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  • Allegory's Lament from Benjamin to Dante
  • Nimrod Reitman

Hors d'Oeuvres

Dante scholarship has produced an ever-expanding corpus devoted to the role played by allegory in his work.1 Yet Dante's understanding and use of allegory seems to remain ahead of his critics. Illuminating a path that at once clarifies and disrupts the ways we traditionally think about allegory, Dante presses us to review his insights as if they had been put on hold for a number of centuries. His relation to allegory is difficult to ascertain even when masked in transparency: when he emphasizes the literal dimension of an utterance, he tends to turn against himself and bring to light—or, one might say, into darkness—the allegorical nature of language. Because his engagement with allegory has in some ways been simplified or diverted by a long history of reception, it becomes necessary to reclaim Dante's probing relation to allegory in light of other critical thinkers who have devoted themselves to its understanding. Consistently preoccupied with the way his work would be received, Dante's allegory is never only allegory.

My aim is not merely to show how these critical appropriations have read Dante, but how Dante reads and inflects the works that are indebted to his still-innovative contribution to textual history. It could [End Page 1362] be that a genuine understanding of history requires us to take the risk of achronicity, showing the morphs and mutations that continue to take place within a dynamic, if disjunctive, process of reading.

Walter Benjamin, following a trajectory that may well begin with Dante as much as with the Schlegel brothers, delivered the blueprint by which we try to calculate the range and limits of allegory's reach. Placing his focus mostly on the German Baroque drama, Benjamin found it necessary to include Dante's Inferno in his ruminations. In order to analyze the melancholic shadowing of which allegory is capable, Benjamin resorts to Dante's description of acedia and melancholia as the "dullness of the heart" allocated to the ice cold, fifth circle of hell (Origin 155–6). Yet in some ways, Dante outsmarts Benjamin's intention.

With a particular emphasis on the Convivio, this article reads allegory in Dante through the lens of thinkers who have forged the way we think about history and allegory in the twentieth century. For many of these readers, among them Walter Benjamin, Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, allegory's trajectory is one of devalorization and decay. With the possible exception of Dante, the history of allegory charts a progressively deadening cartography of depreciation; a once-electrified figure of speech becoming, over time, a staid and formulaic mode of articulation. Appearing at times overly readable, allegory, in the wrong hands, runs the risk of provoking a profound sense of embarrassment. Though Dante and these thinkers use allegory in a manner that seems at first to be incommensurate—Dante's poetics and theoretical understanding of the disruptive capacity of allegory stem from completely different historical epochs and traditions—they all situate allegory as a fundamental merger between various and disjunctive discourses. Allegory constitutes a transcendent arc with the impossible demand of turning up particularity and abstraction to maximum levels. It therefore functions structurally in as much as it also acts as a figurative, poetic device. In the case of Dante, allegory is not only a way of saying figurative language, but for all intents and purposes structures his poetic oeuvre as well as its future reception (Mazzotta 227–229; Fioravanti 30).

In a kind of Nietzschean gesture that attempts to interrogate why certain tropes or usages are devalued, even transvaluated, I want to analyze the resuscitation of allegory and look at its new face and facets since the intervention of Benjamin, on whom Paul de Man, and later Jacques Derrida and Maurice Blanchot, heavily rely. Prior to Benjamin, the symbol, in competition with the allegory, was the exalted trope [End Page 1363] of transcendence and highly valorized in aesthetic works, including those of Goethe, Schiller, Schopenhauer, and Kleist. Benjamin and de Man, each according to his own sensibility and idiom, were highly suspicious of the symbol's...


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