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Reinventing Allegory

by Theresa M. Kelley

Chapter 5: Romantic Ambivalences I

  Wordsworth's "endless stream of men and moving things" is a case in point. Either they are pushed, or move of their own will, or - to split this difference - they are so cleverly mechanized that they seem to move on their own, like the ingenious automatons that were exhibited in London and on the Continent, beginning in the 1740s.[53] I think Wordsworth's text splits the difference. Like the puppeteer-narrator in Kleist's "On the Marionette Theater," who is surprisingly ambiguous about who or what controls the puppets' actions, Wordsworth is careful not to tip his hand. Like those who flocked to see automatons engaged in activities so various that they almost seemed real (or super-real: one violinist figure was said to play faster than a human musician could), readers are free to imagine that such figures take on a life of their own.

  Lined up on the page, "the comers and goers face to face - / Face after face - the string of dazzling wares, / Shop after shop" that Wordsworth's speaker sees in this "endless stream" look like interchangeable particulars. As points along this continuum, they are substitutable one for the next. Insofar as they say which tradesmen occupy the shops, the indexical task performed by the "symbols" and "blazon'd names" on the shop signs overhead is mimetic. As popular adaptations of the emblematic blazon, however, they are also allegorical. As this textual field of construed resemblances mutes the differences between faces, shops, and signs, the pun embedded in the term and phrase "fronts of houses" (my emphasis) looks necessary, not digressive. That is to say, the lexical fact that front means face or forehead as well as the side of a building that faces the street marks, on the level of figure, a local resemblance between the human and the inanimate that is endemic to Romantic figuration. The "huge" letters inscribed over those "fronts" and "stationed ... like guardian saints" make this point explicit. Construed by this chain of resemblances, allegorical signs are not necessarily distinct from mimetic ones.

  As Wordsworth's speaker turns from "here" to "there," he reels in another unexpected resemblance, this time between "allegoric shapes" and "physiognomies of real men" - that is, statues or busts that represent famous Englishmen. Using a taxonomy of facial traits, especially "fronts" (foreheads), physiognomy asserts that those traits accurately predict the specific temperament and intelligence of those who exhibit such traits. By this logic, "physiognomies of real men" are, like "allegoric shapes," public as well as visual embodiments of an abstract idea, principle or system.[54] The heightened lexicality of these lines thereby specifies both their abstract function and the fact that they are the "guardian" of particular houses and occupants. This is a rhetorical sleight-of-hand, but it is one that must occur if figures and abstractions are to have some binding and public relation to life and history.

  In most of book 7, the term "shapes" designates spectral figures, or ones that invite the speaker's interior vision. Scattered among more sharply delineated types - the Italian, the Jew, the Turk, each with his characteristic wares - are "less distinguishable shapes" that incontestably echo Milton's description of Sin and Death in Paradise Lost.[55] Like their Miltonic forebears, these "shapes" are insubstantial. Although the blind beggar is read as an "emblem, or apt type" of all we can know, that lesson is offered as an private insight, not a public emblematic text presented for others to read: "on the shape of this unmoving Man, / His fixed face, and sightless eyes, I look'd / As if admonished from another world" (Prelude 7:621-23, p. 208). When the speaker refers to "things which I had shaped / And not yet shaped, had seen, and scarcely seen" (7: 514-15, p. 206), these "things" straddle the line between what is real and what is imagined, as Wordsworth's figures often do. Still other London "shapes" are so mysterious to the speaker that he compares them to "a second-sight procession, such as glides / Over still mountains, or appears in dreams" (7:601-3, p. 208).

  Even these spectral or interiorized shapes are figural witnesses for Wordsworth's fascination with London spectacles, many of which featured ghosts and other spectral emanations. The showman Paul de Philipstal's highly successful Phantasmagoria, a magic-lantern show he staged in London in 1801 or 1802, introduced dead heroes of the French Revolution with clouds of smoke (presumably sulphuric) billowing around them. In describing the scene, Sir David Brewster could not resisting quoting Milton's famous description of Hell as "darkness visible."[56] In Wordsworth's poem, Jack the Giant-Killer is an unabashed, low-tech advertisement of the fact that such spectacles are illusions. Wearing a dark cloak with the word "invisible" written "in flames" across its back, Jack makes a public spectacle of his "invisibility." In return, the public makes this fiction work by not contesting it, or perhaps by not snitching to the giant.

  As I read Wordsworth's figural logic in book 7 of The Prelude, London spectacles interest him because they work, as do the figures of this book, at the extremities of representation. Much of what the speaker encounters is exaggerated, false, freakishly large or small, monstrous or deformed: gigantic letters over doors, giants and dwarfs, a disembodied "face" in the crowd, puppets and automatons, wax-works, conjurors, deformed human beings and animals (sometimes portrayed by the same human actor from one year to the next), a "parliament of monsters" (human and animal) at Bartholomew Fair. All these figures are unreal or super-real, patent exaggerations of and departures from a realist norm, that belong to a world of phantasms and to rhetoric. As de Man puts it, "something monstrous lurks in the most innocent of catachresis. When one speaks of the legs of a table or the face of the mountain, catachresis is already turning into prosopopoeia, and one begins to perceive a world of potential ghosts and monsters."[57] For the speaker of The Prelude, this world is an "unmanageable sight," one that can no longer be controlled as his earlier comparison of theatrical "Spectacles" to a miniature model had imagined such sights might be. Exaggerated figures like catachresis, prosopopoeia, and synecdoche are what allegory requires to make its border raids on what is real, or what mimesis represents as real, even as allegory figures itself as something "other" to reality. Thus if the spectacles and sights catalogued in book 7 are not necessarily allegorical (some are, some are not), they put figures to use which in turn make it possible for allegory to contort the aims and means of mimetic representation. This contortion is inherently monstrous, unnatural, and most of all anti-organic because it emphasizes parts, including body parts, over organic wholes. The palpable difference between the figural disposition of allegory and the Romantic aesthetic of beauty and the organic symbol is brilliantly conveyed by Shelley's Frankenstein as he surveys in horror what he has made: "His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! - Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes" (Frankenstein 52). In the botched Petrarchan imagery of this description, synecdoche goes wildly awry. Instead of being indexical signs for a larger whole, these are dismembered body parts badly put together and made animate. Shelley's story of mangled creation dramatizes one view of what Romantic allegory does as it animates figures with the same disregard for the distinction between animate and inanimate forms that Frankenstein shows when he ransacks cemeteries for bodies.

  Like the superscripts and emblematic shop signs of Wordsworth's London, allegory is a bold "front" for what other, less declared Romantic figures do to and with particulars. As such, it is the necessary surplus or excess of figure writ large. Without this surplus, language and meaning are confined to the same dull round of a radically programmatic model of language, crafted and mapped to exclude the play of meaning across and by way of figures. Within allegory, abstractions and particulars are each surplus to the other. In formal aesthetic terms, this allegory is neither the perfect and disinterested form of the beautiful imagined by Burke and Kant, nor is it merely sublime in the sense that it assents to a rational, intellectual separation from lived, historical life. Because its alterity is instead made for and in a time and place, allegory plays an ambivalent but integral role in Romantic culture. Marked by history, yet persistently exceeding the measure of fixed abstractions and images, it moves on to be remade, recast, or (since this too is always possible) cast in stone.[58] Wordsworth's most rivetting performance of this third possibility occurs in his Convention of Cintra pamphlet. There he defensively represents Napoleon by invoking a string of abstractions that ends with the image of a Colossus that will eventually shatter "upon a shock which need not be violent" (WProse ii:334).

  For all these reasons, allegory participates in the crisis of representation scholars have identified with the Romantic era and, before then, the long trajectory of modernity that begins in the seventeenth century. In its political form, this crisis deals with questions about which individuals or categories will be represented by a society or body politic. If traditional answers such as those Burke derives from custom and habit will finally not suffice, imagining other ways to construe the parts and wholes of political systems may require substituting new figures for old. As a figure that inherently defies or exceeds mimetic representation - insofar as it has to do with the world as we know it and see it - Romantic allegory suggests how to reimagine the task of representation as having to do with both particulars and abstraction. This task requires strange figures indeed. At a cultural moment when the task of re-imagining parts and wholes seems, as it still seems to many, unclear and unfinished, synecdochic comparisons with allegorical ends in view are disorienting or enabling or both. Precisely for this reason, they are appropriate signs of how Romantic culture approaches the work of representation.

  To the world of Spenser's faery romance, as mediated by eighteenth-century neo-Spenserian poets, Romantic allegory offers the flesh and blood that Hunt's formula for reading Spenser wishes to exclude. To the decorum of Neoclassical allegory, it replies with phantasmagoric and monstrous figures. Working against or with the emergent demand for realism, it co-opts realistic details to deform or transform them, in spite of themselves, into something "other" such that the role of abstraction in all acts of representation cannot be put aside. To the emptying of human traits and motion from later eighteenth-century poetic personification, it replies with figures animated as well as prompted by passion such that they cannot be excluded from the scene of Romantic figuration. To the presumption that allegorical meaning is elsewhere, visionary, or hidden, Romantic allegory offers in opposition its hunger for spectacular images and figures. This oppositionality is creative and double-jointed: it ratifies the prominence of visual images in allegory since the Renaissance, but uses those images to reorient (and disorient) that tradition. Allegory's shapes are no longer Platonic but provisional and temporizing. Even as Proteus adopts then sheds successive shapes to evade those who would capture him and force him to reveal the future, so does Romantic allegory evade the fixed, ahistorical, and determinate meaning toward which allegory always tends (remember Malbecco) and toward which it was impelled by the Neoclassical insistence on simple allegorical ideas and images.

  Romantic allegory is a two-handed engine. It can inaugurate new directions by challenging the law of figure as shaped by custom - the figure Milton skewers in Areopagitica. At any moment in its history and identity, however, allegory can also rigidify, and may do so violently, into a bloodless, pedigreed abstraction dismissive of particulars and change. As the unequivocal agent of a specific ideology or cultural norm, this version of allegory exposes the backside of Burke's custom and tradition or Bourdieu's "habitus."[59] In this incarnation, allegory makes symbolic violence possible, even likely. It thereby performs with its gloves off the violence some critics have identified with the Romantic symbol. Allegorical violence covertly or publicly compels assent, much as the vises and chains of Diderot's dream are the machinery used to coerce unquestioning belief in the reality of illusionist spectacle.

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