By Brenda Machosky. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013. vii + 259 pages. $55.00.
Structures of Appearing selects its material judiciously from a long history of writing that practices allegory as a literary device and reflects on the weakening of the authority, primarily the religious authority, on which allegorical signs originally depended. More importantly, it chronicles the burdening of literary institutions by philosophical claims as the receding tide of religion leaves allegory and symbol supposedly stranded and indeterminate in literary texts. To make this critical endeavor work as a basis for her study, Brenda Machosky really should also have provided an explicit critique of that expansion of philosophy into literary terrain. The recommendation [End Page 687] that we should “stop reading metaphorically” (190) represents a strange abandonment of literature and an even odder attitude toward human expression. Interesting though they may be, the many statements cited here undermining and undoing allegory as a specific literary device steadfastly refuse to acknowledge its place either in language or literature as real phenomena. It is not clear how we should situate the occasional commentary quoted or gesture made in defense of literature since the reasoning would seem to deprive literary meanings of any independence. Certainly, there is no resistance offered on the philosophical level to this diminution of literary meanings. That is a pity, as the text contains all the material necessary for a far more significant study critiquing rather than reiterating well-established positions. Moreover, it is not hard to show exactly where the opportunities were lost.
The author conducts us in large steps from the early medieval period with Prudentius’s Psychomachia through Dante and Spenser to the Baroque and to Baudelaire. The considerable effort the author has put into this aspect of the book has been accomplished conscientiously. The temptation to elevate a large claim about the nature or the structure of meaning on this basis, on the other hand, seems to have carried the project beyond that good conscience. The preserved wreckage of philosophical claims on the unphilosophical language of art lies all about us as lessons from which thoughtful readers take warning. The institutions of literature have adapted and changed and survive with undiminished vigor into our century. Polemics about their mortality have now proved mortal too. One wishes and wishes that the author might have found at least one colleague to go through the manuscript to sort through the difference between statements that still bear careful examination and those that do not. Some of the author’s own assertions, unfortunately, do not even bear the first brush of attention, such as, most unfortunately, the opening statement.
Where was the editor when the author of this book starts with a definition of its topic that is no definition at all? We are told that allegory “refers to a way of saying or showing one thing and meaning another” and that “this very definition reveals the particular phenomenology of allegory” (1). It is certainly true that the literary device of allegory can be counted among the many, many ways of saying one thing and meaning another if one is content to separate saying and meaning in that way. The terminology has been moved around, however. This book will arrive at the position that everything in language that fits this “phenomenology” is in fact allegorical. But in language, something that is everything is also nothing. A widely circulated recording of Robert Frost catches him responding to a question from a student who suggested to him that poetry appeared to be “just another way of saying one thing and meaning another.” Frost pauses for a moment, though not for long, and responds in tones of an arctic forbearance: “Well . . . yes.” And yes, it is true. True also for any fiction, any metaphor, symbol, any lie, most figures of speech, diplomacy, and courtesy. Each of these offers a technique by which language produces a unique effect. As did the rhetorical effect of Frost’s “Yes.” The connections that should hold the literary and the philosophical components of the book together in the term “allegory” turn out to dwell only...