A Series of Rhetorical Devices: Allegory

One of the downsides of giving definitions is that clever people like to latch on to them instead of the actual substance of whatever one wants to talk about. The definition is there to act as a way of focusing on the subject itself and thus of only instrumental value, but it is a sort of first impression and that’s why it’s important to get it right. One could start by defining the kind of definition one is about to give in order to get somewhere. In the case of allegory, as with metaphor, one could say that the definition is a label that gathers many different ways of using language which nevertheless have something in common under its banner. That “in common” is what the definition tries to capture. It’s a way of organizing a number of cases that would remain a chaotic bunch were not some principle of classification and organization imposed on them.

In terms of ink spilled, allegory probably comes second after metaphor. The one book you should have in your library on the subject is Angus Fletcher’s Allegory: the Theory of a Symbolic Mode. The book is the source of much theory concerning allegory, but it’s also the favorite target of theorists writing on the subject. It’s a bitch to read, because it is not uncommon for Fletcher to give us half a page of text with another half of footnotes. In fact, that would be the norm. In any case, it’s packed with information and while it is not the most readable of books it serves well as a great reference work.

Books about allegory tend to begin by giving the traditional definition: “Allegory is sustained metaphor.” This will then be followed by an etymological explanation from the Greek and, finally, a “but”; and the rest of the book is spun around the objection or perceived need for clarification. This is a good way of getting around the definition swamp, but let’s try another just for a change and try to define allegory through analogy like we did with metaphor.

As you know, analogy is defined by the pattern A is to B as C is to D. You also know that metaphor is constructed by taking A and C from this structure and referring to A by using C. To continue this pattern of reasoning, we have to give names to these two components of metaphor, because it is between these two the “sustaining” of the “sustained metaphor” takes place. They are traditionally called tenor and vehicle. Thanks to our knowledge of the terms of analogy we could also call A the superior term of the theme and C the superior term of the phoros, but it’s easier to use the tenor/vehicle shorthand when we are talking about metaphor. In metaphor, the tenor is the thing that is prescribed the qualities of the vehicle. Thus, in the phrase Pop-music is rubbish the tenor is pop-music and the vehicle rubbish while the analogical substructure remains more or less dormant. As a rhetorical figure, in contrast to a trope, allegory requires at least two metaphorical tropes to be an allegory. That is, A and C would be a metaphor, but A1/C1 and A2/C2 would be an allegory. For example: pop-music is rubbish, mall-radio is a sea; therefore we could say I had to wade through a sea of aural rubbish at the mall. (The word “aural” is there to make the metaphors explicit.)

Longer allegories could be seen as using metaphors in order to tell a story that tells another story. The figure, the use of metaphors with a shared analogical basis, has the capacity to induce a consistent pattern of inference in the audience. By a “consistent pattern of inference” I mean that relationship between tenor and vehicle is continued in a way that allows for a fitting interpretation from vehicles to tenors in a continuous manner; interpretation consists of creating a parallel story on the basis of the implied tenors. Thus, much is expected from the listeners when allegory is used — something like the construction of analogies from the metaphors used goes on when one reads an allegory, or we could at the very least schematize an interpretation using the analogical structure that defines metaphor.

Good allegories are interesting stories on the vehicle level alone, but they come to full bloom only when they are reconstructed analogically by the reader. The delight we take in finding links that create a pattern helps us to infer another story, however vaguely, in the background. Even when the story’s function as allegory can be deemed so outdated that it is more or less irrelevant, it’s a wonderful feeling to try to grasp the ghosts suggested by the vehicles. Creation myths are good examples of this. If someone tells you they believe the Bible is the literal word of God, they have failed to appreciate the richness of that book in more or less the same way someone who thinks a story about how the leopard got his spots is a story of just one certain leopard who happened to get spots in the manner he did. Greek creation myths found in Hesiod are also fantastic stories on their own, although their tenor level can be hard to grasp; for instance, we don’t share the view of Greeks of Hesiod’s time that the world is sort of disk-shaped and therefore might have trouble inferring what it meant for Uranus to lay on top of Gaia when the world was young.

Allegories can refer to other allegories as well. For instance, The Matrix is clearly a Jesus-story, but it also has as sources for its vehicles certain philosophical puzzles derived from Plato’s allegory of the cave such as related modern brain-in-a-vat allegories. And from here we might get to a very strange quality of allegory and allegorical stories. A while back philosophy departments even in some respected universities thought it would be a great idea to offer courses based on the Matrix movies. This was because there were so many great metaphorical references to philosophical problems that have existed for thousands of years in the movies. It was seen as a way of getting kids to think about these problems and exited about philosophy. The strange thing is that you do not have to know the origins of the brain-in-a-vat problem in order to appreciate the problem as it is portrayed in the films. You don’t even have to know the allegory of the cave, nothing about Descartes and the skepticism he fought to overcome, nothing of Hume’s philosophy or Kantian metaphysics.

At first, it seems like a trivial concern. We understand these problems because, based on our daily experience, the senses can deceive us and who can know reality if they only ever had one single reality to cope with in the first place? Ancient man spear fishing knew that the water distorts the image of the fish and that therefore he had to throw the spear where the fish is not, and the fish knew the world was made of water. So what if you don’t really have to know the tenors thoroughly in order to appreciate the vehicles? Imagine there’s a lineage of a certain allegorical story that you can only trace so far and it’s obvious that the line should not just abruptly end there. Obviously we have forgotten the original and this, for some reason, does not concern us that much as a culture. This is because the vehicles sans tenors can be considered independent entities, fiction. We still look for the tenors and find and/or construct them, and busy ourselves with the vehicles that are in and of themselves delightful and useful. It is like having truth without reference to lies, and lies without any idea of truth. Why this should be is a bit of a mystery and it is very difficult to describe because it is almost nothing like anything else. Maybe we once knew how this problem came about and forgot, who knows?

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