Dante in Paradise: The End of Allegorical Interpretation [Magnus Ullén]

Table of contents

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Magnus Ullén

Tratto da: New Literary History

Numero: 32

Anno: 2001

Pagine: 177-199

1. Allegory as Symbol

In the very last canto of The Divine Comedy, Dante finally comes to unite his gaze with that of God. God is an eternally moving circle of light, and as Dante looks into it he finds at its center the image of Christ?or, literally, "la nostra effige," our image. This is a decisive moment: what Dante, and the reader along with him, sees reflected in the revolving circle of God is his own image; God is a circle "with our image within itself," and Christ being man, man is both reflected and contained in God: through the image of Christ we see not only God, but ourselves in God. Dante is unable to find words for this moment of unsurpassed transcendence, "se non che la mia mente fu percossa / da un fulgore in che sua voglia venne" [save that my mind was smitten by a flash wherein its wish came to it] (DC 140-41). There follow merely four lines: "A l'alta fantasia qui manco possa; / ma già volgeva il mio disio e'l velle, / si come rota ch'igualmente è mossa, / l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle" [Here power failed the lofty phantasy; but already my desire and my will were revolved, like a wheel that is evenly moved, by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars] (DC 142-45). Through this moment of unprecedented translucence, then, the desire of the poet is ultimately brought into harmony with that of the Creator, becoming itself a revolving wheel moving towards its fulfilment in God. Coinciding, as it does, with the end of the Comedy, this moment of transcendent inspiration is itself all times: a reference to a future already accomplished, which has nevertheless still to be begun, as this end in truth marks the moment which enables the beginning of the writing of the Comedy, the greatest of all allegories.
The translucence with which this final scene of the Comedy is marked allows us to look upon Divina Commedia as a transubstantiation, as it were, of allegory into symbol and vice versa. In Coleridge's famous distinction between allegory and symbol, however, translucence is taken to be the defining characteristic only of the latter:

Now an allegory is but a translation of abstract notions into a picture-language, which is itself nothing but an abstraction from objects of the senses; the principal being more worthless even than its phantom proxy, both alike unsubstantial, and the former shapeless to boot. On the other hand a symbol... is characterized by a translucence of the special in the individual, or of the general in the special, or of the universal in the general; above all by the translucence of the eternal through and in the temporal.

This sharp opposition between symbol and allegory is a relatively recent invention - it is commonly traced back to Goethe (A 13) - yet it is one which has carried - and still carries - great weight in American literary criticism. Although the literary criticism of the last two decades nominally rejects the censure of allegory that is such a characteristic trait of a work like Charles Feidelsohn's Symbolism and American Literature, it seems to me that the dichotomization is still at work to a large degree, and that allegory is still held to be, in some sense, intolerable.
For Coleridge, allegory and symbolism are distinguished by their capacity for representational immediacy: the symbol supposedly gives us privileged access to the concept represented, whereas the allegorical expression is merely the abstract purveyor of a concrete thought or truth that always remains at one remove: "The Symbolical cannot per haps be better defined in distinction from the Allegorical, than that it is always itself a part of that, of the whole of which it is representative. - 'Here comes a sail,' (that is a ship) is a symbolical expression. 'Behold our lion!' when we speak of some gallant soldier, is allegorical... The advantage of symbolic writing over allegory is, that it presumes no dis junction of faculties, but simple dominance" (quoted in A 16-17). Coleridge, in short, writes "symbol" where we would write "synecdoche" (or, possibly, "metonymy"), and "allegory" where we would have "metaphor."
The valorization of the symbol that takes place at the dawn of Romanticism, must of course be seen in conjunction with the redefini tion of selfhood that takes place in the period. By associating the symbol with synecdoche, Coleridge in effect paves the way for an understanding of the world parte totum, so to speak. Historically a neutral term, allegory is hereby made suspicious, as being a form of representation that is somehow disassociated from the individual subject. Allegorical writing presumes a "disjunction of faculties," a distribution or dissemination of the power of understanding that has the unwanted effect of making the individual unable to grasp the significance of what is written, unless she is aided by conceptual faculties other than her own senses - for instance, the ideological framework of a religious or political creed, or some other system of norms codified by a social collective.
We do well to bear this in mind when we consider the resurgence of interest in the concept of allegory that has taken place during the last three decades or so. Having fallen out of grace at the end of the eighteenth century, allegory has remained in disrepute throughout the major part of the twentieth century, but has now, it seems safe to say, been restored as a central concept of critical and theoretical discourse. But what is this allegory that has reemerged recendy? How are we to understand the term? Does allegory stand in an antithetical relation to symbolism, as Coleridge suggested? And is it a mode of writing, or rather a way of reading?
It is the aim of this paper to demonstrate the validity of the distinction between symbol and allegory, but to recast it as a distinction between two interrelated forms of activity, rather than between two ontological species, which is what the distinction would seem to involve in Coleridge's phrasing. In so doing, we will also have reason to reexamine the equally problematic distinction between allegory and allegoresis, that is, between allegorical writing and allegorical reading. While such a distinction may seem pragmatically sound, it will be seen that it encounters insurmount able difficulties when confronted with the question of the intentionality of the allegorical structure, as becomes especially evident when we turn the focus from canonical allegories to the unveiling of ideological allegories that have played a central role in reasserting the importance of allegory as a concept in late twentieth-century criticism. Here, too, however, the notion of allegoresis as distinct from allegory as such becomes problematic, for while it is a principle that allows the critic to read any given text in accordance with the interpretive code or grammar of her preference, there would seem to be no way to keep the allegorical impulse itself in check; to assert, that is, the viability of one allegorical reading over another.
Whether we agree that allegory is reductive or not, we must grant that there is a finality to allegory wholly lacking in symbolism: the symbol knows no limit, it makes us swoon - allegory, in contrast, always has an end. This, it seems to me, is what makes allegory - both as writing and as interpretation - indispensable: it imposes a limit upon desire, which in symbolism goes unchecked. Or, rather, desire in symbolism works only one way: symbolical interpretation is always capable of generating new avatars of the symbol that it flaunts - indeed, it is compelled to do so. Allegory, on the other hand, turns desire into a relational concept: it defuses the disseminating potential of desire, in a sense, by investing it into a specific signified, which becomes a mirror of the interpreting subject; much like God comes to reflect and illuminate Dante in the final canto of Divina Commedia. The ultimate aim of this paper, then, is to interrogate the attempts that have been made to transpose Dante's conception of allegory (or at any rate, that of his time) to our own, in order to determine how the end that allegory assumes, as a consequence of its reflective nature, must be understood today.

2. Allegory as Genre

The classical definition of allegory as a genre, or more precisely, as a mode of writing, is that of Quintilian: "Allegoria... aut aliud verbis aliud sensu ostendit aut etiam interim contrarium." ["Allegory… either presents one thing in words and another in meaning, or else something absolutely opposed to the meaning of the words."] Concentrated to its first half, this has become the traditional definition of allegory; in the simplest terms, as Angus Fletcher puts it, "allegory says one thing and means another" (A 2). But if this is the case, almost any verbal message would have to be recognized as being more or less allegorical: "in discussing literature generally we must be ready to discern in almost any work at least a small degree of allegory" (A 8). This definition, then, threatens to make allegory an all-inclusive term, and hence useless for the purposes of critical discourse.
The attempt to argue the case for allegory as a distinct genre is motivated in part by an urge to obviate this difficulty. Thus Maureen Quilligan, for instance, holds that punning is the defining generic characteristic of allegory, in combination with the essentially ethical argument the allegorical text confronts the reader with: "Language does or does not lie."
The argument for the imperative ethical nature of allegory is not misdirected as such; we will have reason to get back to it below. But Quilligan draws attention to this demand only in order to draw a boundary for the complications it raises; firstiy, by confining the ethical demand of literature (and ultimately, of language) within the limits of a specific genre, and, secondly, by turning this ethical demand into a choice concerning a binary opposition.
The allegorical nature of language, however, derives precisely from the recognition of the impossibility of establishing a logical relation between word and object, and between text and interpreter. Therefore, as long as the fundamental structural device of the binary opposition is left intact, we have in fact implicitiy denied the utility of allegory. Such, at least, is the upshot of Paul de Man's redefinition of the concept. For de Man, Coleridge's distinction between allegory and symbol in The Statesman's Manual is not the "unqualified assertion of the superiority of the symbol over allegory" that it appears to be at first sight. The difference between symbol and allegory, de Man argues, is not that the former allows for a synthesis of the perceived image and its inherent signified, while the latter does not, as is usually taken to be the case, since the notion of translucence introduced by Coleridge into the definition of the symbol has the effect of spiritualizing this concept to such an extent "that the moment of material existence by which it was originally defined has now become altogether unimportant: symbol and allegory alike now have a common origin beyond the world of matter" (BI 192). The difference is, rather, that whereas "the symbol postulates the possibility of an identity or identification, allegory designates primar ily a distance in relation to its own origin, and, renouncing the nostalgia and the desire to coincide, it establishes its language in the void of this temporal difference. In so doing, it prevents the self from an illusory identification with the non-self, which is now fully, though painfully, recognized as a non-self (BI 207).
The means by which this painful recognition may be alleviated is that of irony. The irony in question is the specific romantic irony, which "splits the subject into an empirical self that exists in a state of inauthenticity and a self that exists only in the form of a language that asserts the knowledge of this inauthenticity" (BI 214); the paradigm case, of course, is that of a fictional character aware of its own fictionality, as in, say, Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. The inauthenticity of the empirical self thus corresponds to the inauthenticity of the (temporal) symbol's identification with the eternal, whereas the ironic view of the self as a mere rhetorical construction corresponds to allegory's affirmation of the necessary distance between its language (what is said), and the origin of this language (what is meant). Irony, then, shares with allegory a certain structural trait, "in that, in both cases, the relationship between sign and meaning is discontinuous, involving an extraneous principle that determines the point and the manner at and in which the relationship is articulated... [T]he sign points to something that differs from its literal meaning and has for its function the thematization of this difference" (BI 209). Irony, de Man concludes, "is a synchronie structure, while allegory appears as a successive mode capable of engendering duration as the illusion of a continuity that it knows to be illusionary" (BI 226). The temporality generated by allegory, then, is fictitious, because in positing a continuity between the points of the temporal flow, allegory tacidy assumes that the diachronicity of this flow is nevertheless governed by an inherent synchronicity. Which is to say that allegorical time is properly speaking not time at all, but a specific kind of space: it is a text wherein every letter is already written, and therefore acquires its meaning from its position in relation to the other letters, which must be understood as the temporal moments of the text.
As we shall see below, this conception of time is analogous to the Biblical conception of history. According to de Man, however, what emerges in the Romantic period (and even more decisively, perhaps, in the pre-Romantic period), is the awareness that this continuity is strictly speaking illusory: that it is made possible by the structuring movement of the ironic principle, which allows us to traverse the moment, so to speak, thereby tying what is in truth a discontinuous moment to other moments equally discontinuous. It might appear, then, as if irony became yet another foundational principle, on the stable basis of which a logical epistemology could be raised anew. But because irony allows the individual to take an "outside" view of herself from a position within herself, irony also reveals this self to be a fiction: if it is possible for me to take an external view of myself from an internal vantage point, the space designated by this "internal" point must itself be fictitious. Thus if fiction is conceived of as a space from which a threatened reality may be regained, then this reality must itself be illusive.
The deconstructive practice of de Man thus confronts us with a double negativity: an allegorical time which is not time, but time as a space; and an ironic Self, which is not the indubitable spatial conscious ness of Descartes' cogito, but space as time. It is on the basis of this double negation that our notions of both self and world are constructed. Therefore, the only way to escape the lack, or blindness, which is bound to plague our investigations (since it is inherent in the very concepts which make the investigation possible) is to make the lack itself the telos of our investigations. Allegorical readings, then, must proceed on the assumption that what they finally uncover is the utterly contingent nature of their own practice.
This is the distressing circumstance that critics who make the case for allegory as a genre rather than a form of activity seek to circumvent by pleading the case for a radical distinction between allegory and allegoresis. On Quilligan's account, for instance, allegory ultimately becomes a symbol of the reader's experience of reading it: it is the "invitation to interpret one's interpretation, to judge one's character by one's reading, that distinguishes allegory from other autoreferential modes of fiction" (LA 252-53). We are forced to conceive of this invitation in symbolic rather than allegorical terms because Quilligan refuses to subject the reading process itself to analysis, preferring instead simply to assert the homology between the reading experience and the meaning of the allegory read. As a consequence, the bilateral process of allegory is short-circuited, turning it into a one-way relation between text and reader, rather than a continuous transference between them. Thus the fact that the point of allegory would seem to be to establish a "vertical" relation between a present signifier and an absent signified (that is, a metaphoric relation between narrative and meaning) need no longer trouble us, since in this view the true value of allegory resides rather in its linear manipulations of the reader. Allegories, in short, "do not need allegoresis” (LA 31). The metaphorical aspect of allegory is thus subsumed under its metonymical aspect: the relational mode of allegory is transformed into the transcendental mode of the symbol, which in contrast to the former does not recognize a limit to its potency, as the meaning of the symbol always lies ahead, because in contrast to what is the case in allegory the meaning of the symbol is present, yet necessarily in partial form.

3. Allegory as Interpretation

The case for allegory as a genre rather than a mode of interpretation rests on the assumption that there exists a set of distinctive textual features, such that it is possible for us to determine whether or not a text deserves to be labeled an allegory. Historically, however, it is a well documented fact that allegory begins as allegoresis: "allegorical interpre tation, chiefly of the Homeric epics, began well in advance of any sustained allegorical works and played a significant role in their emergence." Originally, then, allegory is a way of reading, a systematic way of understanding the text that is based upon an intersubjectively deter mined norm. It is not difficult, in this light, to see why allegory has been accused of being reductive; indeed, of being a promulgator of specific power structures: typically that of God, or rather, that of the Church.
From the conception of the world as a text written by God, confirming his supreme power, it is of course but a short step to the notion of the writer as a vicarious God, who by writing the text creates it and thus bestows a meaning upon it. It is hardly surprising, then, that the concept of allegory has traditionally been associated with the notion of the writer as the origin of the literary work; in this perspective, a text can be an allegory only insofar as the writer has intended it as such.
Needless to say, the notion of unconscious allegories that has devel oped during the twentieth century with the emergence of psychoanalysis radically challenges this traditional linking of allegorical meaning with authorial intent. The notion of the unconscious as such implies a change in interpretive emphasis, from the act of writing to the act of reading. If there is such a thing as the unconscious, meaning no longer can be seen as something that is determined once and for all in the creative act, but must be seen, rather, as a process in which a previously hidden (or even nonexistent) meaning at a subsequent stage may be taken as an explanation for a sense of the text that has not existed before. The allegorical leyer that is thus exposed, the interpreter will insist, was really there from the beginning, yet it remained unconscious until it received its retrospective enunciation. History no longer is what it was; instead, history becomes according to how it is read, that is, interpreted. In a way, the assertion of unconscious allegories marks a return to the medieval appropriation of the Hellenistic conception of allegory as allegoresis. In this practice, any text could be taken as the holder of a hidden meaning (God), as God was seen as the ultimate Writer of every text. Twentieth-century hermeneutics repeats this assumption, merely substituting Society or Historical Context for God.
The principle at work here is that which Freud calls "Überdeterminierung" ("overdetermination"), or "mehrfache Determinierung" ("multiple determination"). One of the most challenging attempts to system atize the application of this principle in literary analysis is the case mounted by Fredric Jameson in The Political Unconscious, which "conceives of the political perspective ... as the absolute horizon of all reading and all interpretation." Jameson supports this bold claim by introducing his book with a long chapter delineating the nature of interpretation. The fundamental premise of his argument is suggested by the very tide of his book, namely that the true significance of literary works?and, indeed, of any cultural artifact?can be revealed only when they are seen "as socially symbolic acts" (PU 20). This entails that interpretation is conceived of as an essentially allegorical operation, a translation of literal into hidden meaning. Thus, while noting that the critique against various modes of twentieth-century hermeneutics could be seen as a denunciation of "a system of allegorical interpretation in which the data of one narrative line are radically impoverished by their rewriting according to the paradigm of another narrative, which is taken as the former's master code or Ur-narrative and proposed as the ultimate hidden or unconscious meaning of the first one" (PU 22), Jameson claims his own project is less to dismande or deconstruct this kind of allegorical interpretation, than to provide an alternative to it in the form of an "immanent or antitranscendent hermeneutic model" (PU 23).
As Jameson makes clear, the hermeneutic tradition that he simulta neously turns against and continues is that of "the Christian philosophy of history" (PU 18), as elaborated by Augustine and others. Much of the philosophical and political force of the Christian view of history arguably derives from the fact that it encompasses a total conception of history?in the transition between Genesis, the Gospels, and the Revela tion, the Bible presents us with a complete narrative, one that is in possession of all the necessary constituents listed by Aristode in the Poetics: a beginning, a middle, and an end. At first sight, this may not seem very original: most mythologies, after all, come with an account of the birth and death of the world. What makes Christianity unique, however, is precisely the way in which the origin and end are connected through the middle, that is, by the story of the Life of Christ, which becomes the locus not only of the temporal mediation between the past and the future, but also of the spatial mediation between the individual and God, whose very omniscience allows us to look upon him as an embodiment of the collective. The life of Christ, it is important to observe, does not end with the Gospels: in providing the type of the Present, the coming of Christ has made available a space that did not exist prior to his birth. Prior to the Life of Christ the present was a moment ceaselessly fading away; subsequendy, it has become the site of an ongoing temporality in which every person re-enacts the original type, thereby lending to history a continuous presence.
In order to replace the Christian narrative - the significance of which I have sketched above - Jameson looks primarily to marxism, which in his view is the only philosophy of history which is able to recover the urgency of the political struggles of the past "within the unity of a single great collective story" (PU 19). Citing "The Communist Manifesto" on the history of "all hitherto existing society" as "the history of class struggles," Jameson adds: "It is in detecting the traces ofthat uninter rupted narrative, in restoring to the surface of the text the repressed and buried reality of this fundamental history, that the doctrine of a political unconscious finds its function and its necessity" (PU 20).
As this passage makes clear - and as is signalled by the very tide of Jameson's study - in order to present an efficient alternative to the Christian view of history, marxism has to be supplemented by the central concept of Freudian psychoanalysis, the unconscious, which comes to fulfill in the marxist paradigm a function parallel to that which the story of the Life of Christ performs in the Christian paradigm. Somewhat in the same manner as in the early writings of Wilhelm Reich, Jameson transposes the concept of the unconscious from the locus of the individual to that of the social sphere at large. This is a seminal move; particularly edifying is Jameson's revivification of the medieval fourfold scheme for interpreting the Bible. This highly suggestive interpretive methodology is the acme of the typological tradition, which grew out of the need to relate the truth of the Old Testament to that of the New. In other words, its express purpose was to retain a past truth while simultaneously transforming its significance in the light of a future projected by the present.
Jameson illustrates the function of this scheme by recounting what has become its archetypal example: the interpretation of the Exodus as a prefiguration of the Life of Christ (including his death and final resurrection). Dante advances the same example in his letter to Can Grande in explaining the allegorical mode of The Divine Comedy:

And this mode of treatment, for its better manifestation, may be considered in this verse: "When Israel came out of Egypt, and the house of Jacob from a people of strange speech, Judaea became his sanctification, Israel his power." For if we inspect the letter alone the departure of the children of Israel from Egypt in the time of Moses is presented to us; if the allegory, our redemption wrought by Christ; if the moral sense, the conversion of the soul from the grief and misery of sin to the state of grace is presented to us; if the anagogical, the departure of the holy soul from the slavery of this corruption to the liberty of eternal glory is presented to us.

To recapitulate: in the literal sense of the biblical text, the exodus marks a historical event, something that has really happened. In the allegorical sense of the text, this historical event signifies the Life of Christ. In the moral sense of the text, the same event represents the individual's psychological experience of the truth of the allegorical signified, in observing how his life repeats the pattern provided by the Life of Christ. And in the anagogical sense of the text, finally, the historical event points forward to the final referent of the allegorical key, namely the Apocalypse.
In Jameson's appropriation of this scheme, the allegorical sense, or level (which is the term Jameson uses), is designated as the "allegorical key or interpretive code": it is, in other words, the site of the political unconscious. One should bear in mind, however, that what attracts Jameson to this model is "the closure of the scheme as a whole," rather than the possibility that it might function as an exhaustive model of interpretive practice. The importance of the anagogical level, in Jameson's version of the scheme, derives from the fact that it constitutes a "political reading" of the text, a reading in which the "collective 'meaning' of history" is revealed (PU 31). This seems to me a somewhat reductive conception of the function fulfilled by the anagogical sense in the medieval scheme, and indeed, in the marxist scheme substituting for it. We cannot automatically associate collectivity and politics in this manner - after all, the fully realized communism that Marx projects as the final stage of his philosophy of history marks the end of politics as much as its consummation. As a result, the fourfold scheme comes to take on the aspect of an ingenious parable rather than a systematic interpretive operation by means of which one could arrive at a mode of interpretation, "such that not only the content of the analysis, but the very method itself, along with the analyst, then comes to be reckoned into the 'text' or phenomenon to be explained" (PU 47).
While Jameson is surely right in remarking that "the relationship the Christian scheme projects between anagogical and moral is not available to us today" (PU 31), it is notable that his appropriation of the model does not remedy this complication. In Jameson's hands the Christian paradigm is simply displaced by a marxist paradigm, the functionality of which is as dependent upon an article of faith as is that of the Christian scheme. To associate the anagogical level with a collective experience, in other words, is to posit the primacy of the social totality, a presupposition which seems defensible only if we are willing to take the marxist perspective that Jameson propounds for granted, as something of a given. The arrival at a collective destiny can only be termed an ultimate end if we have already decided in favor of the preeminence of the collective over the individual, of the universal over the particular, of the Idea over its concrete embodiment. While such presuppositions may be valid within a particular interpretive framework, they are obviously insupportable when it is the very validity of this foundation that is in dispute. It is not that Jameson is mistaken in associating the anagogic with the collective - on the contrary, the anagogic must be able to account for the mediation between the particular and the general, and hence must embrace a totality. However, the arrival at the collective sphere merely marks the recognition of spatial totality. This must be complemented by a notion of temporal totality if we are to be able to grasp the functionality of the anagogic as such. Jameson's revivification of the medieval fourfold system of interpretation, although interesting, is therefore clearly not sufficient for our purposes. In order to benefit from the deconstructive critique of the last decades, we must reject the temptation of positing the anagogical sense of the text as yet another sense to be found within the text, and conceive of it instead as the very conceptual framework which makes possible the activity of the text, writing and reading.

4. Allegory as System

We should recognize, therefore, that the importance of the anagogical sense derives from the fact that it projects an ending: an end that, because it involves mankind in its totality, determines the meaning of the narrative sequences of the other levels. We do well to remember that according to Scriptures the final victory of Yahweh that was supposed to coincide with the coming of the Messiah was associated with a notion of the end of history. As Henri de Lubac has pointed out, from the book of Daniel onwards the expected triumph of Yahweh "appears as the end of human history." Christ did not, of course, effect the promise of an everlasting kingdom that the Book of Daniel holds forth. Nevertheless, as Jean Daniélou has demonstrated, the main purpose of Apostolic preaching was to show that the Messianic typology of the Old Testament prophets "had been fulfilled in Jesus Christ." To do so is to argue that the promise of the Messiah has been fulfilled not as an actual condition, but as a prophecy: as a type of what is still to come. It is not a supplementary prophecy, however; on the contrary the prophecy is instrumental in bringing about the end to which it looks forward. (Again, the structural similarity between the Christian and the marxist narrative is readily apparent: like Christianity, marxism has the character of an instrumental prophecy.) This points to the importance of the moral sense of allegorical interpretation, as it is through the individual that a relation between past, present, and future is established; which is also why we must conceive of history as a drama, rather than the tedious unveiling of a story whose outcome is already known. We know how it will end, but we have still to find out what this end will mean to us. The allegorical sense of the text, which makes history intelligible to the individual, will come to nought unless the individual is willing to acknowledge the ethical demand that her use of the allegorical key bestows upon her. This circumstance is highlighted by A. C. Charity, who argues persuasively that "the intellectual claim of typology is nothing without the existential claim, and demand, which accompany it." He continues:

The proposition "Jesus Christ is history's fulfillment, to which all history is related in as much as in him it finds its norm, its perfector and judge," is not a proposition to which one can assent without affirming also "Christ is my perfector and my judge." We may believe that it is valid to make the claim, in some such form as this, almost abstractiy, as a dogmatic statement; but it exists as genuinely true . . . only as confession and as self-surrender, here and now. (EA 159)

For allegorical interpretation - or typology, as Charity prefers to refer to it - to be genuine, it has to be applied, it must involve the interpreter in the object or event he or she is interpreting. In other words, allegory - or "applied typology" - requires that the interpreter subject herself to an already codified system of norms.
The anagogical sense of the text thus constitutes what might legiti mately be called the master plot of the text; it is only in relation to this plot that the plot of Christ's death on the cross acquires its significance. The essence of allegory, we should keep in mind, is always relational: it facilitates the transition from one plot to another. The problem with Jameson's marxist adaptation of the fourfold scheme of interpretation is that it does not account for how, and why, we are able?or, rather, compelled?to hierarchize the systematisation of plots inherent in the medieval fourfold scheme. Hence it is unable to restrain the process of allegoresis: just as the marxist paradigm may substitute for the Christian paradigm as the master plot of the text, the marxist narrative may itself be displaced by some other interpretive paradigm - whatever plot we come up with as the true significance of the literal plot, this plot could always be substituted by yet another, and so forth, ad infinitum. This dilemma must necessarily occur if we evade the essential question of the individual reader's involvement with the text; that is, if we fail to account for how readings are produced.
It will be helpful, in this context, to consider briefly Northrop Frye's appropriation of the medieval scheme in Anatomy of Criticism, and the critique Jameson directs at it. In Frye's "Theory of Symbols," the four senses of the medieval scheme (literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogic) correspond to four phases (descriptive, formal, mythical, and anagogic), to which Frye adds an additional first phase, which he calls?much to the chagrin of the reader who may feel matters are quite sufficientiy complicated already?the literal, by which he means the "letters" of a poem, "its inner structure of interlocking motifs," its "rhythm or movement of words."
While commending Frye's identification of a mythical or archetypal phase which "looks at poetry as one of the techniques of civilization," and hence is concerned "with the social aspect of poetry, with poetry as the focus of a community" (AC 99), Jameson faults him for recontaining and ultimately privatizing this social aspect of literature by subsuming it under the image of "the libidinal body" that Frye advances in his delineation of the final, anagogic phase. In other words, Jameson accuses Frye of reversing the terms of the medieval scheme, to the effect that the finality this scheme associates with the collective becomes associated, for Frye, with "the category of individual experience" (PU 74). Jameson supports his view by quoting Frye as stating that his "fourth level... is the third medieval level of moral and tropological meaning" (AC 116). There is no incongruence between Frye and the medieval scheme on this point, however, since the fourth level of Frye is not the anagogic, but the formal. Nor does it seem quite fair to say that the anagogic phase privatizes the social aspect of life, since for Frye, man in this phase already embraces the collective:

When we pass into anagogy, nature becomes, not the container, but the thing contained, and the archetypal universal symbols… are no longer the desirable forms that man constructs inside nature, but are themselves the forms of nature. Nature is now inside the mind of an infinite man who builds his cities out of the Milky Way. This is not reality, but it is the conceivable or imaginative limit of desire, which is infinite, eternal, and hence apocalyptic. By an apocalypse I mean infinite and eternal living body which, if not human, is closer to being human than to being inanimate. (AC 119)

An infinite and eternal living body - what else could this be but the collective human race throughout its historical existence?
Nevertheless, there is some justification for maintaining that the anagogical phase becomes a weak spot in Frye's system, although for a somewhat different reason; in fact, the weak spot of Frye's system is reproduced in Jameson's adaptation. In Frye's conception, the anagogic phase is associated with the "conception of a total Word" which in analogy with Aristode's notion of the unmoved mover "is the postulate that there is such a thing as an order of words" (AC 126); but also with the feeling that, from the circumference of this total Word, "we have moved into the still center of the order of words" (AC 117). This phase, then, marks the reestablishment of a connection between origin and end, a return to "the centripetal aspect of meaning" (AC 80) designated by the literal phase, in which a poem belongs neither to society nor to the individual, but simply "to the class of things called poems, which in their turn form part of the larger class known as works of art" (AC 78). Literature, then, is ultimately concerned only with itself?a view which would have seemed less unsatisfactory if Frye had specified the principle of mediation by which literature passes from the still center of the order of words to the apocalyptic circumference which embraces all mankind and all history. As it stands, his theory of symbols is more of a monument over the New Critical conception of the autonomy of the literary work of art than the grand refutation of this view that it strives to be.
This shortcoming is the direct outcome of Frye's modification of the medieval fourfold scheme; that is, of the redefinition of the literal sense of literature that he undertakes on the grounds that one must maintain an absolute distinction between literary and nonliterary texts. When this centripetal sense of the text is assigned an autonomous phase, it is in effect cut off from the interpreting subject. In order to reestablish the relation between the reader and the literality of the text, this dissevering must be undone. Such a restoration is most purposefully achieved by reintegrating the literal with the descriptive phase, carefully pointing out that while there is some justification for holding that these two phases are temporally distinct, they are nevertheless spatially identical. When Frye insists on the necessity of distinguishing between the literal and the descriptive phases, he is overlooking the dual status of the literal sense in the medieval scheme, where it functions at once as a designation of a historical fact and as a prophecy, that is to say, as signified and signifier respectively. Frye rightly senses that this poses a problem, since if we are to be able to maintain that it is the signifying capacity of the text that is the point of departure for literary criticism, this literal level must not already be contaminated with history, so to speak. As Jameson senses, however, the consequence of Frye's solution to the problem is that the literal phase is completely voided of historicity.
Jameson's own appropriation of the fourfold scheme could hardly be faulted on this account. Like Frye's version, however, it replicates the notion of the text as an autonomous object in which the four senses of the medieval scheme are somehow contained, and, as we have already pointed out, this entails that it is unable to impose a limit upon allegoresis. The force of the medieval scheme, we must bear in mind, hinges upon the universality of its allegorical key: the fact, that is, that the story of the Life of Christ is potentially the story of Everyman. If we want to refashion this scheme to our own purposes, the allegorical key we make use of must be such that it can be applied to any text: it must be able to annihilate the differences between, say, Pet Cemetary and The Aeneid, or The House at Pooh Corner and Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Allegory is a means to impose a sense of universality: when read through the allegorical key, every text should potentially tell the same story, regardless of its historical and rhetorical specificities, just as every life potentially reenacts the allegorical paradigm in the medieval scheme. Jameson's assertion that the notion of the political unconscious may function as the allegorical key to any text is an ingenious move; but it stops short at explicating the textual features of this political uncon scious, and as a result is laid open to doubt. The question of how the private act of reading a text must be said to involve a collectivity goes unanswered.
It seems to me that we can avoid the equally undesirable conse quences of Frye's and Jameson's versions of the medieval scheme only if we are willing to acknowledge that an adequate appropriation of it must embrace a conception of the text as consisting of an outside and an inside, and that this conception must simultaneously be able to specify how outside and inside are interconnected. Such a conception is in fact suggested by the tripartite division of the text into narrative discourse, narrating agent, and story that is nowadays customary in most narratological models of the text. These terms, however, cover only the first (literal) and second (allegorical) levels of the medieval scheme. The narratological terminology thus refers to what we will call the "inside" of the text, or more appropriately, its intranarrative aspects. The moral and anagogical senses of the text, conversely, cover the "outside," or extranarrative, aspects of the text.
To say that the literal sense comprises the narratological categories of narrative discourse and narrating is to acknowledge that Frye is in a sense right to talk of a literal and descriptive phase, while simultaneously insisting that the integration of the signifying potential of the literal phase with its potential for signification (the historical "content" that Frye calls the descriptive phase), is always in truth deferred until we have already traversed the anagogical sense of the text: the literal sense of the text can be infused with a descriptive (or historical) sense only once it has already been subject to interpretation. In other words, we may insist on the "emptiness" of the literal sense of the text as long as we acknowledge that the literal sense is not the origin of the reading process, although we approach it as if it were such a starting point. This is important: it goes to show that far from being neutral, the literal (and/or descriptive) sense of the text is in truth the most heavily overdetermined of all of the four senses our scheme allows, since in order to arrive at the descriptive or historical aspect of the literal sense we must already have traversed the hermeneutic system in its entirety.
We will suggest, then, that the anagogical sense of the text must be equated with the act of interpretation itself. There is, after all, one relation which is present in all texts: that between the writer and the reader, or, in other words, the relation between an absent origin and a present end, of which one must paradoxically say that the absence is intrinsic to the narrative discourse, while the presence is extrinsic to it. It is the existence of this relation that enables us to generate the other three senses through an act - or, rather, a series of acts - of interpretation. Once these senses have been constituted, they will each in turn point toward their origin, which is also their end, thereby creating the self reflexive quality of the text which is essential to all reading/writing.
The anagogical sense of the text thus constitutes the space in which interpretation takes place: it is a space in which the temporality governing the other three senses of the narrative is annulled. It is a space that is determined by an end that is not available through any of the other senses of the text, except in the form of figurai prefigurations of this end. This end cannot be determined in advance, independendy of an active engagement with the signified senses of the narrative in which the act of reading consists, yet it has a name: it is what we call "the meaning of the text." To assert such an end is to perform an allegorical as opposed to a symbolical act of interpretation. Yet by conceiving of this meaning as something that belongs to the act of reading rather than something that is produced by the narrative independendy of such an act, we have designed a strategy for deferral, which allows us endlessly to postpone the final revelation of this meaning.
The act of reading thus conceived structurally repeats the revisionism that Frank Kermode has shown to be inherent in apocalyptic pronounce ments. The Apocalypse, Paul Ricoeur notes in discussing Kermode's valuable book, "offers the model of a prediction that is continually invalidated without ever being discredited, hence of an end that is itself constandy put off." The upshot of this strategic deferral is that the end becomes a matter of immanence rather than imminence; it is transposed from a temporal to a spatial aspect of narrative, from a concept to which we are predominandy metonymically related, to a concept to which our relation is predominantly metaphorical. This is the meaning of the text, we say; time will prove us right. That time frequendy disproves our bold assertions of having unveiled the anagogical signified of the text is of litde or no matter to the allegorical interpreter, since in having asserted this meaning we have already achieved our goal, which is to impose a sense of meaningfulness upon the text by transforming what is essentially a metonymic process into a metaphoric object, to which a specific force is attributable.
We come up, then, with an understanding of the four senses of the text that can be summarized in the following way:

The narrative discourse, including the intranarrative narrator.

The universal story of the narrative as a mise en abyme of the mediation of the narrative itself.

The narrative as seen through the ideological matrix we choose to apply to it as a secondary allegorical key.

The meaning of the narrative as determined by the reader (that is, the extranarrative narrator).

In the fourfold scheme drawn above, history is understood as an exclusively intratextual concept. The narrative itself is the local history in question; through the allegorical interpretation of this narrative as a mise en abyme of the act of reading itself, local history is transformed into a kind of prophecy. This prophecy is manifested as moral history in the relations between the textual segments of the narrative, the significance of which is ultimately dependent upon how it is understood, that is, anagogically determined by the reader. This is not to say that the intratextual history of the narrative is not related to what we refer to as "real" history. But this "real" history enters into the narrative only through its anagogical sense, which is the conceptual space occupied by writer and reader alike. The anagogical sense of the text, then, is an extranarrative spatial site embracing two distinct positions or functions (the writer and the reader), and has as its counterpart the intranarrative spatial site constituted by the two temporally distinct functions of the literal and the descriptive sense of the text. These two spaces - the anagogical and the literal - are separated by a temporal gap, which is constituted by the other two senses of the text. These are the senses or levels traversed by writer and reader alike, although in inverted direc tions: for the writer, this traversal effects his transformation into a reader, whilst for the reader the traversal transforms her into a writer - at any rate, the passage makes possible such textual gender-switching. Which is to say that "real" history always enters the text as a function that already belongs to the "inside" of the text. History is never exterior to the text, because insofar as it enters into the text at all, it does so in the form of the actual writer and the actual reader, both of whom function as intratextual principles of the text, not as exterior performers of this text. Rather than an ontological object, then, the text is more properly seen as a process between the writer and the reader, and hence as a performance by some extraneous principle - God, Being, History, whatever we want to call it; but at any rate, a transcendental (collective) subject in relation to which writer and reader alike must be construed of as objects. The dialectical movement of allegory, then, cannot be conceived in terms of a movement between subject and object, since the literal and the anagogical position alike are already destabilized, both being made up of dialectical relations in their own right, between signifier and signified, and between writer and reader, respectively.

5. Conclusion: The End of Interpretation

There are, to conclude, two justifiable definitions of allegorical interpretation, but we will want to retain only one. The first definition is the traditional one, according to which the interpreter subjects herself to a fixed system of norms, a set of ideological dicta that prescribes the parameters of the epistemic universe available to the allegorical dis course. Allegory is always dependent upon a fixed system of understanding - whether seen as a genre or a mode of writing it requires the existence of a manual for interpretation, as it were, to come into being. Any given manual, we must admit, could fill the purpose, be it Christian, psychoanalytic, marxist, feminist, liberal, or fascist. The ideological overtones of each respective paradigm - the content of the analysis, so to speak - can not pose a criterion for our preferring the one interpretive matrix over the other; instead, our criterion must be made up exclusively of the structural refinement of the matrix in question.
The major drawback of this definition of allegorical interpretation, as we have seen above, is that it forces us to conceive of the determining point of the interpretation as something that remains external to the act of reading the text. In other words, it compels us to conceive of the anagogic as a sense that does not stand in any direct relation either to the interpreted text or the temporal situation in which it is read; it makes of the anagogic a transcendent category, from a spatial as well as temporal perspective. As a result the anagogic becomes metonymically rather than metaphorically related to the interpreter; or, to talk with Kermode, imminendy rather than immanendy related to the hermenuetic system we employ to make sense of the world. This conception of allegorical interpretation consequendy retains the metonymical charac ter that Coleridge ascribes to the symbol, and hence is unable to draw a limit for the symbolist impulse that dominates twentieth-century literary criticism, in which the part (regardless of whether the literal, the moral, or the allegorical one) necessarily substitutes for the whole, since the whole is taken to be inexhaustible. The dominance of this interpretive paradigm is hardly a coincidence - it is closely aligned to capitalistic liberalism, in that it tacitiy supports an ideology of production; that is, an ideology that does not recognize a limit for productivity. Much like the natural resources of the world, the signifying potential of the text is taken to be - in practice, if not in theory - without an end.
The alternative definition of an allegorical interpretation that has been sketched above takes no comfort in such manifestations of hope in the inexhaustible resources of the world. Whether raided for its natural or its interpretive capital, the world in this view is looked upon not as the starting point from which the universe can be conquered, but rather as being, like the interpretive act itself, simultaneously the origin and the ultimate telos toward which our narrative – history - strives. On this definition, the master plot - or determining signified?of any narrative concerns the parameters of its own enunciation. Any genuine allegorical interpretation, then, must proceed on the assumption that what the interpreted text is ultimately about is the way it is read, but it must also acknowledge its paradoxical foundation: that language does and does not lie. It lies, in pretending to set free a meaning it cannot deliver; and it does not lie, in making itself out to be simultaneously the source of constraint and of emancipation, of allegory and allegoresis.
This insistence upon the importance of the self-reflective aspect of literature will no doubt strike people who have long since grown tired of deconstruction as disappointing. I wish to stress, therefore, that the fourfold hermeneutic model that we have appropriated from the medieval exegetes of the Bible, does not mark a turn away from the historical and psychological realities that the interpretive matrixes that provide the backbone of the first definition of allegorical interpretation seemingly make available to us. On the contrary, it is only by facing up to the blindness that the deconstructive insight condemns us to that we may be said to truly engage these realities; which is to say that we do allow a place for the matrices of these realities - if not the realities "themselves" - in our fourfold scheme of interpretation. Only, we insist that they must be taken to express the moral sense of the scheme, which is the sense that is always tied up with a specific temporal moment. The relation between the writer and the reader is mediated by this moral sense, and appears in the reading process as the experience of a gap between the literal and the allegorical sense of the text. This gap can only be bridged by tracing the literal and the allegorical senses back to a posited origin, in a trek that must necessarily pass through the ideological filter of the moral sense of the text. We may schematize this process in the figure below:


Writer and reader constitute a temporal (horizontal) relation, as does narrating and narrated, to which the former pair are connected by the means of a spatial (vertical) relation (the dotted line between the writer and reader serves to indicate that this relation must be seen as a construction that is made possible only by our traversal of the other poles of the scheme). The above scheme thus makes apparent how the moral, or ideological, sense is equivalent to the discourse, which constitutes the point of intersection for all the elements of the textual process: past and future, writer and reader, (literal) signifier and (allegorical) signified, and, finally, history (anagogy) and fiction.
Let us return, if but briefly, to Dante. In Divina Commedia, symbol and allegory merge and become one, because the origin and the end of this remarkable narrative is ultimately the same: God. It is this circumstance that enables Dante to make a case for the historical truth of his great work. In the end, the Comedy is not something which he has written, but rather something which he has read in the reflection of God: the reader and the writer are one?this is the anagogical revelation on which the Comedy, like Christianity, is based. We must imagine, then, that for Dante the relation between the two poles of the anagogic (that we have left out on the grounds that it must be characterized as in some sense unconscious) ultimately takes on the shape of a material bond, expressible, perhaps, in the following figure:


But the means by which Dante achieves the interpenetration of symbol and allegory at the end of Divina Commedia are no longer available to us who live in a society where faith has long since become faiths, and there is no longer any consensus as to what allegorical key may secure the padlocking of desire. Perhaps there never was such a key; perhaps the transcendence of the final canto of the Comedy is itself merely an appearance, the product of our own nostalgic longing for an original fullness that has never truly existed. Regardless whether this is the case or not, our longing, like Dante's, is real, and makes possible a bonding between the present, the past, and the future. Like all forms of utopianism, Christianity turns upon the idea of reconciliation in unity - whether with God, with mankind, or with the universe, is, in this respect, of little importance. We desire a metaphorical abolishment of the metonymical succession which is change; we long for the transformation of metonymy into an eternal metaphor, a metaphor powerful enough to turn desire into something purposeful, as it becomes for Dante in Paradise, where movement does not cease, but is purged of the unintelligible appearance it manifests in our temporal existence. Metaphorically true, metonymically false, allegorical interpretation is an indispensable, if ultimately impossible, practice: an attempt at totalization which can never be fulfilled except through the means of synecdoche.

Date: 2022-12-27