02 July 2005

Inadequacies of Allegory

I've been reading around in Derek Attridge's recent book J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading : Literature in the Event, a tremendously insightful study not only of Coetzee's fiction, but of the implications and structures of writing and literature in the contemporary world. (ReadySteadyBook has posted the first chapter along with a short interview with Attridge.) Each chapter takes a somewhat different approach to reading Coetzee's work, but each approach involves close and specific readings of the texts, readings that are informed by a broad knowledge of Coetzee's nonfiction as well as the historical, political, and social background each book was written and received in. What Attridge has done, really, is provide a model for a kind of literary criticism that is based on some of the tenets of aestheticism and New Criticism, but is balanced with other types of reading and interpreting that bring in various kinds of context: history, politics, economics, ethics, etc. If you like reading about literature, can ignore the frequent use of the ugly word "problematize", and aren't fanatically wedded to one theoretical approach, the book can be addictive.

The chapter that has most impressed me, at least for the moment, is one discussing two of Coetzee's most famous novels, Waiting for the Barbarians and Life and Times of Michael K. Attridge titles the chapter "Against Allegory", and one of the reasons I gravitated toward it is that when I first read both books, having read nothing else by Coetzee, I disliked them because I thought they were trying to be allegories, but I couldn't crack their references. Nothing added up. The structure of Michael K particularly bothered me -- the first section, focused on Michael K's experience of the world, is breathtaking and engrossing, but then it is interrupted by a doctor's report that seemed to offer either too many or not enough answers, and then the narrative returns to Michael K. It seemed when I first read it that Coetzee didn't know when he was writing well and when he wasn't, or that he wasn't trusting his story or readers, or -- well, all sorts of ors. Both books bothered me enough that I reread each a few times (they're short), and eventually I realized that Coetzee was a lot smarter than me -- he knew exactly what he was doing, and the moments that felt most heavy-handed made far more sense when I realized that they were critiques of interpretation, not models of it. I also realized that no attempt to make the books into simple morality plays would work, either, because close inspection revealed how much an allegorical reading had to mangle and mash in order for any sort of this-is-that symbolic meaning to appear.

Attridge writes:
In order to move to parallels outside the world of the book, many of the rich and sometimes apparently quite contingent details of the text have to be ignored, as do narrative temporality and succession (and this includes the extensive use made of gaps in the narrative sequence). The powerful physical depictions, the intimate experience of an individual's inner states, the unsuccessful attempts at interpretation, the posing (but not resolving) of delicate ethical dilemmas: all these have to be played down if we are to seek meanings in worlds elsewhere. Yet these are surely what give the work its uniqueness and its appeal, these are what engross and move readers (though most of us would be hard put to name the complex affective responses that are aroused). And all of these attributes, which reach us as events of reading, are brought into being by the shaping of language, the phrasing of syntax, the resonating of syllables, the allusions and suggestions -- historical, cultural, even physical -- that play continually through the text: a manifestation of linguistic power that is central to our enjoyment of the novel. (48)
To anyone who has read much of Coetzee's criticism, particularly the essays and interviews in Doubling the Point, it's not surprising that allegorical readings might not be the most productive for Coetzee's work. His own criticism focuses more on style, language, and structure than on metaphor, and in interviews he scrupulously avoids pinning down any particular meaning for his own work (while also pointing to various possibilities -- it's not that the work is meaningless, but that it can and should bear many different types of reading).

It's particularly difficult not to read a South African writer as anything other than someone responding to the political situation of South Africa, because that political situation so came to dominate the world's perception of the country. Coetzee both laments and accepts this -- throughout the interviews in Doubling the Point, he seems to want to be free of the label of South African Writer, while also accepting the historical position he was in. For instance, after discussing the poem "Five Men" by Zbigniew Herbert, he says,
It is because Herbert feels himself so deeply to be a European and believes, with whatever hedgings and reservations, in the vitality, the social vitality, of the literature of shepherds, roses, and so forth, in the power of poetry to bring those symbols to life, that he can oppose poetry to the great shambling beast of history. In Poland one can still hold such beliefs, and who, after the events of 1989, would dare to scorn their power? But in Africa...? In Poland one can still address the five men in the cell, or their executioners in the yard, indirectly, via the almost infinite lattice that a shared European culture provides. In Africa the only address one can imagine is a brutally direct one, a sort of pure, unmediated representation; what short-circuits the imagination, what forces one's face into the thing itself, is what I am here calling history. "The only address one can imagine" -- an admission of defeat. Therefore, the task becomes imagining this unimaginable, imagining a form of address that permits the play of writing to start taking place. (67-68)
Attridge doesn't deny that Coetzee's books invite allegorical readings, and even that allegorical readings can be fruitful up to a certain point, but he suggests that readers shouldn't accept the invitation uncritically -- that, indeed, Coetzee uses the temptations of allegory as a way of making meaning:
The reader may become conscious of the power and allure of allegory, of the temptation to generalize or codify meaning, and at the same time gain a heightened awareness of the specificity and contingency of language and human experience as these resist such generalizations and codifications. In fact, a responsive reading of a literary work will always be alert to the possibility of allegorical meaning, to the constant leaking of meaning away from the literal. (61-62)
It's a complex argument and I'm not doing it justice in this short space, but one of the reasons it fascinates me is that it made me think of one of the problems a lot of writers who are not primarily science fiction writers get into when they try to write science fiction: they allegorize too easily. Most SF readers don't read SF books as allegories (or, at least, merely as allegories), but for the literal presentation of impossible worlds and situations. A lot of SF doesn't make sense to readers who have been trained in literary study, and doesn't seem valuable, because one of the first impulses of most such people is to dive beneath the literal as soon as possible.

A lot of the contemporary writers outside of the SF world who interest me seem to be moving more and more away from the metaphorical tendencies that literary criticism has encouraged and fed off of for so long -- a writer like Aimee Bender, to take just one example, writes stories that can feel, at times, like parables, and yet they just don't work when interpreted that way; they fall apart and dissolve. This is a strength, not a weakness -- they shatter any one meaning and can only give pleasure to a reader willing either to suspend the interpretive impulse altogether and take the story literally, or to a reader who is comfortable holding multiple possible interpretations in mind at once. SF readers tend to be very good at the former, and it's a perfectly acceptable and justifiable position -- indeed, one that most authors, I'd guess, would endorse: close attention to what the words, sentences, and paragraphs actually say.

Perhaps it's not that authors are moving away from writing stories that support clear metaphorical readings, but that the limitations of metaphorical reading are now so obvious that we're all moving on. Writers have been writing stories that resist such interpretation for as long as writers have been writing stories. Some of us are just not in the habit of reading that way, but it's a good habit to cultivate.