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Allegory Stuff—A Series: Where the Project Came From

After more than a year away from it, I’m finally back to work on my book about allegory. During my Spring 2018 sabbatical, I withdrew from blogging and social media and didn’t post anything online the whole semester. I got a lot done, but there was something pretty monastic about that whole semester that isn’t possible or even desirable right now. Because I’m not working in academia this year, I don’t have the kind of built-in support for this kind of scholarly work that I’ve had in the past; because I’m working on the book evenings and weekends around a full-time and demanding non-academic job, I need to think about how to stay motivated. I’m working on the book proposal right now, and part of that document is writing brief summaries of each chapter. It’s hard to boil down a whole chapter into a paragraph, and that made me think I might enjoy writing informally here in this blog about some of the things I’m working through in each chapter of the book.

So this first post is about the pre-history of the project, and then I’ll occasionally post some chapter summaries and—who knows?—maybe other things about or from the book as well.

How I became interested in allegory: When I was working on my book on Spenserian satire (free download in hyperlink), I ended up naming Edmund Spenser’s way of writing satire “indirect,” in contrast to the more direct style of satire that became possible when press censorship became less extreme in England (thank you, John Milton!). This more direct style flourished in the eighteenth century and became what we think of when we think about satire: sharp, vituperative, naming-names kinds of satirical attacks. But in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century, it was quite a bit more dangerous to speak your mind in print: you might have your hand chopped off for publishing a comment on Queen Elizabeth’s love life (John Stubbs), you might be put to death for having printed the Martin Marprelate tracts (John Penry), or you might be imprisoned for seven years and have your ears cut off for writing a book against plays at a time when Queen Henrietta Maria had recently appeared in a play (William Prynne). So the most prominent theorists of satire, who not surprisingly tend to be specialists in eighteenth-century British literature, will look at the kind of satires written during Spenser’s period and think these writers were a bunch of milquetoasts . . . but it was a different censorship situation.

While working on that book, I read a lot of satirical poetry written during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, some more “direct” and some more “indirect”—poems by Edmund Spenser, of course, but also, in no particular order, John Marston, Thomas Middleton, Thomas Nashe, Joseph Hall, Tailboys Dymoke, Everard Guilpin, “Martin Marprelate,” William Shakespeare, John Skelton, John Donne, Michael Drayton, George Wither, “Peter Woodhouse,” Richard Niccols, John Hepwith, anonymous libels aimed at Robert Cecil, and more. When I first started the project, I was hunting foxes . . . really. Spenser used fox imagery to criticize Robert Cecil’s father, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, in his Mother Hubberds Tale, and my beginning to the project was to look for places where a fox reference might actually be an allusion to Spenser and might therefore be subtly satirical. In its essence, indirect satire is allegorical, because it criticizes without naming who or what is criticized.

What happened as I continued to work on the satire book was that I shifted from hunting foxes and other obvious symbols to something more subtle: the more I read, the more I came to sense intuitively when a poem had shifted from straight narrative or exposition to a passage of allegorical satire. I believe that by immersing myself in so much satire of that time period, I picked up the same sort of habits of attentive reading that led Spenser’s contemporaries—and, unfortunately, also people like Queen Elizabeth and Lord Burghley—to find critical references to famous and powerful people even when no one was mentioned by name. This is “the allegorical intuition,” and it is not exclusive to satirical works but is, I think, what makes allegory recognizable. Medieval and Renaissance allegories tend to announce themselves pretty clearly as allegories, but I started to think about how it is that a reader can recognize a text as allegory when the author doesn’t explicitly proclaim, as Spenser does about The Faerie Queene, that the poem is “cloudily enwrapped in Allegorical devices.” Even when an author does announce an allegory, the nature of the beast is that the work doesn’t refer directly to the “hidden meaning” (that’s what makes it hidden, after all), so a reader is clearly doing some cognitive heavy lifting in order to make sense of any allegory.

I started to think that the brain is doing something very particular when a person recognizes and interprets allegory, so it seemed likely that cognitive metaphor theorists would have already addressed this . . . but they hadn’t. Only one scholar, Peter Crisp, had tried to develop a thorough theory of allegory through the lens of cognitive metaphor theory, and he had not—in my opinion—fully succeeded, because he went down the wrong path when he rejected the idea that allegory has anything to do with what Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner call “blended spaces,” a mental space where ideas, images, and concepts can blend together.

I looked at other theorists of allegory, and I saw over and over again what I think is another mistake: creating definitions of allegory that require that allegory be a narrative. The thing is, when you have a term as old as allegory—a term that names an extremely remarkable feat of the human mind—you end up with a lot of problematic definitions because it really is very hard to explain. So a lot of the erroneous belief that allegory must be narrative in form stems from the very old conflation of allegory with extended metaphor. I came to believe that they are distinct.

And then, during my sabbatical, I was reading a lot of philosophy and theory—posthumanist theory, object-oriented ontology, ideas about vital materialism—all of which share a general desire to topple humans from their unquestioned-for-millennia belief that humans are above everything else on earth, second only to God and then, to the extent that we have moved into a post-religious present, second to no one. Immersing myself in these ideas changed my perspective on a lot of things. One day as I was rereading Angus Fletcher’s “Allegory without Ideas,” in which he mourns the loss of a belief in allegory’s “chief traditional claim” “to be able to project permanent truths,” I suddenly really got that Fletcher, along with C. S. Lewis, Walter Benjamin, and others, attribute something divine or magical to allegory, because yeah, how does it work to get your reader to project out from what is there on the page to other meanings? It’s mysterious AF. So though I knew that this was part of the history of thinking about allegory, it was in that moment that I realized that the view is incompatible with both posthumanist philosophy and also with insights from cognitive science.

That seems like a good place to stop for now. So this was the genesis of the project.


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