The allegorical problem [Robert Hollander]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Robert Hollander

Tratto da: Allegory in Dante's Commedia

Editore: Prineton University Press, Princeton

Anno: 1969

Pagine: 3-14

The subject of the following inquiry - the allegorical theory and practice of Dante's Commedia - is not new. Recently the entire question has tended to become focused in a single continuing controversy concerning Dante's use of the techniques of fourfold Biblical exegesis. Nevertheless, it is also true that the Divine Comedy reflects the four major medieval theories of allegory which themselves reflect one another in complex and often puzzling ways. Insofar as they may be disentangled one from another, these four theories may be described as follows: 1) the personification allegory of a few Christian poets, especially Prudentius and Martianus Capella, which in turn is essentially similar in technique to 2) the medieval allegorical interpretation of Virgil and Ovid. These two theories, the first “creative”, the second critical, are together different in nature from 3) what the grammarians and rhetoricians called allegoria, thus signifying the writer's command of his tropes, his rhetorical embellishment. While all three of these theories show their effects in Dante, it is the contention of this work that of primary importance to the composition of the Divine Comedy is 4) the fourfold exegesis of Scripture.
As has frequently been pointed out, allegory began as a critical tool, as a way of reading, either in the Greek scholiasts' work on the text of Homer or in the textual interpretations of the Hebrew exegetical tradition. These two traditions came together and became sorted out - in ways that have direct bearing on the subject of this studyin the schools of Alexandria in the first century after Christ, especially in the allegorical concord forged by Philo Judaeus (ca. 30 B.C.-A.D. 45) between Judaism and Hellenism during the very years of Christ's life on earth. It is from Philo’s essentially non-historical view of allegory that the first three of the four kinds of allegory enumerated above developed in the Middle Ages.
Almost every Dante commentator since the fourteenth century has read the Divine Comedy as though its essential allegorical principle were that of Prudentius. This tradition of allegory is familiar to us today, because we in the English-speaking countries have been brought up on Spenser and Bunyan, as well as on the dream-vision poems of Chaucer. Thus we, like the literary critics of Dante's own time, often have only a certain kind of meaningful fictiveness in mind when we say, see, or hear the word "allegory". For us, as for those, like Fulgentius, who saw in Virgil's epic only the external trappings of an inner experience, the struggle within an archetypal human soul as it grows from youth to maturity, allegorical poetry is concerned with the concrete primarily as the means of arriving at spiritual abstraction. This tradition of allegory is, in religious terms, the spirit of gnosticism, in which the objects of perception have value only as they lead us toward the ineffable, toward salvation through wisdom as they are clues to the spiritualized, non-tangible, abstract essence of the universe. According to this theory, objects, whether theological or poetical: are the inadequate signs of ideas. Though it sounds much the same, this line of argument is precisely opposite to the Christian argument, which was first advanced in ways that were to become largely influential in the Gospels and in the works of Paul and of Augustine, and which can be grasped under the single text, Incarnation. The gnostic imagination, on the other hand, is predicated on the notion that allegory begins with an idea which is treated as object only to accommodate a weaker human understanding-the sort of humanizing of conceptual truth that is found in Platonic myth, every element of which is "worked out" by the author to correspond with the conceptual framework which necessitates his bitter instruction. There is no actual cave within which men sit in chains, deprived of the light of the sun; there is the allegorical reduction of a conceptual statement, something like: "Men, lacking the intellectual perfection it might be hoped they would possess, are unable to understand the relationship between the shadowy, imperfect presences of the actual world and the clarity of the real." This kind of allegory precludes, or at least supersedes, experience.
Perhaps no specifically Christian poetry - of which the early medieval world can offer few major examples can offer a more typical, charming, and effective example of a nearly pure allegorical imagination than that often referred to (and less often read) work of Pruden ti us, Psychomachia. We should be grateful to Pruden ti us for many reasons, one of which is that in his title he enunciated the approach of every allegorist who was to follow his technique. The title means "The War in the Mind" or “The Struggle for/in the Soul". Works like the Roman de la rose, Chaucer's dream-vision poems, Spenser's epic, and Bunyan's dream-journey - all these owe something to Prudentius (the very name works as a personification of the attributes a Christian poet should possess). In all such works the reader is made to understand that this is not actually: happening; it serves only to represent that. The dream is public and the dreamer is the author, or the dreamer in the fiction, or you the reader. And all such allegories, no matter how densely and beautifully detailed they may be, begin and end with the understanding that they are not at first remove to be confused with actuality; that they are the record of the struggle within one idealized ousl which stands for all Christian souls; that the trappings of external reality stand only and surely for the sacramental spiritual truths in which we must all be instructed. We can see the continuance of this medieval and later literary tradition in some contemporary literature, particularly in Dostoievski and in Kafka. Although it might be difficult to prove that Prudentius' work had a direct influence on so much of later literature (it would seem, however, that no monastery library in the Middle Ages was without its copy), it is easy to understand the contribution that his work made to Christian literature. Since the Christian life was to be understood as having one of its climactic moments in conversion, Prudentius had perfected a literary treatment that allowed such a momentous event (which is, after all, internal) to be displayed externally. In contrast, we might consider the climactic moment of Augustine's Confessions (VIII, xii). It takes less than a page to describe that moment of conversion in the garden. To be sure, this is one of the great moments of Western literature (we shall see that it had a literary as well as a spiritual effect upon Dante): the voice from outside the garden wall cries "Take and read”; Augustine, playing the Christian equivalent of the sortes Virgilianaes, opens to Romans 13:13; and finally he is a Christian. Augustine's life is told as history. A poet attempting to deal with a similar matter, the turning of the soul from sin toward redemption, would have been tempted by the literary in addition to the doctrinal. That temptation, in the case of Prudentius, is the probable cause of the invention or reinvigoration of allegory as a means of describing graphically what occurs within the soul: our mind is a battlefield.
Prudentius' peculiar contribution was to make the war in the mind or soul a fit subject for poetry. A formal contribution, it in turn relies on a technique which is at least as old as fifth-century Athens and which is variously known as personification, philological, or ( appropriately enough) Greek allegory. This technique applies principally to the mode of signifying rather than the method of presenting, and since it is the best known and best understood allegorical technique, should offer little problem in itself. In this study difficulties arise when the role of personification allegory in the Divine Comedy is considered. At the outset I wish to say merely that, although Dante's poem makes certa ain use of this kind of allegory, the technique is basicallr. inimical to his way of writing in the Divine Comedy.
In one tradition of Homeric criticism, which began in the fifth century before Christ, personification allegory came into existence first as an interpretive and critical device (Athena urging Achilles to sheathe his sword in Iliad I was seen by some commentators as the personification of the Wisdom of Achilles temporarily easing his anger-an example of the ommcon role of psychomachia and personification in a literature which precedes Prudentius by a thousand years). The device became an important part of “creative” allegoresis in the myths of Plato. In these myths we see clearly both the great benefits and the great drawbacks of philological allegory. The technique enables a teller to make his point clearly and attractively. At the same time (and in accord with Plato's negative notions of the possibilities of mimesis), it is immediately obvious that an allegorist should not surrender to his subject, should not be caught and drawn by something in the world that offers him the occasion for mimesis, as were Homer and the tragedians. Rather, he must at all times reduce his subject matter to its intellectual framework. These myths are allegorical representations of the abstract truth that a well-trained mind can grasp and pre sent in simple, though often moving, terms. Now, as then, those who work from idea to representation necessarily deal with a more limited form of expression. In order to create, an allegorist must have thought through what he is going to create. What he imitates has no primary life of its own. It is this approach to art which is thoroughly attacked in the aesthetic principles of Aristotle. The Poetics call for an art which, like a living animal, is organic, an art based on imitation rather than on abstract formulation. The Platonic "muse" is the organization of actuality once one has grasped the principles which lie behind it; the Aristotelian "muse" is actuality itself. The first is deductive, the second inductive. Significantly enough, Aristotle does not discuss allegory. He is on the side of the poet, the man who encounters experience as it is, who gives it a form and even possibly a formulation, but who refuses to start from the formulation. R. P. Blackmur's often quoted "Poetry is life at the remove of form and meaning" seems to me to be a thoroughly Aristotelian statement. The Platonist, when he condescends to art, would turn this around: "Art is meaning made decorational in ways that may or may not reflect actual life." The Platonist is not basically interested in the literary question of form because he respects only the philosophical distinctions about form. Thus literary form, for him, is extrinsic. It will be, of necessity, the allegorical form, in which imitation is primarily adjunct to philology rather than to experience.
The rules of any art are both doctrinal and technical. By technical I do not mean to indicate the small rules, but only the major distinctions concerning the methods by which the artist imitates - technical in the way that all sciences of observed behavior must insist on the laws of their techniques of observation. The pole of Platonism is aestheticism - the Pseudo-Longinus' contribution which points to the mystery of beauty itself. Most people would agree that the two essential ingredients of great art are significance and beauty; but theories which seek to institute the rules of either must perforce leave the work of art, and the world which somehow caused it, in order to insist on an ideal significance or an ideal of beauty toward which the given work of art aspires. Both are extrinsic to the first principles of imitatio, though indeed many things which do not imitate are beautiful and significant (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty" is an example which, although it may be neither beautiful nor true, or either one and not the other, happily coincides with the poles of this discussion). Aristotle was the first non-allegorical critic, the first who gave to the poet his right to imitate first and think later, though the thought must guarantee the imitation. He makes us ask the question, "ls Oedipus a true imitation of a man?” Sophocles imitated significantly and beautifully, to be sure. But the significance and beauty of his work depend upon the excellence of his imitation, which is ot sno for the Platonist. At least Plato, unlike his fellows in Homeric criticism, realized that the epics were imitative and not allegorical. He simply does not approve of im tations of imitations. Art is to be taken for walks on the philosopher's leash; it can make no claims of its own because it has no ideal - which is to say real - existence.
The Homeric problem became the Virgilian problem as well. This is partly because Virgil imitated Homer's imitation, and partly because he was a Roman and thus almost necessarily held history as his muse. The problem arose mainly because Christian Virgilians tended to be gnostics who could only imagine a value in the swirl of life and words of the Aeneid if Aeneas could be less than himself and more than a Roman. Their vulgar allegorizations of the Aeneid are monuments to Christian gnosticism.
Augustine's reaction to Virgil, like Plato's to Homer, is a fascinating study in the ways in which brilliant men cannot be duped, despite their inclinations. In the Confessions Augustine condemns the Aeneid. Yet it is important that he does not try to save his Virgil, whom he much admired, by allegorizing him. He, like Plato, objects that the poet tells us lies, and he recognizes that the lies ask to be dealt with as though they were truth, that the literal meaning of the poem demands to be faced - and rejected here, but not always - as history. The literary critics of his day who seek for hidden allegories seem to anger him more. And, despite his protestations against Virgil, it is to the poet of Rome that he turns over and over again in The City, of God. Indeed, one even has the nagging sense that the Confessions themselves take their literary form from the Aeneid - the Mediterranean wanderings of Augustine to find the "true city”. If the Confessions were a novel, we would have to concede that it would best be described as a realistic novel, not as an allegory; and so it would find a parallel to itself in the journey of Aeneas, which Augustine, unlike his more "sophisticated" fellow readers, did not see as allegorical.
The wanderings of his fellow readers are generally similar, having this in common: they de-historicize” the Aeneid. Under their eyes the surface of the poem becomes the pretext for psychomachian, philosophical misunderstandings. “Medieval Virgil" means the disappearance of the actual Virgil and of the actualized Aeneas. The poem becomes a parable of the growth of the Christian sol, While many have pointed out that Virgil may be understood as a pre-Christian at least in some major respects, in recent times none has been foolish enough to contend that Virgil's method corresponds to the allegorical method superimposed upon him. His meaning may be close to, or assimilable into, a Christian structure of belief. His method, like Homer's, is "historical." Aeneas is an actual man. His story is history, not a public dream.
This, at least, is what is to be understood at the poem's first remove.
So far my comments have been exclusively directed to the kind of allegory which was used in common by a handful of Christian poets and critics in the Middle Ages, one which had its roots in the critical processes of Platonism. Although it accounts for a major part of the allegorical concerns of the first thousand years of the history of literature in the West, we had better turn to an idea of allegory that is less firmly related to the conceptual similarities we can easily perceive between the first two kinds. This is allegory as defined by the rhetoricians and grammariansallegory that can primarily be described, if not defined, by the single phrase of Isidore of Seville, who calls it alieniloquium, or "othespeech". In doing so, Isidore has in mind Cicero's kind of concern with the decorative possibilities of language in the mouth of the orator, and hence in the productions of the writer. In this respect allegory is treated as belonging to the art of rhetoric, the work being used to refer simply to seven (for Isidoremore or less than seven for others) figures of speech, or tropes. This concern had come through Cicero to such writers as Quintilian. “Otherspeech” is, theoretically at least, unrelated to theories of allegory as a form or as a central technique of signifying; it is, rather, related to “allegorical” modes of embellishment. It is fitting to make a distinction between Greek, philological, or personification allegory, which necessarily implies a theory of signification, and rhetorical allegory, which implies only the grammarian's or rhetorician's interest in the way language may be made to function. The two may often come together; yet, in theory they are clearly separable, not only one from another but, more importantly for the purpose of this study, from the fourfold exegesis.
The argument concerning allegory in the Divine Comedy has a long history. Almost all of the earliest commentators chose to treat the allegory as though it were simply personification allegory. Nevertheless, most of these writers, including Dante's son Pietro, began their commentaries with gestures toward the precepts contained in the Letter to Can Grande. Essentially, however, the importance of Dante's borrowing of the technique of fourfold exegesis was lost to the critics until the twentieth century. The whole problem is densely complex when it is considered in a historical perspective. It is enough to say here that two predispositions - one toward personification allegory and one toward the belief that secular use of Christian exegesis was both impossible and would have been blasphemous - these two, in various permutations, lie at the root of six centuries of unenlightened criticism of the essential processes of Dante's poem.

Date: 2021-12-25