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.


 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 three 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

All three are – as the old carnival barkers were reputed to say – for your edification and amusement.

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.