Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The failed escape from allegory

Why is the Christian Right so narrowly obsessed with abortion? Why is it so concerned with bringing a reductive clarity to its reading of what surely must be a tragic anthology of dilemmas? Last Sunday's New York Times Magazine offers an interesting explanation here,

in the form of an article about the Princeton theologian Robert P. George. Offering us a conspectus of George's conservative Catholic view that human (hetero)sexuality has a uniquely double purpose ("unitive and procreative"), the article claims that George's thought influences American political discourse everywhere on the political right.

Myself, I got depressed when I read it. Trained as a biologist, I make a distinction between the uninterpreted idea of function and the teleological idea of interpretable purpose, and it seems to me that the idea of function is infinitely richer and more productive of happy astonishment. The natural world is full of wonders, and when someone comes along to declare, "The one (1) purpose of the wonder of sexuality is . . ." I get sad. Declarations like that, I think, are a symptom of allegorical thinking, and allegorical thinking is a form of paranoia. It ties everything down on a Procrustean bed of preformulated interpretation. I think of the "Messianic Jewish" Haggadot which solemnly explain that matzot are perforated because Jesus was punched full of nail holes.

I'd like to think that the Passover meal can be taken in more comprehensively than that. But no, it isn't easy to escape from allegory. When I took this picture yesterday, for instance, I'd just come from the ophthalmologist's, my eyes were full of atropine, and all I could really see when I looked through the finder was a white shape entering a circumscribed field of blue.

Iolani Palace, Honolulu, December 22, 2009
Click to enlarge.

That is: at the moment I pressed the shutter release, my vision was constrained to formal purity by a biological limit on what I was able to see.

A few hours later, though, with my eyes back to normal and the camera's memory card disinterestedly giving up its data to the computer, I found myself interpreting as I saw, and then photoshopping to force the interpretation on anyone else who might see what I thought the monitor was showing me.

The white tree and the dark: weren't those a white figure standing above and apart from something dark and gesticulating? A white shape, in fact, that could be Mr. Kurtz's Beloved? And a black tree dancing before the approaching whiteness like a frantic savage on the banks of the Congo?

That didn't have to be my interpretation, of course. It probably came to me only because I do my vocational reading in a largely Marxist department of English. There, allegory is one of the preferred modes of teaching, and it is understood by some of my colleagues that the purpose of a literature course is to smash colonialism. To departments like mine the canonical Norton Anthology of English Literature caters by following Heart of Darkness with Chinua Achebe's assertion that "Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist," and in departments like mine the undergraduates emerge from that simplifying juxtaposition feeling saved. At the beginning of the semester they were intimidated before Conrad's difficult prose, but now they feel superior to its discreditable purposes. They have been vouchsafed a moral interpretation and a language-free dichotomy -- Conrad the man or Achebe the man, evil or good? -- to vote on.

I like to think I read more interestingly than that.

But it seems that I really don't. A moment ago, for instance, didn't I reduce to illustration and allegory the pure image that my camera took in? As long as my impaired vision was subordinated to the camera's physical demands, I had to see without preconception -- but then my vision got better and I got worse. I began framing image's negative space with words, and thinking (in words) that I had to. I no longer saw without purpose. I was interpreting. I was as fallen as Robert P. George.