him from the familiar Thames up the river with no name, out of “the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth” (65) and into the forest outside.

Allegory is the paradigm expression of this interphasal phenomenon: it is the playing field where meaning systems compete, the cyclotron where patterns of perception collide and are shivered into their component atoms. At even the most superficial levels of Heart of Darkness, at least four meaning systems meet in violent collision – the colonial and the anti-colonial, the pagan-Platonic-psychological and the Christian-moral (these last two are probably four or more by themselves) – and we could go on with not too much subtlety to talk about the capitalist and the humanist or the corporate and the individual. Conrad’s language activates all those systems and eliminates none of them. Readers must juggle all of them – and who knows how many more? – as best they can, balancing them against the text’s various explicitnesses and reticences, and drawing their own more or less equally valid conclusions about the combined or mutually modified meaning of all those theoretically exclusive systems.

This is something substantially more than the conventional interpretive act, which consists largely, however much it may be glamorized, in registering, remembering, and connecting, with a screen that discards as unacceptable anything that appears contradictory. The allegorical reader, on the other hand, has not merely to live with contradictions but to revel in them, to register, remember, and connect everything with everything in multiple ways. Allegory permits us to screen out nothing, to discard nothing: it demands that we always take everything into account. We can’t do it, of course. We just don’t have the capacity to perform that task at once, exhaustively, so all our readings of allegory are only ever partial readings, interpretations of pieces of the whole. This is why our readings of allegory are never the same twice, and why your allegory will never be exactly my allegory. Allegory forces its readers to become co-authors, to half-create the text they read. That is why and how allegory creates participatory readership.15

To name no names, a great deal of contemporary criticism and critical theory acts and talks as if the idea of reading as active and creative – a creative activity, in fact – was a new invention, as if until it came along reading had only ever been the passive reception of information. Perhaps it is so (I doubt it) to linguists and their semiotic children, who seem to worry so obsessively about language as an accurate transmitter of data, but it has never been so to allegorists, who create their allegories precisely by banging their readers’ heads against walls of meaning until they learn to climb over. This can move a reader, as it can a character, into some fairly strange territory, but it need not of necessity lead us to such far out places as it does Marlow. A good part of The Other which allegory both creates and is created from consists of nothing more exotic than the non-canonical: some of the pores in any individual’s world-system are simply the other guy’s point of view, the competing system’s valid points, the outsider’s relevant criticisms, the deconstruction of one’s own edifices, be they verbal or physical. A great portion of the ethical Other that Marlow runs into in Heart of Darkness, for instance, is nothing more exotic than plain, old-fashioned greed, manifesting itself in forms as various and as familiar as inhuman cruelty and company politics. Allegory’s Other, in at least this one of its many aspects, often has a familiar face.

At all key points in The Heart of Darkness, Conrad insists on the collision of competing systems in his language and in the reader’s awareness. Most often he conveys this by the manipulation and juxtaposition of his two parallel and (it is too little realized) antithetical referential systems, Aeneas’s Virgilian descent to hell to interview the shade of his father for information about his mission and the future course of empire (it is parenthetically worth remarking that even this is ironic, since in life Anchises had been consistently wrong in his reactions to and interpretations of everything bearing on Aeneas’s fate), and Dante’s Virgilian-inspired, Beatrice-arranged descent for vision and personal salvation. Depending on your point of view, either of those journeys could be understood as demonstrating heroic self-abnegation or an inhumane (not to say inhuman) denial of feeling and compassion, heroic self-fulfillment or egoistic self-serving. In their physical/spiritual goals and culminations, they can be seen as complementing each other or antithesizing each other, and that the author of one serves as the guide for the other does not simplify their relationship in the least. It is further significant, in this regard, that Marlow alone of the three sojourners lacks a guide and companion to lead him in and out of his underworld: only Kurtz draws him on, and the prospect of hearing Kurtz speak motivates him to travel up the long river. Kurtz as Sybil, Kurtz as Dante’s Virgil, Kurtz as the shade of Anchises, Kurtz as the glorified Beatrice: that’s multivocation; there is the collision of competing meaning systems.

Conrad is relentless in his pursuit of these sorts of ideological collisions. The journey up-river itself, like Marlow’s sea-journey before it, taps an equally large body of potentially valid, partially complementary, partially contradictory, figural traditions. The first and most obvious, in the context I’m dealing with here, is Aeneas’s own sea journeys from fallen Troy through all his deceptive harbors (including the bustling, industrious city of Carthage, of which our last sight in the poem is Dido’s funeral pyre) to his landfall in Italy and thence up the Tiber to the site of Rome. Less immediately relevant but by no means ignorable is Dante’s ubiquitous adaptation of that sea-voyaging into the imagery of the ship which is the poem itself or the inspiration that bears the poem and the poet onward (not forgetting either the angelic ship that carries souls to Purgatory, though that seems to correspond most directly to Charon’s ferry that transports Aeneas across Styx). Beyond that, of course, the hoary metaphor of the Ship of State most definitely comes into play in a work so concerned with ideas of empire. And when it comes to hoary metaphors, can the venerable Narrenschiff be far behind? The French schooner that carries Marlow to his landfall certainly qualifies as a hybrid child of the Ship of Fools and the Ship of State, while Marlow’s “tinpot steamer,” with its complement of pilgrims and cannibal crew, presents itself as a fully rigged out Narrenschiff: both craft invite apposite reflections on European politics and society, both in their internal and external relations.

Extrapolating slightly further from that, the steamboat in particular seems set up as a microcosm of colonial society, with its careful stratification of classes and roles and authority: there is rich satire in the practical “savagery” of the cannibal crew and the impractical savagery of the pilgrims. From the ship viewed thus as a human collective, it is then an easy step to the human individual and a secularized, psychologized version of the ship as, in effect, a macroscopic representation of the human body – an updated version of ancient metaphor of the body as the barque of the soul. In this sense the steamer’s crew and passengers and captain enact differing aspects of one psyche, a sort of Marlovian superego presiding over a narcissistic and acquisitive ego (the pilgrims) and a scarcely housebroken id (the cannibal crew, who do all the real work), the whole entity enroute to confront an overwhelming question in the person of its twin/kin Other, Kurtz. All of those figurae cluster around Marlow’s ships, and none of them is dismissable from consideration either as to how it affects the meaning of the tale or how it affects the relevance and meaning of the others. Each version of the idea of “ship” attracts the events of the narrative into its field of meaning and each surrenders Marlow’s ships only reluctantly to another, competing attractor. Such is the sort of overlapping and competition of meaning systems that Conrad has set in motion throughout Heart of Darkness.

Marlow journeys from an explicit nexus of at least one set of meaning systems (his aunt viewed him as “an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle,” while he “ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit” [76]) through Outer and Central Stations with their “flabby, rapacious devils” and “papier-mâché Mephistopheles” to the Inner Station itself, where dwells, enthroned within a ring of skulls, the chief devil of that land, the voice that he has come to hear: Kurtz, seen simultaneously through the filters of Anchises and Satan, Sybil and Virgil and Beatrice. Just so Aeneas passed through hell to hear his father speak, just so Dante journeyed through all of hell to see, at its Inner Station, Satan ringed by the heads of sinners and, in a splendid simultaneous parody and apotheosis of literary figuration, disfiguring the human and divine images simultaneously.16

Frames and Gates of Ivory

By virtue of these specifically invoked frames – the course of empire and the eternal negation, Aeneas’s divinely enforced, Stoic repression of all human affect and the Beatrice-inspired Christian sublimation of that affect, the father of Rome and the father of lies, the loftiest aspiration and the deepest degradation – all coalesce in the figure of Kurtz. Coalesce, converge, concenter, but not sum up. Kurtz is not Anchises any more than he is Aeneas. Whatever the relation of Conrad’s Kurtz to those earlier figures whose penumbra we see around him, it is not identity and it is not typology. Kurtz does not stand as type or antitype to Dante or Virgil or any of their creatures. He is not a representative of them any more than he is a metaphor for them or a symbol of them. He is not even certainly of their class, of their species – yet indefinable as it is, there nevertheless persists an unmistakable relation between Kurtz and his ombriferi prefazi. For the reader, the actions and personae of Virgil’s sixth book and Dante’s first are strange attractors. They work not simply as passive areas of reference that we are free to invoke or ignore, nor as allusions activated by a few key words or phrases and used for local or even sustained irony or point. Rather, they act as dynamic basins of attraction that demand our attention to them. They are demons or machines that once set in motion cannot be turned off by the mere whim of the author, the narrator, or the reader, and they cooperate and compete, complement and contradict each other to drive us frantically scrabbling readers to grasp a point or points, to reach an apprehension or a series of comprehensions, that for convenience’s sake we credit to Conrad though they are every bit as much the creation of each reader.17

The meanings they push us toward are hard to reach, and hard to take once we’ve reached them, because the convergence of patterns insists that we accept contrary figurations as simultaneously true, that we see both (or many) sets of denotation as equally valid: Kurtz manifests the roles, the figurae, of Anchises and Satan as goals, and Sybil and Virgil as guides, at one and the same time. He enacts the coincidence of good and evil, of light and dark: an ivory skull shining in the heart of darkness (Kurtz’s baldness links him irrevocably with his victims: his own head becomes the fence within which he encloses himself to shut out the forest, the gapped and porous fence that let in the forest).18 Literarily, this is hard to take because, just as Eliot warned us it would, it forces us to reassess Anchises and Satan, Aeneas the hero and Dante the pilgrim, in the light of their progeny.19 Just how high is the cost of empire? and just which empire do we mean? It may be no wonder that Virgil knows hell so well, in his own poem and in Dante’s.

It is certainly no wonder then that Marlow must give the devil his due and lay Kurtz’s restless spirit with a lie. It is not just that, as Marlow says, lies have the taint of mortality about them.20 If the purpose of language were only to accurately transmit data, then fiction antithesizes that purpose, contradicts it flatly and totally: all fiction, de facto, deconstructs language as an information system. Fiction is language’s Other, the alterity that haunts clear statement of fact: recall the strictly logical Houyhnhnms’ difficulties with “saying the thing which is not.” It follows then that lies – fictions – are the doors of the Other world (which is, after all, what the underworld always is), the gate of ivory by which Marlow and Kurtz leave ordinary reality and conventional belief systems to explore what lies outside them. By so doing, they antithesize too the actions of their predecessor Otherworld explorers, both of whom escape from their underworlds (because both are fictions, kingdoms of lies?) by way of the alterity of falsehood: Aeneas leaves his underworld by the gate of false dreams and Dante exits from hell by making a ladder of Satan’s body. With such contexts being simultaneously invoked and repudiated, privileged and contradicted at the same time, it should be no wonder that the shadows grow long around Kurtz’s Intended in the sepulchral city, no surprise that her gestures remind Marlow of Kurtz’s savage mistress, that her brow gleams white, reminding us ludicrously and unsettlingly of Kurtz’s ivorylike bald head, and in turn of the skulls that surround his throne. Marlow has seen, even though he may not have fully understood, even though, like Dante at the end of Paradiso, he may not be able to say all that he has seen. He has imaginatively seen Kurtz and his Intended together, has perceived their identity – and Marlow knows as well as we do just what Kurtz Intended. In these final actions, Marlow perceives Kurtz mediated by his Intended, the Intended mediated both by Kurtz and the savage mistress: the integrity, the singleness, the unity of Marlow’s vision has been shattered, fragmented, divided and/or multiplied through mirrors of duplication and duplicity, both physical and verbal.

So the shock of Heart of Darkness, the real terror of it for readers who have grasped the simultaneous presence in Kurtz of everything that the words nobility and degradation must serve as shorthand for, the final tremor as the whole story at last falls into place, is to realize that Marlow’s lie – “the last words he spoke were your name” – that this lie is also the truth. That constitutes the tale’s crowning coincidentia oppositorum. The name of Kurtz’s Intended is “The horror! The horror!” – just as it is Kurtz’s own name, and perhaps Marlow’s too.21 Kurtz has absorbed “all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men” (Heart of Darkness, 69). “There’s no initiation into such mysteries” (69), Marlow tells us, yet Kurtz has been initiated into them (“The wilderness…sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation,” 121), assimilated to them, and Marlow in turn has been initiated into the mystery of Kurtz: “This initiated wraith from the back of Nowhere honoured me with its amazing confidence22 before it vanished altogether” (122); “It is his extremity that I seem to have lived through,” (149). An initiation is a beginning, a threshold, not an end, and at the heart of most initiations lies the conferring of the sacred name, the name that is its bearer’s secret and essential identity, the real name that transcends that public name which is, as Kurtz’s had been to Marlow, “just a word” (94). In Kurtz’s initiation, at the heart of darkness, “the knowledge came to him at last – only at the very last” (133), and Kurtz names himself. He pronounces his secret name. He names his Intended. He names Marlow and, in all probability, he names us. The secret name is the horror that lies at the heart of this particular darkness, the Grendel that waits in this particular Other. Kurtz has fallen victim – or sacrificed himself – to the Other of not-what-I-intended, not-what-I-said, not-what-I-meant-at-all. After that, it makes little difference that Marlow emerges from his dreamlike pilgrimage as Aeneas does, through the gate of ivory, the gate of false dreams, the portal of the lie, because, like Aeneas’s vision, his is also true. Truth and lie are indivisible concepts, as inseparable as Marlow and his knowledge of Kurtz: the truth is only the threshold of the lie, the lie is only the threshold of the truth. The truth calls the lie into being – that is the inescapable logic of binary systems – as surely as Red Cross Knight gives rise to Orgoglio. If Heart of Darkness or The Faerie Queene were purely binary systems, they would end there. That they do not, that Orgoglio clearly and Kurtz inferentially are only way stations and not goals, thresholds as beginnings and not as ends, tells us something further about the ways of allegory: its Other is always open-ended.

Marlow has passed through trials by water and by fire; he has been initiated into great mysteries. Above all he has been initiated into Kurtz, whose “extremity [he] suffered through.”  Appropriately: Kurtz, you remember, “was an extremist.” At the extremes, the opposites meet: lofty aspiration and utter degradation, true and false, coincide.23 So do inside and outside, the one and the other: for the reader of the tale – I would argue, of any allegory – inside and outside are not separable. Just as for Tom Stoppard’s Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, every exit is an entrance somewhere else. Thresholds have no meaning, whether they be linguistic or ideological: everything is at once threshold and center. We are not free to discard the narrative: the integument embodies the meaning, expresses it. Manifest and latent content, declarations and descriptions coalesce, more than coalesce, since they were never really separate. Is Marsyas’ flayed hide, his integument, any less Marsyas than the bloody carcass it reveals? “Yesterday I saw a woman flayed, and you will not believe how much it altered her person for the worse.”24 The integument, the hide, the skin, the outside: by these, and only by these, do we know the insides. Only because of these do insides exist: figuration bodies forth what is otherwise unexpressed because inexpressible. The truth of Conrad’s fiction is not merely inward, and readers of allegory are never free, at any point, to analyze only: they must always synthesize as well. This is why we cannot simply discard the husk and extract a “message” from the fiction. We must read with the lenses of allegory’s own dualities (and more); we must maintain at least a dual vision of Kurtz, as Satan and as Anchises, and of Marlow as a Dante seeking personal salvation – by means of what perverse Beatrice! – and as an Aeneas however reluctantly plotting the course of empire: self-abnegation and self-fulfillment embodied in both, and who can separate the good or ill of either?

Such enigmatic and multiplex figuration should serve as a large and general warning to readers of allegory, as forceful as the words over Dante’s Hellgate and just as unbending: the hermeneutics of inwardness, the Augustinian search for interior meaning, is utterly inappropriate to the allegory of the poets. Inward is singular, solitary, impoverished: outward, the direction of the Other, is multiplex and rich. Kurtz looked within himself, and went mad (144). Marlow escapes that fate by going outside himself, by on one hand absorbing himself in the quotidian routine of keeping his “tinpot steamboat” running25 and on the other by suffering through Kurtz’s “extremity” rather than his own (149). Inside, for allegories and for allegorists, is the path of surrender: it leads not to understanding but only to easy sloganeering, whether the slogans be pious platitudes about enlightenment or “Exterminate all the brutes” (123). Think logically, even reductively, about it: if Dante, or Spenser, or Conrad had merely wished to say “Seek X; Avoid Y,” they in all probability would have done so. That, instead, they wrote Commedia, The Faerie Queene, and Heart of Darkness argues in itself that their aims were other (Other) and more complex than “Seek X; Avoid Y” can comprehend – an obvious point that one must make over and over again in discussions of allegory, because of the revanchist critical impulse to lapse back into the expectations and norms of personification or typology. And we are no further along if readers persist in naive questions like “What is Heart of Darkness an allegory of?”

For allegory and critics of allegory, there is a valuable lesson to be learned in Heart of Darkness about the cumulative workings of the allegorical Other, the something else that is both what allegory seeks to say and the means by which it says anything. This Other that makes allegory is not, cannot be – however much the necessities of my writing about it, the unavoidably reductive exposition of it, may have made it seem so – a matter of some simple transpositions of value or of drawing upon a fund of static symbolic values. Rather, the areas of reference that allegories may tap and draw upon as their means of signifying, the basins of attraction that capture and release their actions and actors, are constantly shifting in value and application. The descent to hell is present in Heart of Darkness in different aspects at different moments and sometimes in many competing aspects simultaneously: literary, political, moral, psychological, Virgilian, Dantesque, personal and unique to Marlow, universal and applicable to all of us.


Crucially, however, what Heart of Darkness does at its closure is typical of what allegory must do somewhere in the course of its narrative: it brings together all the strands of all its areas of reference, all the possibilities of the pools of meaning that the fiction has been tapping, all the currents set in motion by the strange attractors, at a moment in the text that affords the readers a sudden understanding of the things that have been gnawing at their consciousness all along. The different orbital systems of the competing or complementary attractors at some point constellate and trigger something like an epiphany – but in the reader, not in the text or its characters.

I call this retrospective comprehension: from this place in the narrative, I can now look backward and understand, for instance, why Conrad had Marlow emphasize the whiteness and smoothness of The Intended’s brow, why he had so exclusively used ivory as the exemplar of the pilgrims’ greed, why he has stressed so often the dream quality of Marlow’s experience. This sort of thing happens, I would argue, in all successful allegories: ideas, images, characters, references that had been separate, discrete, at best parallel, suddenly intersect, converge. Narrative and areas of reference coalesce and cohere, integrally establishing multiple meanings. That coalescence is the allegory, and it is no more paraphrasable than good poetry is. In that sense, “what is this an allegory of?” is an entirely inappropriate question to ask and an impossible one to answer. The more pertinent questions are “what are the elements that contribute to the allegory?” and “where do they and the narrative – and maybe the frame too – coalesce?” Those are things that we can say about allegory, though we will still never be able to say exhaustively what any allegory means in its entirety.

The answers to those two questions will provide the perspectives from which to talk about the allegory or allegories. What they will never give is certitude. Allegory will never let us simply say that X is Y. Rather, its purpose – not its whole purpose but an important one – is to make us think, to make better readers of us, and to that end it will not let us rest on any comfortable truism. That would be to open the door to rigid systematizing, which closes the door to openness. Allegories are difficult to understand and explain, as the ancients knew, precisely because their whole point is the process of coming to understand, a process that in allegory, as in life, is never finished. It is also a process that differs for everyone who undergoes it, each time they undergo it. Marlow says as much: his word for what I am calling process is work.

I don’t like work – no man does – but I like what is in the work – the chance to find yourself. Your own reality – for yourself, not for others – what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means. (97)

Kurtz’s work initiated him into the mysteries of the wilderness. Marlow’s work vicariously and imaginatively initiated him into Kurtz, the voice he came to the Inner Station to hear. In turn, his voice – Conrad’s work – initiates his auditors and readers into his mystery, or at least attempts to, though often he protests the impossibility of conveying what he wishes to express, though occasionally he too seems to be looking in the wrong places for meaning (that is, inward rather than outward), though his auditors – our unnamed narrator, at least – seem sometimes to have a different focus of interest than he does. For example, the narrator early on refers to Marlow’s tales as characteristically “inconclusive experiences” (70), a description which certainly does not fit Heart of Darkness except in the senses of allegorical signification we have been discussing. Immediately after that, the narrator punctuates Marlow’s apologetic “I don’t want to bother you much with what happened to me personally” with a very different point of view, “showing in this remark the weakness of many tellers of tales who seem so often unaware of what their audience would best like to hear.” Even their psychological starting places seem very different: at the beginning of the tale, the Thames prompts the narrator to rhapsodize over history, over English seamen and explorers, over “The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empire.” Marlow’s first words in the tale antithesize that point of view by appealing to a prior history, an antecedent state: “And this also… has been one of the dark places of the earth” (67).

All of these small disturbances of narrative serenity work within the narrative to undermine the authority of the narrative, to establish or call attention to the pores and gaps in the fabric of the narrative itself. For instance: the vast bulk of the narrative is Marlow’s own words, and it is implausibly reported verbatim and implausibly long. Its by-that-means already apparent artifice is further underlined by its “unrealistic” division into three sections in the obvious fashion of a book (Dante’s book, to be specific) and not in the fashion of an extemporaneously told story. Such “anti-narrativistic” elements add yet more levels of unsteady mediation between the readers and the central nub of what Marlow professes to be trying to say. They make at least one more outside for us to look at clinically and – if the word’s original meaning can be recovered – synthetically. All these factors make the process of simple information conveyance extremely uncertain and unstable in a text like Heart of Darkness. Each of these items amounts to another mediatory step between the readers and any simple “message” Heart of Darkness might have been meant to convey. That mediation compounds itself, because these items are neither static nor external to the tale’s meaning. They are not “outside interference” blocking the transmission. Rather, they are integral parts of the “message” itself, entropic elements encoded into the transmission: they are the Other contained within the Same or the One, alterity springing from the same root as singularity. Their function is precisely the paradoxical one of making a simple transcription of a simple meaning impossible. They are analogous to the limited number of variables in chaos theory, the few degrees of freedom, which introduce indeterminacy into an otherwise orderly system and render it unpredictable.26 Allegory lives in those few degrees of freedom.

Here is a final instance of what I’m trying to say about Heart of Darkness and about allegory: everything I’ve so far said about Heart of Darkness may be false and based on falseness – may be a delusory inside rather than a meaningful outside – because it doesn’t take sufficiently into account the profound ironies set in play in the tale by the identification of Marlow and Kurtz, which are further compounded by the unnamed narrator’s insistent depiction of Marlow as a Buddha. He is several times explicitly described as looking like an oriental idol:

He had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect, and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outwards, resembled an idol. (66)

Marlow ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha. (157)

This depiction is normally understood honorifically, but we must take into account the totality of its context. Heart of Darkness draws heavily for a great deal of figuration and signification upon the very Christian Inferno. Moreover, within the tale, the same character whom the narrator describes as an idol also identifies himself with and commits himself to a man who allows or causes a pagan tribe to worship him as a god: the natives “adored” Kurtz, you will remember, and the Russian too was “devoted” to him; he had as well taken “a seat among the high devils of the land.” In that context we must view the narrator’s exaltation of Marlow as idolatry of potentially the same sort: we may be being invited to play the same harlequin-fool to Marlow that the Russian plays to Kurtz. Marlow may be a false god for us, a false Sybil leading us to an underworld of lies and misperceptions. The image of Marlow as idol and the clear possibility of falsity it raises wrench all the “facts” of Heart of Darkness into indeterminacy. A meditating Buddha may be a sage with access to truth; he may equally be a false guide and a false god. The image, in its duplicity, calls into question Marlow’s understanding of his own narrative: does he really know what he’s talking about? Has he understood what he’s experienced? The narrator’s understanding of what Marlow is saying is even more questionable, and we as readers are even further removed than that from “the events themselves” – though of course we are not, since there are no such events, only Conrad’s fictions, ergo lies. The only real thing in Heart of Darkness is the prose itself, and the only real event our reading it, our experiencing this narrative which holds us at arm’s length from itself, forcing us inevitably to the outside, where meaning supposedly dwells, and where the circle most certainly starts again. Allegory is no respecter of limits or thresholds; consequently, it is always at least this double-edged.

Chapter 3. Dividing the Waters

This chapter turns on the interplay of vision and language, and how a few allegorists or putative allegorists have dealt with that complex interchange. Most of the authors I deal with here will be those you probably expect, but I hope at least one will surprise you.

That said, here is a battery of quotations to concentrate your attention where it needs to be.

fu’ io, e vidi cose che ridire
ne sa ne puo chi di la su discende;
perche appressando se al suo disire,
nostro intelletto si profonda tanto,
che dietro la memoria non puo ire.

I have been in the Heaven that most receives of His light, and have seen things which whoso descends from up there has neither the knowledge nor the power to relate, because, as it draws near to its desire, our intellect enters so deep that memory cannot go back upon the track.
          Paradiso I.4-9

Oh quanto e corto il dire a come fioco
al mio concetto! e questo, a quel ch’i’ vidi,
e tanto, che non basta a dicer “poco.”

O how scant is speech, and how feeble to my conception! and this, to what I saw, is such that it is not enough to call it little.
          Paradiso XXXIII.121-23

A l’alta fantasia qui manco possa…
Here power failed the lofty phantasy…
          Paradiso XXXIII.142

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago – whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows – such a one was caught up to the third heaven. I know such a man – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows – that he was caught up into paradise and heard secret words which it is not lawful for a man to utter.
2 Corinthians 12.2-4

The differences between Paul and Dante are instructive. Paul finds only three heavens (unless his three correspond to Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso), while Dante, with perhaps finer vision, discriminates nine within Paradiso. Paul characteristically concerns himself with law and with speech: even in paradise, words are what reach him and law binds him. He scarcely mentions vision. His revelation begins and ends as words, “secret words” which are not “lawful…to utter.”  Even more striking – especially as compared to the longing for complete memory and accurate expression that Dante’s lines convey – the apostle appears to play a vulgar game of “I’ve got a secret,” false-modestly not naming himself as the man caught up to paradise, and definitely not sharing any of his revelation, yet in the whole of his epistle to the Corinthians basing his claim to regard on that event and blaming the Corinthians for forcing him to boast of his evangelic credentials.

Dante equally characteristically worries about words too, but as a poet he conceives them primarily as expressions of the vision itself, the splendor he saw and transmuted first imaginatively into shining conceit and high fantasy and finally verbally into the fading coals of inadequate language. Paul’s revelation is an oxymoron: exclusively verbal – he “heard” it – yet paradoxically unspeakable (unspoken) words. Dante’s revelation contrarily precedes or transcends language. The pilgrim saw what he saw, and the poet’s impossible task is to translate the instantaneousness, the simultaneity, of vision into the sequentiality and temporality of words. Dante’s poem throbs with the sadness of his inability to retain fresh in memory or express adequately in language the glory of what he saw in an instant of apprehension. Dante labors with his news, straining to release the conception locked in his mind: he calls upon Apollo to act as midwife for him, to help him give birth to the true form of his vision:

Entre nel petto mio, e spira tue
si come quando Marsia traesti
de la vagina de le membra sue.
O divina virtu, se mi ti presti
tanto che l’ombra del beato regno
segnata nel mio capo io manifesti….

Enter into my breast and breathe there as when you drew Marsyas from the sheath of his limbs. O divine power, if you do so lend yourself to me that I may show forth the image of the blessed realm which is imprinted in my mind…
          Paradiso I.19-24

The imagery is powerful and violent, extraordinarily so: at once sexual, genetic, and religious, pagan, Platonic, and Christian, it reconceives the flayed Marsyas as a hermaphrodite, equipped with both vagina and membra, giving birth to himself. It depicts him too as the bloody newborn, his own hide simultaneously the womb that hid him and the birth canal that under doctor Apollo’s knife delivered him. Powerful motions pull against each other: Apollo enters the breast only to draw Marsyas (the poet) out of himself. The language of religious possession, of the rapture of the sybils, rubs against (at least for an Italian-speaking, Latin-reading audience) the language of the Bible: “et inspiravit in faciem ejus spiraculum vitae…” (And he breathed into his face the breath of life) and the memory of the “paradise of pleasure” God had prepared for his creature (Genesis 2.7-8).

Dante prays to be taken by that same violent power so that he can make “manifest” even “the shadow” of what is “imprinted” (segnata) in his head. Singleton’s choice of “imprinted” to translate Dante’s segnata is hardly innocent, but neither is Dante’s word: “signed” in the sense of encoded? – because of creation in God’s image? – or “signed” in the sense a painter signs a canvas or a sculptor signs a torso? – or written? – because its fundamental form is verbal? – or symbolized, as by the Ps the pilgrim wore on his brow in Purgatorio to emblematize sins? – or marked, as with the mark (signum, in Genesis) with which God marked Cain’s brow?

This tremendous clotting of possibilities causes a hyper-enrichment of the language: the images almost burst under the pressure of all that they are being made to contain. In some respects, in fact, the passage makes itself over into an allegory of allegory, an enactment of the process of rapture, rupture, and revelation. There is no mention here of taboos on revelation or prohibitions against speaking his knowledge. Dante’s only concern about language is its adequacy to his vision and his ability to retain that vision long enough to find words for it. What he saw was beyond language, and of even his own most perfect understanding of that vision his own best language can only ever be a distant shadow and not a true image. Dante is no poet of the Logos: for him, God’s language is things and his rhetoric silences. He creates realities, which the best of poets recreate at a distance through the lesser language of words. Ignatius Martyr offers a powerful image for this: the Incarnation, he says, is “a cry out of the silence of God.”1

The whole movement of Dante’s thought, imagery, and language, here and elsewhere in the Commedia, is directly contrary to the direction of Paul’s revelation. Paul’s revelation is private, secret, inward, closed within confines of self and law, locked within a specific, unutterable form of words. Dante’s vision and his desire for the language in which he expresses it open outward. They expand. They want to tell, to speak themselves, and what closes them or limits them are not laws or self-ishness, but simple human limitation, the fact that words are – for Dante – always a translation, at best an approximation of vision, which for human beings itself glimpses reality only in a moment of supercharged apprehension. The Incarnation, which is shadowed upon the circles of Dante’s climactic vision, functions for Dante as the universal Rosetta stone. In the mystery of the Incarnation, the Word is made flesh: the unspoken image of God becomes creature, thing, image in the same sense that any man or tree or myth is image.

That is God’s license to poets: if they know what they are doing, it frees their images from words by giving them access to Word-as-image:

Oh abbondante grazia ond’ io presunsi
ficcar lo viso per la luce etterna,
tanto que la veduta vi consunsi!
Nel suo profondo vidi che s’interna,
legato con amore in un volume,
cio che per l’universo si squaderna….
La forma universal di questo nodo
credo ch’i’ vidi….

O abounding grace whereby I presumed to fix my look through the Eternal Light so far that all my sight was spent therein. In its depth I saw ingathered, bound by love in one single volume, that which is dispersed in leaves throughout the universe…. The universal form of this knot I believe that I saw….
          Paradiso XXXIII.82-87, 91-92

The poetic eye that sees the eternal light and the universal form is the same eye that reads (legato: the word puns several ways – bound, legislated, read, but also lightened) its unshaping (squaderna – another rich pun: literally, “unsquaring,” but also unframing, unbinding; in modern Italian quaderna is a rough copy book, a workbook) throughout the book (volume) that constitutes the universe as well as the book that makes the poem. That unshaping is the shape by which Dante knows the universe; that unbinding is the way, page by page, we know the poem. We and the poet reach the nodo – the knot, the node, the center, the binding – only by way of its unravelling, its peripheries, its loose leaves. We arrive at the inside by traveling the outside, just as we come to see through the words we hear. Through vision, language and image are insoluably wed, even if all that is complicated into image cannot be explicated into word.

Spenser’s Language

Throughout the poem, Dante exclaims with eloquence about his ineloquence, about the difficulty of accommodating what he saw to what he says. Spenser too laments the weakness of his language, especially in these degenerate days, and laments that his vision exceeds his pen. Like Dante, he repeatedly states that the vision is autonomous: it wearies his strength, but it also refreshes and sustains him.

The waies, through which my weary steps I guyde,
In this delightfull land of Faery,
Are so exceeding spacious and wyde,
And sprinckled with such sweet variety,
Of all that pleasant is to eare or eye,
That I nigh rauisht with rare thoughts delight,
My tedious trauell doe forget thereby;
And when I gin to feele decay of might,
It strength to me supplies, and chears my dulled spright.  (Proem VI.i)2

Spenser’s “trauell” is both his travel and his travail, his wandering and his work, his journey/quest and his poem. “[T]hat happy land of Faery” (II.proem i.7) is a res in se that necessitates the poet’s discovery of a language adequate to it, and that Dantean task – the translation of vision into language – both causes and is the poet’s “wandering,” his errancy within Faeryland and from it. It hardly needs to be said (but obviously I’m about to say it anyway) that such errancy is the lot or fate or task of each of knight errant of The Faerie Queene and of most of the minor characters as well. All wander and quest in a wilderness of mediation, a landscape of be(k)nighted forests of multiplicity that adumbrate in romance form the same rhetorical selva oscura in which Dante wandered, hemmed in by unworkable personifications and trite metaphors, inert linguistic skeletons of once-living conceptions, fossils of ideas (idein) – things once seen whole and vital. The poet and the reader of The Faerie Queene both vacillate between extremes of images, of visions, presented as immediately, as plainly, as language is capable of – “A Gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine” – and visions mediated not only by the language of the poet and of poetry (the conventional iconography of Renaissance high art) but even mediated further by the poet’s and the reader’s stand-ins in the poem – the priest who explicates Britomart’s dream in the church of Isis, for instance, or Colin Clout’s explanation to the hapless Calidore of just who those naked ladies were.

In Dante, there is a clear progression of mediations that lead from vision to “high conceit” to language and finally to the reader/hearer of the poem. In Spenser – a poet less bold, or less lucky, than Dante – even the vision is mediated. It is remote in time and place:

…none, that breatheth liuing aire, does know,
Where is that happy land of Faery,
Which I so much do vaunt, yet no where show,
But vouch antiquities, which no body can know. (II.proem i)

Spenser, by virtue of a different kind of “high conceit,” glimpses his vision through the dark glass of two Elizabeths (queen and wife, unattainable and possessed mistress), just as his poem refracts that vision back, ever more darkly, through the many mirrors of Gloriana and Belphoebe, Una and Amoret.

…O Goddesse heauenly bright,
Mirrour of grace and Maiestie diuine,
Great Lady of the greatest Isle, whose light
Like Phoebus lamp throughout the world doth shine,
Shed thy faire beames into my feeble eyne,
And raise my thoughts too humble and too vile,
To thinke of that true glorious type of thine,
The argument of mine afflicted stile. (I.proem iv)

The explicit mention of “that true glorious type” might seem to indicate that The Faerie Queene, or at least Spenser’s initial conception of it, will respond to purely typological interpretation, that some form of “the allegory of Scripture” and its concomitant allegoresis will unlock for us the meaning of the poem. Our readerly desire – I infer this from the overwhelming weight of the interpretive tradition – is to translate this bewildering plethora of Guyons and Paridels and Artegals (or is it Arthegals?), the poem’s proliferation of trios – Envy, Detraction, and the Blattant (or is it Blatant?) Beast; the Sans Boys, Foi, Loi, and Joi; the Ettos, Defetto, Decetto, and Despetto; Pri, Di, and Tri, the Amond brothers – and disguised heroes and villains, its profusion of nymph fountains, lakes, grottoes, islands, forests, castles of refuge – to identify each and every one of those phenomena with a handful of specific noumena: that is, to carry typology to its extreme, logical conclusion and reduce the poem to the univocations of prosopopeia.

Spenser doesn’t let us do that. The language that invokes typology betrays typology. If Elizabeth comes later in time than the “antique rolles” (I.proem ii.4) wherein Spenser finds his story, she belongs by sequence to the realm of antitype. More important: if Elizabeth is already a “Goddesse heauenly bright,” she belongs by nature to the kingdom of antitype. Most important: if Elizabeth is, as this proem plainly calls her, the “Mirrour of grace and Maiestie diuine,” then she owns by right the whole empire of typology: she, as the first mediation of the godhead,3 is the patron and source of typology, at once the antetype of all types and type of all antitypes. Elizabeth furnishes Spenser’s prototype of mediation, figuratively considered.

All the ambiguity and ambivalence of both of Spenser’s Elizabeths bear on this figure and create the ‘affliction’ of his “stile.” “Stile,” of course, means style. But it also means stilus, stylus, pen, the instrument by which he creates that style, and it means as well, therefore, in the hoariest of linkings, stylus/pen as penis. It is “afflicted” in all the myriad ways Renaissance sonneteers and lovers suffered in both their natural and artificial pens, and yet more “afflicted” as the attribute of a masculine/patriarchal poet in thrall to two belles dames sans merci whom even he, as subject and lover, views ambivalently – “O dearest dred” (I.proem.ult.) – and who yet more ambivalently constitute both the sources of his inspiration and the audience of what they inspire. Elizabeth, the bright mirror of God’s majesty, sheds her light “Like Phoebus lampe” into the poet’s eyes. That light raises his humble thoughts to “that true glorious type of thine” who or which is “the argument” of his “stile” or poem, which this same goddess and mirror, now addressed as the poet’s “dearest dred,” is asked to hear (read “read”).

All this too is at least ambiguous. The “type” in question may be Wisdom or Gloriana or perhaps even, given the placement of the verses, Una. Moreover, we may justly wonder how a vision or image or figure or type metamorphoses itself into an argument by way of an “afflicted stile.”  That too is a mediation from image to word, from vision to language, through the narrow and obviously painful strait of an “afflicted stile.”  Affliction is more than passing kin to deflection, to the twisting and turning and tortuousness that result not only from the lover’s deprivation but also from the poet’s – or language’s – inadequacies. All these bendings and turnings wrench what ought to be straight lines of transmission into circles: what begins in Elizabeth ends in Elizabeth. When Spenser reverts to the mirror image again at the end of the poem (as we have it) in the proem to Book VI, he once again uses Elizabeth as figure of mediation, this time of the inwardness of courtesy.

But vertues seat is deepe within the mynd,
And not in outward shows, but inward thoughts defynd.
But where shall I in all Antiquity
So faire a patterne finde, where may be seene
The goodly praise of Princely curtesie,
As in your selfe, O soueraine Lady Queene,
In whose pure minde, as in a mirrour sheene,
It showes, and with her brightnesse doth inflame
The eyes of all, which thereon fixed beene;
But meriteth indeede an higher name:
Yet so from low to high vplifted is your name.
Then pardon me, most dreaded Soueraine,
That from your selfe I doe this vertue bring,
And to your selfe doe it return againe:
So from the Ocean all riuers spring,
And tribute backe repay as to their King.
Right so from you all goodly vertues well
Into the rest, which round about you ring,
Faire Lords and Ladies, which about you dwell,
and doe adorne your Court, where courtesies excell.
(VI.proem v.8 – ult.)

Most of the props of the first proem are back in place: the dreaded, adored lady, the mirror, the bright light shining into the eyes of beholders, the here-explicit bending of what flows out from Elizabeth into a circle that turns back to Elizabeth. Here too are the strange ambiguities: the unexplained means by which a “patterne” in Elizabeth’s mind is beheld by all; the oddly feminine nature of the mirror – or is it Courtesy? – who with “her” brightness “doth inflame/ The eyes of all;” the oddly ambivalent (to modern ears at least) nature of that last activity; the curious line which follows that (what “meriteth indeede an higher name”? higher name than what? and why?); and the yet curiouser final line of that stanza, whose ambiguity ought surely to have troubled many readers.

Elizabeth’s name is celebrated by high and low alike: good. Elizabeth’s fortune and estate moved from low to high: fine. Not so good: Elizabeth’s reputation was once (implication: deservedly) low and now is lifted (by whom or what unclear) high. Beyond that: what strange courtesy is it that makes the poet apologize to his “most dreaded Soueraine” for using her as an exemplar of Courtesy?  Logic would indicate that the apology (and more) would be due if he had not. I will pass over in almost silence the fact that Spenser’s proemical praise of the courtesy of Elizabeth’s court is directly contradicted by the poet’s own comments in the final two stanzas of Book VI, where one of the unforeseen afflictions of his style has been to arouse “a mighty Peres displesure” (VI.xii.41), which in turn leads the poet to an ambiguous resolution to mend his style by lessening his matter:

Therfore do you my rimes keep better measure,
And seeke to please, that now is counted wisemans threasure.

The multiple puns on “measure” and above all the etymological ambivalence of “threasure” (treasure, thesaurus) indicate clearly how far outside the ideal realm of mind and antitype the poet and his larger audience are. Image and idea may exist in perfect clarity in the pure mirror of an idealized Elizabeth’s mind, but in the all too physical Faerie Queene the words that embody those noumena are subject to everything that constrains the “matter” of Britain.

For all that, Spenser nowhere suggests that what he “says” is in any way untrue to what he “sees.” He asks for help in remembering and expressing from the Muses and various gods and goddesses. He apologizes to Elizabeth for his boldness, or for any possible improprieties, but he nowhere implies that his dragons and dames, knights and palmers, are adaptations – much less distortions – for the reader’s sake of things too complex or too rarefied for human understanding or human language.

Milton’s Language

Neither does Milton demand the “language of accommodation” – but for very different reasons. Heretical though it be to say this to a critical establishment devoted to the twin fallacies of Milton’s profundity and orthodoxy, Milton writes neither sound theology (his heaven is the one that, in Man and Superman, Bernard Shaw’s Satan rightly deplores as boring) nor allegory of any kind. The imagery of Paradise Lost resembles neither the imagery of The Faerie Queene nor that of Commedia. Its conceptual base lies neither in the theology of the Beatific Vision, as Dante’s does, nor in a neoplatonized theology of Incarnation, as Spenser’s does, nor even, though it sometimes appears to, in the theology of the Logos. Rather, the field in which Milton’s imagery is rooted and the beds from which it draws its sustenance are typology and the Scriptural allegory that derives from it/it derives from.

For all their theological underpinnings, Dante and Spenser practice the allegory of the poets – secular allegory. For all his putative Protestant contempt for Biblical allegoresis, Milton employs the allegory of the theologians, which is no true allegory at all in the understanding of the grammarians, since it depends upon relations of like to like. Paradise Lost builds its wonderful complexities out of a few simple relations of type and antitype: Adam, the first man, is a type of Christ. Christ is the “one greater man” and not the second person of the Trinity (if there in fact is any Trinity in Paradise Lost4). Jesus, therefore, in the most strictly accurate theological use of the term, is the chronological antitype of Adam (and not his prototype or antetype at all), while Satan is, in a non-hermeneutical but properly adversarial sense, the antitype of both. Eve is the antitype of Sin, as well as a type of Mary, and so on.

The marvelous exfoliation of parts and actions in Paradise Lost arises from these classical symmetries: everything in the poem grows from typical relations of sameness and difference – but difference employed in the service of sameness. Milton’s vision in the poem ends with a world wherein God will be “All in All” because, in effect, there never has been anything in Milton’s imagination except God, who creates over and over again, more and less successfully, in his own image. God is Milton’s great monotype, from whom flows a series of greater and lesser facsimile editions, until at last, and in a sense far different from Dante’s, all that lies scattered through the universe will be collated and bound up in one volume, and God shall once again be, as he was at the beginning, “All in All.”

This constitutes at once the greatness of the poem – its moving unity of vision and singleness of voice – and its greatest weakness, because of the inadequacy of Milton’s vision of God. Milton’s God, obscured in clouds of light, is the lawgiver, the taskmaster, he who must be obeyed. He is hidden – this is very significant – from the sight of all save his Son. None of the angels – and there is no one else in Milton’s Heaven – sees God. Milton’s heaven fails for precisely that reason: because no one sees God. The sight of God is eternal happiness: without the beatific vision, there is no joy in Heaven, no love, no salvation. Seeing God, if not being God, is what Christianity is all about, and by those standards Paradise Lost is a profoundly unchristian poem.

The radical inadequacy of Milton’s conception of the divinity derives from the very same roots as his imagery, from the relationships of like to like that underlie typology. Dante and Spenser both recognize and accept the total otherness of God, its almost unimaginability. That idea never occurs to Milton: only Raphael incongruously worries at all that things in heaven may not be comprehensible in earthly terms.

…how shall I relate
To human sense th’ invisible exploits
Of warring spirits…
…how last unfold
The secrets of another World, perhaps
Not lawful to reveal? yet for thy good
This is dispens’t, and what surmounts the reach
Of human sense, I shall delineate so,
By lik’ning spiritual to corporeal forms,
As may express them best, though what if Earth
Be but the shadow of Heav’n, and things therein
Each to other like, more than on Earth is thought? (V.563-76)

This is an intensely troubling passage, one that threatens the deconstruction of the entire poem. The “sociable” Raphael has been sent explicitly to “unfold/ The secrets of another World,” and the God who sent him added to his mission no caveats about secret lore or about the difficulties of translation:

Go therefore, half this day as friend with friend
Converse with Adam…. (V.229-30)

Only 300 lines earlier than Raphael’s scruple, in the very same book, Milton proceeded to show us heaven and to put those words in the mouth of God, serenely untroubled by any doubts about his linguistic ability to “relate/ To human sense th’ invisible exploits/ Of…Spirits.”  Now, Raphael broadly implies that that was a trick, that human sense – and if Adam’s unfallen human sense, how much more so our sadly deteriorated version of it? – isn’t capable of perceiving directly or understanding clearly most of what we have been reading about thus far in the poem. Having raised that disturbing doubt, Raphael goes on to compound it with his half-alleviation: “what if” earth is an adumbration of heaven, or an analogue of it?  What if indeed?  What then should we understand that we have been reading?  What then ought we to make of Milton’s unqualified declarative sentences?5 Even more to the point, what are we to make here of Raphael’s pre-echo of the Pauline secrecy and its implied divine censorship? The language of accommodation that Raphael introduces into the poem appears much more to be the language of discommoding, a call for mediation that denies the legitimacy of either direct speech or the mediation it invokes.

The poet, with an imagination apparently both less and more limited than Raphael’s, has already taken us to hell and to heaven without a single word about accommodating spiritual matters to our – much less his own – fleshly imagination. Milton not only asserts the reality of his vision – Dante and Spenser do as much – but also the reality of his language:

With other notes than to th’ Orphean Lyre
I sung of Chaos and Eternal Night,
Taught by the heav’nly Muse to venture down
The dark descent, and up to reascend,
Though hard and rare… (III.17-21)
So much the rather thou Celestial Light
Shine inward……that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight. (III.51-55)

Not less but more Heroic than the wrath
Of stern Achilles…
If answerable style I can obtain
Of my Celestial Patroness, who deigns
Her nightly visitation unimplor’d,
And dictates to me slumb’ring, or inspires
Easy my unpremeditated Verse…. (VII.13-24)

…higher Argument
Remains, sufficient of itself to raise
That name, unless an age too late, or cold
Climate, or Years damp my intended wing
Deprest; and much they may, if all be mine,
Not Hers who brings it nightly to my Ear. (VII.42-47)

Not for Milton the “argument” of an “afflicted stile.” His “argument” is ‘dictated’ to him; it is ‘brought’ to his ear as language, in language: verse as much unpremediated as “unpremeditated.” That is to say, Paradise Lost makes the claim for the literal truth of its statements that warrants the application to it of the methods of Scriptural allegoresis. It denies any difference – Raphael’s uneasiness notwithstanding – between the way it expresses itself and the ultimate truth of what it expresses. With the same “resonant assurance” with which Joyce’s Father Purdon (in “Grace”) assumes that human analogies bind god and informs his audience of Dublin businessmen that they can set right their accounts with him, Milton assumes that he hears and repeats God’s words’ verbatim, which, I think, is more than Raphael presumes to.

It is a nice irony that one of Satan’s greatest deficiencies in Paradise Lost is his failure to appreciate the otherness of God, to grasp how very unlike himself God in fact is. Like master, like man: Milton is a poet of correspondences, not discontinuities, and he learned his trade from the great orthodox master of finding correspondences and papering over discontinuities, St. Paul himself.

Pauline Language

Among so many huge generalizations, one more cannot hurt: St. Paul fundamentally invents or adapts6 the mode of allegoresis that will become dominant in the interpretation of Scripture throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Even more important, at the very moment of so doing, Paul explicitly identifies the subject of his activity as allegory and uses that very word to name it, even though what he is in fact engaged in is an exercise in typological reading – which word or words he does not use. Here is the Pauline passage from which so much of the allegory of the theologians flows:7

For it is written that Abraham had two sons, the one by a slave-girl and the other by a free woman. And the son of the slave-girl was born according to the flesh, but the son of the free woman in virtue of the promise. This is said by way of allegory. For these are the two covenants: one indeed from Mount Sinai, bringing forth children unto bondage, which is Agar. For Sinai is a mountain in Arabia, which corresponds to the present Jerusalem, and is in slavery with her children. But that Jerusalem which is above is free, which is our mother. For it is written, “Rejoice thou barren that dost not bear; break forth and cry, thou that dost not travail; for many are the children of the desolate, more than of her that has a husband.”  Now we, brethren, are the children of the promise, as Isaac was…. Therefore, brethren, we are not children of a slave-girl, but of the free woman — in virtue of the freedom wherewith Christ has made us free. (Galatians 4.21-31)

This is an extraordinary text in many respects. It is one of the earliest uses of the word allegory (allegoria in the Vulgate, allegoroumena in the Greek) and the only use of the word in Scripture. The passage overtly engages in extracting from a historical narrative of the Old Testament a spiritual meaning adapted to the purposes of the New, which mode of reading it identifies as allegory and implicitly posits as a “normal” mode of reading Scripture.

Even more fascinating, Paul arrives at his desired reading of the Genesis narrative by an elaborate hermeneutics, indeed by a kind of deconstruction of the overt content of the Ishmael and Isaac story. After all, the Jews (and the judaizing Christians against whom Paul argues in Galatians) saw themselves as the children of Abraham, as the inheritors of the covenant God made first with him and renewed with Moses. By a kind of verbal sleight of hand, playing on the etymology of the name Hagar (a method of reaching meaning long respected in Talmudic lore and with a long future before it in all sorts of Medieval exegeses), Paul establishes his contemporary Jewish community as the antitypes of Ishmael, born to the bondage of the Mosaic law, while the Christian community appropriates their birthright, becoming the heirs of Isaac, the children of Abraham’s faith, and the inheritors not of the law but of the promise.8

Context is crucial to understanding how St. Paul establishes his interpretation of Genesis. The Epistle to the Galatians turns on a fundamental opposition between the freedom of Christian faith and the bondage of Mosaic law. Paul quickly establishes Abraham, the father of the faithful, as the pivotal figure of his theological drama, and he makes the solution to all his puzzles turn on the question of who is the true heir of Abraham. The promise made to Abraham as a reward for his faith precedes and supercedes the covenant made with Moses, Paul argues, just as the justification which flows from faith in Christ has superceded justification by the works of the law. Bound versus free, law versus faith, Moses versus Christ: those are the oppositions that animate and inform Paul’s exposition of the antinomy of Ishmael and Isaac. He accomplishes his actual exegesis of the text by virtue of what Dryden would have called a few “turns,” some almost metaphysical (in the sense we use those words to describe a Donne poem) twists of already established strands of thought that realign the types and antitypes latent in the figures Paul is citing: those who bind themselves by law reject the freedom of faith; the faithful are the true heirs of the promise made to Abraham; ergo Christians are the inheritors of Isaac and the Jews are cast out into the wilderness. The children of Abraham are not who you thought they were but other folk entirely. The law deals not justice but bondage. Those who were outcasts are now elect, and the chosen now cast out.

From such beginnings and such precedents grows the eventually enormous tree of Christian Scriptural allegoresis. The advice of St. Augustine about difficult Scriptural passages confirms the thrust of St. Paul’s demonstration. The pious reader is not to be put off or scandalized by anything in the Bible. All such things are “figurative, and their secrets are to be removed as kernels from the husk as nourishment for charity.”9 That Paul’s paradigmatic treatment of Hagar and Ishmael amounts almost to a deconstruction of the Old Testament text is no more accidental than the fact that the Old Testament episode, under analysis, yields the meaning Paul wishes to find in it. Like deconstruction in its manipulation of a closed, binary system of oppositions and like Freudian dream analysis in its interpretation of overt data to reveal their latent contents, Pauline and Augustinian Scriptural allegoresis reads to a predetermined end: its basic codes are in place before it approaches any specific text.

The pattern that St. Paul establishes – exposition of the text by means of correspondences between people and events of the Old Testament and people and events of the New – becomes both in its own right the dominant mode of discovering the “mystical” or “allegorical” meaning of Scripture and the base for all the other possible meanings. Of the notorious Medieval “fourfold method” of Biblical allegoresis, only the first – the literal – level of the text is entirely free from the claims of this kind of typology. Even more important, from the point of view of literature and/or criticism, typology and the modes of allegoresis derived from it (Scriptural “allegory,”10 tropology, and anagogy) for many hundreds of years provided the terms of art for speaking about the ways texts mean. They constituted the technical vocabulary available to serious criticism for analyzing and discussing the workings of poetry and complex artistry. That doesn’t mean that poets were in fact limited to doing what could be expressed by the language of a typologically-based hermeneutical theory – the poet’s reach is usually, and happily, well beyond the critic’s grasp – but it does mean that whatever poets might accomplish in verse, they were pretty much confined to and contained within the limits and language of typology when they had to talk about it in prose.11

Dante’s Letter

Nowhere is this critical limitation more evident than in Dante’s letter to Cangrande della Scala. Whether or not Dante actually wrote the letter (earlier critics, nearer Dante’s own lifetime, were on the whole much readier to accept it as genuine than are our contemporaries) isn’t really important, though the odds are very great that the letter is in fact his.12 The real significance of the epistle to Cangrande lies in the way it talks about poetic complexity and how quickly, by its silences and omissions, it concedes the inadequacy of its conventional terminology to Dante’s poem.13 Here is the text of the relevant portion of the letter:

For the elucidation, therefore, of what we have to say, it must be understood that the meaning of this work is not of one kind only; rather the work may be described as ‘polysemous’, that is, having several meanings; for the first meaning is that which is conveyed by the letter, and the next is that which is conveyed by what the letter signifies; the former of which is called literal, while the latter is called allegorical, or mystical. And for the better illustration of this method of exposition we may apply it to the following verses: ‘When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language, Judah was his sanctuary, and Israel his dominion.’ For if we consider the letter alone, the thing signified to us is the going out of the children of Israel from Egypt in the time of Moses; if the allegory, our redemption through Christ is signified; if the moral sense, the conversion of the soul from the sorrow and misery of sin to a state of grace is signified; if the anagogical, the passing of the sanctified soul from the bondage of the corruption of this world to the liberty of everlasting glory is signified. And although these mystical meanings are called by various names, they may one and all in a general sense be termed allegorical, inasmuch as they are different (diversi) from the literal or historical; for the word ‘allegory’ is so called from the Greek alleon, which in Latin is alienum (strange) or diversum (different).

This being understood, it is clear that the subject, with regard to which the alternative meanings are brought into play, must be twofold. And therefore the subject of this work must be considered in the first place from the point of view of the literal meaning, and next from that of the allegorical interpretation. The subject, then, of the whole work, taken in the literal sense only, is the state of souls after death, pure and simple. For on and about that the argument of the whole work turns. If, however, the work be regarded from the allegorical point of view, the subject is man according as by his merits or demerits in the exercise of his free will he is deserving of reward or punishment by justice.14

The writer of that exposition of the Commedia is either a very imprecise reader, or suffers from dreadful difficulties of critical articulation, or is a very perceptive reader playing quintessentially allegorical games with anyone looking for an easy way into Dante’s poem. The whole of the letter to Cangrande provides even less in the way of specific information about the poem it purports to explain than Spenser’s letter to Raleigh offers about his poem. Only in the narrowest doctrinal sense, to the narrowest doctrine-hunting reader, can Commedia’s subject be described as “the state of souls after death.”  That formulation evaporates the pilgrim out of the poem, disregards its narrative completely, and mutates an epic into an essay or a summa (as, in fact, all too many readers have shown themselves ready and willing to take it). What is offered immediately after as the allegorical or mystical meaning of the poem turns out in fact to be identical to what has just been presented as the literal level of the work, and certainly forms what any fair-minded reader would understand as properly belonging to that primary, narrative level of the poem. In current parlance, what the letter to Cangrande identifies as the allegorical meaning of Commedia really belongs to its diegetic level of discourse.

In fact, the expositor has a lot of problems with Commedia and with his example of fourfold allegorical reading. For one thing – one very important thing – the literal level of Commedia already includes – explicitly and in itself – the content of all three of the “allegorical” levels he articulates for his passage from Psalms: redemption through Christ, conversion from sin to grace, and attainment of heaven. Those three contents form the necessary point of any piece of Scriptural allegory, as the Latin doggerel about the four levels plainly states:

Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria,
Moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia.15

The fact is, the narrative of Commedia precludes the possibility of usefully applying the techniques of Scriptural allegory to the poem, for the simple and quite obvious reason that what constitutes the heart of Scriptural exegesis – its point, its doctrine, what it sees as the hidden, “allegorical” content of the Biblical narrative, the “kernel” that must be extracted from the husk of the literal statements – that “inside” forms the “outside” of Dante’s poem and constitutes its narrative, its integument, its husk, its manifest content. Commedia begins where Scriptural allegory leaves off. (Milton’s narrative, on the contrary, begins exactly where Scriptural typology and “allegory” begin.)

This is “strange” and “different” indeed, though perhaps not as the Cangrande expositor intended those words. Dante is troping Scriptural allegory, radically juggling its levels, and the apparent ham-handedness of the Cangrande expositor serves quite nicely to call attention to that fact. Rather than being a retreat from the poet’s claims for the truth of his vision, the Cangrande letter’s very conventional explanation of the way allegory works in fact points out how Dante’s allegory does not work, how vastly different a littera this poem offers and, implicitly, how very different its allegoria must consequently be.

For that reason, the example the expositor cites deserves as long and careful a second look as did Paul’s handling of Ishmael and Isaac. The quotation is from Psalm 113, a song of praise of God that ends, provocatively enough for readers of Commedia, with:

Heaven is the heaven of the Lord, but the earth he has given to the Children of men. The dead do not praise the Lord, nor anyone that goes down to the grave. But we bless the Lord, both now and forever. (16-18)

A strict observance of the decorum of allusion would work at this point just as subversively as any Derridean notion of “trace” to start us on a reading of the Cangrande letter – and by implication of the Commedia – that goes very much against the grain of traditional interpretation. More important, however, and more immediately pertinent to my present purposes, the verses the expositor quotes serve as a very concise synopsis of the major event of the book of Exodus, the progress of the Jews under the leadership of Moses from slavery in Egypt to their establishment in the promised land. The readings of that text that the expositor offers establish it as typical: redemption through Christ is signified by his type, Moses, redeemer of the Israelites; the passage from slavery to freedom typifies both the conversion of the soul from sin to grace and the passage of the soul from “bondage of the corruption of this world” to the “liberty of everlasting glory.”

So stated, that text also then synopsizes the narrative of the Commedia: the progress of the pilgrim Dante from his wanderings in the wilderness of this world, through the house of bondage and on to the eternal realm. It synopsizes as well the allegorical understanding of the epic descent to hell,16 a topic of more than passing interest to Dante. Finally, its three implicit stations – house of bondage, wilderness, promised land – epitomize the essential epic journey as well, the movement of a hero from a home no longer his (whether it be the Troy of the victor or the Troy of the vanquished, Egypt or the dark wood of this world), downward through suffering, through the learning or remembering of another identity, and upward to the hero’s true home. All these diverse foci – Surge ai mortali per diversi foci/ la lucerna del mondo (Paradiso I.37-38) Dante tells us17 – concentrate the reader’s apprehension on Commedia as a text comprehensive of and subsuming other texts and their “mystical” contents. Each point the expositor makes in this part of the letter has an obvious, almost trivial, misapplication to Commedia and an underlying core of implication directing the reader’s attention to Commedia as a text building its narrative out of other texts’ allegories.

Nel suo profondo vidi che s’interna,
legato con amore in un volume,
cio che per l’universo si squaderna….

In its depth I saw ingathered, bound by love in one single volume, that which is dispersed in leaves throughout the universe…. (Paradiso XXXIII.85-87)

The poet reproduces in his poem what the pilgrim found in his journey – and like the pilgrim’s metaphors, the poet’s figures are simultaneously fictions and literal truths, statements about the world at the same time that they are statements about the poem. Commedia inscribes the book of nature within the book of God, and both within the book of art – or vice versa. It is the inside and the outside of everything, the universal medium and mediation, and that is the profoundest signification of its title: com-media.

The integument of the CommediaCommedia’s own “outside” – is fabulated from the “insides,” the allegorical contents of not just any books but from the most encyclopedic of them all: Dante builds his narrative out of what was understood to be the “inner” meaning of the Aeneid and the Bible. Flayed Marsyas is the surface of Commedia: Dante’s poem tropes epic narrative in the same way that his content tropes the fourfold method. What was inward, inside the Bible and the Aeneid, furnishes the outside of Commedia. That by itself plays havoc with the notion of simply applying Augustine’s husk-and-kernel metaphorics to Dante’s (or, I would argue, any allegory’s) narrative level. It effectually throws binary code systems, any interpretive system based on simple equivalences or transferrals, right out the window.

When Dante the Pilgrim sees the river of living sparks transform itself into the radiance of the rose, we are not reading an allegory of salvation: we reading a narrative of it. That is univocation, and as such it is not interpretable. The river and the gems – which are real: Dante sees them where there can be no lies – are also, Beatrice tells us, di lor vero umbriferi prefazi (XXX.78): in the realm of the light that casts no shadow, they are shadow-bearing prefaces of their own truth. That is multivocation, and it is almost – perhaps unqualifiedly is – uninterpretable. The interconnections of language and meaning, image and significance, container and content in such passages are tight to the point of inextricability, complex to the point of unparaphrasability, so close and so multiple that even the basic – again binary – distinction between the two components may be dead wrong. Like medieval theologians talking about God, we are reduced to negatives, to saying what our phenomenon is not: whatever the relation of figure and meaning in Paradiso – and it is clearly complex – it is also self-evidently not typological.

We may legitimately wonder, then, where the allegory lies in Dante’s poem. The question is a good one, and not easy to answer. Whether we take the Cangrande expositor as shrewd and knowing or convention-ridden and ignorant, what his illustrations imply rules out “inside” as the direction in which to seek our allegory. Augustine’s kernel-and-husk pattern may work for Scriptural exegesis, but it doesn’t fit Dante at all well.

Conrad’s Language

 Another, a somewhat later allegorist, re-confirms that repudiation of “insides” for us, explicitly denying the utility of “the kernel” in a work in which Dante as pilgrim and Dante as poet both figure importantly.

The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine. (Heart of Darkness, 68)18

Not all allegorists are so outspoken as Dante and Spenser in their elucidatory epistles. Modern writers, at least, are usually reluctant to offer straightforwardly and in their own voice directions for deciphering their works. They do not seem averse, however, to incorporating such information into the works themselves, so that clues about how to read the work in hand and warnings about misconstruing it become part of the work itself (as is of course the case in Dante’s and Spenser’s poems too). In fact, this traditional and I think reasonably ancient procedure on the part of allegorical writers gives rise to the delicious irony that some books that in fact belong to the ancient class of allegories, and are merely doing its old-fashioned work once more, have been hailed as masterworks of modernity by virtue of their intense self-consciousness, their awareness of the limitations of literature, their anti-illusionary breaking of the frame of fiction, and their bold violation of simple diegesis. The whirligig of time does indeed bring in its revenges.

In all these respects – and of course many others – Conrad is a modernist of impeccable credentials: deraciné, alienated, creator of alienated heroes, subtle player behind the veils of layer after layer of fiction, inventor of narrators, themselves opaque, of equally baffling tales. It goes hard against the modernist grain to see Conrad’s Marlow as an allegorist’s device for giving his audience reading lessons, but that is one of the essentials of his being. Marlow’s job, like Virgil’s in Inferno, is to make sure that we see what we are supposed to and that we think about what we see.

This emphatically does not mean that Marlow, in Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim, is Reason just as Dante’s Virgil is Reason – for the simple reason that Dante’s Virgil isn’t Reason either. Characters in allegories aren’t Reason or Passion or Virtue or Evil or anything else with a capital letter: those are personifications. Characters in allegories, like the famous definition of poetry, do not mean but be, and they do not be any one single thing for long, no more than any of us do. Personification is a linear construct: allegory is non-linear, a complex system, a flow in the almost mathematical sense of “shape plus change, motion plus form.”19 The consistency of personification is a completely artificial construct: allegorical characters embody and enact all the variety and inconsistency of crude reality, with all of reality’s inherent resistance to abstraction, whether of the literary or the mathematical variety. Personification is all shape, all form: change is impossible for a personification without either its ceasing to be a personification or without its (in literature virtually unprecedented) mutation into a personification of something else than it had been. Most personification characters are in some narrow, very specific way “part of us”: every allegorical character is in some exalting or distressing way “one of us,” as Marlow says of the hero of another allegory. If the point of personification narratives is most often to teach you something you should know, the point of allegories, most often, is to have you meet someone you should know, and it is usually yourself.

It takes no subtlety to see that that, for instance, is the thrust of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Marlow’s journey upriver to meet Kurtz becomes a journey into the self, a pilgrimage that culminates, in direct antithesis to Christian’s, not in Marlow’s laying his burden down but precisely in his taking it up. He bears Kurtz back to the steamboat, carries him out of the Inner Station, out of the Heart of Darkness: he suffers through Kurtz’s extremity and looks into his soul – his own soul and Kurtz’s. He dons Kurtz as an actor dons a role and bears his name and reputation back to the so-called civilized world, back to the sepulchral city.

The meaning of these events, it seems very clear, is inward, in fact, is interiority itself. At the Heart of Darkness, at the Inner Station, enthroned at the center of a ring of skulls, is Mr. Kurtz, who, Marlow tells us, “had no restraint” and yielded to his own inward heart of darkness. Marlow in turn internalizes Kurtz’s abilities and Kurtz’s failures, identifies with both, and learns from them the humbling lesson of his own limitations. In the face of the unshakable faith of Kurtz’s fiancée, Marlow pays his final debt to the dead Kurtz with a lie – “lies have the flavor of mortality about them,” he has already told us – and re-enters the world of the living a sadder and a wiser man.

Plausible and glib as that may sound – and I have not taken any pains to hide its glibness – that common reading of Heart of Darkness cannot stand as a total account of Conrad’s tale. It cannot stand because it opts for univocation, for the steady state of an essentially static, symbolic reading, in a text which partakes of as much motion and flow as the river that threads its narrative. It cannot stand because Conrad at the outset has told us that such a reading cannot stand. The joker in the interpretive deck is that the ultimate meaning of Heart of Darkness is not and cannot be inward – at very least not “inside” in that analytical sense – if the tale is to have any coherence or consistency at all. We were warned of this explicitly in the passage I quoted above, by the unnamed narrator whose presence frames Marlow as Marlow frames Kurtz. So the meaning of the tale Marlow tells cannot lie in its inward point, in the moral or message that is its kernel. Rather its “meaning” – and that is Conrad’s word – is outside, an envelope around the tale, a haze around a glow, a halo around moonshine.

A lovely image, no doubt, but what are we to understand by it? Readers may be forgiven for suspecting that it is all moonshine, that Conrad has been intoxicated by his own language. But in fact that language itself contains the clues to just how serious Conrad is. His sentences are a tissue of the traditional terms of allegory, a palimpsest of centuries of speculation about it. Consciously or unconsciously – and it really makes no difference which to the text we have, if we posit, as I do, that every text is the product of the whole mind – Conrad has (to use a favorite word of his) commingled several loci classici of allegorical literature. The image of kernel and nut of course belongs by ancient right to allegory, and in employing it here Conrad is willy-nilly echoing St. Augustine. The “envelope” of a tale is none other than the medieval integumentum, the skin (Marsyas’?) or outside, the fictum, the fiction which conceals a truth. That haze, that mist, that “spectral illumination of moonshine” all seem to derive directly (perhaps an indication of Conrad’s recent reading here?) from Hawthorne’s Custom House essay that prefaces and frames The Scarlet Letter, and all seem to point toward the same ground that Hawthorne used them to illustrate, the fusion in art or in allegory of the actual and the imaginary, the factual and the per- or con-ceptual:20 the deception of art will, in effect, render us receptive to the truth of nature.

But however much Conrad’s language echoes Augustine and long-standing hermeneutic tradition, it is in fact reversing Augustine and urging us not to look inward for the kernel but outward at the husk. Likewise he has relocated the envelope: it is, apparently, not the fiction itself which contains its meaning but the outside of the tale – wherever that might be. Conrad’s language in this paragraph makes the tale itself an inside, contained within a mysterious envelope of meaning, which is the outside. We might hope that the unnamed narrator and the other members of Marlow’s audience – the Director of Companies, the Lawyer, and the Accountant – could provide such an outside. They are, after all, very much outside Marlow’s story. But they are unfortunately very much inside Heart of Darkness, which leaves them, with respect to us, in quite a middling position. We, of course, are definitely outside the tale, and if that begins to make you uncomfortable, then you are starting to apprehend what Conrad – and allegory – intend for you.

This “outside,” whatever it may be, whoever it may be, seems the first really likely candidate we’ve had for the office of allegorical “Other,” the saying of which we’ve agreed to accept as the defining characteristic of allegory. But “outside” is, if you’ll forgive an almost inescapable pun, a very open-ended concept, one we’re going to have to be more rigorous about if it’s going to have any real meaning at all. After all, in terms of literature, almost everything can qualify as an outside – audience, history, futurity, fact as opposed to fiction, other books as opposed to this book, other forms as opposed to this form, other styles as opposed to this style, other language as opposed to this language. Even the terms and referents, the simple words of ordinary discourse and quotidian experience, can be an outside for a text that does not otherwise employ them. For example, if literary texts were conventionally written in a special language or dialect, a “Mandarin” speech as opposed to the vernacular tongue, then the spoken language – with all of its referential, psychological, and ideological baggage – would de facto serve as an outside for a “Mandarin” text, and would be available to it as an “Other” in some quite significant senses. Whether or not that “Other” would also be allegory’s “Other” is an important question.

Chapter 2: Light

At these first stages of our exploration, by far the most important item on the agenda for us is to pin down the little we do know for certain about allegory and to make sure that we all mean the same thing by the terms we use to speak about it.

And – by no means insignificantly – the first thing we all know about allegory is that it is a troublemaker. Its reputation describes it as obscure in meaning and difficult to decipher. Its etymology describes it as an action of alienation, of distancing, both of audience and of meaning: it is other-speaking or speaking-otherwise. Whether that etymology properly means to speak other than one appears to or other than one intends to, whether the aim of other-speaking is to conceal meaning or to embellish it or, paradoxically, to make clear its inexpressibility, its mystery – these are matters about which even the earliest commentators on allegory widely disagree.1

Nevertheless, the first of allegory’s many paradoxes is that allegory eschews clear speech. It seeks deliberately to subvert the conventional relation of artist to audience, to undermine all the ordinary effects of rhetorically patterned speech. Allegory apparently runs counter to almost all other artistically controlled language conglomerates.2 Persuasion seems far less its goal than initiation, revelation much less its point than concealment – perhaps, in the second of allegory’s paradoxes, both at once: allegory hides and shows, excludes and admits simultaneously. The knowing may enter the holy of holies; the profane stop at the door of the shrine. Only those who can understand allegory can understand it. So in terms of the conventional definitions and normal uses of the various rhetorical tropes and figures and devices, allegory presents itself as opposed, as contrary. Even more important, by its adaptation to its own ends of conventional literary tools, allegory becomes de facto subversive of them all. In contemporary parlance, allegory constitutes in itself a whole deconstructive genre (or mode, or trope), a literary phenomenon by its very nature counter to all its kin and their purposes.


All criticism, all language theory, that is rooted however distantly in Aristotelean formalism accepts – in fact, demands – the principle of non-contradiction. Its boundaries are their boundaries: a thing cannot be and not be in the same respect at the same time. Binary thinking defines a closed world where more is more, less is less, but neither exists save in the apparent absence but continual relational presence of the other. Only in a world bounded by such polarities must a this imply a that, a one engender a many, a negative demand a positive, an off shadow an on. Reject the principle of non-contradiction, adopt for instance a Cusan vision of the coincidence of opposites or a Heisenbergian principle of indeterminacy, or any of a half a dozen other options, and the reader/writer steps outside the closed world of binary choices and enters the infinite universe of possibility.

Allegory accomplishes that: it steps beyond Aristotlean boundaries by positing not just a polarized opposite meaning but multiple and multiplex meanings.3 What I am trying to suggest here is difficult to describe this early in our exploration: coming to know allegory is a cumulative experience, a gradual initiation, in which, as in an allegory or any initiation, one acquires the language by which to know and to say things otherwise ineffable. I am not just talking about unrecognized alternatives to false dilemmas, like Gulliver, torn between his physical links to Yahoos and his intellectual links to Houhynhms and failing to see himself as a viable tertium quid, a being different from and partaking of both. Such alternatives still partake of binary thinking, still work in terms of opposition and balance.

Allegory does more than that. Allegory says otherness into existence, draws it out of the shadow realm of the unsaid and unsayable, and gives it a local habitation and sometimes even a name. It maps the kinds of terrae incognitae that change their shapes in the act of measuring them. Allegory leads into the realm of ideas for which there exist as yet no language, no terms of art: if you want to be Jungian or Freudian about this and describe it as bringing unconscious or latent contents to light, that’s fine,4 but you could just as easily go back behind Aristotle to Plato’s fable of the cave to analogize the allegorical actions I’m describing. Allegory synthesizes the one and the other, points to complications and infoldings of meaning apprehendable by the mind at its most receptive and agile but beyond our verbal power to explicate or unfold. Derrida and De Man are quite right in insisting that language contains far more than we suspect – but it also contains far more than they suspect, especially as language is constellated in allegory. Allegory is the literary equivalent of the theory of relativity: it tracks a universe in constant motion, a linguistic galaxy that is re-ordered by each act of reading and whose motions appear different from the perspective of each measurer. Neither text nor reader tyrannizes in allegory: they must meet each other with equal openness for allegory even to come to be. Each allegory’s articulation of its central secret, its marriage of spoken and unspoken meaning, constitutes the fiat that calls its world into being and the syntaxis that orders that world – but each reader’s forays into that world render it in a different dialect, with different accents.

Uncomprehending Darkness

To create such a world, to make it accessible to readers, allegories must, in the same way I am attempting here, undo all our customary assumptions about language and how it means. In Inferno, for one very great instance, Dante subverts our quotidian language, imploding it to its central node of absolute specificity, embodied in Hell’s deadening fixity in time and place. There is no allegory (in any of the senses in which that word is ordinarily used) in Inferno, though Inferno provides the ground for all of Commedia’s allegory and is itself subsequently transmuted into allegory (of a very different sort) by the rest of the poem. But on its own terms, instead of allegory, Inferno offers only language, language of relentless literalness. Indeed, Dante makes Hell a language, or perhaps even more rudimentarily an alphabet or a syllabary of ideographs, the hard rock bottom of semiosis or signification. Dante makes us see, in each of the damned of Inferno and in ways far richer and more awesome than Milton’s impoverished version of hell, something of the horror that Marlowe’s “Myself am Hell, nor am I out of it” hints at.

Language is the means of human self-expression, the primary mode by which we externalize our inner reality, make known to others what goes on inside our minds: so is Hell. Hell, as Dante reveals it, is where people finally and literally mean what they say – forever. In Dante’s hell, people are what they say. The damned are their own fate, their own choices, their own language. That is why the pilgrim, the poet, and the reader all enter Hell through words engraved on rock. Inferno is a concentration of univocation.

These words of obscure color I saw inscribed over a portal; whereupon I said, “Master, their meaning is hard for me.” (Inferno III.1-2, 9-12)5

The gateway into hell is language. Not the rock but the words are duro (hard), and in many senses: difficult to understand, difficult to accept, harsh, unyielding, univocal, and hard as rock. What may be hard for the reader is to see just what puzzles Dante the pilgrim here: the words he – and we – read are crystal clear. Rock speaks at the entrance to Inferno to inform us that we are about to enter a world where word and meaning coincide, where words and things only denote, where all connotation, overtone, equivocation, nuance, subtlety have been shorn away to leave only the bedrock of single definition, eternal fixity – and on that rock Dante builds his poem.

Before this point (and still, as the pilgrim’s puzzlement indicates), he dwelt in (inadequate) figurative language:

Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood…. Ah, how hard it is to tell what that wood was, wild, rugged, harsh…. It is so bitter that death is hardly more so. (Inferno I.1-2, 4-5, 7)6

Not only is life metaphorized – pallidly – as a road, but its entanglements are imaged equally tritely as a dark forest. That is the linguistic universe in which Dante lives, a world where words do not mean exactly what they say but stand at a distance from precise denotation. That is why it is difficult for the poet to speak of that commonplace forest: because it is a forest of commonplaces. The dark forest is language itself: not just the silva (woods, forest) that furnishes the matter of medieval philosophy but also the silva that provides the materials of medieval rhetoric.7

The pilgrim reads parole di colore oscuro once again over the gate of Hell, and he there finds their meaning duro (III.12) in the same way that rock’s words describe itself as duro (III.8): they are hard because they are precise and unequivocal. That “shadowy” forest and “shadowy” color – it is the shadowy colors of rhetoric, of course: the metaphor or allusion is barely submerged in the consistently imprecise language – ought to remind us how closely, in the ancient grammarians, allegory was linked to enigma.8 The pilgrim dwells in enigma, and only allegorical vision can lead him to clear sight and clear speech. That is why he is penned in by the leopard, the lion, and the she-wolf. He is circumscribed by trite and fundamentally empty images: emblems, symbols, signs to which any number of meanings (as the history of Dante scholarship bears witness) can arbitrarily – and with equal (dis)satisfactoriness – be assigned.

Dante the pilgrim has not yet acquired the semiotic skills of Dante the poet, who understands his real plight, that the three emblematic beasts “pushed me back, little by little, to where the sun is silent (a poco a poco/ me ripigneva la dove ‘l sol tace,” I.59-60), to where the light has lost the power to speak. That is why too the pilgrim is unsure whether Virgil, who appears to him at this moment, is man or shadow9 (ombra, 66) and why, most ironically, Virgil looks to him like “one who seemed faint through long silence” (chi per lungo silenzio parea fioco, 63). The pilgrim goes on to describe Virgil as “that fount which pours forth so broad a stream of speech” (quella fonte/ che spande di parlar si largo fiume, 79-80) and “my master and my author…from whom I took the fair style that has done me honor” (lo mio maestro e ‘l mio autore,/…da cu’ io tolsi/ lo bello stilo che m’ha fatto honore, 85-87). Despite his claim to have studied Virgil’s volume (84: the word will return with new dimensions in Paradiso XXXIII.86, almost symmetrically, and exactly where you would expect it), Dante the poet makes it very clear that all the pilgrim has gleaned from his labor is the surface of the Aeneid, the style – lo bello stilo – and not the substance. And that, in turn, is why pilgrim and poet alike must now imitate the substance of the Aeneid by descending through language into an underworld of changeless reality. Virgil guides the pilgrim out of the moral ambiguities of the material forest into the certainties of a spiritual world. At the same time, Virgil in (or as) the Aeneid guides the poet out of the semantic ambiguities of the rhetorical forest into the exactness of a new semiotic order.

If the world outside the gate of graven words is marked by linguistic ambiguity, the world inside declares immediately its semantic orientation. As soon as the pilgrim enters “the secret things” (le segrete cose, Inferno III.21), as soon as he quite literally passes through the letter or beyond the letter into the spirit, speech provides his first sensation, his first experience – and it is an unequivocal datum, affecting the pilgrim directly and immediately, even though his intellect still needs help interpreting it:

Here sighs, laments, and loud wailings were resounding through the starless air, so that at first they made me weep. Strange tongues, horrible outcries, utterances of woe, accents of anger, voices shrill and faint, and the beating of hands among them, were making a tumult(Inferno III.22-28).10

In fact, the pilgrim still belongs to the outer world of linguistic ambiguity. When he asks Virgil a question about the inhabitants of the First Ring, Virgil must decipher and answer the real question, a process Dante the poet pointedly labels “my covert speech” (parlar coverto, IV.51). Even more significantly, in the Second Ring, where Hell proper begins, the pilgrim’s first reported, prolonged encounter with damned souls – the touching story of Paolo and Francesca – involves a very ambiguous response, on the part of the pilgrim, to a tale that turns not only on love but just as importantly on books and reading.

One day, for pastime, we read of Lancelot, how love constrained him; we were alone, suspecting nothing. Several times that reading urged our eyes to meet and took the color from our faces, but one moment alone it was that overcame us. When we read how the longed-for smile was kissed by so great a lover, this one, who never shall be parted from me, kissed my mouth all trembling. A Gallehault was the book and he who wrote it; that day we read no farther in it. While the one spirit said this, the other wept, so that for pity I swooned, as if in death, and fell as a dead body falls. (Inferno V.127-42)

This extraordinarily moving episode affects every reader of the poem with the pity that moves Dante, though certainly not to the same extent. But that pity is a disturbing reaction: after all, Paolo and Francesca are damned souls. Is Dante – are we – questioning divine justice?  How much does our pity for the sinners exculpate their sin?  Just how mortal a sin are we willing to admit it is?  And – more important – how much of Dante’s extreme reaction is due not just to pity but to guilt?  Is it guilt as a lover?  Or – more serious yet – guilt as a writer?  After all, it was a book that led Paolo and Francesca to sin, and even though their mode of reading is not the way the Middle Ages – or modern criticism, for that matter – advises you to read, it remains typical of the effect of books on many even sophisticated readers: the idea of “identifying” with the protagonist of a fiction or a play and the concomitant esthetics of emulation are not yet entirely dead. Perhaps that luscious dolce stil nuovo that Dante the pilgrim was so proud of just a few cantos ago (and by which this episode is rendered so very powerful) is beginning to show its other face?

Ambiguous response to ambiguous linguistic stimuli: that, all too dryly and – even more sadly – all too accurately sums up the actions of Paolo and Francesca and Dante the pilgrim. All now exist in a world stripped of all such ambiguities, a world where strict denotation is the norm, even though the pilgrim – and the reader – still belongs intellectually and emotionally to the world of the selva oscura. That is exactly what the pilgrim and the reader must be educated away from. What Dante the poet is doing here and throughout Inferno is paring language back to its most fundamental functions, purging it of confusing connotations so that he can build up from ground zero his own allegorical language, a language not dependent upon conventional symbolisms and pat emblems (or personified abstractions either: they provide one of the most popular sources of competing interpretations for Canto I’s three beasts).

The final vision of Paradiso, wherein the pilgrim sees the union of human and divine, the coinciding of mathematic and organic, provided the base from which the poet could remake that language. Even though it is the last thing in the poem, it is the start of the poem as surely as it is its goal. Dante the pilgrim sees the Beatific Vision. Dante the poet saw the Word beyond language, the Word he and St. Paul could not say. Paul couldn’t say it because it wasn’t lawful. Dante can’t say it because it is in the most literal sense ineffable, beyond expression. His entire poem is the saying of that Word, because that single Word includes all words and their meanings. It is, if you like, the ultimate paratactic word that some contemporary criticism seeks. Dante’s allegory – we can say this much, this early – goes beyond paradox but doesn’t eliminate it, least of all from allegory’s fundamental task, speaking other. To say the other is to say the same: that is inescapable. That, too, is part of Dante’s final vision.

That circling which, thus begotten, appeared in Thee as reflected light, when my eyes had dwelt on it for a time, seemed to me depicted with our image within itself and in its own color, wherefore my sight was entirely set upon it. (Paradiso XXXIII.127-132)

Each allegory, at its heart, embraces all the opposites in their full paradoxicality. It in one motion recognizes their equality – their paratactical relationship to each other – and arranges them into a system – their syntactical relation to each other. Allegory fuses parataxis and syntaxis: that is one of the things allegory is, but that very fusion makes allegory not one thing but many things.

Allegories as works exist in historical time. They build on each other. We may find it relatively easy to talk about the fusion of humanity and divinity in Dante’s ultimate vision. That is partly because a good many of us no longer believe any of that, and it is always easier to talk about fictions, no matter how inspired, than about unaccommodating facts. It is certainly because Dante saw that vision, however, that we have any language for it at all: Dante’s poem invented the terms by which he could express his vision of the ineffable, and in doing so Dante the poet gave voice to the mute. We may no longer be excited by the sense of the newness, the freshness of Dante’s final vision, though I find it hard to imagine a perceptive reader who remains unmoved by it. One generation’s ineffable may very well become another generation’s commonplace, if only because allegory has found it out and provided ways of speaking of it. We can probably anticipate a similar fate in the future for works whose daring and novelty excite us now, if future generations preserve any language at all.

To quote the beginning of this chapter, our first task – and allegory’s – is “to make sure that we all mean the same thing by the terms we use.”  That is what Dante did at the beginning of his poem by voiding conventional rhetoric, by emptying predictable figuration of its predictable meaning, by reducing language to its rock-bottom, bare-bones denotation. The damned are what they say they are, without possibility of change: they are trapped forever in the language of their own making. Dante the pilgrim is not, and we his readers are not – but we must first unlearn our own language of entrapment before we can enter the freedom of a new tongue. All allegories preserve language by undoing it and re-inventing it. All start by scraping away the detritus of our dead language and then, bit by bit, initiating us into their new one. So all allegories – like Dante’s poem – begin with an ending, and end with a beginning – as do we.

Chapter 1: A Mildly Polemical Word at the Beginning

In the beginning of every discussion of allegory is the word, which is itself already ambivalent, and none the less so for all the twentieth century’s critical quarrels about what constitutes word or text or meaning, or the meaning of meaning.

Rather than engage in that always inconclusive discussion, I propose here the literary-critical equivalent of a plain-language text: as straightforward and unfraught an investigation of how allegory works as my language is capable of. My one uncompromising critical position is that I think language in general and the English language in particular are capable of a great deal, starting with clear connotation and building up to any number of multiple connotations and complex denotations. Inescapably, as I enter allegory, I will have to refer to several theoretical isms, but I’ll do everything I can to keep those excursions minimal and to remain focused on allegory itself. For the balance of this chapter, I have to ask your willing suspension of disbelief, as I try to outline what lies before us in this investigation.

So let’s start with the word: allegory, other-speaking, a way of saying one thing and meaning another. That’s its oldest, most minimal definition, and just about the only thing about allegory that everyone agrees on. From the earliest beginnings of literary study other-saying has been allegory’s hallmark, with equal emphasis placed on the two wings of the definition: the “one thing said” must be clear, coherent, and intelligible in itself, and the “other meant” must be itself coherent or intelligible and also distinct and different – i.e., it must be genuinely other. So, as in the most modern of relationships, every allegory worthy of the name needs a significant other.

That may not seem to be saying much, but look again: it unequivocally excludes personification texts such as The Pilgrim’s Progress or Everyman from the category of allegory. That is, the texts all we Anglophones have been taught to regard as paradigm allegories aren’t allegories, can’t be allegories, by the oldest, most basic definition of the form (or mode, or genre, or whatever it may be), because they don’t possess any genuine “other meaning” in any significant way different from their primary narrative or dramatic statements. Everyman represents every man, and Christian is a representative Christian, and however minimally or maximally individualized those characters may become, nothing they do or say points beyond their basic identification. Their meaning is in no sense other, but completely co-extensive with their names and actions – so personification texts can never be allegories. Surprise! In both the definition of allegory and in personification, the words mean what they say. And lesson one about allegory: always pay attention to the most literal sense of what is being said, in allegory and/or about it.

I am not here playing any smart-ass game of one-up to show that I can be cleverer than everybody else, which is one of the chief reactions people, especially scholars, have to something that challenges their most basic assumptions. The other most common reaction is to ask if allegory isn’t personification, then what is it? – which is an excellent question, and the perfect starting point from which to begin finding out just what allegory is. This distinction of allegory from personification is crucial – absolutely fundamental to understanding the entity – and I am not the first to make it.1 In fact, it is one of the oldest, earliest things we ought to have known about allegory. Ancient writers, who observed the distinctions of grammar, rhetoric, and logic with keener precision than we are accustomed to, firmly distinguished allegory from personification by placing them in utterly different categories. Personification was for them a figure of speech intensifying emotion and meaning, making it more powerful and explicit. Allegory on the other hand they linked with devices such as irony, riddle, and enigma – devices that obscure meaning rather than reveal it.

That is a very telling distinction and one that bears emphasizing: personification and its related devices drive meaning home – thus their steady employment in didactic and propagandistic works from Everyman to Animal Farm. Allegory goes the other way, creating puzzles and tantalizing with meaning that is not at all explicit, often not even implicit, and that may very well be the opposite of what is said, just like irony. Of this, much more later: right now, it gets us ahead of ourselves.

In the pages that follow, I hope to show that allegory fundamentally designates a narrative or drama of multiple, complex, perhaps incompatible, often overlapping, and therefore non-paraphrasable meaning(s), a story or play whose words and events are simultaneously coherent, analyzable literal statements in themselves and also signals (signs, “metaphors,” veils) of meaning(s) beyond or more complex than those that can be conveyed by ordinary literary devices (simile, metaphor, symbol, etc.). In the most extreme formulation, I will argue that allegory constitutes/creates a non-linear language or meaning system, one of extreme sensitivity to initial conditions, displaying characteristics of self-similarity across scale, alternations of order and disorder arising from the same principles, and seemingly infinite possibilities of signification (all of which it remains for me to demonstrate in subsequent chapters, as well as to explain why I’m using language that echoes chaos theory).

Allegory so understood – real allegory as opposed to the personification pieces so often miscalled allegory – exists primarily as a mode rather than as a genre, in that it is not wedded to any particular form of writing other than narrative in the broadest sense. (I have not yet, for instance, encountered an allegorical lyric.)  The bond to narrative and occasionally dramatic form probably results from (and is certainly the cause of my fudging a bit by describing allegory as “primarily a mode”) allegory’s coming into being not through any extraordinary or unique literary or linguistic device, but by means of a pervasive, basic operation of literalization. That is what lies behind my initial insistence on so literally adhering to the definition of allegory itself as “other saying.”

I hope to show that in (what I consider) the greatest allegories, this basic literalization combines with the accumulation and exploitation of any or all of the conventional devices of allusion and figuration, pursued until the verbal equivalent of “critical mass” (a phrase I cannot help relishing) is achieved and conventional figuration no longer yields conventional meanings. At that point, the text transforms itself in the comprehension of the reader into an open-ended, self-bordering meta-text, i.e., into allegory. All of this, too, remains for me to demonstrate.

This mutiplex sense of allegory is, I believe, both its oldest and its newest, because allegory is – always – an entity in evolution: the means by which its multiple, apprehendable-but-unstated (and perhaps unstateable) significances are achieved alter with the conditions of each culture in which allegory is attempted. Allegories of the Middle Ages and the Modern period are alike in their achievement, in their “saying other”; they differ markedly in the ways in which they manage to establish that “other” – perhaps I should say “Other.”

This is as near as I can come to a concise definition of allegory. It comes closest, I think, to the sorts of ideas about allegory that seem to underlie both key theoretical documents – e.g., Spenser’s letter to Raleigh – and the actual practice of working allegorists – e.g., The Faerie Queene. Significantly, it and they preclude the identification of allegory with personification or any other single device, insisting rather on a multiplicity of signifying means or figures and a consequent multivalence of signification. It and they restrict personification and related devices of specificity to subordinate roles within the literary construct, roles that may actually violate the normally consistent behaviors of such figures.

Within the precincts of allegory, readers become co-authors: they have no choice about it, because no allegory gives itself away. Every allegory makes its readers work for what they get.2 Other kinds of writings may have whole-meaning structures, designs and patterns that control and channel meaning, usually by means of a reduced-scale “completeness,” by closure and exclusion. Such structures yield the “silences” and “voids” and “fissures” that post-structuralist criticism makes so much of as evidence of the failures of authorial control or inadequate ideologies.

But allegories are different. They are open forms, open writings. Allegories are paradoxically incomplete structures, gestalts, whole entities incorporating gaps and voids within themselves, and it is the reader’s task to fill those gaps. You, the reader, need to put the pieces of the allegory together for yourself in your own way. This is so, at least in part, because of the sheer multiplicity of the pieces:  no allegory is a single, univocal text. Readers must construct their own allegory or allegories out of the materials the author, the text, and their own minds provide. Nobody ever reads anybody else’s allegory. Never. More than that:  allegory, like Heraclitus’ river, is always the same and always different. It exists in a constant state of linguistic flux. You never step twice in the same river: you never read the same allegory twice – and you never read allegory twice the same, nor does the same you ever read an allegory twice, since at each reading you change with the text you read. Allegory constitutes an extreme of the subjective literary experience, objectively structured.

Critics need scalpels, tools for cutting in, taking apart, laying out: in short, analysis. But allegory is a poet’s tool:  it’s used for putting together, binding up, connecting: synthesis – creation – in short. Allegory doesn’t undo meaning: it makes meaning, and it makes its reader complicitous in that creation. Specifically, allegory exploits precisely the multiplex “treachery” (as some criticism has it) of language, both to create other meanings – many of them – and to create meaning-as-other, within the mind of its reader. As literary device or mode or what you will, allegory is simply – as the most ancient critics so succinctly put it – saying other. And othersaying is accomplished not in the text, but (as our discussion of Dante’s letter to Can Grande will show) through the text, not by the writer, but in the reader. That othersaying, the apprehension of meanings beyond our quotidian vocabulary and powers of ordinary speech, that creation of other-as-meaning and meaning-as-other, within another: that is allegory, and demonstrating that is what this book is about.

Allegory provides a way for a poet to screen his audience, to allow his “fit audience though few” to select itself. This aspect of allegory is quite openly acknowledged in the earliest criticism. The allegorist is like the priest of a mystery religion, veiling the sacred truths from the rabble, who would debase them, and preserving them for the elite, who will, with conscious effort, work through the enigmatic words of the allegory to a comprehension of the treasure it contains. The allegorist also employs his “darke conceit” to express ideas that are otherwise inexpressible, to reveal what otherwise could not be seen – whether because of its darkness or its brilliance does not matter.3 All these usages turn allegory and the experience of reading allegory into an initiation rite, a rite de passage of which allegory is at once the goal and the obstacles to the goal, the impediments and the passage. Only by entering the allegory can you learn it. Only by passing through it can you comprehend it. Readers must respect the rights of the passages they read – respect the autonomy of text as much as they revere their own autonomy – before they will get the passage right. You can only understand an allegory – or, for that matter, allegory – if you have come to understand it. Allegory is not product but process, and the process of comprehending allegory is allegory. To borrow from John Barth: “The key to the treasure is the treasure.” Every reader of allegory passes through this process, and you, as a reader of this text, are about to begin that allegorical initiation. It is important at the outset that you dismiss impatience, that you however grudgingly and provisionally suspend your disbelief, that you “bear free and patient thoughts.”

I must ask you to extend the courtesy of your patience and understanding to my language as well as to the ideas I am trying to make it express. By its very nature, allegory cuts across most of the live fields of contemporary critical concern. By its very nature, allegory draws into its own orbit ideas and language proper to a number of competing, in some cases even antithetical, critical vocabularies and dialects. In working through the phenomenon that is allegory (more rightly, the phenomena that are allegory), I have had to deal with – “to come to terms with” – structuralism and deconstruction, formalist and semiotic ideas, traditional rhetorical and critical stances and newer reader-response criticism. I have wrestled with and learned from J. Hillis Miller and Angus Fletcher, Wolfgang Iser and Jean Genette and Mikhail Bakhtin and Tristan Todorov – not to mention or forget Gaston Bachelard and Maureen Quilligan and Roland Barthes, Rosemond Tuve and Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Julia Kristeva and Edward Said and Northrop Frye: these names signal just some of the varieties of literary opinion intersected by the pursuit of allegory.

The study has been humbling. It has taught me the utter vanity of dogmatism and the severe limitations of wholeheartedly or wholemindedly adopting any single point of view, no matter how attractive or logical its theoretical premises. I have learned to hold no position exclusively and to dismiss no position entirely, to honor the efforts and integrity of persons but to disagree with their ideas passionately and occasionally rudely (and always, I hope, with a degree of rhetorical panache: nobody says that learned disputes can’t be fun). I have found, in those writers I named above – and many more – and in the schools of thought or renegade sects of thought they represent, numerous hints and ideas that have illuminated for me some aspect or aspects of allegory. Often I have found some notions, some phrases, some terms, similar-and-different enough from what I recognize in allegory to demand consideration, argumentation, distinction, differentiation.4 Had I responded to every occasion and provocation, and in the writers’ own terms, this book would have been an interminable, unreadable monster. It may be so still, but if it is, the fault is clearly mine, for I have chosen to cut the Gordian knot of competing critical dialects by writing what is as close to the critical equivalent of a plain-English contract as I and the subject are capable of. I have tried to use the simplest possible terms for even the most specialized and recondite aspects of allegory, and wherever I have been forced to technical terms, I have tried to use them in a manner as close as possible to their bare, literal meanings. Further, I’ve tried to separate my actual wrestlings with what I understand to be the real problems of allegory from more distant-from-any-single text grapplings with differing critical or theoretical positions: Part I of this study tries to focus as tightly as possible on literary texts, and Part II takes up the critical justification for the strategies Part I employs.

Despite my best efforts, I’m sure my own customary ideas and stances have no doubt tinged my hopefully theoretically colorless language. Despite my efforts, particular words and phrases will inescapably bring with them their connotative clouds of glory, just as surely as even the most conscientious readers will approach even my most successfully literal statements with all their own mental baggage ready to supply the contexts I’m hoping to strip away. Nevertheless, it continues to appear to me that as close as I can get to nondenominational prose is the only possible way to proceed in this investigation and explanation. That being the case, I have no alternative at this point but to imitate the techniques I’ve found allegories themselves using to solve similar problems by trying, here at the outset, to sensitize my readers to both my and their own use of language.

Indeed, most of the difficulty readers encounter in “deciphering” allegories arises from the fact that allegories do not restrict themselves to, nor do they respond intelligibly to, a single code or paradigm of interpretation – and that relates directly to my very simple, very radical purpose in this book. I wish to modestly propose a wholly different paradigm of interpretation, in fact a whole set of them, paradigms that break with the essentially simplistic inside-outside relation that underlies most criticism of allegory: figure X is the outside, the envelope, the husk, but statement Y is the inside, the meaning, the kernel to be dug out. That dominant paradigm and all the logico-rhetorical criticism that flows from it or from which it arises are closed-end systems, essentially purely binary systems. A thing is either this or that, off or on, yes or no, one or zero. Allegory’s paradigm (if it has only one) is neither bound by binary oppositions nor closed. Within allegory, a thing can both be and not in the same respect at the same time. Allegory is open-ended: its possibilities of meaning are theoretically infinite, even though the form that contains them is most definitely finite.

The best analogy for what I will be trying to describe is the subject studied by nonlinear dynamics or dynamic systems theory, popularly known as chaos theory: limited physical systems containing only a few variables and yet capable, by virtue of those few variables, of internally producing an almost infinite series of variations. In studying allegory, I am exploring the literary equivalent of those paradoxical systems.5  I am going to try to present modes of interpretation that do not impose a priori assumptions about the validity or invalidity of particular codes, that embrace with equal fervor the objectivity of the text and the subjectivity of the reader, that accept – indeed, revel in – the fact that language conceals at least as much as it reveals, that words are rarely univocal and books less so. I am trying to introduce a criticism as genuinely open-ended as it must be open-minded. Because all currently available critical idioms are firmly tied (in practice, however much they may disclaim in theory) to simple binary opposition, clear language to describe what I have discerned in allegory and terminology by which to make it comprehensible have been major stumbling blocks for me and will be serious obstacles for the reader. Chaos theory provides a set of terms and ideas that describe physical conditions analogous to the intellectual conditions I have observed in allegory. Let me be quite specific about the limits of this language’s and this analogy’s utility: neither the language of chaos theory nor the analogy of chaos theory will clarify anything whatever about what any particular allegory means, but they will illuminate how allegory means, and they will most definitely point toward structural and interpretive paradigms that transcend mere either/ors.

I cannot describe to you these paradigms and the criticism they create, because that very act would close them. Each allegory embodies – encodes, if you like – its own interpretive paradigm or paradigms. Instruction in how to read any given allegory forms a major part of that allegory, and each allegory is different from every other. Reading lessons – the codes that tell you how to read each text – make up an integral part of the contents of each text. In what I am describing here as real allegory, then, there is no husk and no kernel, no division between manifest content and latent content, no disparity of declaration and description. Each allegory means what it says and says what it means – if you can understand it. It also says and means how it says and means in the way it says and means. To put it more simply, how allegory means coincides with how allegory says. Because all this is so, real allegory cannot be paraphrased.6 For allegory, paraphrase is impossible because allegory means multiplexly simultaneously; its meaning is “nonlinear” and therefore not susceptible of translation. Allegory is the unitary act of othersaying and samesaying/onesaying.

All of this makes allegory exciting to read and impossible to talk about. (For a short course in madness, try leading a seminar in a subject that resists expression.)  Even more discouragingly, the process of writing about allegory inescapably becomes the process of writing allegorically, as I discovered to my pain in the course of writing this study. One of allegory’s nastiest surprises seems to be the revelation that the simplest expression – at least what was intended to be the simplest, clearest expression – turns out to be the most complex. Like the hierophant of the mysteries, I can only show what there are no words for: like Dante, patch together words and images for what is beyond speech and vision. Allegory is other-saying. It is saying what hasn’t been said, what can’t be said, what is always – even after it has(n’t) been said – (un)said.

The priest at Eleusis, we think, at the apex of the mysteries simply showed the initiates a stalk of wheat. We know that in the early church the catechumens were obliged to leave before the consecration of the Mass, being unready to see the mystery of bread and wine transformed into divine flesh and blood – which no one saw. “I am unable,” Freud said at the beginning of his narrative of the Wolfman’s treatment, “to give either a purely historical or a purely thematic account of my patient’s story; I can write a history neither of the treatment nor of the illness…. It is well known that no means has been found of in any way introducing into the reproductions of an analysis the sense of conviction which results from the analysis itself.”7

I have called this work The Strangeness of Allegory because of allegory’s eerie, counterintuitive modes of procedure, its simultaneous exploitation and refusal – even negation – of conventional modes or signification and figuration. Allegory is strange in the sense of different, alien, weird, even uncanny (pace deconstruction). Allegory is strange too in its estrangement from conventional literature, which is fodder for its enormous appetite, the compost that feeds its roots, but rarely ever the garden in which it lives peacefully with its neighbors. Allegories are the great outsiders of letters, often misunderstood and never domesticated, admired but not often followed. Allegory, finally, is strangest of all in its creations of extra dimensions, extra meanings, extra resonances. It breaks out of all the categories, crosses all the limits, forces, herds, shepherds its readers out of the confines of their usual ideas and categories to create new spaces, new meanings, extraordinary places and ideas outside the boundaries of conventional literature’s – and conventional thinking’s – snug little boxes. In the convergent root senses of the words, allegory is extraneous and strange, xenophobe and xenophile, host and guest. Allegory is incommunicable apprehension communicated: to say it, if one could say it, would be to render it other – not in the sense of other-saying, but in the totally estranging sense of other than it is, a simulacrum of itself. Allegory is the thing extra itself: not a hermeneutic method, but hermeneutics. I only hope, in the pages that follow, that I can show it to you.



Allegory: An Adversarial View

I am writing this book to present an alternative – radically alternative – idea of allegory to the one now apparently universally held, which is that allegory is personification writ large. Put most simply, I hold that allegory is not personification, that while it may sometimes use personification, it can in no way be restricted to it. If it were, it would hardly be complicated, because – whatever rhetorical flourishes one may adorn it with – personification strives for clarity. It is a didactic device that wants to make its message clear:  Christian is a Christian, Everyman is every man, and there are no two ways about it.

Allegory, on the other hand, always has at least two ways about it, or else it is grossly misnamed: Saying one thing and meaning another is not a device of clarification but of obfuscation, of misdirection. It is an entirely different and differing figure, or mode, or device, or trope, which is why ancient grammarians linked allegory not with metaphor or simile, figures that discerned likenesses, but with irony, enigma, and riddle, all ways of hiding meaning and submerging likeness. In no way can allegory, if the word means anything at all, be reduced to personification.

Many years ago, a colleague to whom I had just said the gist of what you’ve just read, replied to me in total bafflement, “If allegory isn’t personification, then what is it?” I’ve spent a lot of years trying to answer that question, and my intention now is to share what I’ve learned with anyone who is interested to hear it.

Paradoxically enough, one of the most striking things that probing into allegory showed me is that few questions are as open-ended as that one. Rather, I discovered that answers usually precede questions, and questions are usually consciously or unconsciously designed to elicit the pre-decided answer. This is as true of Freud’s theory of the interpretation of dreams as it is of any scientific experiment. The corollary of that is that most allegories, I have found, work precisely to explode the usual questions and answers and instead to drive/prod/urge readers to ask new questions with as yet undetermined answers – undetermined except in the sense that the old answers won’t do.

Neils Bohr, in his Codicil to Logic, says “The opposite of an ordinary truth is a falsehood. But there also exist great truths – and the opposite of a great truth is another great truth.” Nothing can prepare you better for the study of allegory than keeping that dictum in mind.

Back in what used to be called the Renaissance but is now known in literary studies as the Early Modern period, writers and critics spoke of a “dark style,” by which they designated obscure and difficult texts, often highly figurative ones, and often but not always including allegories. And indeed, allegory, with its ages-old reputation for difficulty and obscurity, seems quite appropriately to belong to, if not to own, the dark style, so the exploration you are about to begin will be at times quite difficult, perhaps even confusing, and I will have to ask your patience as we work our way through the labyrinth. Just to give some sense of what you’re in for – a little light at the beginning of the tunnel, so to speak – here is a very brief summary of some of what I will be trying to demonstrate.

I have found that allegory – which is never a static thing – comes into being through either of two narrative strategies: either by hyper-enriching a text’s figuration so that its metaphors in effect explode, or by explicitly invalidating conventional figuration. The first is the method of the opening stanzas of The Faerie Queene, the latter the method of the opening of Dante’s Commedia. (I will have much to say in probably too great detail about both of these later.)

In either case, the simple one-to-one relationships of ordinary metaphor, simile, and personification (especially personification) are nullified, and the resulting text is radically open, so that narrative characters and events, as well as all figures of speech applied to or generated by them, are capable of not merely simultaneous multiple meanings but also simultaneous contradictory meanings. In effect, the principle of non-contradiction is abrogated and a universe of wider signification than that of ordinary discourse is created. Because it exceeds ordinary discourse, allegory’s meanings are completely unparaphrasable: apprehendable but not articulatable in our quotidian language.

Which, of course, is why it is so very difficult to write about allegory in any simple, lucid way. Bon voyage!


One last caveat before we begin: I worked at this study over many years, and it sat on my desk for many more, before I finally resolved to issue it this way. As a consequence, its documentation is often dated.

In some cases that is because the best work on this subject is the oldest, and in other cases because I haven’t brought it up to the moment. I spent too long engaging pointlessly with what I now see as the non-issues raised by the theory wars. I will try to remove most of that sort of argument from my text as I ready it for this digital publication, or at very least I will confine it to a separate section at the end for those who enjoy that sort of argument. You may wonder at some things I say, in that other critics have said similar ones; but I deal with so many texts, from so many periods and languages, that I cannot claim anything like expertise in them all.

I can only assert that I have found no one who is using arguments or data, however similar to mine, to the ends that I am putting them, and I ask you to try to keep that in mind as you read. I no longer have the energy to update my scholarship in the old-fashioned way, by dogged library work, nor do I have the computer skills to do so the new way: The technology has passed me by. I am pleased to be able to say that I don’t think language has.

So, once again, bon voyage.