After thinking about my post the other day, “It All Comes Back to Stories“, I wanted to come back to the ideas I started at the end. Basically, when it comes to dealing with clearly stated messages, we have a tendency to recoil and retreat back into examples, images, and stories. A dense philosophical text makes more sense to us if we can turn it into a story in our minds. I’m all for this.
However, I mentioned in the second part of my essay “Sacramental Imagining” that I agreed with Tolkien’s assessment of allegory – that it exacts a kind of tyranny on its readers that was a little unsavory, and eminently harmful for the story. I’d like to qualify that sentiment. While I still think that stories work better as applicable metaphors than as allegories, I do think that there is a place for allegories. I love the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic, Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Orwell’s Animal Farm, and even Tolkien’s own Leaf, by Niggle.
The things about these allegories is that with the exception of The Cave, they are great stories as much as they are devices, and as such they can be reapplied to different situations or messages, or taken just as stories in themselves. Leaf, by Niggle can tell us as much about art as it can the afterlife, and Animal Farm is as much a lesson in the perils of power as it is a lesson in Russian history. And they’re eminently entertaining as mere stories.
On the other hand, Plato’s Cave may not have much of a story by itself, but it is employed not subversively, but openly – it makes no pretense to trickery, or to be a way of convincing someone, but instead serves as explanatory example of principles argued for conceptually in previous books. It seems less tyrannical for its honesty. Beyond this, you can easily find ways of seeing lessons in the allegory of the cave that go beyond merely illustrating Socrates’ point in context. People take it out of context all the time, to great effect.
But allegory is hard to get right. You want the message to work without dominating the reader. You want to be able to see the message, but still have the story work if you don’t. You want to disrupt the one-to-one comparison just enough to allow for some imagination in interpretation, or else what you get, at best, is something preachy and predictable. Neither of those are words you ever want associated with your story. The trick is being true to the message you want to convey, without being bound by it.
I’m currently working on an attempt at allegory. I know, I should be saving all of my writing energy for my NaNoWriMo novel, but sometimes other things just pop into my head, and if I ignore them, they’ll disappear, and anyway, it’s a fun way to give myself a break from crafting a large story (and I’ve just about given up on getting to 50,000 words – I’ve hit a road block 30,000 words in).
But it’s hard. Writing this allegory feels so cloying, so pedantic. Some parts feel more than a little forced – there are points where the choice is between what makes sense in the story-line, and what is a more accurate portrayal of the thing I’m trying to say. I may post my allegory some day, if I can turn it into something good.
But to the issue of whether or not an allegory can – or should – stand alone, I’m still somewhat divided. Can a story ever be taken from its context and remain, unchanged? I’m once again put in mind of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, in which he develops an idea of historiography as a dialectical disruption, an academic move which tears a moment in time from its both its place in the temporal flow, losing some causes which precede the event in question, and its effects, as well as its lateral context. It becomes something new and different when ripped free and concretized by the outside observer who is mired in her own flowing context. But that’s a much more complicated conversation, one I should attempt in the future.
This is still a work in progress, but I’m going to try and work this piece into something that can exist on its own. We’ll see how well that goes.