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Allegory - a means to make bourgeois life endurable

The writings of Walter Benjamin are key to understanding the elaboration of allegory

From Benjamin’s critical revival and reinterpretation of the concept of allegory in The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928) an understanding of allegory as a distinctly negative and destructive mode of representation.

 Benjamin’s definition of allegory ‘as a void “that signifies precisely the non-being of what it represents”.’

 Benjamin understands allegory in terms of fragmentation and ruin that involves the ‘renunciation of the idea of harmonious totality’ promised by the symbolic mode of representation.

In its fascination with ruins, with significant fragments, and remnants as the finest materials for artistic creation, thereby conceiving the work of art as their accumulation, allegory ‘declares itself to be beyond beauty.’

 Benjamin sees this preoccupation with broken fragments as a politically progressive tendency of allegory, destroying what he calls ‘the illusion of totality or of organic wholeness’ that transfigures bourgeois life and ‘makes it seem endurable.

Hegel condemned allegory as a mode of representation that ‘only imperfectly [corresponded] to the essence of art’; considering it an abstract and coldly intellectual affair lacking in ‘the heartfelt depth of the imagination.’10 The primary concern of allegory was the personification of universal, abstract situations and qualities, i.e. religion, love, justice, and discord. However, the ‘allegorical being’ that embodies these qualities never attains a specific ‘concrete individuality;’ despite its human shape, it must remain a hollow, empty form ‘in order that there may be congruity between subjectivity and the abstract meaning it has.’

Hegel therefore considered allegory ‘bleak’ because the allegorical sign was meaningless in itself, ‘its general personification is empty,’ and because the connection between the allegorical meaning and the objects or images chosen to personify or illustrate that meaning were lacking in unity and entirely arbitrary. In a similar way, Benjamin observes the denunciation of allegory as a ‘mere mode of designation’ and the failure of Romanticism to engage productively with allegorical representation due to its conceiving it dismissively as, ‘a conventional relationship between an illustrative image and its abstract meaning.’

It is worht  how different tropological mechanisms of language (allegory, symbol, and irony) produce their effects of meaning or representation. (What will those teaches do it they are denied all those endless lessons on irony and allegory?)

 ‘it follows from the rhetorical nature of literary language that the cognitive function resides in the language and not in the subject.’ (Benjamin’s theory of allegory ‘suggested to de Man the power there might be in the use of the figures of rhetoric to mortify the text by disfiguring it in order to see how it works, not as something guided by an animating spirit, but as a mechanism.’)

oh goodness me so the writing is not throbbing with the life of an animating authorial spirit, but is just a mechanism - oh God, think of all those poor English teachers,

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