Religion Without Belief: Contemporary Allegory and the Search for Postmodern Faith by Jean Ellen Petrolle (State University of New York Press) In our present cultural moment, when God is supposed to be dead and metaphysical speculation unfashionable, why does postmodern fiction--in a variety of genres--make such frequent use of the ancient rhetorical form of allegory? In Religion Without Belief, Jean Ellen Petrolle argues that contrary to popular understandings of postmodernism as an irreligious and amoral climate, postmodern allegory remains deeply engaged in the quest for religious insight. Examining a range of films and novels, this book shows that postmodern fiction, despite its posturing about the unverifiable nature of truth and reality, routinely offers theological and cosmological speculation. Works considered include virtual-reality films such as The Matrix and The Truman Show, avant-garde films, and Amerindian and feminist novels.
Two paintings, by artists removed from each other in time, place, and sensibility, but related through their interest in allegory, illustrate how postmodernist allegory has evolved in the West to suit an epistemologically restless moment. Between 1671 and 1674, almost twenty years after his conversion to Catholicism, the Dutch painter Jan Vermeer completed his ponderous, iconographically precise Allegory of Faith, a spectacular visual manifesto of Jesuit belief. The work pictures an idealized female figure, seated before a Crucifixion painting, hand over heart, foot resting on a globe, gazing up at a glass orb while leaning on a table bearing Christian ritual objects; on the floor at her feet lie an apple and a snake crushed beneath a cornerstone. Every detail of the painting—the blue and white of the woman's gown; apple and snake; chalice, Bible, and crucifix; the Jacob Jordaens painting Crucifixion in the background—refers to a world of established religious ideas outside the painting. The seated female figure who represents faith, in fact, comes from Cesare Ripa's Iconologia, a popular sourcebook for Renaissance artists that catalogs and prescribes an entire culture's worth of symbolic representations; a painter could consult this sourcebook and learn exactly how the virtue of faith should properly be embodied. By using the Iconologia, as well as a range of other cultural material—Catholic liturgy, Christian doctrine, the Old and New Testaments, and other paintings—Allegory of Faith both acquires religious authority and endows it: its assertion about faith's ability to conquer the world and overcome evil derives credibility from the mass of religious texts and images preceding it. Simultaneously, Vermeer's painting affirms the authority of those texts and images by acknowledging them as foundational. Through this symbiotic dance of authority borrowed and authority conferred, back and forth, between the painting and its source traditions, the painter and his seventeenth-century audience entered into a powerful social experience—an experience constructed and discovered in the dance of many texts, stories, and images. Through the allegory and its referents, the painter and his audience link themselves emotionally and ideologically with a world of religious meaning around them, and link themselves through this world of religious meaning to people living before, with, and after them. By entering into this social experience, enacted through text and image, painter and audience cultivated in their minds and hearts an experience of order, belonging, assurance, mystery, wonder, knowing, and certainty: this powerful internal experience, in a social context that affirms it, we call truth.
Nearly three centuries later, in a changed cultural context, Robert Rauschenberg produced an allegory that operates quite differently from Vermeer's. Using three canvases, a mirrored panel, oil, paper, fabric, printed paper, wood, metal, sand, glue, and an umbrella, Rauschenberg created his combine painting Allegory, which, unlike Vermeer's allegory, seems more interested in multiplying meaning infinitely, instead of carefully determining it. Although the painting's umbrella and fragmentary red letters refer to the world of human objects and culture, the work has no necessary and obvious internal framework of meaning, and seems uninterested in fitting itself into any specific external framework of meaning. Whereas Allegory of Faith asserts that "Christ's death has saved the world from evil" and that "Christian faith can overcome evil," Rauschenberg's Allegory seems to depart from the notion of art as assertion, moving toward a notion of art as wondering, or even as sheer material exploration. For some art viewers, this movement from assertion to wondering amounts to a movement away from meaning itself. Charles F. Stuckey remarks that while Rauschenberg's "repeated materials and images invite interpretation.... his work harbors no specific meanings" (1997, 32). The artist himself, in fact, has declared his own aversion to the idea that understanding constitutes a worthwhile response to art: "Understanding is a form of blindness. Good art, I think, can never be understood" (Rauschenberg and Saff 1991, 177). This mistrust of understanding, of meaning-making as traditionally conceived, typifies attitudes toward meaning often associated with postmodernist art and engenders reading habits that emphasize textual indeterminacy and self-contradiction while underemphasizing positive content.
Craig Owens exemplifies this method of reading in part 1 of his essay "The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism." Writing about Rauschenberg, Troy Brauntuch, Sherrie Levine, and Robert Longo, Owens asserts that the ways these artists manipulate images "empty [the images] of their resonance, their significance, their authoritative claim to meaning". In part 2 of "The Allegorical Impulse," Owens remarks that postmodernist artistic strategies therefore "problematize the activity of reading, which must remain forever suspended in its own uncertainty". This emphasis on textual indeterminacy or self-contradiction, with its concomitant focus on what de Man calls the "impossibility of reading," has come to dominate contemporary thinking about allegory. Interestingly, theorists of allegory have applied this reading approach not just to postmodern works but also to Vermeer himself, as when Clive Dilnot and Maruja Garcia-Padilla offer a reading of Allegory of Faith that altogether ignores its religious claims and instead reads it as a meditation on "the referential moment as a whole," a "kind of parody of the injunction regarding the rendering of the human". Dilnot and Garcia-Padilla write, "[Allegory of Faith] is essentially unstable and contradictory at core.... [Its] intention appears simple and the freedom granted the viewer for its interpretation very limited. But this conceptual fixedness, the determination of a truth of the known but hidden order revealed by allegory, subverts the reliability of the representation of the visual experience. At the same time, however, the conscious stress on a skillful and carefully crafted illusion of life in the description of appearance in turn subverts the fixedness of the allegorical exegesis". This reading, intended to rehabilitate a painting whose apparent determinacy of meaning has made it "critically condemned", exemplifies how poststructuralist theory has influenced contemporary commentary about allegory. Contemporary allegory theory, taking its cues from de Man, tends to focus on how allegory dramatizes a distance between sign and signified, between grammatical structure and rhetorical purpose, between what a text says and what it performs. In other words, contemporary commentary about allegory tends to focus on how allegory problematizes meaning while ignoring or underplaying how allegory conveys meaning. While the former reading activity complicates texts in exciting ways for readers with an interest in semantic operations, the latter activity enables readers to recognize the specific value claims texts make. Given Vermeer's historical context and personal biography, any reading of Allegory of Faith that omits attention to its specific value claims remains incomplete.
The fact remains that however much Vermeer's painting can be read as a meditation on representation, it is clear that Allegory of Faith has faith not only in Christian ideology, but also in the capacity of religion, text, and art to develop and communicate valuable, trustworthy meaning for art appreciators. Even further, it has faith in what Catholics in its age and locality believed incontrovertibly existent: God exists, the saving power of Jesus Christ's death exists, evil exists, a means of combating evil exists, goodness exists, individual souls exist. Still further, it expresses faith that the saving power of Christ's death extends to individuals—that individual souls can be saved through Christ's mysterious sacrifice. Eurocentric intellectual history from the Enlightenment to the present has been described as a continually evolving departure from the dominance of these ideas and their replacement by faith in rationality, scientific method, empiricism, rationality, and materialism; religionists call this historiographical arc the "secularization thesis." Many versions of intellectual history identify an intensification of this process beginning with the Industrial Revolution around 1850 and continuing through the end of World War II. A new intellectual paradigm repudiating the modernist faith in reason emerged, according to many histories, somewhere around 1960. Postmodernity has been described as a sea change in belief, at least among intellectuals: not only has religious faith and faith in rationality been discredited, but so has faith in the referential capacities of language, as well as faith in the idea of self, in the reliability of history, and in the stability of knowledge. Faith in the possibility of meaning itself becomes questionable. Rauschenberg's Allegory serves as a visual analogue for this sensibility. In what has become a cliché of postmodernist form, Rauschenberg's Allegory would seem illegible—an allegory of nothing but the elusive, arbitrary, and subjective nature of meaning itself or, as Owens puts it in part 2 of "The Allegorical Impulse," an allegory "of its own fundamental illegibility" (1980b, 70). Without faith in the possibility of meaning in art, Rauschenberg's painting, obviously, must also lack faith in any traffic between art and truth, or art and religion.
Scholars writing extensively about allegory today—Deborah Madsen and Theresa Kelley, for instance—argue that in our postmodernist context, allegory has become a vastly different textual creature from the literary form most readers associate with the term. These scholars take care to point out that allegory in the late twentieth century has lost the overdetermined quality, the one-to-one correspondences, that gave it a bad reputation among the romantics and their heirs. Madsen, in fact, coins the terms "pre-Romantic" and "post-Romantic" allegory to distinguish between, on the one hand, religious or polemical forms of discourse based on correspondences and, on the other hand, the allegories of novelists like Franz Kafka, Thomas Pynchon, and John Barth, in which an allegorical element may have multiple referents, indeterminate referents, or no referents. The absence of referents in contemporary allegory, these theorists claim, stems from the absence of culturally shared sources of ultimate authority or meaning. These discussions of allegory have considerable explanatory and descriptive power. The Trial or The Crying of Lot 49, after all, differ from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress or William Langland's Vision of Piers Plowman as much as Rauschenberg differs from Vermeer; and certainly, these differences bespeak transformations in notions of meaning and authority.
Like these postmodern novelists, however, Rauschenberg's painting, while embodying the epistemological skepticism of its cultural milieu, also makes use of an aesthetic form rooted in religion and given to polemic—a form historically associated with the confident presentation of firm intellectual and/or religious principles. As a genre, allegory originated in ancient Hebrew wisdom literature, flourished further in classical Roman religion, and evolved into a sophisticated rhetorical strategy for exploring and presenting religious, cosmological beliefs. Allegory has, in fact, been so intimately related to polemics and religion that, as every post-Romantic theorist of the form observes, romantic poets and essayists, and Coleridge in particular, rejected it as pedantic, parochial, and antique—utterly unequal to modern tasks of aesthetic exploration and innovation. The opinion of allegory represented by Coleridge persisted throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, leaving the form in critical disrepute, largely untheorized, unremarked, and poorly regarded, except by medievalists. It seems curious, then, that Rauschenberg, an artist who exemplifies a postmodern intellectual climate of doubt about the possibility of meaning itself, would show interest in a form that forebears like Vermeer have historically used to figure, with passionate conviction, religious worldviews not only convinced of the possibility of meaning, but also confident about specific meanings: the nature, purpose and meaning of life, death, love, and suffering; the nature of the divine; the order of the universe; the path to salvation. Rauschenberg's painting, therefore, gives rise to the question that informs my discussion: What is a nice postmodernist artist like that doing with a strange, premodern form like this?
Similarly, it makes sense to ask why Kafka, Pynchon, Barth, or the writers and filmmakers I discuss, whose epistemological or semiotic strategies have more in common with Rauschenberg than with Vermeer, have embraced an ancient form that has for centuries been used to figure religious ideas and to opine about topical issues. Why has allegory made a comeback in the late twentieth century? True to their cultural moment, the allegories explored here profess, like Rauschenberg's painting, a lack of faith in the possibility of certainty. They are, then, allegories of unfaith, partaking in a post-1960s skepticism about truth, knowledge, language, and meaning. They deconstruct key articles of post-Enlightenment epistemological faith—Darwinism, scientific method, rationality, industrial/technological progress, and common sense. Semiotically, they resemble Rauschenberg more than Vermeer. Even when they retain the readability of a seventeenth-century painting, they differ as much ideologically from medieval allegories like Piers Plowman and Pilgrim's Progress as Rauschenberg differs from Vermeer. Contemporary scholars of allegory detail these points of departure, however, without investigating points of convergence.
Madsen, for instance, devotes an entire chapter of Rereading Allegory to "allegory after the 'romantic revolution,'" arguing that "allegory has become a response to the sense of perpetual crisis instilled by modernity". This sense of crisis, Madsen explains, issues in large part from a collapse of the hegemony of Christian ideology in Europe and the rise of secularism, which is accompanied by a perceived loss of access to the transcendental, which romantics attempt to address by sacralizing the imagination, poetry, and the symbol. After this "revolution," Madsen claims, allegory can only be appreciated for its ability to dramatize the absence of a transcendental signified. Elsewhere Madsen writes, "More disabling for allegory in the modern period than the subversion of allegorical rhetoric has been the crisis of belief which places in doubt the possibility of hermeneutic authority" (1996, 167), again implying that allegory in a postmodern cultural environment functions in dramatically different ways than premodern allegory because of the altered climate of religious belief. While uses and understandings of allegory in postmodern culture have certainly changed with the evolution of intellectual history, it is also worth recognizing how allegory, as a genre and mode of discourse, has remained consistent.
My contribution to the study of contemporary allegory, therefore, avoids emphasis on differences between twentieth-century allegory and earlier forms of allegory. I focus instead on what allegories of unfaith share with Vermeer's Allegory of Faith. In particular, I propose that, like Allegory of Faith, Pilgrim's Progress, and Piers Plowman, allegories of unfaith perform cultural work that is religious and polemical in nature. Rhetorically, postmodern allegory serves the same purposes as overtly religious Christian allegories of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. These purposes are: (1) theological—they seek to theorize, analyze, and illuminate sources of ultimate power; (2) cosmological—they articulate a vision of how the universe works, with special attention to the nature of the human; and (3) salvational—they identify threats to the individual soul (which in secular form becomes the "self") and propose methods by which the soul/self can be saved from "hell." If it is true that metaphysics is dead in a postmodern cultural context, then someone had better inform novelists and filmmakers.
Far from being philosophically noncommittal, the postmodern fiction discussed here remains profoundly engaged with all kinds of political, philosophical, metaphysical, and spiritual inquiry. As to Boland's question about whether literature has merely made the imagination a "new sacred place," the allegories examined here, while recognizing the world-generating, truth-generating possibilities of the imagination, also approach these possibilities with suspicion. In fact, as a genre, the virtual reality film, analysis of which occupies the next chapter, portrays the potency of the imagination as a threat to individuality, community, and meaningful life. Dystopian films like Total Recall, The Matrix, Thirteenth Floor, Dark City, The Lawnmower Man, and eXistenZ, in addition to exploring the destructive potential of imagination, express tremendous anxiety about the capacity of science and technology to dehumanize the world, reducing human beings to simulatable mechanical entities without soul, self, or dignity. These films protest the mechanistic view of body implicit in a scientific paradigm. Far from taking a playful attitude toward the possibility that truth and reality remain impossible to fix, virtual reality films express intense anxiety about an epistemology that cannot reliably locate truth and reality. In each film, the hero quests through a dream or dreamlike landscape, realizing with growing horror that its ontological status cannot be verified, and attempting to distinguish the simulated or staged from the actual or spontaneous. Explosions of objects and bodies serve as visual analogues for the anxiety, death, and destruction—sometimes apocalyptic in proportion—associated with the loss of basic ontological certainty. In addition, virtual reality films pursue ancient theological inquiries in secular form: the existence of self/soul; the relationship of body and soul; the implications of predestination for free will; and various attributes of divinity, including omnipotence, omniscience, benevolence, or despotism. This film genre, therefore, constitutes a contemporary form of religious thinking.
Of course, allegory as a genre cuts across and overlaps other genres, and my third chapter examines the form as it manifests in feminist experimental fantasy fiction. I discuss allegories by Angela Carter and Marguerite Young, showing how these sophisticated and deconstructive postmodern texts make definite value claims and engage in theological, cosmological, and salvational speculation. In fact, deconstructive thought and discourse itself strongly resembles an ancient form of theological thinking. A small but significant (and growing) body of critical theory connects Derrida and deconstruction to the medieval tradition of negative theology. This body of theory helps illuminate the religious impulses in even such relentlessly deconstructive discourse as that occupying Angela Carter's novels, and in the wildly complex and mercurial textual acrobatics of Young's 1965 best-seller, Miss Macintosh, My Darling. In appreciating the similarities of texts as different as virtual reality films and feminist experimental novels, it becomes increasingly apparent that distress over any perceived collapse of the real reaches into various quarters of postmodern culture, and shows itself across different media, genres, and decades.
My fourth chapter explores allegory as a mode of representation in challenging works of experimental film, showing how three particular species of allegorical form—quest, ritual, and anatomy—permit the filmmakers to pair characteristically postmodernist aesthetic strategies with traditionally religious inquiries. Whereas chapters 2 and 3 focus on strategies by which postmodern texts use allegory to engage such basic religious questions as "Am I really here?" and "What else really exists?" chapters 4 and 5 focus on texts that accept the basic experience of existence but ask questions that are equally intrinsic to religious inquiry: "How can I make sense of what happens to me?" "What is the meaning of suffering?" "Why do people suffer?" and "How can people be delivered from unbearable suffering?" The works by filmmakers Peter Greenaway, Yvonne Rainer, and Nina Menkes, while engaging these pressing questions, and modeling how allegory functions as one mode among many in hybrid aesthetic forms, also exemplify ways in which media function religiously. The cultural critic Robert White has suggested that contemporary media operate as sites for the pursuit of ultimate meaning, the search for perfect community, and the quest for authentic personal identity—all processes rooted in religious curiosity and utopian aspiration (1997, 47). Selecting films that are representative of each filmmaker's thematic concerns and aesthetic strategies, the fourth chapter shows how each film exemplifies one of these three religious functions of media, in addition to discussing how each film utilizes a traditional feature of allegory: quest, ritual, and anatomy.
The fifth chapter also discusses allegory as a discursive mode, drawing on Angus Fletcher's theory of allegory as magical ritual and William Covino's theory of magic as rhetoric designed to produce change in the material world. Using these conceptual frameworks, I examine two novels by writers of American Indian descent, demonstrating how they use allegory to reinscribe Amerindian theology, cosmology, and salvific wisdom into a dominant culture that has all but erased them. Wilson Harris's Palace of the Peacock and Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead constitute two instances of allegory used as ritual invocation. In the hands of these writers, the invocation serves the explicitly religious rhetorical purpose of illustrating an animist cosmotheology and arguing that the widespread adoption of this cosmotheology would save Western culture from the interpersonal violence and ecological destruction that, in Harris's and Silko's estimation, proceeds inevitably from systems of colonial domination.
My last chapter uses the study of postmodern allegory to understand fundamentalist religious thinking and the practice of violence. I respond to the claim that postmodernist thought and culture gives rise to religious fundamentalism, and therefore to the present clash of fundamentalisms that drives both terrorism and the "war on terror." The chapter closes by gesturing toward a practice of religion that provides meaning and beauty to human life but requires neither certainty nor a fearful, rigid clinging to dogma or belief.
As should be evident from these chapter summaries, my discussion endeavors throughout to demonstrate that, despite the tendency of critical conversation to emphasize differences between pre- and postmodern allegory, postmodern allegory resembles medieval and Renaissance allegory as much as it differs from them; for despite significant differences in aesthetic strategy and ideational content, allegory in every age fulfills religious rhetorical purposes. In addition, as a consequence of appreciating the religious dimensions of postmodern allegory, it becomes clear that postmodernist literature and film, far from dispatching such ancient epistemological values as reality and truth, as some commentators about postmodernism complain (or celebrate), actually work fervently to rescue the real and search for the true, albeit with a complexity and caution appropriate to their moment.
…The strategies postmodern allegory uses to create and articulate insight have been well described—although applied to nonfictive disciplines—by more recent contributors to the conversation about the usefulness of postmodern epistemologies. From the 1990s to the present, some writers have been drawing a distinction between the "deconstructive postmodernism" assumed by earlier theorists and "constructive postmodernism," a concept in which the epistemological cautions of poststructuralism become additional tools in the pursuit of nonrelativistic knowledge. In Constructive Postmodernism: Toward Renewal in Cultural and Literary Studies, Martin Schiralli characterizes deconstructive postmodernist epistemology: "Wary of all talk of grounding value or even meaning and knowledge in essential foundations, the postmodern attitude regards human meanings as too fragile and indeterminate to support any such inquiry. While the postmodern creative imperative is to illustrate these fragilities and ambivalences, indeed, to tease and play with them disruptively ... the postmodern critical imperative is to challenge the very conceptual frameworks within which it can make sense to ask such a question as 'What is the genuine source of value here?'—let alone answer it successfully". Schiralli, like others before him, identifies this attitude as a response to modernist (and New Critical) searches for essence—movements claiming to isolate and celebrate the essence of poetry, dance, building, etcetera—and suggests that in becoming preoccupied with indeterminacy, deconstructive theorists of postmodernism have "replaced one kind of procedurally fascinating dogma with another".
Schiralli contrasts this "deconstructive" postmodernism with "constructive" postmodernism, a critical construct that understands knowing as the experiential, multifaceted, ecological, provisional, and collective activity described in the philosophy of Wittgenstein and Dewey. A constructive postmodernist epistemology, according to Schiralli, replaces the logico-mathematical rationality of modernism with a rationality grounded in the messy, process-oriented, incredibly complex faculties involved in human experience, which perceive invisible as well as visible phenomena, and remain unable, in many circumstances, to operate without contradiction. Similarly, Frederick Ferré, in Knowing and Value: Toward a Constructive Postmodern Epistemology, argues that "deconstructive postmodernist voices [have declared] the end of metaphysics, the end of epistemology, and the end of philosophy," rejecting their Thegemonic' and `totalizing' tendencies" without offering an alternative. Ferré suggests ecology and systems theory, which he defines as "the science of relations," as alternatives—epistemological models for the construction of a postmodernist worldview that acknowledges complexity, values multidimensional experience, and aims for descriptive comprehensiveness and accuracy. These are useful descriptions of vibrant strategies of knowing; and while critics have been busy lamenting (or celebrating) losses of epistemological and ontological solid ground, fiction-makers of all kinds have been using these strategies since the late twentieth century to construct representations of the real and true that avoid both naïveté and hands-in-the-air epistemological resignation. The allegories examined here exemplify how postmodern fiction has evolved strategies for engaging in religious inquiry, having absorbed the insights of poststructuralism without abandoning fiction's traditional work of locating (or leveling, if necessary) shared sources of value and vision.
Paradoxically, allegories of unfaith search for new forms of faith. However, they offer neither a Vermeer-like Christian dogmatism nor a Rauschenberg-like endless ludism. While they participate in their age's skepticism about language, knowledge, truth, and reality, postmodern allegories repeatedly dramatize the negative consequences of this skepticism; they are often colored emotionally by an acute sense of loss. Also, as they call attention to the lack of foundation underlying certain basic assumptions, they suggest possible new foundations for regrounding and "resacralizing" personal and social experience. As chapter 2 shows, the virtual reality film maintains a faith in the body as an index of the real. The feminist experimental novels I explore all gesture toward a nondualistic experience of mind as an avenue leading away from suffering and lostness, and into saving moments of wholeness in which competing tendencies in the human psyche become balanced in a restful and generative poise. The rhetorical procedures animating these novels resemble the movement of negative theology, which attempts to approach and experience the sacred by emptying the mind of all language for, ideas about, and images of the sacred. In operating this way, these novels enact a faith in the capacity of human consciousness to shed the perceptual and conceptual habits that limit and imprison it, and thereby glimpse a transcendent wholeness. The trio of experimental films selected for discussion generate an array of insights into sources of stable meaning capable of offering deliverance from various forms of human suffering: in Peter Greenaway's A Zed & Two Noughts, family and reproduction provide respite from overwhelming nihilism; Nina Menkes's The Bloody Child: An Interior of Violence identifies the structure of human community as the source of suffering and the only potential salvation, offering an ecofeminist analysis of the spiritual dissolution caused by white supremacy, capitalism, imperialism, and life in military-industrial Western cultures. Yvonne Rainer's Film About a Woman Who . . . implies that liberation from social structures of dominance and the quest for personal authenticity release people from life-negating power struggles that enervate individuals and mire social relations in repetitive patterns of domination that destroy intimacy and creativity. Chapter 5 illustrates how two American Indian novels offer animist cosmologies as theology and a path of salvation from the social, spiritual, and environmental devastation caused by Western capitalist imperialism. In addition, these two writers, like many American Indian writers, enact a faith in the capacity of language and story to restore and redeem a fallen world. These contemporary allegories, while featuring postmodern aesthetic forms and exhibiting a postmodern sophistication about the complexities of truth and reality, are also engaged in a quest to locate new sources of value and meaning. Their mistrust of received understandings of the true and the real coexists with a determination to find new solid ground, new faiths, without recourse to discourses whose monopoly on truth postmodernism has undone. Postmodern allegory does, like much postmodernist cultural production, undercut the epistemological foundations of traditional religious dogmas and institutions, but it remains, like allegory in all ages, deeply connected with religious concerns. Postmodern allegory thus practices religion without religion, using ancient rhetorical forms to search for viable forms of postmodern faith.
As a genre, postmodern allegory reveals with particular vividness that the search for cosmic order, numinous insight, and genuine value continues to animate the postsixties cultural scene, despite crises of faith in reference, representation, and narrative. Commingled with postmodern fiction's healthy mistrust of any text, person, or system claiming ultimate authority is a deep desire to apprehend truth and reality. What becomes evident through analysis of allegory after allegory is that in the late twentieth century, texts of all kinds repudiate faith in language and knowing in order to fashion new kinds of faith. As my close readings of the fictions collected here show, postmodern awareness of the complexities of reference and representation does not prevent texts from expressing faith that the vulnerable human body, or the possibility of nondualistic or mystical cognition, or the pleasures of reproduction, or ecofeminist thinking, or the search for personal authenticity, or the living power of the earth, or the magic of story, can provide solid sources of value and meaning. All of these value claims, in their cosmological and salvific aspirations, constitute manifestations of the religious, and seek to sacralize (resacralize, some would say) a heart-numbingly secular culture.
Martin-Barbero's gloss on Weber defines secularism not as the disappearance of church-controlled governments or an absence of belief in this or that deity, but as an epistemic order that drains from experience "a magico-mysterious perception of human existence". It is against this secular view of the world that McClure detects resistance in postmodern fiction. Equating the postmodern with the postsecular, McClure's reading of postmodernism differs radically from accounts of it purveyed by theorists like Baudrillard and Jameson. McClure's characterization of postmodernist literature expresses succinctly the minority view of postmodernism from which my own understanding of allegory proceeds. He writes, “In suggesting that many postmodern texts are shot through with and even shaped by spiritual concerns, I mean several things: that they make room in the worlds they project for magic, miracle, metaphysical systems of retribution and restoration; that they explore fundamental issues of conduct in ways that honor, interrogate, and revise religious categories and prescriptions; that their political analyses and prescriptions are intermittently but powerfully framed in terms of magical or religious conceptions of power. But I mean as well that their assaults on realism, their ontological playfulness, and their experiments in the sublime represent a complex and variously inflected reaffirmation of premodern ontologies—constructions of reality that portray the quotidian world as but one dimension of a multidimensional cosmos, or as hosting a world of spirits.”
The critical fascination with indeterminacy and nonreferentiality, however, precludes sustained attention to these wild currents in postmodern fiction. This fascination, combined with the committed secularism of contemporary scholarship, causes many to miss continuities among postmodern fiction and earlier traditions of religious reflection, and among postmodern, Renaissance, and medieval allegory. This secularism—a product of literary theory's attempt to emulate science and to distance itself from New Critical/modernist dogmas—prompts it often to ignore the religious dimensions of the fiction it analyzes.
In highlighting postmodern allegory as a prominent genre in late twentieth-century literary and cinematic culture, I offer support for McClure's view of postmodernism. For far from dispensing with questions of ultimate meaning, the postmodern texts I analyze undertake their quests for the true and the real with a sense of spiritual urgency, using the ancient language of allegory. Obviously, I have joined the small chorus of voices attempting to restore to our understanding of allegory a sense of generic specificity. It should be clear by now that I agree with Carolynn Van Dyke's complaint that because in the most influential discussions of postmodern allegory, "allegory is explicitly made coterminous with discourse itself . . . the category is enlarged beyond usefulness". My decision to define allegory as genre and mode characterized by particular features and animated by the search for religious insight places me among a small cadre of writers who think that, sometimes, the list of generic features associated with allegory (dream-vision, quest, personification, abstraction, intertextuality, and so on) and an awareness of the varieties of allegory (quest, psychomachia, ritual, anatomy, and so on) can illuminate texts more effectively than can generalized observations about how language and narrative function.
In her careful history of the development of definitions of allegory, Rereading Allegory: A Narrative Approach to Genre, Madsen traces the development of two dominant understandings of allegory informing discussions in the present: allegory as fabulism, a "foregrounding of the inevitably frustrated desire for fixity of reference and for identity between the form and content of the image" (1994, 123), and allegory as figuralism, the imaginative figuring of a "transcendental signified," an ultimate meaning located in a world beyond language that allegorist and reader can perceive through the allegorical text or image. The first, allegory as fabulism, she argues, derives from an ancient understanding of "allegory as metaphor," in which the text operates "as a kind of code, concealing a systematic analogy with some external discourse, often a philosophical discourse" (2-3). Allegory as figuralism, she claims, derives from a view of "[a]llegory as metonymy," which evolved with Christian culture and instead of embodying some extrinsic meaning, contains "an intrinsic and mystical core of meaning embedded in the text by God and perceptible to divinely inspired readers" (3). Thanks largely to de Man's work, allegory as fabulisma drama of the frustrated desire for reference—has received plentiful critical attention these days, as work by Owens, Dilnot, Garcia-Padilla, Fineman, Quilligan, Kelley, and Madsen shows. This is why more work is needed to explore allegory as figuralism, "the imaginative figuring of a 'transcendental signified.—
Postmodern allegories, as my analyses illustrate, have both fabulist and figuralist dimensions; they function both like Rauschenbergs and Vermeers. Therefore, a generic approach to allegory restores balance to our readings of allegorical texts. In taking a generic approach, however, I remain mindful of the following caution issued by Madsen: "Literary critics have always found it easy to produce a generic 'essence'—a single characteristic or group of characteristics that define a text as allegory. What is very difficult to resist is the temptation to generalize this essential quality across history, and so to construct a generic absolute that defies the vicissitudes of history. For this is to falsify the nature of genre and to misread the texts the genre purports to name" (1994, 4). Madsen proposes instead an approach to genre that would "embrace the dynamics of genre while seeking to perceive patterns of inheritance and rejection among texts within the genre and in this way attempt to take account of historical change and intertextual continuity equally" (4-5). While my discussion aims toward this ideal, it consciously errs on the side of acknowledging continuity to counteract the slant in some versions of literary history that result from overemphasizing postmodern allegory's supposedly radical break with the past.
Fundamentalism, it has been alleged, also arises from a perception of break with the past. Huston Smith says, "[T] he root cause of fundamentalism is the specter of being threatened, cornered, even shamed by modernity" (2005, 57). It is this "sense of being threatened" that breeds the desire to possess, to grip, to grasp tightly one's version of ultimate meaning, by fancying oneself in possession of a truth that is arrogant and inhuman in its supposed clarity and solidity. Karen Armstrong's most recent best-seller, The Great Transformation, attempts to portray (and recover for contemporary religion) the humility that she claims accompanied the birth of the great traditions. The progenitors of Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and monotheism, she suggests, would have considered it "immature, unrealistic, and perverse to look for the kind of absolute certainty that many people expect religion to provide" (2006, xiii). The same could be said about texts—that it is unrealistic and immature to expect a text that values truth to cleave tightly to a singular meaning that could be summarized tidily. Readers hungry for meaning who feel impatient with the paradoxical, mercurial dimensions of postmodernist fictions may need to adjust their expectations. Scholars eager to tease out the complexities of these fictions may need to adjust their critical projects to meet the expectations of truth-hungry readers.
Expecting texts to mean something neatly is like expecting religion to provide certainty. The central problem with contemporary religion, according to Armstrong, is that we have "fetishized belief" (2006, 23). In The Great Transformation, Armstrong remarks, "It is frequently assumed ... that faith is a matter of believing certain creedal propositions. Indeed, it is common to call religious people 'believers,' as though assenting to the articles of faith were their chief activity" (2006, xiii). An understanding of religion as "belief" (rather than as "practice" or openness to ecstatic experience) is destined to engender violence. Beliefs contradict and violate one another. Practices, insights, ecstatic moments—none of these contradict. They stand outside the requirements of logical consistency, outside the requirements of mind. The mature practice of religion—and any access to truth and reality it may provide—does not consist of believing this or that formulation, but in developing habits of being, ways of inhabiting our own minds and bodies. To practice religion without violence, we need religion without belief. "Violence," Anne Twitty writes, "argues (always) a lack of faith—not so much among those who only have faith in the evidence of the material senses and the machines calibrated to their measure. . . . There is a lack of faith that is less easily discerned, that arises among those who cling to `faith.' Faith as defined precisely by texts and creeds and practices. A lack of faith in the ungraspable essence from which these texts and creeds and practices arose. A lack of faith in the realm of experience that is open to allusion, not to definition. A lack of faith in the as yet inchoate, uncreated what-is-to-come". If Twitty's remarks are pertinent, we need truth without dogma, meaning without exclusion.
The spiritual, moral, and religious value of postmodern allegory is that it cultivates these habits of mind, and this ability to make things mean without canceling out other meanings. We need a strategy of meaning-making—and a practice of religion—that is poised somewhere between a Rauschenberg and a Vermeer, somewhere between unlimited possibility and reverent proscription. Specific religions—like mercurial texts—are signposts that point to a numinous reality (or a numinous understanding of reality). Numinosity does not necessarily mean divinity, as Western traditions commonly understand divinity. (What equipment would human beings have for understanding divinity? Understanding would be the height of arrogance, the opposite of humility.) Numinous reality can be an experience of the body, moments of nonrational or mystical cognition, or intuition regarding the interconnectedness of world. It is not really the substance of the insight that matters, but a submission to wonder, a possibility of transcending ordinary operations, a reverence for partially glimpsed fragments of knowing. These humble, provisional approaches to the true and the real are what postmodern allegory offers, and what religion without violence—which is religion without belief—requires.
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