Friday, December 14, 2007

Reading Medieval Allegory

Part of being a professor is making pronouncements. No, not pronouncements, pronouncements ... all in bold and everything. Most of the time, these are things that aren't really all that new or exciting, but they're new and exciting when you're a 19-year-old student in the class. Things like, "Meaning does not necessarily reside in the intention of the author," or "Deluge myths are a universal archetype," might bring a yawn to the professor, but they can send bright young students in a tizzy.

Every so often, though, we get to make pronouncements, the kind that earn the rage of our colleagues, and leave us with a self-satisfied feeling in our hearts. Sometimes these pronouncements are carefully planned moments, but just as often they are a sudden crystalization of something we've been thinking about for a long time. In my medieval lit class last semester, I had one of the latter moments, when an idea I had long-since worked out but had not yet properly formed into a sentence suddenly emerged from my head fully-formed, like Athena:

The inability to understand allegory is the great failure of 20th-century criticism

Hear that? That's the sound of professors around the world sputtering. Still, I present this pronouncement to you because so many Wordhoarders are lovers of medieval history who have a great deal of trouble appreciating the literature. They want to appreciate it, but when then encounter an allegorical text like Everyman, the tale feels juvenile and simplistic.

As I often tell my students, texts are hard for two different reasons: Some are hard because they seem so hard, and they make you want to give up right away. You feel demoralized by the challenge of the work. Other texts are hard because they seem so easy, and you feel like they have nothing more to give you. Allegory falls into this latter category.

Allegory seems easy. Let's take, for example, the Romance of the Rose. The Lover/Dreamer meets many different characters, but identifying them seems easy: Reason represents, er, reason. Covetousness represents ... covetousness. Lady Idleness represents ... well, you get the idea. It all seems so easy, too easy to be rewarding. Most students confronting the Romance of the Rose will be frustrated because there doesn't seem to be anything more to say, so instead they write vapid (and false) papers about how women were treated "in medieval times" or how no one had sex because of the Church.

It's not really the fault of the lay reader. In the early 20th Century, one very influential school of literary theory was called "New Criticism." Basically, New Critics argued that the text should not have outside material brought to it, but every word found within the text itself was important. Though New Criticism has long since fallen away, the main tool of New Criticism is still important, the tool we call "close reading." Essentially, post-New Critical scholars rejected the idea that you shouldn't bring outside stuff into the text (such as the author's biography, the historical context, the response of the reader, other similar works in the genre, etc), while still accepting the second part: that every word in the text is important.

Today, even those professors who have rejected New Criticism still tend to teach a version of it in their undergrad classes, for two reasons: The first is the importance of close reading as a skill. High school taught you to worry about setting, plot, and characters, the kinds of things you can pick up from skimming. Those things, though, are only on the lowest order of textual understanding. To move beyond, you have to read closely, to consider every word as important, to consider the subtle nuances of meaning in a word.

For example, consider the Jim Croce song, "Operator." In it, the speaker tells the operator that his former lover has run off "with my best old ex-friend Ray." That phrasing is weird: "best old ex-friend." Wouldn't we normally say something like "old ex-best friend Ray?" Or even "my ex-old best friend Ray?" Either works OK with the meter of the line, and it ends with "Ray" regardless, so it doesn't affect the rhyme. So, why this odd "best old ex-friend?" In that phrasing, we hear that he still cares for Ray as well, but their relationship is finished just as is his relationship with the woman. He's calling to tell "them" (not "her") he's fine, because the person he would normally confide in about woman troubles is Ray, and the person he'd normally confide in about friend troubles is her ... and now he has no one to talk to except a telephone operator. That's how close reading works.

The second reason we treat New Criticism as the default critical form is that our students don't know anything. Seriously: you'll never find someone so ignorant, yet so convinced of his own brilliance, as a freshman. Literature tends to deal with big issues like sex, money, and religion, but undergrads typically know very little about these things, and just as they begin to understand them, they graduate. How can a reader understand the intention of an author if she's never written anything herself? How can a reader understand the historical context of a poem if he's getting a C- in Western Civ? How can a reader understand how Oedipus Rex fits into the genre of Greek tragedy if it's the only tragedy she's ever read? In other words, New Criticism not only offers the important tool of close reading, but in many cases it's the only kind of interpretive work a student is ready to do.

The way in which we train undergraduate readers, then, keeps them from having ideas of any sophistication about medieval allegory. For non-allegorical texts, most try to talk about the historical context by making broad generalizations: "In medieval times, people didn't know about sex because the Church repressed them, which is why Sir Gawain doesn't know what to do when Lady Bertilak gets into bed with him..." Stupid, yes, but at least it's something. Allegory, though, resists these simplistic applications of historical context, so we fall back into the easiest forms of identifying symbols.

For allegory, though, identifying what represents what is only the beginning of interpretation, whereas we often think of it as the end. I sometimes tell my students that if an author has already interpreted the text partially for you, it's an invitation to dig much deeper. In Moby Dick, for instance, just at the point that a professor might start pontificating about the symbolic meaning of the whiteness of the whale, Melville suddenly interrupts his story and spends a chapter talking about white as a symbol. Basically, he's saying, "Hey, don't get stuck on the whiteness of the whale. Yes, that's important, but I'll do that work for you, so you can dive deeper." When the Gawain-poet stops to tell us what the five fives on the pentangle represent, he's basically telling us, "Yup, the pentangle is an important symbol. Now that I've already established that for you, where are you going to take this poem?"

So, when an allegory already tells you that the names of the characters are Hope, Sweet Talk, Sweet Thought, and Sweet Looks, this shouldn't be the end of our understanding of the book -- it's just the beginning. In the case of The Romance of the Rose, the authors are writing before our modern taxonomy of psychology. So, how do you describe what's going on inside a mind of a character, and go so deep that we are past what that character even understands about himself? You create representations of the various bits and pieces of that person's identity, whether you call them Id and Ego and Superego, or Conscious and Subconscious, or Jekyll and Hyde, or Hope and Idleness and Diversion.

So, Wordhoarders, next time you pick up a medieval allegory, remember that the symbolic representations of the characters are only the starting point. The Romance of the Rose, for example, is really about the psychology of falling in love written for a society without our modern Freudian terminology, but with a greater familiarity with Ovid, and a greater sophistication regarding allegory. Keep that in mind, and works like Mankind and Everyman will be much more rewarding.


  1. Splutter . . . splutter . . . (wordless outrage) . . . splutter . . . .

    Jeffery . . . splutter . . . Hodges

    * * *

  2. Anonymous9:11 PM

    I love a good pronouncement at the end of the week.

    I remember the first time I read Ovid's ars amatoria: it was like watching the pieces of a puzzle come together. Works that I'd always read in isolation suddenly had a greater, deeper literary context to participate in. (I considered using a coition analogy there but thought better of it :)

  3. A polite note, since LJ doesn't co-operate with trackbacks, letting you know that i linked this post in my carnivalesque edition: