- Introduction: Allegory and Political Representation
Allegory is always topical, but the mode seems closer to our experience of representative politics today than it has in many years. Thirty-five years after the publication of Stephen Greenblatt’s important collection of 1981, Allegory and Representation, we write in the shadow of elections (in the United States, in Europe) and referenda (in Greece, in Britain) that have worked with figures and slogans meant to stand for existing collectivities or to establish them. Aliquid, the Scholastic maxim reads, stat pro aliquo: this stands in the place of that. This, a minority of the electorate in the United States, stands for that, a spectral, archaic figure of a great America to whose mythological features—Caucasian, orderly, safe—the unruly and disparate present and an equally unruly and disaggregated electoral majority must be made to conform.
“Who will speak for England?” asked a headline in the Daily Mail in February of 2016, before the Brexit vote, borrowing, the tabloid said, a phrase used once before, in Parliament, to force Neville Chamberlain to “bow to the mood of the House” and declare war on Germany. Imagine: the native citizens of a sceptered isle, assaulted by what the Daily Mail’s editors call “mass migration,” prey to “a statist, unelected bureaucracy,” “unaccountable judges,” “a sclerotic Europe.” In the United States, the heartland is assailed by the twin specters of the illegal alien and the Islamic terrorist, each frequently a figure for the other, their hazy propinquity painting economic anxiety with the colors of post-9/11 national and religious terrors, and vice versa. And then there is a newly elected administration ciphering the bodies of those displaced, deported, dead as a figure for the shambling chimera of “America First,” in a farcical echo of Lindbergh’s 1941 rallying cry to isolationism, anti-Semitism, blood libel. Political allegory, then, operates [End Page 1] now more than ever in a mode of closure—the closed loop of interpretation echoing closed borders, great and magnificent walls between us and the other, between us and horizontal, polysemous modes of interpretation. Such a mode does not represent a mythical return to older, even medieval, systems of signification; the recursive loop we find ourselves in rests on the self-conception of the modern subject. That subject’s imagined, medieval past functions as the ground for both the terrorist-as-invader and the white supremacist-as-Crusader (the latter substitution, implicit until recently, has become an acceptable explicit political position: Deus vult!). That is to say that allegory today is the mode of the alternative we are meant to desire. It offers us what we should want, standing in place of what is the case. Take, for instance, the numerology that captured the imagination of voters in the United States and Britain: polling results, offered as uncompromising and unimpeachable fact, coded for science-writ-large; they took the place of proper analysis; they tranquilized; they veiled; they displaced.
Allegory is the mode of alt-news.
In dire times, the critic assumes the function of de-allegorization: “See?” he or she explains; “behind the fetching clothes of nationalist nostalgia, under the cloak of that ‘America’ that Donald Trump would make ‘great’ again, in the breast of that same ‘England’ for which the Daily Mail claims to speak, beats the clumsy heart of oligarchy and racism on which ‘America’ and ‘Britain’ were literally built.” Other action—what we more conventionally call political action—may then follow: forms of resistance that range from Antifa-direct action, through the classic instruments of liberal-democratic opposition, to economic pressure (boycotts, shareholder democracy, divestments), to mobilization in the name of religious and spiritual claims, institutional or not.
The limits to this form of critical heroism are palpable.
The articles collected in this volume of the Yearbook of Comparative Literature flow from an American Comparative Literature Association convention seminar imagined well before Brexit and the US election. The organizers—now the coeditors—had in mind to mark an academic event, or rather, two events: the publication, thirty-five and thirty years ago, of two works that proved decisive to academic thought regarding the relation between allegory...