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Theresa M. Kelley, Reinventing Allegory

Friday, December 5, 1997 - 12:40
Theresa Kelley, Reinventing Allegory. Cambridge Studies in Romanticism, 22. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. xv + 345pp. $54.95. (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-43207-3).

Reviewed by

Esther Schor

Princeton University

The dark horse of all the "dark conceits," allegory has not been without champions in our century. Walter Benjamin reclaimed allegory for modernism in 1928, and in the sixties Paul de Man made it the centerpiece of his own rhetoric of Romanticism. Three decades later, we have Theresa Kelley's learned and ambitious study, Reinventing Allegory, which narrates the role of allegory "in the cultural and political temper of modernity" (3). For Kelley "modernity" refers to the ascendancy of the linked values of "empiricism, realism, and plain, rational speech" in the seventeenth century and to the unsettling of Platonic, Augustinian, and "syncretic" ideologies a century earlier (2). While her narrative leaves the conventional periods of literary history (Renaissance, seventeenth century, Restoration, eighteenth century, Romanticism, and Victorianism) more or less undisturbed, her book is a sustained meditation on the vicissitudes not only of allegory, but also of modernity over five centuries.

It is a powerful achievement, and its central conceit—the notion of allegorical agency—derives from a structural ambiguity in Hellenistic and Patristic allegoresis of the Bible, where allegory is simultaneously a poetics and a mode of exegesis. So profoundly are these two types of work conflated that even priority and belatedness become difficult to tease apart; the mediating allegorical integumentum implicitly assumes a priority, if not authority, over what is hidden from view. Hence, to say that allegory performs a type of intellectual and imaginative "work" is not a catachresis; allegory is from its inception a working out of abstractions in the realm of particulars; it is also a kind of interpretation that motivates an ongoing interpretive task in its readership. Kelley's reinvention of allegory lies in her fresh and vital sense of the capacity for allegory to become a formidable agent of cultural critique and subversion on the one hand, and of repression on the other.

A summary of Kelley's argument begins with her claim that allegory "survives after the Renaissance, against pressures that ought to have done it in, by making border raids on the very categories that have been represented as its contraries: realism, mimesis, empiricism, and history" (2); it "makes unexpected alliances with historical and realist particulars to insure its status as a resident alien in modern culture" (3). Kelley's metaphors recast the etymological "other speaking" in the terms of cultural alienation. As the "abjected other" of modernity, allegory becomes a guerrilla mode in the lucent realms of empiricism and rationalism. In its own badlands, however, allegory may replicate the politics of the oppressor: "As a figure that both names and abstracts, allegory is prone to forms of violence akin to those imposed by a tribe or community on a victim who is punished in the name of, or instead of, everyone else" (8). Kelley, with a nod to the work of Angus Fletcher and Spenserians Maureen Quilligan and Linda Gregerson, identifies a pull toward fixity, abstraction and mechanization as the enduring menace of allegory. Two related developments, then, attend the modern endurance of allegory: its figures become saliently material; at the same time, they become increasingly persuasive. Kelley's "explanatory model" is chaperoned by an ethical argument: "Because it is wayward, provisional, and openly factitious, modern allegory can assist a line of reasoning that breaks open self-enclosed symbols or systems and thus breaks out of the ‘habitus' of culture, whose patterns of received knowledge would otherwise close off inquiry" (11). To "reinvent" allegory, in Kelley's terms, is to participate in the ongoing, tense negotiations between abstractions and particulars, an enterprise that is "not alien, but intrinsic, to modernity" (13).

Kelley moves allegory from alienation to centrality through a metonymy: for most of the book, the agency of allegory is imputed to its figures, which are often found playing the role of diplomatic intermediary. They are said to "[tack] between abstract ideas and lived particulars" (94); to "hover over the boundary between idea and material form"(96); to "move restlessly from materiality to figure and back again" (32); to "shuttle between abstraction and materiality" (57); to "cross the divide between abstraction and real life" (42); and to "oscillate between abstraction and pathos" (172). They occupy, at their peril, "the conflicted middle space between abstraction and sensuousness" and "extend in one direction toward stony abstraction and, in the other, toward particular beings"(136, 137). On every page, Kelley's meticulous, subtle close readings engage in, rather than simply demonstrate, the demanding dialectical work of allegorical figuration.

Kelley gives this work some salutary drama by taking up historical moments when allegory has met with vehement resistance: "[T]he iconoclast critique of allegory in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; the Neoclassical attack on allegorical poems and paintings; the Romantic ambivalence towards allegory; Victorian efforts to sustain the division between allegorical and realist narratives; and the return to allegory in twentieth-century critical theory and recent fiction" (4). This evenhanded summary misstates slightly the strategy of the book, for Kelley features Romanticism as a watershed for modern allegory, a crisis in which explicit, philosophically acute polemics against allegory coincide with the flamboyant and spectacular appearance of allegorical figures—figures as egregious as they are ubiquitous.

The first four chapters are each autonomous, polished essays, yet Kelley points them toward the ensuing discussion of Romanticism. Chapter 2, "Allegory, phantasia, and Spenser," takes up a the rhetorical groundwork for two tensions at the heart of Spenserian allegory: first, the "productive opposition" between phantasia (20)—that which is visible and vivid—and abstraction; second, the narrative suspensions that enhance the dubiety of allegorical abstractions. In the contrasting careers of Malbecco and Britomart, Kelley gives us the first of many meta- allegories: two competing accounts of allegory as moving toward demonic fixation (as per Angus Fletcher) or, alternatively toward the infinite deferrals of narrative (as per de Man and John Freccero). In the following chapter, Kelley takes "note of what happens when [allegorical] figures allegedly get up and move" (46); here she traces, largely through the career of Milton, "the factional use of allegorical figures in the 1640s and 1650s to the Restoration dismissal of allegorical and rhetorical figures in the name of experimental science, Anglican conformity and the crown" (48). Not surprisingly, the "unseemly seventeenth-century alliance between allegory and material, historical particulars" was understood to "magnify fractures in the English body politic"(69, 70). A Neoclassical backlash both cordoned off a normative, generic notion of allegory and, as Kelley adroitly notes, displaced a previous generation's ferocity and anxiety onto the polite arena of letters.

The focus of the following three chapters is on "allegory's stake in Romantic spectacles and images" (94). Kelley drives a wedge between Romantic theory, which reinscribes the Neoclassical bias in favor of allegorical fixation, and practice, in which "the imagined proximity of [allegorical figures] to real people and events corrodes the unvarying relation between the general and the particular" (96). Like allegory itself, Kelley takes a somewhat wayward path; I will use the first (Chapter 5) merely as an example. She opens with a discussion of Romantic historical consciousness, addresses Blake's sense of allegory's "lethal mix of absolute control and magisterial pity" (99), then examines in detail his engravings for Gray's "Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat" as a way of introducing (after a brief excursus on Romantic theories of personification) the "distortions of human scale and proportions" definitive of Romantic allegory (110). Such spectacles suggest allegory's refusal to be "managed by conventional distinctions between what is real and what is abstract" (110), particularly in the Revolutionary context to which Kelley turns next. When containing or inciting violence is as much a matter of rhetorical power as political power, allegory becomes, tout court, a rather unpredictable political agent. (Of the book's numerous readings of visual and material artifacts, the discussion of Revolutionary French playing cards is among the best.) Kelley goes on to probe "the deep logic of Coleridge's resistance to allegory" as a conviction that both Scripture and persons must not be abstracted and objectified (121). A reading of a Wordsworthian countertext to this impulse—Book VII of The Prelude—closes the chapter.

Such a parade of texts and authors requires synthesis, which the chapter delivers by firmly situating "allegorism" (as Coleridge called it ) within the multiform Romantic crisis of representation: political, epistemological, semiotic. But the following chapter on Hegel, Keats and Shelley, though it is more tightly organized, does not receive as effective a synthesis, even after the brilliant, suggestive reading of Hegel's abjected, orientalized figure of Phantasie, with "its erotic dance of sensuous shapes and images" (140). Next, the devotion of a full chapter to the work of J. M. W. Turner raises an important question: is this chapter a culmination of or a coda to the preceding two? Kelley writes beautifully and perceptively about Turner's revisionary oils, watercolors, and miniature engravings, but it would take a full-dress Turnerite to deny a sense of disproportion. A more explicit linking to the prior evocations of Romantic historicism—and perhaps a contrastable pairing of Turner's allegory with Scott's historicism—might have made these fine readings more effective. Finally, in Victorian literary culture, Kelley argues, allegory recedes to the periphery of realism; she retrieves earlier metaphors of borders, of "textual friction" and "unbound and fraying edge[s]" (223, 224). While the pairing of Robert Browning and George Eliot is at moments awkward, the chapter concludes with one of the most lucid and incisive readings of the pied Daniel Deronda that I have read in years.

The conclusion vaults over some high points of modernism (where are Nietzsche's allegorical figures? Freud's Ego, Id, and Superego? Beckett's hollow-headed heroes?) to take up a strange dissonance in the contemporary discourse of allegory. Under the saturnine sign of Walter Benjamin, allegory "is the shared domain of fragment and ruin" (251); under the rising sign of postmodernism, however, allegory presents tremendous comic possibilities of "combinatorial, fictive play" (251). Benjamin's developing notion of the dialectical image throughout his career, Kelley argues, evokes "the limits modernism places on allegorical agency" (252); allegory's primary "act" is to enjoy a certain stoical freedom "from fixed inflexible codes" (258). Such an insight leads Kelley to indict what she calls "the troubled logic of postmodernism" (264), a facile "equation of allegory with postmodern virtue" (277). Allegorical agency, Kelley argues, is redemptive when and only when "it acts as a foil to its other self—the cultural authority of figures that move in lockstep to fixed meanings" (278). This is a stinging riposte to postmodernist euphoria, and decisively delivered.

The book's vast accumulation of evidence calls for more in the way of structuring devices. Reinventing Allegory might well have been divided into larger units, treating the legacy of Spenserian allegory through the turbulent seventeenth century up to the Enlightenment; the Romantic ambivalences of chapters 5, 6, and 7; and the fraught relations between realism and allegory through modernism and postmodernism. Within each chapter (and particularly in the chapters on Romanticism, which treat a great number of heterogeneous texts), a little white space and a few subchapter headings would have helped enormously; Kelley's critical stamina is occasionally hard to match.

But that may be, in part, the stamina of allegory itself. Wisely, Kelley keeps her allegory of agency alive to the very end. It animates and vindicates her readings in the English tradition from the Renaissance to the present, German idealist philosophy, the French Enlightenment, the visual arts, ethnography, and in the ephemera and automata of material culture, from caricatures of Napoleon to chess-playing machines. Of this allegorist of capability, one wants to ask: of what is Theresa Kelley not capable? This imposing, accomplished and valuable book gives no hints. For decades to come—and for readers well beyond the field of Romanticism—it will be a touchstone for all critical discussion of allegory, modernity, and much else besides.

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