Reading through allegory and metaphor

Homeric allegoresis had come into existence as a defense of Homer against philosophy.

E.R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, p.205

This is still true, for few modern students of literature allow themselves to be simply readers; there is the fear which I below called the unliterary, which leads us into the temptation to read literature as a key to something else. This can be sociology, politics, psychology, etc. via the poem or book or painting or film. Those who are literary readers can be either aesthetic or antiaesthetic. An old fashioned (indeed, regarded as antediluvian by most) example of the former would be Harold Bloom, and the boa-deconstructionists of Deconstruction and Criticism (Geoffrey Hartmann, Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller) are occasionally the latter. Most often they are allegorists manqué, and their allegory seeks to elucidate their god of the textual gaps. 

The critique of the coherent text is an attack on metaphysics in the case of the deconstructionists (of the book title, Bloom considers himself the only example of “criticism”), and consequently their anti-logos attitude aligns itself with an opposition to all the evils in the world for which writing somehow bears responsibility. Derrida’s late ethical turn most cogently argued by Simon Critchley‘s Ethics of Deconstruction is a clear manifestation of this. Consider Curtius once again:

Should poetry only give pleasure, or should it be useful too? Horace concentrated much previous discussion of the subject in the humdrum dictum: it should do both. But was Homer useful? Was Homer true? These came to be the basic problems of antique literary theory.

Much the same crypto-theodicy endures today. To save from quoting Bloom or another theorist, consider the spokesface for the intelligent reader, A.A. Gill writing in the Sunday Times Review a few years back, articulating this tortured relationship we still have with art:

“Is it art?” is a question asked by the culturally insecure, those who need to know that the bag they carry their opinions and prejudices in is a real Louis Vuitton. Here is a simple rule: art isn’t anything. The purpose of art isn’t to be art; it’s to move, to be inspiring, depressing, exciting, to manipulate, to realise feelings and thoughts that are too subtle and deep to put names to. It could also make you laugh, comfort you, distress you, and give you a stiffy.

I turn to Paul Ricoeur and his notion of possible worlds often in discussions such as this, but this would be to miss Gill’s point. Some places are inviolable. Some places cannot be contained by logos, by a word or a name. Gill describes an experience, that of the gnosis I relied upon in my previous post. The continual pressure on the aesthetic, literary reader is to resist allegory and to welcome metaphor. What does this mean? Well, allegory is a barter of the mind. It’s zero sum game. It says “this for that”, and we assume it’s a fair exchange, but it is not. It claims there to be a relationship between the giver and the recipient of the work of art, but this is not so. The very point of the art work is that it is extravagant, it is beyond (extra) the bounds (vagans) of such a banal, wordly view of communication and humanity.

The metaphor does not give you the structure of “X is akin to Y”, which is lazy, requiring nothing of you. Instead it makes demands of you:

Forgetfulness is rain at night,
Or an old house in a forest, — or a child.
Forgetfulness is white, — white as a blasted tree,
And it may stun the sybil into prophecy,
Or bury the Gods.

What does this mean? I am not sure. I have to engage with the poet though, and there is a place where our horizons meet, and the poem resides there. The allegory, and simile rely upon the vague circumlocution “like”, a Californian unwillingness to commit to a vision, poetic or otherwise. Circling in the air, touching nothing ,seeing little. They breathe in adjectives to save the hard work of definition, of staking a claim, of saying “this is what I see”. The metaphor lives through nouns. Hart Crane made an effort to explain this, through his Logic of Metaphor. Tim Dean writes “Crane’s criteria are esoteric without being elitist, because nobody is denied access a priori to experiential intensity”, and again there is the connection with the experience.

George Wilson Knight wrote in his essay “on Imaginative Interpretation” that ‘interpretation should be soaked in the dramatic and visual consciousness’. This imaginative interpretation I take to mean aesthetic and literary reading. The dramatic and visual I take to be the inhabiting of a work, the creating that attends to all engagement with creations, examples of art. Reading literature is an experience, and it cannot be made static in a will to allegory, or defined “meaning”. Art is not pinned in a butterfly case.

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