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.