- The Theology of Personification:Allegory and Nonhuman Agency in the Work of T. F. Powys
"For all of us, the allegory is an aesthetic error"
In his recent book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, novelist Amitav Ghosh laments the modern novel's focus on probability. Whereas fiction prior to the birth of the modern novel "delighted in the unheard-of and the unlikely," Ghosh argues, the novel became a truly modern and bourgeois form "through the banishing of the improbable and the insertion of the everyday."1 The negative consequence of the novel's privileging of likelihood over unlikelihood is its constitutive anthropocentrism. "What is the place of the nonhuman in the modern novel?" Ghosh asks skeptically. In answering this question, he adapts Henry James's famous metaphor of the house of fiction: "it was in exactly the period in which human activity was changing the earth's atmosphere that the literary imagination became radically centered on the human. Inasmuch as the nonhuman was written about at all, it was not within the mansion of serious fiction but rather in the outhouses to which science fiction and fantasy had been banished" (Great Derangement, 66). To write about something highly improbable in a novel—Ghosh gives the hypothetical example of a character encountering an unheard-of weather event—is "to risk banishment to the humbler dwellings that surround the manor house—those generic outhouses that were once known by names such as 'the Gothic,' 'the romance,' or 'the melodrama,' and have now come to be called 'fantasy,' 'horror,' and 'science fiction'" (24). [End Page 709]
To Ghosh's list of the modern novel's "generic outhouses"—Gothic, romance, melodrama, fantasy, horror, and science fiction—we might add the name of allegory. The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, who never wrote a novel, discusses the modern prejudice against allegory in his well-known 1949 essay "From Allegories to Novels." "For all of us," Borges writes there, "the allegory is an aesthetic error…. I know that at one time the allegorical art was considered quite charming … and is now intolerable. We feel that, besides being intolerable, it is stupid and frivolous."2 The aesthetic regime of the novel replaces that of allegory, Borges argues, when the basic measure of reality shifts from the universal to the individual. "We must try to understand," he writes, "that for the people of the Middle Ages reality was not men but humanity, not the individuals but mankind, not the species but the genus, not the genera but God" ("Allegories," 157). Allegory seems an aesthetic error in the age of the novel because, in introducing the universal, the species, and God alongside the concrete, existing individual, it undermines the realism—or, we might say, the probability—of the work. To practice the "allegorical art" in the twentieth century is thus to appear somehow aesthetically backward. As the American poet and novelist Elinor Wylie wrote some twenty years before Borges, in her 1928 essay "Symbols in Literature": "Now the literal-minded may ask—or so I am credibly informed—why Mr. Bunyan did not tell the realistic story of a persecuted dissenter, and why Mr. [T. F.] Powys did not tell the naturalistic tale of an English village. But for some unknown reason he will ask this question more indignantly in the case of Mr. Powys than in the case of Mr. Bunyan, for to many people it seems forgivable to be allegorical in the seventeenth century and excessively foolish to be allegorical in the twentieth."3
Borges's argument that allegory is now passé in the age of the novel depends on a certain conception of time as forward-flowing and linear. Ghosh calls this one of the most powerful tropes of modernity: "that which envisages time as an irresistible, irreversible forward movement. This jealous deity, the Time-god of modernity," he continues, "has the power to decide who will be cast into the shadows of backward-ness—the dark tunnel of time 'outworn'—and who will be granted the benediction of being ahead of the rest, always en avant" (Great Derangement, 70, emphasis in original). It is the jealous "Time-god...