Mimesis, Allegory, and the Angel of History
By ALAN WALL.
TWENTY THOUSAND YEARS ago someone painted images on a cave wall. This display of mimetic ability seemed breathtaking for its formal audacity to spectators in the twentieth century. The ability to capture with such vivid economy of means the presence of certain animals, like the auroch and the bison, struck modern artists as uncanny. Picasso on re-emerging from one such cave remarked, ‘We have invented nothing.’ Like the ouroboros swallowing its own tail, it seemed that art had taken 20,000 years finally to arrive at where it started: a formal simplicity and audacity without the distraction of unnecessary surface detail.
It is not merely mimesis that we are witnessing on these cave walls, but also mimicry. What appear to be human figures are entirely human only from the waist down. Above that they are dressed in animal disguises, including antlered headgear. The resemblance here to shamanic costume has led some to suppose that the Magdalenian artists must have been shamans, and that when they went down into the terrible and dangerous darkness of the caves, they were also entering a trance. The trance might help explain the astonishing vividness of the represented images. The cave’s darkness was then the outer manifestation of that inner occlusion permitting the hallucinatory realities of a shamanic transport. The parietal walls are the walls of a cave; they are also, as a matter of nomenclature, the walls of a skull.
So in some of the earliest representations of ourselves that exist, we have presented ourselves as therianthropes — part human, part animal. We are engaging in that mimetic activity we have subsequently named art, and we are also engaging, as therianthropes, in the impersonation of other creatures or beings. This we can call mimicry, but it is also the activity at the root of ventriloquism, a sacred activity in our earlier history, and since ventriloquism is ultimately the craft of displaced voicings, we have also entered the realm of allegory, which displaces identity, genus and species, giving one type of being the voicing of another, or even personifying an abstract entity. It is possible that the creatures portrayed in the caves were ex voto offerings to a nature god or goddess which needed to be appeased for the hunt’s takings. This we don’t know, and perhaps never shall; nor do we know if the painters were in fact shamans. What we do know is that our preternatural gift for mimicry, imitation and disguise lies at the root of much of our artistic tradition.
It is our gift for mimicry which makes learning possible. One of our curious vulnerabilities as a species is the extraordinary amount of time the human child requires for its nurture. Our weakness here is also our strength, since it is during this time that what biologists sometimes call the exogenetic or exosomatic inheritance is acquired. In other words, we learn whatever is on offer at the time in the form of culture. Our remarkable aptitude for this process of learning, often cognate with mimicry, is now being explained by some neuroscientists (if tentatively) as a result of the configurations of mirror neurons in our heads. These represent a neurophysiological explanation of our ability to anticipate, respond and copy; to shadowbox in a lightshow of neurons and synapses whoever or whatever our interlocutor might be. And then we remember. Without memory there is no learning. Mnemosyne (memory) was the mother of all the muses, including Clio, the muse of history. A great deal of our history takes the form of rear-view mirror imitation, sometimes disastrously.
Mimesis and Mimicry
THE FIRST THINGS we ‘read’ had never been written, Walter Benjamin pointed out, since they were venatic and stellar. We read the vestiges of the hunt, prints, spores, feathers and fur, because otherwise we could not have survived. And we read the constellations, in order to situate ourselves on land, in the ocean, and inside the seasons. Otherwise we would have had to stay wherever we were. In reading the constellations we were also inventing them; they had no existence before we gleaned those particular patterns in the night sky. The stars did not group themselves together to look like ploughs or winged horses. We imposed the patterns on the heavens; the heavens did not volunteer them. The constellations can be seen to represent our first version of allegorical thinking. One species of thing becomes another by metaphoric transfer and, once entangled in our manifold facility for generating meanings and interpretations, it then starts to become semiologically fecund. Our meanings proliferate to such a degree that they sometimes seem to outrun their creators. Thus can the fetishized products of our own makings become reifications, thing-like immutabilities that appear to have created us.
Other animals hunt by instinct , even when they do so in groups, like wolves or hyenas, or dolphins or sharks, but we employ projective mimesis. We mimic the future actions and reactions of the creature. We don’t merely pursue our prey: we construct the landscape through which such pursuits will take place. For example, that form of hunt known as the battue, where we dig the hole, spread the net, then drive the animal towards it. Here, we are not merely following the venatic traces: we have to think ourselves into the mind of the animal beforehand. We are mapping out the route the venatic traces will take. We are not operating purely instinctively, like a lion on a scent; we engage instead in conscious mimicry. And the consciousness here, to use Gerald Edelman’s distinction, is not primary but of a higher order, connecting up the past, present and future, employing symbolism in language, and perceiving self as integrated into community. Our success in this regard comes from an ability to mimic the other creatures, so as to hunt, or employ, or escape them, and then memorise the contents of the mimicry as part of a symbolic system. It is essentially the same activity as the employment of black propaganda in time of war. We have to think like our opponents, in order to ensure their defeat. Our endless fascination with secret agents and particularly double-agents could be an extension in time of the mode of the therianthrope on the walls of the Palaeolithic caves. We need to point both ways, like a herm stone on a boundary line. We are, as Claudius says in Hamlet, to double-business bound.
We ventriloquize other humans, other creatures, and sometimes gods too. Here we make a decision, depending on credal subscription, or the absence thereof. To put the matter crudely: was Moses ventriloquized by God, or was he ventriloquizing Him? Did the Almighty direct the hand that chipped out the stones up there on the mountain that gave us the Decalogue, or did a leader of men go up a mountain and decide that on his return he would sort out a number of troublesome problems, having claimed for himself a much higher authority with which to do so? It is possible that the answer here is not straightforwardly either one or the other. We are presented with the same problem when the Sybil provides messages from Apollo. Who is ventriloquizing whom? In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, when someone is addressed directly by God they tend to be alone at the time. No photography permitted. At Cumae or Delphi, there was an audience. But the messages delivered also tended to be ambiguous to a remarkable degree. Gods spoke in riddles; the ingenuity of the human mind was required to fathom them. If God decides to riddle, then man has no choice but to play the hermeneut.
IT IS THE mechanical quality of allegory that Coleridge objected to, particularly in The Statesman’s Manual. Unlike the symbol, the allegorical emblem does not have an organic unity connecting it inevitably with its point of origin and its meaning. This makes it disjunct; the esemplastic seamlessness of the imagination is interrupted, breached. It was precisely this breaching which Walter Benjamin most valued in allegory, since such breaching, the overt mechanical quality of the allegorical image’s construction, permits the crucial perception that sign is always separate to some degree from origin and meaning, that they are not organically unified except by sleight-of-hand, and that there is therefore a rupture between representation and truth. Truth is only constructed through representation. Only by acknowledging this can we understand the functioning of representation, and stop representation itself from occluding the sources of light, as it does in Plato’s parable of the cave, the shadows on its wall, and the monochrome puppets which thus become gods in men’s minds. The representation is constructing ‘truth’, even as the representation itself is being constructed.
Baudelaire was the last great allegorist, as far as Benjamin was concerned, and the allegorical image was so potent in the verse of this poet precisely because it mirrored the fate of the commodity in capitalism: wrenched from its origins, or from any context which would traditionally bestow holistic or ritualistic meaning upon it. The albatross is clumsy on the ship’s deck, and reflects the fate of the poet in modern times; the swan with its clipped wings, escaped from the circus, clatters through the streets of Paris at dawn, and makes the poet think of Andromache, the wife of Hector, ripped from her noble context in Troy, and now employed as a Greek conqueror’s sex slave. She is a commodity, of the antique and pre-industrial variety. All becomes allegory for me, Baudelaire wrote, and he never disguised the process of manufacture of the images. They were wrenched from their original contexts and translated to Paris, the way commodities from all over the world were transported to the World Fairs being held at the time in the same capital city. Allegory presents us with the perception of two radically different planes of meaning now conjoined. A figure from The Iliad is embodied in a dirty swan in nineteenth-century Paris; a seabird is mocked by sailors on deck who have captured it, and so the albatross becomes a figure of the poet in the modern age, ungainly since denied his true element, the heavens. It is precisely the disjunctiveness of image and identity that gives the allegory strength, not the apparently uncontrived naturalness of the symbol. An allegorical emblem is a symbol that advertises its own factitious manufacture, and to that extent makes itself symbolically problematic. It is in Coleridge’s sense mechanical, but not thereby rendered weaker, but actually more potent. In an age of the mechanical mass production of commodities, why should poetry hark back to an earlier age in the technologies of making? That could after all seem nostalgic. Mayakovsky had hoped for a poetry to be read on the factory floor at lunch time, or to workers in city squares. For a few years after 1917 this actually happened. Factory workers anticipated Mayakovsky’s visits with the same avidity that Greeks did the rhapsodes who recite what we now call Homer. He made no bones about the fact that his images were manufactured. They had that in common with tractors, though he reckoned the latter could at times be more useful. When he put a bullet through his heart in 1930, he was saying that the signifier had now been separated permanently from the signified; that the agreement which makes an allegory – particularly a revolutionary one – possible, had snapped. The hoped-for constellation had fallen apart. This moment was to be memorialized allegorically by George Orwell in Animal Farm as the moment that the pigs, standing in for Stalin’s nomenklatura, start to use language for control rather than elucidation. Constellations, we recall, are more like allegory than any straightforward mimesis. Like Tinkerbell, they are only there if you believe they are. Mikhail Bulgakov wrote a different allegory about the same events: it was called The Master and Margarita, and in it Woland beguiles and bewitches the imaginations of Soviet citizens in the 1930s. Only the devil himself, it seems, can convince these programmed citizens that a man called Jesus actually existed. In the novel he is called Yeshua, and he confronts Pontius Pilate, truth speaking to power, as the Master confronts the might of the Soviet state, even though he does it from the inside of a psychiatric hospital.
ON THE TITLE page of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress there is an epigraph from Hosea: ‘I have made similitudes.’ This is of course from Hosea via the English language, and before that via Latin and Greek. The Greek form for parable was rendered into Latin as similitudo, and this was then turned into the English similitude. Bible translators from Wycliffe to Tyndale used similitude to mean parable. So Jesus spoke in similitudes, as had the prophets before him. And this dark speech, as it is sometimes called, was deliberately riddling. It often baffled its listeners but always caught their attention. One of its functions then would appear to have been defamiliarization. We think harder when faced with the unfamiliar. Narrative estrangement is always a beckoning to the far country of the unknown. The parables are at their most riddling in Mark, the earliest synoptic gospel; they tend to become smoothed out and comfortingly glossed in the later texts. They explain themselves as staging-posts towards the eschaton.
One of the meanings given for similitude in the OED is allegory. So we can say that Jesus was either constructing allegories or repeating and adapting already available versions. St Augustine is unapologetic in his reading of these parables as allegories. In the Good Samaritan pericope he tells us that the traveller was coming down from Jerusalem to Jericho. This then is the fall of man. The inn is the church; the innkeeper St Paul; the Good Samaritan Jesus; and the two coins (pennies in the English version) are the sacraments. The last detail made this exegesis particularly welcome to the Reformers, who had reduced the sacraments from seven to two, thereby restoring the faith to something more like its vibrant state in primitive Christianity.
A parable can be viewed as an allegory miniaturised, just as an allegory can be viewed as a manifold of metaphors extended into narrative.
ALLEGORY IS A hinge that lets us swing from one plane of meaning to another. This, as the image suggests, goes both ways. We can convert the unknown into the known, allegorise it into the recognisable landscape of our own mythology, or we can discover meanings in the text to which our intellectual world made us previously blind. The technique of reading the Old Testament typologically permitted Christians to see in the Hebrew Scripture a series of promises of the coming of Christ. This was an allegorical reading Talmudists found perverse. Blake read Milton as an allegory, though one the original author himself had not intended – or not consciously, anyway. (Can you intend something unconsciously? Is that not a little like intending something unintentionally? Freud reckoned you could, as we shall see in the next paragraph.) Now Blake spoke disparagingly of allegory, always contrasting it with vision, which seems closer to our symbolism. And yet he constantly engages in what we might normally call allegorical readings. For him Satan in Paradise Lost is the hero of energy, thrusting against the frigid and delimiting power of reason. Blake read the Bible as if it were allegory too; or in his own terminology, a visionary text to be understood as such by any visionary reader who has not succumbed to the Spectre. Once again we have energy versus reason; fulfilment versus law; the centrifugal force of imagination ever pressing outwards, while the centripetal force of ratiocination and law-making repression attempts to draw a circle round it and shrink or delimit its power. Life forces versus death forces.
Freud read both Oedipus Rex and Hamlet as allegories of a universal conflict between infantile desire and familial and social inhibition. This is an allegory in which the unconscious is dictating the text in such a manner that it gets certain crucial meanings past the censor, raising a number of important questions regarding what we mean by writing, and how conscious that process is. Here we appear to be faced with an intentionality which is unintentional as far as the conscious ego is concerned. Wallace Stevens often said that in poetry the imagination needs to outrun the intelligence, if only just. Imagination here might be Blake’s energy; it is the force that outwits the superego. The writing of the allegory, it would appear, is being prompted by the unconscious, and permitted by ego and superego, neither of which would permit the same subject matter to be treated overtly or ‘realistically’. Freud’s unconscious is evidently choosy about genres. And here we touch upon that transition in Freud’s thought from unbewusst, the adjective signifying the state of being unconscious, to das Unbewusste, the noun signifying the unconscious. When Elizabeth Barrett writes to Robert Browning, early in their relationship, that he has ‘…a habit of very subtle association; so subtle you are probably unconscious of it…’ she is not saying that some agency called the unconscious is swallowing his awareness, unbeknownst to him. She is saying that he has a habit of mind and work, of making multitudinous connections, of which he himself is not necessarily overtly conscious while he actually writes.
Freud allegorises the functions of the psyche. Whether in his economic, his topographical or his structural model, he presents different agencies as commanding different planes of activity. The ego, in its prouder days the captain of the soul, now tries to hold sway as best it can amidst a sea of troubles. This is the area where the unconscious must come to consciousness if it is to be known and analysed at all. Meanwhile the superego keeps delivering the riot act, laying down the law. The id acknowledges neither time nor constraint, but only desire, however perverse such desire might be deemed to be by the powers focused in the superego. The forces of repression cast out of the arena of the ego those dark urgings of the id which the superego cannot tolerate if it is to stay in business, the civilizational business, and these are then cast into the unconscious, there to foment until some of them launch commando raids into conscious life in the form of the return of the repressed.
We should be clear about something here, significant in terms of writing. The unconscious in Freud is a cryptographer. Sophocles imagines he is writing plaintext, as cryptanalists call it, but actually, according to Freud, he is encoding cyphertext. This way the unconscious can express its Oedipal desires without alerting the police agency of the superego. The superego is evidently kept in the dark about the real content, the incestuous and murderous allegory, as is the conscious ego. It is as though William Cecil and Francis Walsingham have hunted through the suspect epistles in the offices of state, but spotted nothing; a new Jesuit codemaster fresh from Rheims has managed to outwit the pair of them. Until, that is, Freud comes along and, with his psychoanalytic insights, discovers the secret of the age-old cypher. Oedipus has enacted a universal wish by killing the father and sleeping with the mother. This desire has been hidden away in the unconscious for all this time, and only now, two and a half millennia after the writing of the play, has cyphertext finally yielded up its meaning into plaintext. The allegory has been detected; the secret message of encoded illegal desire has been revealed at last. The criminal can be exposed to daylight, finally, and it is every single one of us, blinking with incredulity at the obscene circus being performed each night on our own psychic premises. There is a problem here, as Wittgenstein noted: how precisely can the unconscious manage to function as an autonomous agency? Who is actually speaking when it speaks?
Not only does Freud start to read certain great works of art as allegories, he creates his own allegory, in the form of the dream dance of the human psyche, which vanishes at dawn, like Hamlet’s father, or a vampire making for his pinewood coffin. Prosopopeia or personification is one of the indispensable devices of allegory, which produces narratives out of metaphoric displacements and the concretisation of abstractions, drives, urges. If mythic identity intensifies and condenses as metaphor, the drama of allegorical action enacts a sequence of metonymic displacements. Just as in a medieval allegory the knight rides away to confront personified evil, in the form of a bad king who imprisons and hides in his castle a personification of good in the form of the alienated princess, so Freud gives us these personifications of the conflicting regions of the psyche: id, ego, superego. They are engaged in a civil war without any foreseeable ending in the kingdom of the psyche. They must cohabit, but they do so with a bad grace which in the case of the neurotic ends in illness; in the case of the psychotic it ends in murder and madness. That is the message the alienist from Vienna delivered.
ETYMOLOGICALLY, THE WORD comes from the Latin ventriloquus, from venter (belly) and loqui, speak. Speaking from the belly, or in the belly. This is really a matter of technique, for that theatrical business sometimes known as voice-throwing. For our purposes, the term is wider, and it means something remarkably similar to either allegory or parable, since it means speaking otherwise. Expressing another identity than the one assigned to you by what has been called interpellation, which is to say, finding yourself in the interstices of the great web of a linguistic community. You are given your name, and are named by it, before you can utter the word. Speaking otherwise is a kind of escape from this, but then the therianthropic figure on the cave wall had perhaps already found a way of being not entirely entrapped in the condition of singular humanity. Another way of making the self other is to have a piece of wood talk to you, often infused with what seems to be something like demonic intelligence..
So in the wider sense being used here, ventriloquism is a term for one identity speaking through any other. At the very end of this tradition, no more than its vestigial trace, the vent sits with the figure on his knee. The vent gives his voice to the piece of wood, and the piece of wood then appears to take on an identity of its own. This process was known to Marx as commodity fetishism: the created object appears to be autonomous, independent of its own creator. It had a concomitant as far as Marx was concerned: reification. Here the actual relations between people appeared ossified as thing-like and immutable. History presented itself in the guise of nature, which is one of the ways in which myth often hides its human origin. The more real the puppet becomes, the more shadowy the ventriloquist must appear. The legendary British vent Arthur Worseley never spoke at all. His figure did all the talking for him, and at one point confided to the audience: ‘All vents go nuts in the end, you know. He thinks I’m real. Don’t you, my son?’ Here the unreal, the ventriloquized, is the only figure potent enough to diagnose the full extent of its own unreality.
When Moses chisels the laws on stone, or when (according to tradition) he writes the Pentateuch, he is taking dictation. It is not his voice we are listening to, but the Almighty’s, whose intonations he does his best to capture in lapidary style. He is being ventriloquized, however willingly. He is God’s secretary and amanuensis, like one of Milton’s daughters, copying the words of the greater figure uttering them. I am that I am, he repeats.
We might note here the passage from daimon to demon in our culture; it is a passage from the preternatural as opportunity to expand perception, if hazardously, indeed sometimes lethally, to the preternatural as degradation and possession in an entirely negative sense. The Sybil was possessed and provided answers sought by pilgrims for their questions; the demonically possessed can provide answers only to trained inquisitors, and that frequently under torture. Here we might note some curious parallels. The exorcist’s task is to get to the true voicing, and get it to admit (despite itself) to being a demon, not merely the paltry human frame it has inhabited. This is the task of the inquisitor. Your behaviour, which has come to our attention, leads us to believe that you are not letting on as to what it is that is actually going on inside you, particularly on the midnight of the sabbath. And this process has its secular equivalent in the forensic process of prosecution in a court of law. The aim is to stop the villain ventriloquizing innocence; to entrap the authentic voice of guilt into confessing itself. Torture has frequently been used to facilitate this process too, and in many parts of the world it still is. The words of Elizabethan indictment can be heard to resonate: the imposture by which one pretends to be other; the cozenage by which many are convinced; the daubing of the exterior with a plausible but duplicitous appearance, so that the true interior remains undetected. A whited sepulchre, in short. All this could be brought into the light of day whenever ‘the conscience was scraped’.
THE MIRROR NEURONS, if we accept the latest interpretation of their agency, seem to present us with an opportunity to escape our psyches, or at least to permit a multiple occupancy of them. Thus do we engage in mimicry, mimesis and ventriloquism. Thus do we, chameleon-like, take on the colour of our surroundings, if only for the sake of survival. And realising that one being can stand in for another, as the (perhaps) shamanic figure on the caves of the Upper Palaeolithic has become an antlered beast, we also register the world of representation. If this can be that, then the world of representation called art has now been inaugurated, as has the world of symbolic logic. If I can be a reindeer or a snake in a shamanistic dance, then the rudiments of allegory are being articulated. One species can ventriloquize another. This can not only be that, but be it so convincingly, that torture might be called upon to separate the two once more into discrete identities. If they have been fused for long enough, such separation may no longer be possible. In the British film Dead of Night, the ventriloquist played by Michael Redgrave has so merged his own psychic energies with those of his puppet that at the end they fuse irrevocably into an irreparable psychic unity, as the identity of Norman Bates fuses into the maternal superego at the end of Psycho.
We are fascinated by spies, as our books and our films testify. The agent and in particular the double-agent engage our minds so much because of the way in which mimicry and ventriloquism here cease to be a matter of mere material agency, and appear to become instead a matter of spiritual reality. Which side is the double-agent really on? The answer is frequently: both. It all depends on the state of play, the flow of money, the present location and lover, the latest interlocutor. The two identities are permanently ghost-dancing one with another. And as Yeats put it, ‘How can we tell the dancer from the dance?’ Mr Verloc in Conrad’s The Secret Agent, the first full-blooded version of this genre, is effectively a different human being, depending on which room he happens to be sitting in at any particular time.
One conclusion we might draw from all this is that the human psyche appears to find it difficult to be inhabited with any tranquillity by a single stable identity or agency; perhaps the pay-off for the extraordinary evolutionary success of our mimetic facility, or the obverse of those advantageous mirror neurons and the mimicry they give rise to, is a chronic dissatisfaction with any unitary and tranquil occupancy of the psychic domicile. Freud fragments our psychological identity into ego, superego and id, and shows how these forces ventriloquize one another, often with catastrophic effects. Most of Freud’s discrete agencies within the psyche are mimics, ventriloquists, and frequently double-agents. The arena in which they act out their conflicts and desires, often when the lights have gone down and the subject stares only into his own dark auditorium, presents us with a theatricality of possession and exorcism. One only has to think of Lady Macbeth sleepwalking. Now her guilt can finally utter itself, once the control of the conscious ego has finally been suspended. Out on the heath in King Lear, with all social laws suspended, Mad Tom becomes a legion of demonic spirits bespeaking themselves without let or hindrance .
Ego (character’s citadel) and its escape routes.
HAMLET, IMMEDIATELY AFTER his meeting with the Ghost, splits himself in two; he ventriloquizes himself into his own antic disposition. Thus does he acknowledge that – with the new and terrible knowledge he has just acquired – he cannot inhabit only the one psyche any more; certainly not the one expected of him. There is not enough space in there to accommodate the disparate voicings now making themselves heard. So like an amoeba he splits into two. He now becomes his own Fool, a character not provided for in the Dramatis Personae. There are buffoons here, such as Polonius and Osric, but no Fool like the one in Lear, who is ‘all-licensed’ to ridicule the status quo. It is immediately after the ghostly meeting too that he writes in the play for the first time: ‘My tables. Meet it is I set it down.’ And yet what he sets down is utterly trite. He reminds himself that one may smile and smile and be a villain. And a moment later his revelation appears equally banal when in answer to Horatio’s urgent inquiries as to what it was the Ghost imparted, he replies that there’s ne’er a villain living in all Denmark but he’s an arrant knave. Horatio, sensible as always, replies: ‘There needs no ghost, my lord, come from the grave to tell us this.’ Horatio, unrelenting rationalist that he is, is missing the burden of the play’s turning-point here. Language is now fracturing. All common usage is under suspicion. Hamlet has begun his impersonations. He even learns how to impersonate himself, and only gives this up entirely in the soliloquies.
Some happenings exceed the terms of representation. The Weird Sisters in Macbeth perform a deed without a name; their preternatural palavers lie beyond the community of language. The Ghost says he could a tale unfold ‘whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul’. He doesn’t though, and at the end Hamlet himself indicates that his story has never been told either: ‘O, I could tell you…’ but this fell sergeant Death has already finished his paperwork, and it’s time to be off. Since the entry of the Ghost into his psyche, there is in fact no conventional language in which Hamlet can speak meaningfully to others, so he speaks mostly to himself instead. The soliloquies here are unprecedented in world literature, and they are the effect of the Prince’s ricochet from the possibilities of any social intercourse which might permit the utterance of such truths as he has been witnessing. From now on he mocks all social pieties: Polonius’s elder statesman routine, Ophelia’s love-and-marriage prospects, even Laertes’ rhetorical effusion of grief at his sister’s graveside. The Prince is having none of it. Instead he deepens the grand vault of consciousness inside himself, and this he vocalises authentically, mostly to himself, alone on stage. Beyond that he treats the world to his antic disposition. In other words, since what he finds in the world is grotesque, he provides it with a grinning gargoyle face to suit its wretched purposes.
It is the word ‘antic’ that should alert us. It derives from that antike which became antique in one lineage, while becoming antic in the other. Grotesque behaviour, of the sort Hamlet engages in when he puts his antic disposition on, was a form of the grotesque, derived from the word grotto, and the recent discoveries of the lurid sculptures inside and outside them in some late Roman sites. It was appropriate to the bizarreries which Hamlet starts to contrive for those all around him. The whole theatre of the Danish court is nothing but a show anyway, so why not add one’s own garish spectacle?
Hamlet here does something remarkably similar to Yeats, in his creation of the self and the anti-self, though without Yeats’ evident relish for the procedure. And we might remind ourselves about a few things that were going on at the beginning of the twentieth century, in the world of art and literature. This was the first period of reception of Freud’s work. T. S. Eliot annnounced that the function of art was not the celebration of personality, but the necessity of escape from it. Ezra Pound discovered his true energies when he wrote Homage to Sextus Propertius, in which he ventriloquizes the ancient poet, lending him a modern voice in which he might reincarnate himself. Eliot too in The Waste Land falls back on an ancient voice: that of Tiresias, who is brought to contemporary London so that he might ‘view’ in his blindness what in modernity he has already viewed in antiquity. James Joyce discovers that if he is to write great rather than merely brilliant literature, he needs to escape the consciousness of his alter ego, Stephen Dedalus. By creating Bloom and then H. C. Earwicker, he flees the confines of his own defining ego and his own experience. Who, after all, would want voluntarily to remain inside them, if an escape route were available? Eliot’s accounts of the experience of the conscious ego in his early poems is usually a description of unrelieved mental agony.
What Freud’s work had shown was that the greatest energies of the human psyche lay outside the realm of the conscious ego, and tend to be distorted and repressed by the alliance between ego and superego, when they are exerting the full powers of their entente cordiale. If we could get into the unconscious realms and explore them, said the Surrealists, then we might be on to something. Freud could never bring himself to approve of the Surrealists; they seemed altogether too cheerful at the prospect of entering the unconscious, like cavers with spotlights and cameras. André Breton managed a meeting, but found it very disappointing. Freud himself often seems appalled at what he had been discovering, and certainly was in no mood to celebrate. When he encountered Salvador Dali he felt he had at last come face to face with bona fide Iberian lunacy. But they could agree on this one thing, Freud and the Surrealists, perhaps the only point of agreement between them: the ego likes to pretend to itself that it represents the main site of psychic activity, the ground zero of psychic energy, but it is wrong. If you want to discover the real cauldron of energy, you are going to have to devise a means of getting beyond the conscious, rational, controlling personality, either as analyst or as artist. You are going to have to leave the city square and the library, and head for Nighttown. Which is precisely what Joyce has his characters do in Ulysses.
Blake was here a curious precursor. Reason is constantly portrayed in his writing as the circumference placed around energy, its perimeter fence. It is the ligature of character and personality which church and state connive to impose upon the eternal delight which energy represents, when it is allowed to function untrammelled. Blake reads the Bible, Shakespeare and Milton allegorically, but then he reads the streets of London allegorically too. He can do this because he has a universal vision in which energy and the forces of law, repression and retribution are endlessly fighting it out between them.
There might be a possible confusion of usage we need to address. Allegory is here being used as a means of reading otherwise, speaking otherwise, leading to the possibility of living otherwise, while always accepting that no representation ever grows seamlessly and organically from the flashpoint of its own signification. For Blake it was a negative word; he shared that sense of it with his contemporary Coleridge. Both think of it as something mechanical, cerebral, over-intellectualised, not natural enough. Blake is explicit: ‘Allegories are things that Relate to Moral Virtues. Moral Virtues do not Exist; they are Allegories and dissimulations.’ Allegory for Blake represents literary or spiritual inauthenticity: ‘The Last Judgement is not Fable or Allegory, but Vision…’
Blake understood with remarkable proleptic powers how the division of the psyche leads to mental entrapments, and the squandering of the greatest psychic energies. What he called the Spectre is the fate of a rationalistic selfhood which comes to feed only upon itself. This form of reason is not reasonable; it exerts a more and more terrifying power until it consumes itself. Chesterton used to say that the phrase ‘He has lost his reason’ is an unfortunate one, since the case is often the contrary: the person concerned has lost everything else, human contact, warmth, affection, but reason now whirrs away like a mighty machine obeying its own rules. This vision of untrammelled reason seems to be remarkably like Blake’s. This is the reason with which we calculate the profit that might be made from global warming; the new possibilities being opened up for mineral mining and oil-drilling in the Arctic. This is the reason that celebrates every expanding line of zeroes, without noticing the vacancy at the heart of each one.
Heading for the Present.
ALTHOUGH OUR OWN skin is a matter of sufficient pride and provocation to have a whole set of industries devoted to its vivid display and renovation, we spent much time in prehistory and history wearing the skins of other creatures. This is not merely the practical matter of letting what’s left of the bear keep us warm in winter, since we’ve already killed him anyway. Nor is it merely the fashion display of the mink coat or the foxfur stole. We have climbed into the skin of animals so as to assume their power, in rituals that locate us inside a sacred space of uncanny interaction. The shaman in a snake headdress summons the necessary rain. This is visual ventriloquism. As for the verbal sort, well that has been used not merely to tempt birds into our nets, but also to summon the gods into our minds and scriptures. We have ventriloquized the god’s voice, since he has always needed us, if only as an instrument through which to speak. On the one side, we impersonate the animal powers, thus taking on their uncanny instincts. On the other, we articulate the voice of the god, speaking through the Sybil or the priest. Either way, we exit the confinements of the single human psyche. We might manage to be, blessedly or otherwise, out of our minds for the duration. Through mimicry we hope to achieve transcendence.
The discontents of which Freud spoke as the concomitant of civilization constitute confinement within the parameters of the ego. Denied the free expression of instincts, we endure repression in order to construct bridges, churches and aeroplanes. A brief respite from such singular imprisonment is ecstatic trance, the visions achieved when consciousness escapes confinement. At the top of the brain stem we have some ancient configurations that go back a long way in biological history. Is it possible that we still have the ghost of primeval memories, memories of what it once meant to have a consciousness that was unconstrained by repression, individual or social? When we ventriloquise either the animal or the god might we be craving a union with nature that was once ours? Now instead we have separated ourselves from nature, in order to achieve mastery over it. We have conquered the forces in our world, at the price of our own alienation, and that alienation is a form of solitary confinement in the psyche. We want out, and one way out is the egoless transport of ecstasy, whether its form is animal or divine.
All we tend to see are the vestiges of these traditions. The ventriloquist with the figure on his knee is one. It is too seldom pointed out how the vent’s dummy is always brighter than the vent himself: his function is to outwit the human. Such ventriloquism is blatant; less so is the actor becoming through voice, gesture and body someone else even as we watch. We notice how the actor playing Hamlet becomes an actor self-consciously playing the self he is simultaneously putting into question and suspension. We have a tendency to find Hamlet at the heart of our modern theatrical tradition, but perhaps that place should be shared with Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After all, he becomes a therianthrope through enchantment, and in consequence dreams a dream so transcendent that there are no words to express it. His name is a pun, for the word ‘profound’ comes from pro and fundum, and the fundum is the bottom. He dreams a dream that has no bottom; he makes a note to himself that someone needs to put it into poetry, this depth beyond depths.
The therianthrope is an expression of doubleness in our nature, and of the animal rooting of our intelligence. Picasso recreated the minotaur for our times. He becomes a creature baffled by his own passion, imprisoned by his circumstances. In engraving after engraving, the artist pursued this child of unholy lust, this monster who had come from the miscegenation of two species. He believed this was the condition of man. And then there is Marsyas, the satyr, a therianthropic fusing of man and goat, who starts to play the flute as beautifully as Apollo can play the harp. The animal is competing with the god, and so the god contrives a terrible punishment: he is to be skinned alive, reminding him what finally tends to happen to animals, however elevated their spirits might become. The god is giving him a ‘dressing down’ – the first meaning of which was a butcher’s initial hacking into the carcass.
It is the minotaur’s fate to become the trophy of Theseus, as Marsyas becomes the trophy of Apollo. They both ultimately fail in taking on the attributes of another species, whether human or divine. They are doomed therianthropes; stuck in the middle between competing powers. We are entitled to regard the ventriloquist’s dummy as an externalisation of our own gift for mimicry. Here mimesis triumphs, and we can note that in the mimesis of art, we turn into play those attributes which were originally the condition of survival. Though Plato tends to regard mimesis as a reflection and an unnecessary one, a deviation from the pursuit of the truth, Aristotle regards it more as a form of work, a productive endeavour constitutive of human identity, formative endeavour more than empty echo.
In allegory the therianthrope owns up to his assumption of a double nature. The man in the headdress on the Palaeolithic cave wall steps down for a moment and shows us how the headdress was made; from the remains of which animal. What Coleridge meant by the mechanical quality of allegory is the fact that it owns up to its own manufacture. It admits that the headdress only works when there is a man inside it, conducting the ritual. In the artistic tradition, allegory is said for all serious purposes to have pretty much disappeared in the late Romantic period. Visually it has its epitaph in Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People of 1830, though it continues obliviously in the academic paintings of the salon, and has a curious twilight life later on in the symbolists. And yet we can argue that it doesn’t disappear so much as find itself internalized, or even introjected. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is an allegorical re-mapping of the interior of the psyche, as is The Picture of Dorian Gray. So too is Freud’s new mental topography. This psychomachia is battled out by agencies as potent as self and soul had ever been, centuries before: ego, superego, id. Now mimesis has been taken over by the manoeuvres of identification, representing various forms of psychic cannibalism. And the figure on the vent’s knee would have to be discussed in terms of projection. Though once again the dialectical complexities of the situation require some talk of the death drive, destrudo or mortido, which Freud tried to negotiate in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, his post-war meditation on the significance of human destructiveness on an apocalyptic scale. Destrudo and Mortido would be good, if Latinate, names for the ventriloquist’s figure, which more often functions as a psychic assassin than a moral prop.
And as for the role of Satan in our allegorical scheme, he has been swallowed whole only to be vomited back up again, out of the depths of the psychological interior; Hyde is a Satan who had been lurking all the while within the good doctor Jekyll’s psychic shadow. The right chemical mixture springs him from his narcolepsy. He jumps right back out of the ventriloquist’s belly finally, not merely as a voice, but a body too, like the creature appearing from the chest of John Hurt in Alien.
THE INTERNALIZATION OF allegory could be presaged by an exploration of ‘the double’ in semi-allegorical form. Certain figures are presented to us as twins of some sort, and we find ourselves asking if they are really psychic rather than physical or sexual twins, psychological alterities departmentalised diegetically into separate bodies. Geraldine and Christabel in Coleridge’s poem share the same bed. Geraldine, it transpires, is therianthropic, being at least partially serpentine. She has that much in common then with Lamia in Keats’s eponymous poem. The latter is not so much therianthropic as one species masquerading as another, or vividly transmuting into it, as happens so often in Ovid. Her identification by Apollonius ends the masquerade, unweaves the rainbow, leaving reason triumphant and everyone except the philosopher utterly miserable. Lizzie and Laura in Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ share the same bed, and come out of the same womb, and seem more like one psyche divided between addiction and sobriety than two sisters divided merely by a moral habitus.
When allegory returns, blinking into the light of day, in the twentieth century, it does so in a newly problematized form. Kafka writes an allegory minus any guaranteed referents. The mode of his writing seems clearly allegorical, but the key has been misplaced somewhere in the fragmented interstices of modernity; which is another way of saying that there is no key. And the same is true visually of Picasso’s Guernica. If we ask of it specific allegorical questions, what does the bull represent, what does the bulb represent, we soon find ourselves cut loose from any anchorage in codified and guaranteed meaning. This makes the work more not less effective. We can no longer allegorise as we once did. The urge continues, but the epistemological underpinning was demolished sometime between 1848 and 1918. The allegory now is a text searching for a philosophy to explicate it; a riddle that introduces us to riddling, but can indicate no way of concluding the activity, or exiting the labyrinth of clues.
The worst possible approach to allegory would be to imagine that we construct a uni-planar narrative and then add different layers of meaning to it; the spiritual; the moral; the eschatological, etc. That is not the way allegory works. Allegory is an embodiment of a multi-layered, polysemous world, which exhibits different levels or aspects of being in the multiple possibilities of its text. It is an expression of the Doctrine of Signatures, and that Doctrine’s sister, the Great Chain of Being. Both of these modes of seeing find manifolds of meaning in every inch and every moment of the universe. Such a world of multiple significance finds alien what modern linguists call ‘lexical priming’, where one word is privileged with a single meaning, which then excludes others. In the allegorical world, words have different meanings, which need not be mutually exclusive; they can instead be complementary, even if on the surface they appear to be contradictory. This was part of William Empson’s argument regarding ambiguity in Seven Types of Ambiguity. Modern physics had discovered a fundamental ambiguity at the heart of nature in the form of wave/particle duality. Literary texts could embody equally potent ambiguities, so the act of reading a play like Measure for Measure ceased to be a question of either/or, and became instead one of both/and. The mind of Angelo, wearing the regalia of power and religion as a mask for lust, confronts the piety of Isabella, provocatively taunting the ethos of puritan denial with her advertised virginity. They can be seen as two hemispheres forming one world. They belong together; they need one another. Neither can exist for long without the other.
When Haeckel formulated the notion that individual lives recapitulate the life of the species, that the ontogenetic recapitulates the phylogenetic, he was recovering the older dialectic of the microcosm and the macrocosm, two different planes of meaning which echo and reflect one another. Freud employed this notion to the end of his life, though it is a way of thinking abandoned by modern biology. But then Freud’s whole world view was based on polysemous utterance, and polysemous psychic tracings. His reading of Oedipus, after all, is that in restricting ourselves to the single manifest meaning for so long, we had been missing the allegory of infantile desire and social repression which is the hidden, reverse meaning to the obverse and evident one; and where exactly can the lexical priming be said to operate here? Lexical priming would be the work of the censor, or that of Bishop Sprat wishing to expunge all figurative language from the lexicon. Obverse and reverse are not separate and sequential alternatives; they are two sides of the same sheet of paper. They arrive simultaneously.
But in a manoeuvre which would surely have brought the Irish Bishop up short, modern physics moved out of the uni-planar world of meaning he adumbrated, when it discovered complementarity, or wave/particle duality. Sprat had thought that all meaning could be singular and uni-planar, if only it could rid itself of decorative distractions, in the form of ‘the poetic’; that lexical priming could be the order of the day for all rigorous scientific thought, that figurative language, with its additional and supererogatory layers of meaning, could be definitively excised. But the realisation that light could be seen in one mode of observation and measurement as particle, and in another as wave, meant that the very facts of nature must be perceived as inherently polysemous. In which case, the allegorical world might contain a greater truth than positivism could ever have imagined.
When Baudelaire formulates his notion of correspondences, and employs the synaesthetic results of these transcendent colloquies between categories in his verse, he is rediscovering in modernity the multiplicities afforded by the allegorical vision. And if nature is multiple, then what of human nature? Is our notion of the singular self inhabiting the unitary psyche not as positivistic in its way as the notion that all energy can be transmitted either as particle or as wave, but never as both simultaneously? Why should the process of selving always issue in a singular identity? Why cannot the process issue in selves, rather than a self? When the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa finally ‘selved’, four primary poetic identities came out. There were to be many others.
We can all end up with selves, of course, but we tend to treat the matter as one of psychopathology. The word schizophrenia signifies a splitting of the psychic energy and identity into multiples and manifolds. We have to study hard to achieve and maintain a singular psychic identity. Much of that lengthy period of exosomatic inculturation during our childhood is devoted to using all our notable gifts for mimesis and mimicry in order to become one single personality. We copy ourselves into being, both linguistically and culturally. We have to study hard to become the human singularity. But we are constantly assailed by the temptations of unconfined variety. The loss of that singular identity can be categorised medically, schizophrenia being one such designation. But it can also be celebrated, as it is in various forms of religious devotion and ecstasy; in our many mutating versions of the shamanic trance; in various forms of glossolalia; or simply in our notion of reformation. He is a reformed character, we say, meaning that the psychic shape and formation that went before have now been re-mapped, and the revised psychic profile should be applauded. Basic training in the armed forces re-shapes someone’s instincts, drives and responses, so as to re-configure the individual into an efficient agent of self-defence and aggression. At a push, it can all be done in six weeks. Sixteen years of pre-formation can be radically revised by six weeks of reformation. We are made of mutable stuff, and we remember that when the Sybil used to throw out leaves on which were written the message from Apollo, in answer to the pilgrim’s various questions, the letters on each individual leaf had to be assembled into the right words in the right order. Some even blew away in the wind. The messages that come to us from the mightiest powers need not be unambiguous. They can be construed as multiples of possibility.
WHEN THE VENTRILOQUIST ventriloquizes he does not simply effect a reflection of himself; instead he engages in a dialectical relationship with his own protean identity, and his own language use. The voice of the figure is always distinct from that of the vent. But more intriguingly, the identity of the figure becomes radically disjunct from that of its apparent initiator. Apollo loses control of the words being assembled in his name by the wooden Sybil on his knee. The model for dialogue between vent and figure is not that between master and disciple so much as the separate voices in Marvell’s dialogue poems, where the progress of the argument increases the gulf between two identities defining themselves in counterposition, one to another. The different voicings may have had their origin in one being – the body and the soul being one of its variants – but they become aspectival, contrary, at times multiple in their possibilities, like allegories, which might be similitudes, but can never be simply translated into equations.
Certain figures haunt the modern imagination. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, obviously. Yet despite the chemical inducement, Hyde is there as a fully-formed alternative to Jekyll; he simply needs to be released from his socially inhibited host. This psychic alterity is also a register of psychic multiplicity. Here civilisation rids itself of its discontents by abolishing the constraints that make it possible in the first place. The Picture of Dorian Gray is another example; the charmer whose dark identity can be assigned to a painting and a locked room. The room containing the painting is parallel to Bluebeard’s special chamber, where he hides the past, the true past, the murderous past, the past that – if revealed – can only mean the death of the present. The earliest self-portraits we own up to are still to be seen on the cave walls of the Upper Palaeolithic, and there we appear to have at least two identities. We are therianthropes, pointing in two directions at once, towards two different species. So it seems that we saw ourselves from the beginning allegorically and as multiple identities, and continued to shape our therianthropic possibilities as minotaurs or centaurs, sphinxes or lycanthropes. After his early phase, all of Picasso’s most compelling self-portraits are minotaurs. His iconography indicates that he felt his power and his torment could not be entirely contained in that single word ‘human’. But then the word is surely therianthropic anyway. What Darwin explained was that the animal from which we grew is still here: every time we smile we are being therianthropic. The expression, according to him, is a vestige of a baring of the teeth in aggressive warning to show that the flesh of an opponent will soon be bitten and torn.
Empson, in his famous discovery of the extent of ambiguity in poetry and drama, was discovering that there is in effect no ultimate hierarchy of meaning, no lexical priming; all meanings are primary. It is a question not of which is generated first, but only of which is accessed first; to which we assign priority to at any particular moment. Light arrives as a particle, but leaves as a wave. Lexical priming is a self-imposed limitation, even if it might well appear in the guise of a necessary prioritisation, or disambiguation. Nature itself, modern physics informs us, has ambiguity built into its inner structure; it is neither univocal, nor disambiguated, but polysemous, polyvalent, multi-planar.
YEATS CONTINUED MARVELL’S tradition of dialogue poems, and formulated his notion of antinomies, and also of self and anti-self. This is another way of saying that identity itself consists of process rather than the achievement and expression of a fixed quantity. Our psychic energy is delivered by an alternating current; this is dialectics brought alive, as we see whenever we watch a skilful ventriloquist animate his figure, or when we see Shakespeare make a contrived psyche appear unquestionably real by uttering its authentic soliloquy. And Robert Browning’s realisation as a poet that identity is to be discovered and explored in alterity had preceded Yeats’s by decades. Why adopt a persona? Why become someone else? Because the motivation and therefore characterization of that created other might be more coherent than attempting to characterize ourselves from within; we constitute an incoherent region at the best of times, even though we insist we are situated in the centre of the combat zone known as human identity.
Niels Bohr often repeated this discovery: that the opposite of a fact is a falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth. Light is both particle and wave. Freud became intrigued by the way certain words embody their opposites: cleave is one example. We cleave something in two, and yet when a man marries a woman he should, according to the Bible, leave mother and father and cleave unto her. It is as though one meaning gains its intensity from the echo contained in its opposite. We see light only in contrast to darkness, after all. Two words Freud did not examine, but might well have done, were anathema and its doublet: anathemata. These curious words going back to the Greek idea of setting something apart, making something sacred, then take on the notion of an object or person set apart in a different way, something accursed. The ambiguity seems to reach its plenitude in Tucker’s Light of Nature: ‘Saint Paul wished to become anathema himself, so he could thereby save his brethren.’ This is a theme explored with characteristically vivid brilliance by Borges in his story ‘Three Versions of Judas’. There Nils Runeberg comes to understand that the key to salvation was not Jesus so much as Judas; that the great traitor had taken on the ultimate burden of darkness in which humanity was mired; and that it was he who was therefore the true salvific agent. Milton, we might remind ourselves, ventriloquized Satan into life in Paradise Lost, but he failed to do the same with God, who remained a lifeless and sententious abstraction, despite being allowed to laugh three times. Milton found what Yeats would have called his anti-self in the demonic figure, not in the divine one. Prosopopeia is choosy regarding its incarnations.
THE VENT’S FIGURE is frequently, if not exactly demonic, then certainly daimonic. The daimon in Greek thought was a divine spirit, whose collaboration means success, and whose antagonism means inevitable failure. Heraclitus internalized this force by announcing that an individual’s character is what is meant by his daimon. Destiny is character; fate is inscribed throughout your own psyche, but it may not necessarily be under the conscious ego’s constant control. All successful ventriloquists operate figures who are contrarian, who oppose the will and the interpretations of the vent. They put the old man right, with something approaching gleeful malice. And yet what is most curious about the ventriloquist’s figure is that it is not a mere amplification or spilling over of the unitary identity of the ventriloquist. It always sets itself up psychically in opposition to the source of its own original voicing. It takes delight in goading that spirit. It takes the animating force, and grins as it turns the anima into animus. It is in Yeats’s sense an anti-self. There is a parallel here: the voicing of the parodist, turning the original words into a mockery of themselves, even a potent self-criticism. Charles Dodgson, the stuttering mathematics don of Christchurch College, Oxford, behaves like the most fluent literary ventriloquist, who constructs for himself a figure, and he gives this figure the name Lewis Carroll.
The inhibitions and repressions of the vent are now metamorphosed into the fluently acid repartee of the dummy. The figure comes to life and creates an allegorical circus of Victorian society, a surrealist inferno of absurdities. It is, we might remark, a skittish inferno since, as in a Tex Avery cartoon, no one ever dies, however dire the circumstances that crush them. The Queen might continually call for a subject’s head to be removed, but all the heads nonetheless remain in place, and that fact registers a distance between being monarch in Queen Elizabeth’s time and being the same in Victorian England. (We might also note that Dodgson, though a permanent deacon of the Anglican Church, did not actually believe in hell. He wisely kept quiet about it.) Carroll is now endowed with a daimonic, if not exactly demonic, force never recorded in regard to any of Dodgson’s own activities in or out of college. He also becomes one of the most lethal parodists who has ever lived, taking Wordsworth’s verses on the leech gatherer from ‘Resolution and Independence’ and subverting them with the sort of forensic exactitude, of both tone and phrasing, which the figure all too often directs back at the ventriloquist who is his progenitor and present employer. Here is Wordsworth. The old man on the moor has been asked by the poet how someone as old and frail as he makes a living in such difficult circumstances. This is his reply:
He told that, to these waters he had come
To gather leeches, being old and poor;
Employment hazardous and wearisome!
And he had many hardships to endure:
From pond to pond he roamed, from moor to moor;
Housing, with God’s good help, by choice or chance;
And in this way he gained an honest maintenance.
And here now is the Knight in Through the Looking Glass:
He said “I hunt for haddocks’ eyes
xxAmong the heather bright,
And work them into waistcoat-buttons
xxIn the silent night.
And these I do not sell for gold
xxOr coin of silvery shine,
But for a copper halfpenny,
xxAnd that will purchase nine.”
The text has been turned over, turned inside out, and finds new possibilities for itself. In fact it has been obliged to testify against itself; to become its own anti-self; to switch from defendant to plaintiff. A parody is a sort of allegory, translating the text through ironic manoeuvres into a series of reversals. This procedure is not necessarily hostile, and can indeed be loving. The sacred parodies of Robert Southwell, John Donne and George Herbert borrow the motifs of profane love, in order to celebrate divine communion. This is not far from that multi-planar move from literal narrative to anagogical implication in medieval allegory. In each case we move from one region of meaning to another, while retaining the same personnel and mise-en-scène. The figure and the ventriloquist always share the same space and the same language, but one is anode to the other’s cathode .
What metaphor tells us linguistically, in its unavoidable prevalence, both before Bishop Sprat’s anathemas and after them, is that we cannot rest content trapped inside a single psychic identity, or any uni-planar level of meaning. We seek to find the porosity of borders. Our language insists that it believes in Baudelaire’s correspondences, even when our science flatly denies them. But where metaphor provides us with similitude, however elastic, allegory also provides contradiction and contrariety. Allegory is constantly bearing out Bohr’s observation that the opposite of one great truth may often be its apparent contradiction. When Lear and the Fool exchange their banter in the storm, their dialogue may seem at any instant an instantiation of duality, but it will ultimately turn into a tragic complementarity. Shakespeare’s glossolalia finds a unity by hearing all the dissonant voices in the snake pit, not suppressing them.
Is contradiction reversal? And might reversal be a modality for the revelation of truth? The reversal of circumstances in tragedy is what brings out the truth, where the status quo ante had concealed it. In Aristotle’s terms the natural development, the unimpeded growth of character, would be called entelechy; but what halts that process, diverts it, overturns it, brings about another outcome altogether, is peripeteia. Lear’s life has to be turned inside out, so he leaves the palace and finds himself instead in a hovel on a heath, and then the revelations begin. He finally starts to see through to the truth of things, a truth that was denied him while cosseted by privilege. His palatial protection was a form of asymmetry; a prophylactic against a balanced view. Only by being cast down himself, becoming outcast, can he see the other side of things, the other hemisphere, which kept the privileged sphere in which he lived parenthesized in power and prestige. By turning this whole world through 180 degrees, we now see the underside of life, its symmetric underpinning:
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.
Contra –dictare: to say against; to utter something which, if accepted, negates the statement that precedes it. The Fool endlessly contradicts Lear, but by the end Lear has absorbed those contradictions into his own psyche. Either/or has become both/and. The reversal of the specific situation of the King has established the truth of the whole situation in his kingdom seen globally. The reversal establishes a truth, though it can be a terrible one. The reversal of Gregor Samsa’s situation, from human back to animal, and vermin at that, reveals a terrible truth about the dynamics of human family life, and its necessary economy. Good parodies always supply an element lacking in the original.
Tragedy seems to insist that a situation can be inhabited, but it can never be entirely understood as a structure – moral, psychological, political, economic – until it is reversed. And here there is a startling precedent in ancient myth: the story already mentioned of Marsyas and Apollo. Marsyas finds the flute discarded by the goddess Athena because blowing on it distorts her face and makes her nymphs laugh. She throws it away; the satyr Marsyas picks it up. He then becomes so proficient that he challenges Apollo, the god of music, to a contest. It looks as though he might win, until Apollo pulls a celestial fast one: he reverses his lyre and plays it exquisitely the other way around, commanding Marsyas to do the same with his flute, but this is impossible. The muses deem Apollo the winner, and the punishment is now the god’s to choose. He chooses the most terrible one of all: Marsyas must be flayed alive, inch by inch. So it seems that Marsyas can reverse (briefly) the ordering command of music, but he can never reverse the scheme of cosmic mastery. It is this lethal symmetry that flays Marsyas, the mathematic symmetry of power. When Apollo turns the lyre back to front and still plays it, this demonstrates that his power extends all the way from heaven to hell. This is a power that can be turned inside out and still obtain. In demonstration of the fact, Marsyas shall be turned inside out; he must be flayed alive.
Whenever the ventriloquist’s figure outsmarts the man on whose knee he is sitting, Marsyas is playing his flute once more, and self concedes power momentarily to anti-self. The civil war between our differing psychic identities resumes, to the sound of laughter in the auditorium. Each of us ultimately constitutes an auditorium of our own, as the act of solitary reading proves.
Mode Minus Code.
LET’S SAY THE allegorical impulse continues into modernity, but the idea of a master code against which the allegorical personages and emblems can be correlated has withered almost to vanishing-point. Ontology has become problematical. We are no longer sure there can be any master code for us to check our world of emblems against. So we retain the great quest, together with some mighty questers; we have a dangerous, even desolate, journey for the questers to make. We have enormous hazards and dangers thrown in the way. And we have the obligation, as Bob Dylan once put it, to keep on keeping on like a bird that flew. But the grail itself remains utterly elusive, not merely its whereabouts, or the means for acquiring it, but its very meaning and identity. What would a modern grail be should we ever recover it? Would we find the chalice, having forgotten the ceremony which first bestowed meaning upon it? Does this set of specific confusions, the questing deprived of any ultimate code, in fact conjure up one of the forms of our modern literature?
The allegory abandons external topography and heads inwards to the psyche. Alice heads down below, just as Dante Alighieri did in the Inferno, but we have seen that the Reverend Dodgson did not actually believe in hell, so what we encounter is a place of infernal confusion, without eternal punishment or any truly potent devils. In The Hunting of the Snark the quest is undertaken with all the ceremony of one of the polar missions of Dodgson’s day, but what is the quest? To encounter the Snark. And what is a Snark? Well this one was a Boojum. And that’s it.
In Childe Roland Browning provides us with all the allegorical paraphernalia. A knight, a horse, a wasteland to be crossed, seeming dangers all around, unreliable informants, but what is the goal that is finally to be achieved here? Only the ceaseless journeying over hostile terrain remains to be celebrated. As Thom Gunn once put it, one is always nearer by not keeping still.
In Kafka the law grinds inexorably on, but to no purpose any of the participants can ever perceive. Some are accused, some are arraigned, some alienated, some dispossessed. The law is too distant now for comprehension; it appears infinitely remote in both time and place. Like a midrash which has lost the scriptural text from which it sprouted, or a remnant of rhyming slang which has forgotten the keyword with which it originally chimed, the texts become vestiges, hieroglyphic traces, the sites of ceaseless speculation. Sometimes, they turn into interpretation machines for generating dread; the dread that can fill a reader before a text he cannot decode.
And there is the strategy of James Joyce in Ulysses: the use of fictive parallels. This is not allegory, but it has a certain allegorical resonance. We end up, as Borges put it, reading Homer through Joyce. It would appear that even Joyce came to read Homer through Joyce, since we now know that he added 30% of the Homeric allusions and references during the proof stage of the book. The writing of Ulysses had turned into a form of auto-suggestion for the mythic patternings that represent the text’s ultimate cartography. Thus did the waters of the Aegean finally reach the Liffey.
An Allegorical Future?
WALTER BENJAMIN POSSESSED a picture by Paul Klee. It portrayed an angel with his wings outspread, and a look of horror, or at least dark astonishment, in his eyes. The title of this watercolour was Angelus Novus. So who or what was this new angel? Whatever the artist had intended the image to be, Benjamin lived with it long enough for it to yield intimate meanings to him. Angelus Novus distilled its own allegoric revelations, and Benjamin always claimed that the only potent antidote to melancholy was allegory. For him the angel became the angel of history. He was staring at the accruing mountain of wreckage and detritus that history was heaping before him. He would have turned away but a mighty wind from paradise had caught in his wings and was propelling him backwards into the future. This wind, Benjamin informs us, is what we call progress.
In reading his account of this image, we start to see why Benjamin found allegory so potent. In such an allegorical reading, we bring as much to the interpretation of the significant manifold before us as we take away. We are negotiating a constellation, certainly, but we are also reading the void between the stars. Like that distant man in the cave mouth, inventing art and science in the same instant by perceiving the first recurring cluster of stars, we situate ourselves at the first moment in history, as well as the last. And allegories are never univocal.
Alan Wall was born in Bradford, lives in North Wales, and studied English at Oxford. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester. His book Endtimes has just been published by Shearsman Books, his novel Badmouth will be published by Harbour Books in January, and a collection of his essays is forthcoming from Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review‘s imprint.