Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Allegory, Imagery and Grammar

(This post emerges from Laura's and Jay's comments on yesterday's post. Thanks also to Tony and Laura for their recent endorsements of this fledgling of mine, which is still looking for its wings, but making progress. I'm now, e.g., able to install real live links.)

The Divine Comedy is an allegory but I think part of my project here is to distinguish poetic from allegorical effects, as I think Dante, Eliot and Pound would also advise us to do. Cf., e.g., Eliot's use of a Dante in "Tradition", Part II, on the way a poetic effect is "a working up of the emotion evident in the situation", a "fusion of elements", and how "the artistic process [is] the presure . . . under which the fusion takes place."

Dante has some wonderful examples of "construction" in his De vulgari Eloquentia (II, vi), ranging from the prosaic "Aristotle philosophized in Alexander's time" through the Flarfen "Peter loves Miss Bertha a lot" to the "illustrious" or poetic "I am the only one who knows the overwoe that rises" (Arnaut Daniel). I think the point of Kitasono's sample

"a shell, a typewriter and grapes"

is that it is unclear how to classify this construction along these lines or even to identify it as a construction. "You need to know that we call 'construction' a group of words put together in regulated order," is all Dante gives us in the way of a definition. And there is a sense in which Kitasono's list is not in any particular order, which accounts for its inability to occasion an image.

Is the problem the lack of a verb as Jay suggests? I think we're looking not for verbs so much as prepositions. Pre-com-positions, connections, situations.

"A shell on a typewriter with grapes"

Putting in prepositions gives us a single and reasonably clear image, but the possibilities from here are not as promising as they had been. In fact, I' d argue we have just sacrificed aesthetic feeling for the image. This is why Kitasono leaves the sample as is and says, "We add the next line and then another aesthetic feeling is born."

And this leads us to the question of the relation of imagery to grammar. Images are the items into which experience is articulated (by concepts and/or emotions). Note that there is a (not very poetic) sense in which our sample contains three images. But these are articulated at a linguistic level (i.e., correspond to differences between words). The trick is to construct expressions that provide single images that are internally "smooth", i.e., where the symbolism is so fused or compounded or composed in feeling that allegory (reading otherwise) is impossible.

But I suspect my sense of allegory, even of Dante's allegory, is what Laura would call naive.

Caesar non supra grammaticos.


Laura Carter said...

Ah, verbs. That's what I've been playing with mentally in regards to allegory & symbol, and the distinctions to be made between them. But I'm thinking in terms of genre, & you are taking the better approach here.

This probably sounds naive, as do most of my attempts to philosophize, but my idea is a heroic one: to somehow insert the poet/speaker (the poet's best self?) into the story that he or she writes. This ties in with what we were discussing earlier, about "signposts," about process. I'm wanting to find that a poet's body of work is an allegory of sorts, and that it renders what is called "multiple meanings" (to delineate "meaning" at all is to cheapen this idea, though).

I think, actually, that I'm the naive allegorist. I am particularly interested in entering Spenser's "faerieland." That's a romantic idea & probably not what you're after here.

Thomas said...

Stephen Greenblatt has a concept that might be just the thing for you: strategic opacity. It is all about the poetic effects of multiple meanings. But contrary to this concept (see below) an allegory, I would think, is a bit like a riddle in the sense you indicate, namely, it is an allegory OF the faerieland, and the idea of entry then corresponds to "solving" the riddle. You're right to think I would find that notion a bit romantic.

"Shakespeare found that he could immeasurably deepen the effect of his plays—that he could provoke in the audience and himself a peculiarly passionate intensity of response—if he took out a key explanatory element, thereby occluding the rationale, motivation, or ethical principle that accounted for the action to be unfolded. The principle was not the making of a riddle to be solved, but the creation of a strategic opacity. This opacity, Shakespeare found, released an enormous energy that had been at least partially blocked or contained by familiar, reassuring explanations."