‘Allegory and Ideology’ by Fredric Jameson reviewed by Ted Tregear

Allegory and Ideology

Verso, London, 2019. xxi+410pp., £25 hb.
ISBN 9781788730259

Reviewed by Ted Tregear

About the reviewer

Ted Tregear is a Research Fellow in English literature at Gonville and Caius College, Cam …


Think of allegory, now more than ever, and you might think of Camus’s The Plague. The story of an epidemic that tears through a city in French Algeria, it is also, of course, the story of the Nazi occupation of 1940s France. Every episode can be read as referring to both layers at once, for everyone who knows the key. For Fredric Jameson, though, this is ‘bad allegory at its most consummate’ (7). It relies on the unquestioned premise that these two levels, natural and historical, can be seamlessly unified, and in doing so, reproduces the characteristic manoeuvre of ideology: it makes history look natural. Jameson’s criticism couldn’t be timelier. Sales of The Plague have shot up in proportion with the spread of Covid-19, and its ideological gambit has been repeated by politicians across Europe – only now in reverse. Camus uses the plague to represent the war; today, the war is more commonly used to represent the plague.

Anyone maddened by this incessant conflation of nature and history will be relieved to find in Jameson’s book a decidedly more sophisticated version of allegory. After a preface and first chapter establishing the theoretical stakes of Jameson’s investigation, we move through an eclectic series of chapters – on the history of emotions, Hamlet and its interpreters, Mahler’s sixth symphony, and ‘third-world’ literature -before getting to a trio of more familiar allegorical authors (Spenser, Dante, Goethe); a final chapter on postmodern allegoresis brings us to the present-day. For readers with the requisite stamina, the book closes with three hefty appendices. Underwriting this history is the conviction that a form as apparently arcane as allegory is able to capture aspects of our modernity in ways other genres are not. Allegory cannot resolve the problems of representation in which we find ourselves, but it can at least pose those problems in a richer, perhaps more purposive, form. Allegory has been on Jameson’s mind for some time. The present work was announced in The Hegel Variations in 2011, but its core goes back further, to Jameson’s 1981 Political Unconscious. Jameson returns to the fourfold allegorical method he introduced back then, devised by early Christians, particularly Origen, for reading the Hebrew Scriptures. The method begins by establishing a correspondence between two levels, literal and allegorical: between the Israelite exodus from Egypt and Christ’s resurrection, for instance; or between the French revolutionaries and the Roman republic, according to the political typology Marx describes in the Eighteenth Brumaire. The third level arises when the interpreter reflects on her own personal investment in the act of interpreting. If the third level asks what this story means for me, the fourth and last asks what it means for us – the collective in which I belong, into which I cannot be collapsed – the political struggle in which together we are engaged. Those levels never quite match up; and for this reason, the fourfold method speaks to the dilemma in which we find ourselves, where aspects of our experience – private and public, psychological and social -remain incommensurable. Bad allegory ignores the rift between collective and individual, political and unconscious, or spirits it away through the mystery of the symbol. Allegory proper maintains the differences between those terms, while trying somehow to hold them together, allowing resonances of meaning to pass from one level to another.

For Jameson, then, allegory is important insofar as it is ‘profoundly discontinuous’ (170). It marks a moment of historical crisis, where the contradictions under the textual surface manifest themselves as proliferating and irreducible interpretations. Jameson claims that allegory emerges when ‘the tectonic plates of deeper contradictory levels of the Real shift and grate ominously against one another and demand a representation, or at least an acknowledgment, they are unable to find in the Schein or illusory surfaces of existential or social life’ (34). Those surfaces seem closer to ideology, the imaginary resolution of contradictions. By contrast, allegory marks a crisis in ideological representation, where the fiction of harmony can no longer be satisfactorily sustained. It sits somewhere between an alternative to ideology – an acknowledgement of the fissures beneath daily consciousness – and an alternative of it, another form by which we imagine the conditions of our existence. Allegory thus presents a crisis in representation itself, or better, in representability, by which he means the workable model we have for imagining and configuring our lives. It lets us see a fractured social world while holding its fragments together; it can be a coping strategy, he goes on, or an incitement to a ‘more expansive knowledge’ (34).

To see what this looks like, we might turn to Jameson’s chapter on Mahler. Its title’s incredulous question – ‘An Allegorical Symphony?’ – seems unsure whether symphonies have narratives at all, let alone allegorical ones. Jameson steers us towards the contradictory form of the symphony, in which autonomous and seemingly complete movements are nonetheless parts of a larger overarching structure. In Mahler, that tension is manifest at the level of the movement itself. The two subjects in the first movement’s sonata form are apparently very different: one driving and martial, the other lush to the point of kitsch. One could write all sorts of allegories about their relationship, and Jameson does, to a point: this is a story of industrial capitalism against bourgeois opulence; it is a story of unhappy marriage between an obsessively ascetic figure and the romantic subject Mahler himself named after his wife Alma. Yet Jameson is also suspicious of how hastily these narratives personify the two subjects. He hears a closer affinity between those subjects, in the guise of a brief bridging passage – almost another version of the second subject, but drummed out in the dotted rhythm of the first. At this level, the symphony’s characters dissolve into clusters of notes and rhythms; the classical structure gives way to momentary patterns; and there emerge two contradictory ideas of time, one upholding the traditional past-present-future distinctions, the other asserting the primacy of the living present. Mahler’s symphony registers a temporal rupture itself a product of its historical moment, a temporal atomisation we might call, after Marx, the annihilation of time by time. The movement’s ending, positive but circumspect, hesitates between these irreducible alternatives, which continue to the close of the symphony itself.

This story about time tracks the longer argument in Jameson’s book: broadly speaking, the shift from allegory to allegoresis, substance to process, from a confident structure of allegorical correspondence to the more haphazard shuffling from one layer of meaning to another. This separates allegory from another of its conceptual false friends, personification: ‘it is the disappearance of personification that signals the emergence of modernity’ (48). From this perspective, as Jameson slyly observes, Allegory and Ideology is itself an allegory, a critique of reification under the name of personification. Like symbolism, personification forestalls interpretation just when it should further it by fusing the third and fourth layers of individual and collective. This is not to say that we do not glimpse the flickering of subjectivities beyond personification. The chapter on ‘National Allegory’ reprints a 1986 essay presenting Lu Xun and Ousmane Sembene as ‘third-world’ writers working at a less impassable intersection between individual and collective in their search for change. To characterise this intersection in a new commentary, Jameson borrows a term from the fourteenth-century Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun, asabiyya, roughly translated as ‘group feeling’. Neither purely psychological nor purely political, asabiyya denotes a solidarity based on concrete and material forms of social coexistence. The problem of imagining the collective allows us to reframe the political question of Jameson’s work. How is it that an individual can come into alignment with a collective identity, and thus achieve revolutionary transformation?

Reading Allegory and Ideology like this reveals both the relevance and the limitations of Jameson’s project. By implication, Jameson is unconvinced by the available forms of belonging, some of which he lists, with one significant omission: the concept of class. This chapter on national identity does feature a rare sighting of Marx, whose (unquoted) remarks on base and superstructure are construed as another allegory. But in imagining ‘a new and as yet undreamed-of global communism’ (37), Jameson eschews any close analysis of the transformations in production we are living through, or the social relations reforming around them – surely part of the more expansive knowledge allegory is meant to prompt. Falling as it does into two temporal moments – 1986 and the present – the chapter might have traced the changes in international politics over the intervening thirty-three years; yet there is no sense that much of world-historical importance has happened. We hear nothing of how ‘third-world’ literature fares when Ousmane’s Senegal is caught up in the neocolonial expansion of Lu Xun’s China, beyond a passing reference to ‘extractive colonization’, which in any case is less fitting for Senegal than more mineral-rich African countries. Jameson’s longstanding readers will be familiar with his trademark amplifications and qualifications on show throughout the book, as well as the long catalogues of famous men. Two pages opened at random, from the chapter on Goethe, rush us through Brecht, Heidegger, Lacan, Spinoza, Hegel, Marx, Adorno, Montaigne, and Spinoza again (306-7). From one angle, these are the correspondences of a reading too capacious for the usual cognitive and disciplinary limits of the individual; from another, they are what Jameson admits names tend to be – reifications, even commodities, ‘the very heartland of dogma’ (346). That these thinkers are overwhelmingly male is telling; in a study which investigates the breaks between public and private life, the total silence on social reproduction theory is extraordinary.

For all that, Allegory and Ideology charges an antique form with renewed political urgency. At its heart is the melancholy conviction that we can never directly lay hold of history. In a rare autobiographical reflection towards the end, Jameson muses on Althusser’s aphorism that ‘the lonely moment of the last instance never comes’: ‘I now think it means that we never have any direct or immediate experience of History’ (334). Artworks are our best hope, but less in what they express than in their falterings of expression. How strong that hope might be for thinking and acting is less certain. Jameson quotes the fable Lu Xun tells a friend eager to publish his writings:

Imagine an iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep inside who will shortly die of suffocation. But you know that since they will die in their sleep, they will not feel the pain of death. Now if you cry aloud to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making those unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you think you are doing them a good turn?

The implied answer is no – not for us ‘as intellectuals’, ‘at present soundly sleeping in that indestructible iron room…on the point of suffocation’ (175). But this is not the last word, not as Lu Xun tells the story. His friend replies: ‘But even if we succeed in waking only a few, there is still hope – hope that the iron house may one day be destroyed’. ‘He was right’, Lu concedes; ‘however hard I tried, I couldn’t quite obliterate my own sense of hope’. Jameson shows us how allegory opens up a more expansive knowledge, even from within the iron house of late capitalism. We need more work, in practice and theory, to discover how that absolutely indestructible house can be destroyed.

13 August 2020

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