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Reinventing Allegory

by Theresa M. Kelley

Chapter 5: Romantic Ambivalences I

  From imagination to images in the mind, mental vividness, and phantasm, phantasia is the supervising figure of the rhetorical vividness and persuasiveness of this mental image and its unlawfulness. Insofar as his act of creation takes the blame for Shelley's novelistic creation, Victor Frankenstein is the novel's scapegoat; (it could not happen to a more deserving fellow).

  Shelley's restrospective view of her fictional creation witnesses the resemblance between phantasia and figures like the monster that grotesquely exceed norms. My point is not that such exaggerations are necessarily allegorical, but that Romantic allegories use similar distortions of human scale and proportions. By making a spectacle of itself, allegory shows that it cannot be managed by conventional distinctions between what is real and what is abstract. For such spectacles remind us of allegory's ancient link to phantasia because they are evidently fictitious, yet oddly persuasive.

  The proximity between allegory's palpable shapes and real or material details is especially telling in French revolutionary propaganda. In the early years of the Revolution, writers and festival organizers freely used allegorical images to promote revolutionary ideas. For a brief time Liberty was a woman; cheap pamphlets, broadsides, and Jacobin almanacs extolled pro-revolutionary allegorical virtues; and one remarkable deck of playing cards replaced the traditional images of kings, queens, and jacks with allegorical virtues and identities that foster a pro-revolutionary view of culture and class.[29] The advertisement that was sold with the deck explains that it includes no aces because "the law is now supreme." Instead of kings, each of the four suits presents a specific talent and an emblematic figure with props. Each figure has two allegorical names, one across the bottom of the card and another along the upper right border. The king of hearts is now the Génie of War (as in Richard the Lion-heart); the "Genius" of clubs is Peace; the other two are the Arts and Commerce. Instead of queens, each suit offers an allegorical dame who represents a designated liberty: the "lady" of hearts stands for freedom of religion (Cultes); she of clubs, freedom of marriage; she of spades, freedom of the press; she of diamonds, choice of professions (figs. 4a-d). The jacks, now called "equalities," include the égalité of rank or power and color or courage (figs. 5a-b). The figure on this last card is a black man who has been, the advertisement explains, relieved of his chains and given arms.

  Designed by the revolutionary aristocrat the Comte de St. Simon, hand-colored and published in 1793-94, this deck illustrates the radically reinventive logic of some revolutionary allegory. At the same time and for similar ends, allegorical figures also packaged abstractions for public consumption. Sometime between 1790 and 1792, Helen Maria Williams wrote to an unidentified and probably fictive English correspondent that she had acted the part of Liberté in a revolutionary tableau and shouted "Vive la nation!" Writing and speaking as an early supporter of the Revolution, Williams was for this moment a living emblem and "speaking picture" whose pro-revolutionary slogan may well have sent shivers down some conservative English spines. Lynn Hunt dryly notes that "living allegories" like this one are effective because their significance is "transparent," as English Neoclassical critics had urged allegory should be.[30]

  Worth a thousand words, as the saying goes, such allegorical figures were intended for members of the Third Estate. Less educated and more likely to believe what they saw, it was assumed, the great, unrepresented majority of the French would be swayed by the power of images.[31] The Neoclassical undertow of this assumption surfaces in the French penchant for adapting the learned iconographic tradition to revolutionary principles. The English Neoclassical argument that allegorical images ought to "speak to the eyes" did not always count for much with the revolutionary French. Even Jacobin almanacs and civic manuals, which were published to enlist support for the Revolution, used some allegorical images that were learned and obscure. Thus the figure of the many-breasted Egyptian Goddess of Nature reappears as the multiple spigot of a fountain statuary built early in the revolutionary period on the site of the destroyed Bastille. Only an observer familiar with her iconography would recognize the appropriateness of this design. Soon afterward, the same Nature appears in an emblem titled "Egalité" that was printed in a civic manual titled L'Ami des Jeunes Patriots, ou Catechisme republicain. Here she is placed beside the figure of egalitarianism, who holds a level over the head of the statue in one hand, and the fasces, the Roman symbol of authority, in the other (fig. 6).[32]

  Yet this fasces also implies a troubling consanguinity between revolutionary and Neoclassical allegory. As a symbol of authority, the fasces is a reminder of the authoritarian visual code Neoclassical theorists identified with such figures. To the extent that revolutionary leaders assumed they could sway the people with the power of (allegorical) images, they invest the authoritarian principles of the ancien régime in a different, more public space. Thus guided by an Enlightenment faith in the truth or at least the persuasiveness of sense experience, they recall the technocrats of Diderot's dream of an illusionist spectacle after Fragonard. Like those technocrats, but without whips and chains, propagandists believed they could convince the French people to join the revolution and assent to its reading of recent history and its ideological program. As the agent of French revolutionary ideology, this emblem objectifies Bourdieu's "hidden violence of objective mechanisms," which work here on the back of the ancien régime.

  One recent historian who describes the Jacobin use of complex emblematic figures like this in pamphlets directed at a younger, less educated audience notes how counter-intuitive this practice looks to a modern reader: "although they sought to reach the greatest number of readers, they paradoxically resorted to abstract language. Abstraction in a generally allegorical form was, in fact, omnipresent ... Revolutionary engravings also celebrated great feminine figures ... such as Liberty, Justice, Equality, Law ... or France. Around these central figures there developed a series of emblems, red caps, scales, pikes, cockades."[33] The visual argument created by surrounding a central figure with emblematic details is, moreover, patterned on the Renaissance emblem, whose complexity earlier English and Continental critics had rejected. Though Jacobin propagandists introduced more accessible images like pikes and cockades, they incorporated them into a highly traditional emblematic structure.

  This practice suggests the contradiction embedded in French revolutionary allegory. For despite evidence that revolutionary propaganda depended on the silently coercive power of allegorical images, revolutionary festivals may have worked both sides of the street. To make this double hermeneutic engine work, Ozouf suggests, festival organizers shuttled between verismo and synecdoche:  
Reading the official accounts, we should not believe too readily that popes to be whipped, Pitts to be insulted, and Capets to be guillotined were dragged out into the public squares. A more attentive reading tells us that the dummy did not often bear much resemblance to Capet, and that a royal headband, or sometime an even less explicit emblem, served. In short, it was not so much a pope that was being trashed as Fanaticism, and not so much Louis XVI as Monarchy. Fanaticism and Monarchy, but also Abundance, Liberty, Justice - the lesson of the Revolution was conveyed by a swarm of allegorical figures.[34]

  By using abstractions to fix moments in a recent and highly volatile history as though they were already "removed" from the real to the abstract and allegorical, those figures could guide revolutionary enthusiasm into safe waters. To effect this outcome, it would be unnecessary and inadvisable to name particular names and events that might produce an anti-revolutionary backlash. Instead, festivals presented the least affecting parts of absent wholes - a royal headband for a headless Louis XVI. Slogans and labels insured that the people would not miss the point.

  The difficulty with this model of teaching by allegorical example is the power of phantasia as the fictive representation of absent events as though they were happening now. For if the synecdochic details Ozouf lists - "bayonets, rifles, sabers, hatchets, forks and other weapons" - are emblematic, they are also real weapons. The risks of using real props were not lost on festival organizers, who nonetheless hoped that an allegorical framework might contain revolutionary violence. Eventually they prescribed in "what conditions and within what limits" allegorical figures and real props could be used together to restage violent moments in the recent history of the Revolution.

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