Allegorical Interpretation and History [Joseph A. Mazzeo]

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Autore: Joseph A. Mazzeo

Tratto da: Comparative Literature

Numero: XXX

Anno: 1978

Pagine: 1-21

Karl Jaspers has observed that:

All of us live in images, even if we go beyond them in philosophical speculation. We might think of them as constituting an unavoidable myth—a myth that may be shallow or profound, that may inspire a madness concealing boredom, that may gratify, for one destructive moment, a craving for the monstrous, or that may lead to the most extraordinary self-sacrifice in failure. Philosophically speaking, the myth is the rational a priori form in which we become aware of transcendence, Psychologically speaking, it is a mode of experiencing the real. But neither rational a priori form nor psychological experiential form is a guarantee of truth. Either of these forms may serve as a vehicle for the hysteria of every sort of magician or Pied Piper, every sort of opportunist who believes and yet does not believe, who lies and is taken in by his own lies, who dazzies and spellbinds his victims, whether in the guise of aesthetic snob or that of the nihilistic politician. AII of them are destructive, whether of self-knowledge and possible authenticity, or of life itself .

There is no lack of studies of allegory and allegorical interpretation, and such studies are by no means confined to the classical loci of biblical or medieval literature. The term “allegory” has certainly become one for literary scholars to conjure with and, in an extended sense, has become part of modern critical vocabulary. It has shared the destiny of other important critical terms—romanticism,” classicism,” “baroque”— in that it has come to signify a fairly wide spectrum of phenomena, which upon close inspection would appear to be quite different from one another, One confusion which regulatly turns up is that between allegory as a “style,” a principle of construction (the author constructs his work to be read allegorically), and allegory as a principle of interpretation (a work is read allegorically in order to render it acceptable or intelligible to a later age or a mind foreign to the cultural context of the work).
Bunyan’s Pilgrim's Progress would be a serviceable example of a constructed allegory while the traditional glosses on the Song of Solomon offer many examples of interpretative allegories. Bunyan, of course, would never have written an allegory without the conviction that the sacred text was in great part a divinely constructed allegory, however historical and literal the text could simultaneously be. Dante’s allegorism, to choose another obvious example, is certainly of a more complex sort than Bunyan's. Although Dante furnishes examples of simple allegorism, modern scholars find it much more illuminating to think of his literary mode as analogous to the “allegory of theologians,” an allegory best understood by analogy with biblical typology or figuralism rather than as a substitutive allegory in which something simply stands for something else in the modality of a cipher.
In spite of the profound differences between Bunyan and Dante, these two writers would have adhered both to a constructive theory of allegory and an interpretative one, and the source for their views on this subject would lie in the long and complex tradition of biblical allegorism. Since our own “secularized’’ critical versions of allegorical concepts and practices derive from the same traditions, we might briefly glance at the history of such interpretations of Scripture in order to discriminate the various meanings of allegory and to determine precisely what we have conserved, transformed, or discarded from the theological tradition.
From the time of the first allegorizers of Homer the current definition of allegory described it as the kind of discourse in which one thing is understood by another. St. Augustine, the primary educator of the learned Christian world for more than a millenium, so defines it in De Trinitate (XV.ix.15). This definition is historically a rhetorical commonplace but St. Augustine insists that the allegories which the authors of the New Testament found in the Old are not to be understood simply as rhetorical figures. The Old Testament is essentially a historical book, and God foreordained both the events of sacred history and their prophetic inner significance, the later meaning visible to the beneficiaries of the new dispensation.
The first term of this kind of allegorical analogy is a res, a reality whether thing or event which is also a meaning or sign (signum), not a fiction or a purely semantic entity. And the second term too has the: same ontological status. They differ in the place they occupy in the temporal continuum and in that the first bears a prophetic relationship to. the second. The first term is a “figure” (figura) or “foreshadowing” (umbra) of the second which is its fulfillment, its clearer image (imago). This mode of allegorization has commonly been called typological interpretation although the term allegory was traditionally applied to it. It was, however, distinguished from ordinary allegory in that the historicity of the text was neither ignored nor denied.
It is clear that this kind of exegesis could only have been applied to a sacred text, a text which gives us the historical foreordination by God of the events of sacred history. If Dante claims to write this kind of allegory of theologians it is simply because he claims prophetic insight into the divine ordination of the events of whatever history he knew. No one who truly understood this mode of typological historical interpretation would have applied it to Ovid. Such a secular text would certainly have an allegorical meaning in addition to the literal meaning of the text, but only the sacred text could have four meanings since only in such a text are the events themselves signifiers of further events.
St. Augustine, as well as his predecessors in the exegetical art, clearly had St. Paul in mind. For Paul the relation between Church and Synagogue was prefigured in the historical story of Isaac and Ishmael, and he found a prefiguration of Christ in Adam and in the Paschal Lamb. Adam is, strictly speaking, a prefiguration through antitype rather than type, for the effect of the man who brought death into the world is canceled by the death of the man who brought life. The Paschal Lamb is scarcely a historical event but the sacrifice was enjoined, at a particular moment, by God upon Israel and the annual sacrifice repeats the historically generated rite. If typology is a historically rooted way of thinking it can thus serve through the event of rite to return the worshiper to the moment of a divine theophany, to a divine command and to a perception of its prophetic significance.
The precedent of St. Paul and the classical traditions of allegoresis gave the apostolic fathers and their patristic successors a ready recourse in their exegetical problems. Had not St. Paul himself used the ‘term and concept of allegory to interpret in Galatians (iv.24)? But two quite different tendencies in exegesis emerged from two great centers of Christian intellectual life under the Empires: Alexandria and Antioch, The Alexandrian fathers, with the precedents of Philo Judaeus and the markedly hellenized synagogue behind them, developed an intensively philosophical kind of exegesis, to the point of sometimes denying the literal significance of important portions of Scripture in the interest of a preferred allegorical meaning. None of the Alexandrians, as Christians, could escape from historicity any more than Philo, however philosophical, could deny the historical reality of Israel. But some of the exegesis of Origen or Clement, like that of Philo, is clearly concerned with bringing the sacred text into close harmony with Greek philosophical conceptions of the divine nature and morality. The universalism of Origen or Clement, in particular Origen’s doctrine, later condemned, of the salvation of all beings (apokatastasis panton) has little biblical endorsement and is advanced on moral and philosophical rather than scriptural grounds.
The exegetes of the Antiochan school, Theodore of Mopsuestia, for example, were far less philosophically oriented, and while they did not always entirely abandon allegorical and typological interpretation, they gave central importance to the historical meaning of Scripture greatly reducing the allegorical overlay on the text.
St. Augustine and other Latin fathers responded to both of these traditions of exegesis, Alexandrian and Antiochan, and sought to find a mean between them. Cassian (Collationes xiv.8), reinterpreting a formulation of Clement of Alexandria, defined the classic theory of fourfold allegory which remained normative for theologians throughout the Middle Ages, and for Catholics well beyond. There was first the literal sense, what was signified by the words of the text as such even if the literal sense was conveyed through figures of speech. The use of an expression such as the “hand of God” was not, of itself, an indication of allegory but a simple figure of speech used to describe a divine attribute. Our own distinction between “Iiteral” and “figurative” is not applicable to this meaning of the literal sense: a figurative expression was still part of the literal sense.
The allegorical sense, sensu stricto, was the meaning of an Old Tes: tament text applied to Christ or to the church militant. The tropological or moral sense applied the text to the soul and its virtues. The anagogical sense applied the text to heavenly realities. Thus the psalm In exitu Israel de Aegypto, a favorite example which Dante also uses, might be interpreted as follows: the literal sense is simply a reference to Exodus, the allegorical sense might be to Christ as a true Moses whose death and resurrection have led mankind out of bondage, the moral or tropological sense might be the passage of the soul from sin to virtue, while the anagogical sense might be the passage of the soul from this world to the heavenly hereafter. Obviously, a good deal of exegeticai latitude is possible even with Cassian’s formula. Nevertheless, the historicity of the method is clear. A historical event from the history of Israel leads to one from the history of Christianity, next to the “history” of the soul in its moral drama, and last to the eschatological reality which sets a term to history.
It is clear that such a method could not be applied to a secular text penned by a writer uninspired by God. Such a writer could not write of events which are by themselves charged with prophetic meaning, texts in which the realities (res) are also signs (signa). At the risk of unnecessary repetition, I would stress that Dante’s claim to write the kind of text which requires this kind of exegetical method is essentially a claim to possession of a divine inspiration which discloses to his illuminated intellect the transcendent meanings of the real events and figures which fill the fictional frame of the journey. From a less theological point of view, Dante writes a poem in a style analogous to the style of Scriptures in the sense that the latter is polysemous, possesses plural significations.
To be sure, allegorical exegesis of a kind which abstracts from the historicity of the text or leads directly from a text to an abstract philosophical principle was practiced along with allegorical exegesis of the typological kind described in Cassian’s normative formulation. Nevertheless, Christian allegorism remained bound to events in the conviction that sacred history was both a system of events and a system of signs, illuminating analogically both the nature of the human soul and its ultimate destiny in time and beyond it.
We can now look further back beyond the Christian dispensation, consider the history of allegorical interpretation in the classical world, and so discern what was taken up from that tradition into Christian exegesis and what was largely discarded. From this further point of vantage we can pass to modern literary critical conceptions of allegory and consider the modern outcome of the idea of allegory.
A work attributed to Heraclitus on Homeric problems, probably written in the first century A.D., has survived as the most comprehensive treatise we possess from antiquity on allegorical interpretation. Heraclitus’ work is one late response to a conflict present in Greek thought from the time of Plato certainly, but even before in the thought of Xenophanes. The latter is the first Greek thinker to criticize religious myth for not being fitting in terms of the true nature of the divine, for not being theoprepes. Although he was not the first to coin this word, the word and concept were thus given a new importance for later theological speculation whether pagan or Christian. Pagan philosophical polemic against its own religious tradition as well as the new religion of Christianity was based on certain widely shared philosophical conceptions of what the divine nature had to be like. If the behavior of the gods in pagan mythology was blatantly all too human, the polemic against Christianity raised questions concerning whether the Incarnation, the suffering divinity, the anthropomorphic traits of the biblical God, might also not be theoprepes.
Both moral and metaphysical reasons dominated the philosophical critique of religion whether pagan or Christian. The most important statement of this problem is, of course, in Plato’s Republic, where the philosopher rejects Homer and Hesiod, not essentially as poetic fictions, but as the basis of paideia, that is, as works expressing the truths that sound pedagogy requires. Although Plato did not succeed in reforming the traditional basis of education along the lines advanced in the republic, no comprehensive philosophical defense of Homer and Hesiod emerged until the Stoics undertook to defend the poetic works fundamental to Greek education as worthy of their normative character. Indeed they were defended as expressive of truth, as fit, in short, to be retained in the place they occupied as the basis of paideia.
At first, the Stoic defense might seem puzzling, for the sages agreed with the conceptions of the divine current among the philosophers that the divine is rational, good, impassive, orderly, holy, and, above all, not subject to any of the vices or passions of men. And certainly, all men could see that the poets did not, on the face of it, so portray the divine nature. The way out of the difficulty of conserving what was apparently unworthy of conservation was to subject the mythical stories of the ancient classic poets to allegorical interpretation. Only thus could the most prestigious and ancient literature of the Hellenes be safeguarded from the moral, theological, and philosophical censures of a more enlightened age. The Stoics agreed that the poets were either blasphemous or allegorists and they chose, for reasons we shall soon consider, to regard them as allegorists.
A similar problem arises in the history of Judaism and Christianity when some philosophically trained, hellenized believers were constrained to allegorize the Old Testament along lines very much like those of the Stoic allegorizers of Homer. Philo Judaeus used allegory to harmonize Scripture with Greek philosophical notions of what is theoprepes so that where the text says, for example, that God spoke to Moses, the meaning is that God illuminated Moses’ mind, a clear shift from the naîve anthropomorphism of the text to the philosophically hallowed and respectable Greek notion of the illuminated intellect. For Christians, allegorization of the Old Testament saved the text from the extreme moral censure of the God of the Old Testament advanced by gnostics such as Marcion, who found the Old Testament so objectionable that he wanted to dispose of it altogether. In the case of this conflict, the assumption of allegorical meanings for objectionable texts could conserve the sacred text against charges of immorality and crude anthropomorphism. Allegory in sum could show that the Bible was really theoprepes.
Stoic allegorists had preceded both the Jews and the Christians in finding historical, physical, and moral meanings in the old stories, while the Neoplatonists, hard upon the Stoics, had found “symbols” or “mysteries” of the transcendent, ideal world in the same place. All through antiquity the rhetorician and the philosopher had offered rival systems of education, posing a conflict between the ideal of the artist with words and the philosophic sage, between the orator with all the political and literary values that honored title had for Cicero and the self-transcending seeker of eternal wisdom. The philosophers and their Christian successors discovered in allegorism a way to harmonize the conflict between the authoritative, ancient poetic books with the claims of philosophical reason or rationalized revelation. The pagan philosophers could thus incorporate the essential texts of the literary education of their rhetorical rivals without compromising their principles, while the Christians were able to preserve the Old Testament, whether through an extreme form of allegorization ignoring in part the historicity of the text, or as a typological prophecy.
Heraclitus acknowledges the prima facie validity of the Platonic attack on Homer when he tells us that Homer was apparently the most impious of all men. The stories he tells of the gods and the characters he attributes to them are certainly immoral. Nevertheless, Plato erred in concluding that Homer was to be rejected, for the poet wrote allegorically, which is no other than to speak one thing when one wants to designate another altogether different thing.
Homer wrote this way deliberately, Heraclitus tells us, hiding the noblest truths and his wisdom in the cloak of myths in order to protect the truth from the misunderstandings of the ignorant and thereby render it more beautiful and desirable. We all somehow recognize the merit of these poems, the author implies, for we educate our children with them from childhood. Plato’s objections thus cannot stand. He simply did not know how to read Homer. With the allegorical method we can read Homer correctly and so learn that there is nothing in his works which could possibly offend the most refined piety and the most delicate moral feelings.
While Plato had acknowledged, at least implicitly, the beauty and power of the Homeric poems but had called into question their suitability for educating the young, Heraclitus takes a totally different tack. The Greeks have in fact been educating their children successfully with these poems for centuries, so Plato is quite simply wrong. Homer merely needs to be read in the right way! Of course, this analysis of the way to read Homeric poems implies a radical distinction between an exoteric, vulgar meaning and a hidden, esoteric one. With this mode of allegorical interpretation exemplified, the idea of the esoteric meaning of the text firmly entered the tradition of exegesis, both secular and sacred. Neoplatonists, pagan and Christian, intent on discovering philosophic meanings in myths and legends, were especially fond of looking down from the heights of this initiation into exegetical techniques upon the vulgar, the latter naive enough to think that the texts of Homer or Hesiod were really about what they seemed to be about. The distinction between exoteric and esoteric meanings came to play a remarkable role in the “poetic theology” of the Renaissance Neoplatonists who sought a single esoteric system of meaning in the mass of seemingly disparate myths and legends bequeathed to them from antiquity. Such a reading enabled them, too, to attempt a harmonization of pagan and Christian theology in ways that the ancient allegorizers of Homer would not have found too surprising.
The problem faced by Heraclitus and his solution are paradigmatic of a recurrent problem in the history of theology and of literary criticism. It is a paradigm of the situation which arose with Jewish Scriptures, the Old Testament in relation to the New, with Virgil in the Middle Ages and with the Koran after the Arabs absorbed Greek culture. Every one of these texts has been interpreted, in whole or in part, in ways which modern historical consciousness, trained to place beliefs and their expression in a well-defined historical space, can only find absurd or totally irrelevant. Confronted with an exegetical puzzle, we call upon the historian, the anthropologist, the psychologist, the philologist, or some other specialist to come to our aid. We ask: what primitive mode of thought might explain the problem? What social practices peculiar to an alien time might explain the strange beliefs enshrined in a text? Our sense of historicity implies a kind of “archeology of the mind.” Dream processes, neurotic processes, unconscious motives and symbolizations, the “fossil record’ we bear in our psyches, come to play a role in our acts of interpretation along with historical erudition. Allegorization, from one point of view, is the very antithesis of historical interpretation as we understand it now. It is the interpretive device of those who have little or no sense that the passage of time truly affects understanding.
Thus allegorical interpretation becomes a dominant mode of understanding, “when the literal meaning of the sacred books has become questionable but when the giving up of those forms was out of the question, because that would have been a kind of suicide… The reason for their continuation, but with a different meaning attached to them was not an intellectual but a social necessity, having something to do with the fact that continuity of life depends on form-—something very hard for the pure intellect, with its historical blind-spot, to grasp.”
The essential tradition of the allegorical interpretation of texts not in themselves allegorically constructed is thus normative. Such exegesis is not only in the service of interpreting a text but in the service of an institution, a church or educational system, for which the text is an indispensable donnée. Theology cannot call its revealed “given” radically into question without ceasing to exist, any more than the government of the United States can jettison its constitution, no matter how remote some of its statements are from immediate application now. In certain social and historical contexts, those that Jaeger indicates in hîs observations—Homer, Virgil, the Bible, a constitution—all demand interpretation, and even where that interpretation may strike us as remote and forced, we may find such exegetical virtuosity more palatable when we recall that such interpreters were not performing solitary acts of literary criticism but were dealing with the life-giving forms and traditions of a civilization in a crisis of meaning precipitated by historicity.
Since the Romantic period we have been assimilating, under the rubric of “the intelligible,” much that had long remained relegated to the incomprehensible and contingent. The thought forms of children, of the insane, of dreams and fantasy, of hitherto remote and alien cultures, of primitive peoples, all have been studied, and we have satisfied ourselves that we possess some intelligible account of these phenomena. With this armamentarium of modern scholarship, allegorical interpretation is not even remotely necessary, even if we were all committed to some crucial text of a sacred character. But modern interpretation, although it may render the text intelligible, just as surely desacralizes it. The archaic is seen for what it is and not as the cipher of a saving truth. When we hear of psychoanalytic interpretation referred to as a kind of allegorical hermeneutic, we should pause to reflect on the fact that the act of interpretation is in this case not only profoundly individual but that it reverses the relation between hidden and overt meanings which obtained in the allegorization of the sacred. Where Heraclitus found the most sublime truths and wisdom underneath the crudities of the mythical veil, the psychoanalyst finds the crudities we dare not acknowl- edge under the generally innocuous or even hallowed overt meaning.
Moreover, psychoanalytic interpretation aims at elimination of the archaic, not its conservation. The neurotic, distorted, private text of the individual must yield to a new text which is rational and public. The esoteric meaning is infantile, unclear because it is charged with anxiety, distorted through the psychic agencies of repression. Analysis, in bringing into rational apprehension the archaisms of the psyche, makes the esoteric, hidden meaning exoteric, and frees the sufferer from illusion. But illusion, for Freud, is not solely the affliction of the clinically certifiable sufferer from a neurosis or psychosis. Much of the world of culture, religion, and the national state is saturated with illusory beliefs and aspirations. Insofar as psychoanalysis is an unmasking of the absolute claims of culture the Freudians resemble the Gnostic allegorizers in “blatantly subverting the meaning of the most firmly established, and preferably the most revered, elements of tradition.”
The example I just referred to from psychoanalytic theory is but one modern adaptation of the concept of allegory to uses quite foreign to its origins. Indeed, in one case, the term is applied to mean any interpretation fout court.

It is not often realized that all commentary is allegorical interpretation, an attaching of ideas to the structure of poetic imagery. The instant that any critic permits himself to make a genuine comment about a poem (e.g., “In Hamlet, Shakespeare appears to be portraying the tragedy of irresolution”), he has begun to allegorize. Commentary thus looks at literature as, in its formal phase, a potential allegory of events and ideas. The relation of such commentary to poetry itself is the source of the contrast which was developed by several critics of the Romantic period between “symbolism” and ‘“allegory,” symbolism here being used in the sense of thematically significant imagery. The contrast is between a “concrete” approach to symbols which begins with images of actual things and works outward to ideas and propositions, and an “abstract” approach which begins with the idea and then tries to find a concrete image to represent it. This distinction is valid enough in itself, but it has deposited a large terminal morraine of confusion in modern criticism, largely because the term allegory is very loosely employed for a great variety of literary phenomena.

To insist that all commentary is allegory is surely to empty the term of all possible precision of reference. More importantly, it confuses the reading “out” of a text--or reading “into” a text—of meanings which often cannot be linked at all to the apparent meaning of the text with the quite different process of extending the significance of the text. In the latter process the “literal sense” is expanded via precise similitudes, parallelisms, and analogies so as to enlarge what we might call the semantic field of the given text. This enlargement, by establishing relations between the text and similar, more transparent, meanings, is one thing we mean when we speak of clarifying a text. Interpretive commentary in this sense is a special case of the metaphorical process whereby we illuminate X by bringing it into relation with Y which is similar but somehow better known.
The ancient allegorist who interpreted the figure of Proteus as a mythical expression of the transmutation of elements gave us an arbitrary interpretation. The transmutation of elements is certainly “clearer” and “better known” than the amorphous symbol, but we have no way of deciding which of an unbounded number of transformational processes Proteus could not just as easily signify. The similitude drawn is, in principle, unrestricted, and we are involved in empty analogizing of the kind which follows upon simple binary divisions of the totality of things. If all the world is divisible into active and passive, masculine and feminine principles, then half of all the realities of the world mean the same thing. It would not do justice to Angus Fletcher’s suggestive study of allegory to equate his view with Frye's, but he too seems to confound allegory as a principle of interpretation with allegory as a principle of construction, e.g.,

An objection needs to be met here, namely that all romances are not necessarily allegorical. A. good adventure story, the reader will say, needs no interpolated secondary meaning in order to be significant and entertaining. But that objection does not concern the true criterion for allegory. The whole point of allegory is that it does not need to be read exegetically ; it often has a literal level that makes good enough sense all by itself. But somehow this literal surface suggests a peculiar doubleness of intention, and while it can, as it were, get along without interpretation, it becomes richer and more interesting if given interpretation. Even the most deliberate fables, if read naively or carelessly, may seem mere stories, but what counts in our discussion is a structure that lends itself to secondary meaning as well as primary meaning. (Allegory, p. 7)

It is difficult to see what could be excluded from allegorical interpretation in this view, since interpretation seems virtually to be conflated with the possibility of a secondary meaning. The vast bulk of allegorical interpretation that has come down to us is so “secondary” that no modern interpreter of the Bible, Virgil, or Homer would dream of using it.
Interpretation, the “meaning of meaning,” is surely an act of great complexity, and it seems especially so in our own time, for we lack a universally shared, preferred, metaphorical system to which other meaning may be referred. Even theologians, once the possessors of the controlling monomyth, are constrained to “demythologize” it in order to render it intelligible to an assumed secular intelligence shaped by scientific explanation and a naturalistic view of history. Since Schleiermacher, some of the finest minds of European culture have dealt with the problem of “general hermeneutics,” and if ours is a great age of literary criticism, we surely owe much to him and his successors. One fundamental distinction in this tradition which has only been abandoned in recent times is the distinction between the apprehension of meaning and the realization of significance, two associated but distinguishable acts of the mind.
Meaning is associated with the recovery of authorial intention and is not, in principle, an endless task. It is something which we do in every intelligible encounter with the spoken or written word, The apprehension of significance is, on the other hand, unbounded. To say this is really simply to point out what we all know. For example, the plays of Shakespeare will remain in some important sense recognizably the same even though the significance of the plays will change. If this were not so we would not have anything like a history of taste in regard to Shakespeare or, more concretely, the history of Shakespeare criticism. The essential point to grasp is that changing interpretations of Shakespeare, the discovery of new significances in the texts, do not result from a process of arbitrary change. Each such change in significance begins with an apprehension of the meaning of the text and presupposes a nonarbitrary, constant matrix of meanings which issued out of cognitive, intentional acts of the poet’s mind.
It is, moreover, important if we would understand the difference between meaning and significance to distinguish the different kinds of interpretive acts that different texts constrain us to perform. Emilio Betti distinguishes between a recognitive kind of interpretation which we use for historical and literary texts, presentational interpretation employed for the performance of dramatic and musical texts, and a normative kind of applied interpretation for legal and sacred texts. For Hans-Georg Gadamer, on the other hand, there would seem to be fundamentally only one kind of interpretation, one concerned with finding some kind of application of the text’s meaning. His skepticism concerning the possibility of distinguishing between recognitive understanding, interpretation for presentation, and the application of a text’'s meaning leads him, it would seem, to settle on the last as the essential character of all interpretation. Historicity so affects understanding that anything like Dilthey's act of Verstehen, the possibility, resting on the fundamental identity of human nature over all known space and time, of truly bridging the gulf between us and the text, is impossible. We cannot, do not recover authorial intention in our acts of understanding. What we have is some sense of application of the text to our concerns, some contemporary meaning past which we cannot go. It seems to me, if I understand Gadamer correctly, that his acts of exegesis occur as if we were all jurists or churchmen, interpreting the text for application in the absence of the boundaries set by institutions, the traditions of discipline and practice, and their function of regulating human lives. To the interpreter of history or art the door seems wide open to the proliferation of meanings with no bound.
An example here may be helpful. What, the biblical scholar might ask, did St. Paul mean by the term pneuma? If we cannot annihilate the distance which history interposes between us and the apostle, we can still give a reasonably satisfactory answer to that question and refer to metaphors drawn from the notion of breath to signify a presence of the divine spirit and so forth. To ask the significance of the concept is to engage in a far more extensive task. What view of human existence does the term imply? What does Paul say with this term concerning God's relation to man? What is the relation of this view to other similar views, past and present? What is man's condition in the world and what does pneuma do or mean to change it? These are, of course, the questions a biblical theologian might ask, one whose act of interpretation must go beyond meaning to significance.
Interpretation is obviously a permanent necessity of thought and its task is to overcome the remoteness introduced into every human utterance by cultural difference, whether the result of time or geographical difference. But not only are the texts on which interpretation must bear different, the urgency of interpretative acts is also different, and if ancient “arbitrariness” in interpretation arose from the imperative of conserving the sacred, modern arbitrariness arises from a radical antihistoricism, sceptical of the possibility of determining authorial intention and appealing to “existential” truths beyond the occasion of understanding.
To sum up, allegorical interpretation arises characteristically out of the most acute possible crisis in interpretation, when the alternative to making sense of a text — any sense at all — is cultural loss or even cultural suicide. It is not, in the first instance, a method of construction but a method of conserving supremely authoritative, normative texts when the moral and philosophical changes brought about by the processes of historical change have rendered the apparent meanings of a text either intellectually or morally objectionable.
In such a cultural situation, allegorical exegesis becomes essentially an act of decoding, however far from authorial intent such an act might be. It is precisely for this reason that so few of the classic allegorical readings of Homer, Virgil, or the Bible can even begin to sound persuasive to modern ears, however attuned we think we are to what Dante would have called “polysemous” texts. For Philo Judaeus, the real meaning of various biblical descriptions of the divine nature is often an utterly different meaning from the apparent meaning, a meaning consonant with Greek philosophical ideals of what the divine nature is like. To have excogitated this meaning is to know what the text really means, something quite different from what it says. The modern reader, on the other hand, pauses over what the text says and hypothesizes a cultural era different from our own, thought processes different from our own, a way of seeing the world different from our own, an expression valid in its own terms once we know what those terms are. For the classic allegorist, the text deliberately hides what it means. The authors presumably wrote in a kind of code, whether to hide the supreme truths from the gaze of the vulgar or, more generally, to accommodate to the vulgar something of the divine nature in a mode they might grasp.
Closely bound to a presumed historical meaning of the Old Testament text, Christian typological exegesis is nevertheless also a mode of deciphering, although it possesses a kind of analogical coherence absent from much philosophical and moral allegorizing. The figures and events of the Old Testament foreshadow those of the New. The events of the New Testament are not in question, however miraculous and mythical in texture. The events of the Old Testament occurred as they are described but a link is drawn between the Old and the New. It may seem remote to us to draw a typological correspondence between the Flood and baptism, but it is a defined relation between the divine way of using water both to punish and to save. The Christian typologists are saved from entering the analogical wilderness by the assumption of a preferred referential system, the New Testament, to which a prior referential system is to be referred. Where Philo’s referential preference is a system of concepts, Christian typologists possess historical events of a definitive and ultimate character.
From this point of view, to assume that allegorical interpretation is coterminus with interpretation in general is to assume that all texts are codes or like codes in significant ways. Obviously, interpretation is not confined to such procedures as we have been describing or anything very much like them. To interpret Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale as a complex meditation on art, life, and death is more like an act of translation than an act of decipherment. Nevertheless, all modalities of interpretation are affected by historicity. We have our difficulties in interpreting Homer but they are entirely different from those which confronted Heraclitus. We can make acts of the informed historical imagination in reading the Iliad or the Odyssey and seek to overcome what is alien in the work by calling up another time and place as the imaginative matrix of our acts of interpretation. So, too, we need not allegorize the Deuteronomic law for we are quite content to let the pastness of the Bible be pastness. Contrast.with an alien past and identification with an alien past so as to overcome its pastness may thus now serve understanding.
For the literary scholar, the frequent absurdities and excesses of allegorical exegesis cannot be entirely ignored. The allegorical method of reading Scripture often determined the way in which biblical allusions and citations entered literature. Literary metaphorics and artistic iconography are shaped, often enough, not by what the text said but by what the allegorist said it really meant by what it said. Milton, Vaughan, Herbert, not to mention Dante, read their Bible or their classics through an exegetical framework which sometimes makes their manner of allusion seem historically or philologically remote, however successful in its own context.
One profoundly interesting result of the history of Christian exegesis was that although the message of salvation was understood to be clear and simply accessible to the unlettered and to children, there grew up with such a reading of Scripture a complex system of interpretation intelligible in its fullness only to an intellectual elite. St. Augustine more than once tells his reader that although the Bible is often difficult to interpret, what each man needs to know for his salvation is abundantly clear. For this reason, even for the sophisticated interpreter the ultimate exegetical rule is the law of love.
John Donne in his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions gives magnificent expression to this twofold aspect of Christian exegesis:
My God, my God, Thou art a direct God, may I not say a literali God, a God, that wouldest bee understood literally, and according to the plaine sense of all that thou saiest? But thou art also (Lord I intend it to thy glory, and let no prophane misinterpreter abuse it to thy diminution) thou art a figurative, a metaphoricall God too: A_ God in whose words there is such a height of figures, such voyages, such peregrinations to fetch remote and precious metaphors, such extentions, such spreadings, such Curtaines of Allegories, such third Heavens of Hyperboles, so harmonious eloquutions, so retired and so reserved expressions, so commanding derswasions, so perswading commandements, such sinewes even in thy milke, and such things in thy words, as all prophane Authors, seeme of the seed of the Serpent, that creepes, thou art the Dove, that flies.

Once allegorical interpretation comes into being, then the possibility is open for allegory as a principle of construction. Tentatively, I would like to suggest that constructed allegories should generally be understood as following the typological pattern rather than the more abstract and unhistorical forms of allegorical exegesis. The works of our literary tradition which demand to be understood as allegory rather than simply allowing allegorical interpretation assume the existence of a central paradigmatic story, of a sacred or nearsacred character, set in the past and assumed to be historical, or which we are asked to believe for the purposes of fiction to be historical. This story appears as an archetypal pattern of the story told in the literal sense of the text, and the author, through metaphor and allusion and, above all, personification, reminds us of the correspondence between “then” and “now.” The archetypal story is the pattern for events of permanent significance repeated now in the life of everyman in an individual mode. What was once “history,” whether the Bible, Homer, or Virgil, has now entered memory, has been detemporalized, and is relived as fictional event in the actions of the protagonist, and as spiritual event in the consciousness of the reader. Allegory thus takes account of the historicity of a paradigmatic story, its repeatability as a fiction set in new time and place, and the significance of the history and its corresponding fiction for an analogous spiritual or psychological event taking place in the consciousness of the reader.
The account I have just given is simply a secularized version of how a Christian allegorist working with Christian materials might have proceeded, He might view the Old Testament as praefiguratio Christi, the New Testament as vita Christi, and the paradigm of the progress of the soul as imitatio Christi. His story would be so told as to imply the first two schemes in his account, a “fiction” of the last. Whether in sacred or secularized versions, the works which demand—I repeat the word— allegorical interpretation seem to be constructed in some such manner. It is no accident that such works are usually cast in the form of a journey, the spatial delineation of nonspatial events, and of a fsychomachia, the portrayal of critical events and conflicts of the soul as external occurrences.
Even where we seem to be far removed from the sphere of typological thinking, as in the Roman de la Rose, we nevertheless find a dominating quasi-mythic pattern, a codified, ritualized pattern of courtship, the archetypal patterns of “proper” lovers. The story which here unfolds as concrete events describes the inner events of a psychomachia, and it is hard to think of a constructed allegory, Dante’s Divine Comedy or Spenser’s Fairie Queene, which does not possess as one tier of its layers of constructed meanings the inner progress and conflicts of the soul. Personification is, after all, the device of allegory par excellence, and at these times when allegory passes from “historical,” spatially rendered events to their reference to events of consciousness, personification will necessarily be the rhetorical device for relating the two patterns of meaning. Indeed, typological interpretation can often be understood as the taking of “ready-made” persons, as it were, and treating them as both what they were and as personifications of the events of consciousness. The lovers of medieval allegorical romance rarely emerge as individuals but as the bearers of meanings, and where in the Arthurian material or in the matière de France the text takes on allegorical qualities some paradigmatic story, often the Christian one, is not far from the author’s mind.
Of course, metaphysical doctrines of exemplarism, the doctrine of the signatures of all things, the belief in universal analogies and correspondences, encourage the allegorical or symbolic habit of mind, but true constructed allegory seems to me to exhibit the typological pattern. In this sense there is no classical, pagan work of constructed allegory. Parabolic tales, moral fables, and exemplary stories abound, but there is nothing demanding the kind of reading we must bring to the Divine Comedy, The Fairie Queene, or Pilgrims Progress. Honig's study Dark Conceit: The Making of Allegory (1959) is the most penetrating study of allegory I know, and it offers a definition of the “genre” which implicitly takes account of what I have called the typological pattern. He appears to relate allegory to “myth” in some sense of the term, he clearly recognizes the distinction between allegorical and nonallegorical literature, and by defining an “allegorical quality” he extends the concept to make it a genre which includes works as disparate as the Roman de la Rose and Rappacini’s Daughter, Pilgrim’s Progress and The Castle, Gullivers Travels and Moby Dick. The idea of “myth” appears in his formulationi of the “twice-told tale.”

We find the allegorical quality in a twice-told tale written in rbetorical, or figurative, language and expressing a vital belief, In recognizing that when these components come together they form the allegorica! quality, we are on our way to understanding allegory as literature. The twice-told aspect of the tale indicates that some venerated or proverbial antecedent (old) story has become a pattern for another (the new) story, Rhetorical language… makes possible the retelling of the old story simultaneousiy with the telling of the new one. The belief expressed in the tale is the whole idea supporting the parabolic way of telling and the reason for the retelling. The relating of the new and the old in the reflective nature of both language and theme typifies allegorical narration, The tale, the rhet. oric, and the belief work together in what might be called a metaphor of purpose. (P. 12)

Whether the works that Honig brings together as “retellings” should be juxtaposed may sometimes be doubtful, but he does tackle the task of what allegory as a principle of construction might specifically imply, and correctly grasps that allegorical construction implies a central, paradigmatic story as reference system, a story taken to be of permanent significance and archetypal in that it must be retold as reapplicable to the present.
The history of allegorism as a principle of interpretation or a principle of construction is intimately bound to the history of myth whether it has a canonical status or has surrendered such rank for an apocryphal one. The classical myths became our important apocryphal stories when Christianity became the canonical one, and our cultural tradition, richly endowed with two great bodies of myth long considered antithetical to one another, has afforded interesting examples of allegorical interpretation as a way of reconciling canonical and apocryphal myth. The platonic theology of Ficino was an important such attempt with enormous consequences for the use of pagan myth in Christian literature.
Of course, the hypothetical generation of myth-operators and mythbearers had no need for exegesis and would not have dreamt of using the myths they bear for “literary” purposes. This myth is fully grasped, entirely lived and manifested in ritual and in social practice. Allegorical interpretation seeks to preserve the sacral character of myth in the face of a historical progress which makes myth morally and intellectually problematic. Allegorical construction has other characteristics. It implies, to be sure, a certain degree of psychic distance from the naive bearing of myth—the myth becomes usable in fresh contexts and new applications—but the sacral character of the dominant typological pattern is not in question. For the true allegorist, the myth is still in a very important sense history and not pure psychology or simply literature. Whether the modern literary use of myth as we find it in Melville, Mann, Joyce, or Camus can be said to confer allegorical quality on their works is problematic. I think not. The mythic background serves to organize and illumine the present material and to impose the discipline of form upori it, but it does not, I think, impose on that material a large share of its significance.
Historical scholarship and the growth of historical consciousness have had, after all, the effect of rendering every mythic or symbol system unique and somehow valid in its own terms. We assume that it is our duty to understand even the most primitive of such constructions “from within,” to make it usable in itself, however momentarily, as a master image of our own experience. We do not seek simple understanding but sympathetic understanding, to live for a while in someone else’s universe. Even classical civilization, the touchstone for centuries of what is “civilized” and what is “barbarous,” has become one among many such imaginary cultural universes.
If all myths “work” the result of course is that no myth “works.” Today the ancient storehouse of myth works essentially by contrast. It is no accident that the mythological allusions in Eliot’s Waste Land or Joyce's Ulysses usually engender ironic or parodistic contrasts between past and present. Not only have the great historians and philosophers of history contributed to this result, but the reinterpretation of the Kantian a priori by modern neo-Kantians such as Cassirer has encouraged us to view all mythological, religious, and philosophical systems as models, paradigms, or speculative cosmologies through which we may imaginatively participate, as a way of looking at the whole through a perspective provided, so to speak, by someone else’s spectacles. The universal a priori which Kant constructed to answer the question how scientific knowledge is possible has thus been “broken up” into any number of symbol systems or conceptual structures—the products of history and culture—through which mankind, at a given time or place, organizes the totality of its experience.

If the symbols and frameworks are the filters through which experience must pass, then nothing disconfirming of the framework will ever be recognized. This was an extraordinarily liberating idea. It allowed for the development of anthropology and class-oriented social science. Whereas David Hume, a pre-Kantian, could note the reported ideas of American Indians and Africans, he could register them only as strange views of the world; he could not deal with them scientifically. Marx, de Tocqueville, Weber, and Durkheim could say the world of the strange people is strange to us, but familiar, comprehensive and serviceable to them. The very possibility of identifying the study of a culture’s ideas with the study of its world eliminated, in principle if not in practice, the otherwise inevitable bias of a person who “really knows” what the objective world is, in contrast to the pre-scientific savages.

If the growth of historical scholarship and the historical imagination opened the way for us to place the cultures of the past in a well-defined perspective of historical space, the neo-Kantians, generalizing from the master’s theory of a priori categories, opened the way for us to view primitive or “exotic” cultures as coherent, effectively complete modes of understanding the world in order to live in it. Since a work conditioned by time, or from a remote foreign culture, implies a coherent whole, a symbolic cosmos, we are never driven to make acts of allegorical interpretation. We are no longer required to translate everything that time or distance has rendered strange to us into our own preferred mythology or into the presumed objectivities of a system of philosophy or natural science. With such a perspective at our disposal, allegorica! exegesis must die. Perhaps we now wait for a Hegel who will attempt to tell us what the whole is that we glimpse in all those parts we are asked to experience as wholes. Such a man would write for us a new and more encompassing phenomenology of the spirit.

Columbia University

Date: 2022-11-02