The Prescriptivist’s Progress

by Ryan Ruby

PilgrimsprogressbookThis month, two minor controversies revived the specter of the “language wars” and reintroduced the literary internet to the distinction between prescriptivism and descriptivism. One began when Han Kang's novel The Vegetarian won the Man Booker Prize and readers took to their search engines en masse to look up the word “Kafkaesque,” which had been used by the book's publishers and reviewers to describe it. Remarking upon the trend, Merriam-Webster noted sourly: “some argue that ‘Kafkaesque' is so overused that it's begun to lose its meaning.” A few weeks before, Slate's Laura Miller had lodged a similar complaint about the abuse of the word “allegory.” “An entire literary tradition is being forgotten,” she warned, “because writers use the term allegory to mean, like, whatever they want.”

When it comes to semantics, prescriptivists insist that precise rules ought to govern linguistic usage. Without such rules there would be no criteria by which to judge whether a word was being used correctly or incorrectly, and thus no way to fix its meaning. Descriptivists, by contrast, argue that a quick glance at the history of any natural language will show that, whether we like it or not, words are vague and usage changes over time. The meaning of a word is whatever a community of language users understands it to mean at any given moment. In both of the above cases, Merriam-Webster and Miller were flying the flag of prescriptivism, protesting the kind of semantic drift that results from the indiscriminate, over-frequent usages of a word, a drift that has no doubt been exacerbated thanks to the internet itself, which has increased the recorded usages of words and accelerated their circulation.

Since the trials of the word “Kafkaesque” have already received ample coverage (by Allison Flood writing for The Guardian and Jonathon Sturgeon writing at Flavorwire), I'd like to turn my attention instead to the uses and abuses of the word “allegory” as described by Miller. Most of the time Miller is not one to quibble with the way people use words. But a recent spate of film reviews—one claimed Batman vs. Superman was an allegory for the primary contest between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, another said that Zootopia was an anti-Trump allegory, a third called Jafar Panahi's Taxi an allegory of artistic repression in Iran—caused her to draw a line in the sand. “What people usually mean when they call something an allegory today is that the fictional work in question can function as a metaphor for some real-world situation or event,” Miller writes. But allegory “is not just another word for metaphor.”

Because one good quibble deserves another, allow me to point out that this last assertion isn't entirely accurate. The offending examples Miller lists are indeed abuses of the term. The first two films were made before the political events they are supposed to allegorize; the third simply is about artistic repression in Iran. But this is not because allegory stands in no relation to metaphor, it's because these particular films stand in little to no relation to what the reviewers claim they are metaphors for. If Miller is normally a descriptivist, it's quite difficult to understand why she has chosen to make an exception in the case of allegory, which Angus Fletcher, in his definitive study of the term, calls “a protean device, omnipresent in Western Literature from the earliest time to the modern era.”

Miller takes the features of the medieval literary genre to define its limits. Unlike more realistic fictions, the characters of medieval allegory are personified representations rather than representations of people. The protagonist of a typical medieval allegory, let's call him Everyman, journeys from Doomville to Blisstown, encountering, along the way, such embodied abstractions as Truth, Justice, and Sin who act and speak truthfully, justly, and sinfully, helping our hero reach his destination or tempting him away from the right path. Beginning “in the waning years of the Roman Empire”—presumably with Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy (c. 524)—Miller claims that allegory reaches its heights in works such as Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun's Romance of the Rose (1275), Edmund Spenser's The Faery Queene (1596) and John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1678). Although she admits that the genre has largely been eclipsed by the realist novel, it lives on in the writing of C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling and Haruki Murakami, in the films of David Lynch and in the drawings of today's political cartoonists.

Unfortunately, this simplifies history to the point of falsification (and not just because The Divine Comedy does not figure into it). To fix a word's meaning, a prescriptivist should start with its etymology, lest her definition seem as cherry-picked as that of the descriptivists she criticizes. Allegory comes from the Greek words allos (“other”) and agoreuein (“to speak openly”). Originally the word did not refer to a literary genre at all, but a rhetorical mode. “In the simplest terms,” Fletcher writes, “allegory says one thing and means another.” Like irony, allegory exploits the natural polysemy of language. It's a kind of double talk that is especially useful under conditions of political censorship or in societies where blasphemy is a crime. Allegorical speech deploys figurative language to alert the hearer the existence of a latent meaning beneath the manifest content of what is said. You would not be wrong to detect in agoreuein the word agora, the place where the Greeks came together to discuss politics. Nor would you be wrong to detect in Fletcher's paraphrase something akin to metaphor, which, to quote the prescriptivists at Merriam-Webster, is “an object, activity, or idea that is used as a symbol for something else.” The English lexicographer Edward Phillips, writing in the same year as The Pilgrim's Progress was published, defined allegory as a kind of semantic “Inversion,” derived from translatio, the Latin word for metaphor.

Allegory—”one of the foundations of Western literature”—is in fact much older than Miller suggests. The first known usage of the word can be found in the Moralia, a collection of essays by the Hellenist philosopher, biographer and literary critic Plutarch, who died in 125, four hundred years before The Consolation of Philosophy and over a millennium before The Romance of the Rose were written. According to Plutarch, the ancients called it hyponoiai (“under-thought” or “hidden ideas”). The most famous example from antiquity is of course the “strange image” in the seventh book of Plato's Republic (c. 380 B.C.). There, Socrates describes a society of imprisoned cave dwellers who take the shadows of things for the things themselves and relates what happens when one of them frees himself from his shackles and sees what the world beyond the cave is like. In what is variously known as the Analogy, Myth, Metaphor, or Allegory of the Cave, Socrates' story reveals itself to be a network of metaphors or symbols, wherein each element is meant to correspond to an element of reality as Plato sees it. Platonic allegory is a corpus symbolicum whose cells are metaphors. In so far as allegory and metaphor are different here, it is a difference of degree, not kind.

The same is true of allegorical reading. In Plutarch's time, allegorical exegesis of canonical texts, the Homeric epics above all, was a well-established critical practice, as philosophers demonstrated correspondences between the stories of Greek mythology and their own cosmological and ethical theories. In “How a Young Man Should Study Poetry,” Plutarch instructed readers not to take the myths about the Gods in the Iliad and the Odyssey literally, but rather to interpret them as astronomical metaphors and symbolic prefigurations of Platonic ideas. Around the same time, a similar operation was being performed on the myths of Genesis by the philosopher Philo of Alexandria and by the early biographers of a parable-speaking preacher from Nazareth.

By focusing on medieval allegory, Miller takes a particular, historically situated usage of a word—albeit a well-known one—to stand in, synechdochally as it were, for a whole tradition of usage. The works Miller takes as emblematic of the form are actually deviations from and even inversions of this older tradition. The personages and places of these works are entirely literal; irony is absent from their narratives and metaphors are reified as proper names. When Lady Philosophy speaks to Boethius, or when Despair tempts Red Cross Knight with an argument about suicide, there's no need to wonder whether the author means anything other than what he says. All allegories alert their reader to the fact that they are allegories, but few do so as ham-handedly as Pilgrim's Progress. Nearly everything a reader needs to know about Bunyan's book can be found on its frontispiece (see above).

Bunyan turns the distinction between manifest and latent content inside out; then he dispenses with latent content altogether. In so doing he dispenses with the very feature that had distinguished the form for centuries (all the way back to the prophet Hosea in the 8th century B.C. if we are to take his word for it). The Pilgrim's Progress does not represent the form's culmination; it represents its decadence.

Miller is right to wonder if we are even capable of reading such books any more. Aside from children, who can still enjoy allegories as pure tales of adventure, contemporary readers are likely to prefer the round characters, psychological depth, moral ambiguity, and narrative complexities that are some of the hallmarks of the realist novel, which has been the dominant form of storytelling since the late eighteenth century. “Should a book or form present its argument so simply that even a child can discern it, what's left to talk about?” she asks. “Merely language, story, and imagery—all the pleasures that art is made of.”

As a defense of allegory in the age of the novel, this is puzzling, to say the least. Having begun with an attempt to distinguish allegory from metaphor, Miller ends up arguing that pure formalism is the only way we can still appreciate the most didactic of all genres. The pleasures of language, story, and imagery were the very criteria by which Flaubert wanted his arch-realist “book about nothing” to be judged. For all the formal differences between a book like The Pilgrim's Progress and a book like Madame Bovary, the ideological literalism of medieval allegory is only a step away from the mimetic naturalism of the realist novel. In any event, stripping an allegory of its ideological framework in order to read it as “entertaining adventure yarn” isn't how the form stays relevant in the twenty-first century. It's how Dante's Inferno gets turned into a video game.

This reductio ad absurdum is the inevitable consequence of taking medieval allegory to exhaust the meaning of the term. More generally, it shows how a narrow definition of a word can be just as harmful to its meaning as overly broad usage of it. With a prescriptivist for a white knight, meaning hardly needs a dragon.