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Reinventing Allegory

by Theresa M. Kelley

Chapter 5: Romantic Ambivalences I

  This prescription tells the story that is otherwise well hidden in Neoclassical discussions of why allegory should be excluded from the epic and all similarly historical genres. Invoking the first and most-quoted advocate of this principle, the Abbé Dubos, Quatremère de Quincy objected to using allegorical figures to represent the history of the Revolution, and Jacques-Louis David deplored the use of "odious allegories" in the public funeral/revolutionary festival staged to honor Jacques Simonneau, the mayor of Etampes who was lynched by rioting peasants.[35] Yet festival organizers like Quincy and David could hardly represent the Revolution without allegory. More than the living tableau of the English Williams speaking for and as Liberty, monumental allegorical statues and spectacles provided the ideal, larger-than-life images the Revolution needed.

  At times those allegorical images reflect Neoclassical values, much as David, throughout his writings, used emblematic moments like the oath of the Horatii or even (when it became necessary to invent emblems for the Revolution) the death of Marat to convey a view of history that is essentially static and memorial. Some images, like those that appear on the playing cards St. Simon devised for a new political culture, veer away from Neoclassical assumptions about history as well as allegory. In a 1789 engraving titled "L'Hydre Aristocratique," the eponymous Aristocracy is a colossal figure described as "male and female" (so much for the momentary exhilaration of a female Liberté) who is losing its heads, blow by blow (fig. 7). Unlike the classical historical moment David preferred to depict or create (The Death of Marat), the moment of this engraving is the present, the action ongoing. Beside the ramparts of a Bastille that is still standing, Frenchmen repel the Aristocracy. This is no task for a single Hercules; moreover, since many heads, some with ecclesiastical hats, remain, the French have more collective labors to perform. A prostrate human figure in the foreground who wears robes that display the royal fleur-de-lis still has his head. This 1789 engraving is a prospective warrant of choices that may lie just ahead, as indeed they did. Unlike Michelet's vision of history as a unified narrative in which the future and the past and the Revolution itself articulate a coherent, progressive evolution,[36] here an allegorical image specifies early stages in a radical series of changes that promises to be violent and to require many French hands (and heads).

  In the opening stanzas of France: An Ode, first published in 1798 with the title The Recantation: An Ode, Coleridge casts revolutionary France in the image of a colossal allegorical figure:

When France in wrath her giant-limbs upreared,
And with that oath, which smote air, earth, and sea,
Stamped her strong foot and said she would be free,
Bear witness for me, how I hoped and feared!
(Coleridge 245)

  Elsewhere he views allegory with more fear than hope. The young poet who imagined France in much the same way revolutionary festivals imagined her, Liberty, and other allegorical virtues was even then more likely to plot allegorical characters and narratives along Neoclassical lines. It is little wonder that Addison's "Vision of Mirzah" looks like a template for Coleridge's "Allegoric Vision," composed in 1795 and subsequently revised with different audiences in mind. When it was used as the preface to Coleridge's first theological lecture, its satiric target was the Church of England. In 1811 it was published in Courier; by then its target was the Church of Rome. In the version he adapted for its 1817 publication with A Lay Sermon, it takes aim at the "falsehood of extremes."[37] Although the allegorical referent shifts from one version to the next, all these versions would have satisfied the sternest Neoclassical critic. Firmly reined in by the speaker of the "Vision" and easily matched to well-identified (albeit shifting) targets, Coleridge's allegory never strays into the hazard zone where allegorical ideas meet colossal forms that move, but move "not like living men." Precisely because she does move and act, the figure of revolutionary France in his 1798 ode suggests a measure of what Coleridge learned to fear about an allegorical figure so engaged in bodily and narrative movement and fury that she might do some real damage. For this figure, like the Revolution it represents, is caught in the folds of allegory's ancient and modern alliance with phantasia and its English cognates, among them "fancy" (the chief antagonist) and those dream-like shapes or images produced by fancy when thinly disguised as "phantasms." Coleridge's writing is studded with recognitions of this alliance, although he is mostly vigiliant about giving it prejudicial treatment. In "The Eolian Harp" the speaker half-chides his "many idle flitting phantasies." Heavily ventriloquized by the speaker, his imagined female interlocutor more harshly indicts them as "shapings of the ungenerate mind," a formulation that retains the ancient and Miltonic identification of such shapes with phantasia (Coleridge 101-2). When the speaker of Dejection: An Ode declares that he has lost his "shaping spirit of Imagination," Coleridge reinstates phantasia in a covert operation with a built-in sting (Coleridge 366). The Mariner of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner invokes the etymological affiliation of "shape" with phantasia and Milton's allegorical "shapes" of Sin and Death: "a certain shape, I wist. / A speck, a mist, a Shape, I wist"; "full many Shapes, that shadows were" (Coleridge 192, 205). In the Biographia Literaria Coleridge mocks the reading habits of those who visit the circulating libraries by comparing the scene to "the moving phantasms of one man's delirium" (BL1:48n.). And in notes for lectures he delivered in 1818 and 1819, he insists that the pleasure he finds in Spenser's vivid, dream-like images, the poetic equivalent of rhetorical phantasia, has nothing to do with the allegory.[38]

  This last assertion is unpersuasive but not unimportant, for it implicitly acknowledges, among other effects, that together allegory and phantasia make it possible to figure people as things. This figurative move might easily be diverted to justify using people as things - a possibility writ grotesquely large in the phantasmagorias, automatons, and freak shows of early nineteenth-century London.[39] To put this anxiety in more explicitly philosophical terms: allegory is an intransigeant reminder of the unremitting problem of universals and their material or figural substantiation. Coleridge tries to resolve this problem by claiming that the imagination and the symbol together supervise the transcendent passage between universals and particulars, whereas fancy works entirely within the realm of material and human particulars (BL 1:82-83). The flaw hidden in this assertion is exposed in the Logic when he considers how theorizing and abstraction become so passionate in early revolutionary France that they produce "glowing figures of fancy" (Logic 242-43).[40] A similarly unwanted conjunction persists in the midst of Coleridge's most prodigious efforts to separate "idea" from the material and sensorial fetters of its Aristotelian identification with phantasia (Logic 236-38; "SM" 30-31).

  For reasons that are peculiarly his own but which Romantic and post-Romantic culture absorbed, Coleridge's uneven declarations about symbol and allegory (stronger in some texts than others and stronger in 1816-18 than before or after) silently recognize that the problem with allegory is not that it is stiff or fixed, but that it is involved in the philosophical difficulties I have outlined.[41] Because allegory transforms persons into personifications and abstractions, Coleridge wants to bar it from the workings of the transcendent imagination. By the same logic, the symbol is the positive sign of much that he requires. These assumptions constitute Coleridge's "Gordian knot" - a tightly implicated nest of problems that cannot be fully unravelled without disturbing his idealist and Kantian reply to empiricist and Humean principles of knowledge and personhood.

  Yet his anti-allegorical stance is disturbed by what Jerome Christensen calls "the symbol's errant allegory" - Coleridge's penchant for revising texts and ideas over time, undoing some arguments on the way to others. It is also disturbed by the argumentative path of the Biographia Literaria, which assumes that the task of telling one's life history requires a recognition of its temporalities. This recognition, evidently akin to de Man's understanding of poetic temporality, is also at work in revisions of the Rime, which collectively dramatize the unlikelihood of a coherent symbolic universe.[42] The central text in de Man's analysis of this errant allegory is Coleridge's "Statesman's Manual" defense of the "translucence" of the symbol ("SM," Lay Sermons 30). If the symbol allows us to see through its visible and cultural shape to apprehend its meaning, this hermeneutic activity, de Man observes, looks very much like that of allegory as a figure that always refers beyond itself. On these grounds, he charges Coleridge with "ontological bad faith."[43]

  In the broader set of discriminations between Romanticism and modernity inaugurated by this critique, de Man takes skeptical aim at the project Coleridge defends with every philosophical argument and seeming digression: his belief that persons can write and live authentic and coherent histories. From this vantage point, poet and critic are uncannily well-matched antagonists. For de Man as for Benjamin, allegory is the necessary angel of ruin, historical fragmentation, and commodifying energies that turn persons into abstractions and things. On similar grounds but for contrary reasons, allegory is the demon figure Coleridge hopes to cast aside lest it undermine the coherence of persons and of the Scriptures as true revelations and histories.

  Writing against early nineteenth-century assaults on claims for the historical reality of Scripture, Coleridge requires the simultaneity of the symbol to argue that biblical texts are historical narratives which convey the continuous truth of revelation. By the same logic, allegory, or "allegorism" as he and Blake also call it, undermines the truth of Scripture by making it merely the vehicle, not the substance of revealed truth and genuine history. For all these reasons, the distinction between symbol and allegory matters more to Coleridge than it does to his German contemporaries, who eventually adopt either term to describe qualities formerly assigned to the other.[44]

  I rehearse these familiar objections because they indicate the broader set of philosophical difficulties that accrue to allegory as a figure that deals in abstractions and generalities. This alliance is evidently not news, for Coleridge or for us, but it offers an unexpected point of entry into those philosophical convictions he defends against modes of thought whose unacknowledged metafigure is allegory. The deep logic of Coleridge's resistance to allegory begins with his beleaguered definition of idea. Much of what he asserts about this term can be found scattered or collected in the "Statesman's Manual," his early lectures on literature, and Biographia Literaria. The somewhat later Logic, a redaction of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, gives Coleridge ample opportunity to explain how his Kantian, idealist, and Platonic understanding of idea challenges early modern versions of Aristotle's definition of ideai as notions derived from sense impressions. As marketed by empiricist or, as Coleridge calls them, "experimental" philosophers, the term idea is lodged in the experience of the material and phenomenal world, not the transcendent reality that is for Coleridge the only possible ground for thought. In the Logic he insists to the contrary that the idea is "anterior to all image" and for this reason has nothing in common with abstraction or generality, which extract principles from images and things (63). In the form given this argument in the Biographia Literaria, he explicitly opposes this claim to Aristotle's On the Soul consideration of ideas that might follow from the perception of visual images or shapes. Coleridge's more immediate target is the empiricist and skeptical use of Aristotle's On the Soul to argue that sense impressions lead, albeit in complex ways, to ideas in the mind (BL 1:98).

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