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New Literary History 32.1 (2001) 177-197
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Dante in Paradise:
The End of Allegorical Interpretation
Allegory as Symbol
In the very last canto of The Divine Comedy, Dante finally comes to unite his gaze with that of God. God is an eternally moving circle of light, and as Dante looks into it he finds at its center the image of Christ--or, literally, "la nostra effige," our image. 1 This is a decisive moment: what Dante, and the reader along with him, sees reflected in the revolving circle of God is his own image; God is a circle "with our image within itself," and Christ being man, man is both reflected and contained in God: through the image of Christ we see not only God, but ourselves in God. Dante is unable to find words for this moment of unsurpassed transcendence, "se non che la mia mente fu percossa / da un fulgore in che sua voglia venne" [save that my mind was smitten by a flash wherein its wish came to it] (DC 140-41). There follow merely four lines: "A l'alta fantasia qui mancò possa; / ma già volgeva il mio disio e'l velle, / sì come rota ch'igualmente è mossa, / l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle" [Here power failed the lofty phantasy; but already my desire and my will were revolved, like a wheel that is evenly moved, by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars] (DC 142-45). Through this moment of unprecedented translucence, then, the desire of the poet is ultimately brought into harmony with that of the Creator, becoming itself a revolving wheel moving towards its fulfilment in God. Coinciding, as it does, with the end of the Comedy, this moment of transcendent inspiration is itself all times: a reference to a future already accomplished, which has nevertheless still to be begun, as this end in truth marks the moment which enables the beginning of the writing of the Comedy, the greatest of all allegories.
The translucence with which this final scene of the Comedy is marked allows us to look upon Divina Commedia as a transubstantiation, as it were, of allegory into symbol and vice versa. In Coleridge's famous distinction between allegory and symbol, however, translucence is taken to be the defining characteristic only of the latter: [End Page 177]
Now an allegory is but a translation of abstract notions into a picture-language, which is itself nothing but an abstraction from objects of the senses; the principal being more worthless even than its phantom proxy, both alike unsubstantial, and the former shapeless to boot. On the other hand a symbol . . . is characterized by a translucence of the special in the individual, or of the general in the special, or of the universal in the general; above all by the translucence of the eternal through and in the temporal. 2
This sharp opposition between symbol and allegory is a relatively recent invention--it is commonly traced back to Goethe (A 13) 3 --yet it is one which has carried--and still carries--great weight in American literary criticism. Although the literary criticism of the last two decades nominally rejects the censure of allegory that is such a characteristic trait of a work like Charles Feidelsohn's Symbolism and American Literature, it seems to me that the dichotomization is still at work to a large degree, and that allegory is still held to be, in some sense, intolerable. 4
For Coleridge, allegory and symbolism are distinguished by their capacity for representational immediacy: the symbol supposedly gives us privileged access to the concept represented, whereas the allegorical expression is merely the abstract purveyor of a concrete thought or truth that always remains at one remove: "The Symbolical cannot per-haps be better defined in distinction from the Allegorical, than that it is always itself a part of that, of the whole of which it is representative.--'Here comes a sail,' (that is a ship) is a symbolical expression. 'Behold our lion!' when we speak of...