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Human Sacrifice in Ancient Greek Tragedy: A Mythic Hermeneutic

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The last of my Arts Degree essays. This is not so much about Greek tragedy as about all of ancient Greek culture reflected in what it is not. It is a fitting conclusion to my myth theoretic work over the last few years.

What can the history of world mythology tell us about the meaning of death for the ancient Greeks as represented in tragedies featuring human sacrifice?

greek-tragedy-chorusWhile the ancient Greeks are not believed to have practiced human sacrifice,[1] it features in a number of their tragedies from   the late sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. This raises the question as to the meaning of human sacrifice for the ancient Greeks, its function in dramatic performance, and what it demonstrates about the ancient Greek view of death. While death is always considered a grave and serious issue, a distinct feature of the representation of human sacrifice in ancient Greek tragedy is its overall ambiguity: sacrifice is never wholeheartedly advocated nor fully condemned, is neither entirely good nor bad. I argue that this is like much else in Greek myth and tragedy, but that this level of ambiguity is relatively unique for a post-Neolithic civilisation at this time, which may reveal something about the ancient Greek ethos, particularly regarding religious experience.

There are a number of elements common to most of the extant tragedies by Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles featuring human sacrifice. The call for human sacrifice usually comes from the gods, whether through an oracle, sage, prophecy or request from the dead.[2] The victim is always a young unmarried[3] person, usually a female virgin. The prospect of human sacrifice always evokes horror, pity, sadness and aggressive protest from the victim, his or her family, and/or the observing chorus. A more elderly relative often pleads to be substituted (Euripides, Hecuba 386-90; Euripides, Children of Heracles 453-67; Euripides, Phoenician Women 967-71),[4] to no avail. In most cases,[5] after much pathos, the victim courageously comes to accept his or her sacrifice[6] for the sake of the greater social good – to ensure a victory in war and/or to uphold the family name.[7] An easy way to escape is offered (Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis 1426-30; Euripides, Children of Heracles 540-3; Euripides, Phoenician Women 970-4), which the victim always refuses, with an explicit (Euripides, Children of Heracles 588-9) or implied[8] exoneration of responsibility for the executioners. As is usual for ancient Greek tragedy,[9] the victim is killed offstage, usually with a messenger figure reporting the event.

It is undeniable that these are common elements in the plays. However, their meaning and interpretation among scholars has varied considerably, so much so that there is virtually no consensus as to what sacrificial death means for the ancient Greeks, as represented by the plays. Consider, for example, the most common interpretations and contrary opinions: Scodel argues that human sacrifice is presented as morally evil, cruel, and impious[10] – characters always protest against it; it is never presented comically – while Rabinowitz claims that the ancient playwrights romanticise victimisation and eroticise sacrifice[11] – victims are referred to as youthful beauties, executed in a public way, often for apparently noble causes. Sacrifice is chosen as subject apparently to reinforce the status quo,[12] to advocate the self-sacrifice of the hoplite soldier fighting in the Peloponnesian War,[13] and/or as an outlet for internalised violence.[14] These differing viewpoints are all effected by (a) the interpreter’s exclusive focus upon positive or negative aspects of sacrifice as presented in the plays (more on this later), and (b) the degree to which textual evidence is seen as reflecting (even promulgating) social, cultural, religious, broader historical, or human psychological norms (i.e. the degree to which the text is ‘read into’). Since my interest is in how the presentation of human sacrifice reflects the ancient Greek cultural perspective of death, we must first pause here to consider how the ancient Greeks might have reacted to and interpreted tragedy themselves.

masksThe plays are not obviously primarily political speeches (like those of Lycurgus), nor are they histories (like the work of Herodotus). The fact that the Greeks did not, as far as we know, perform human sacrifice alerts us to the fictional (or at least mythological) nature of tragedy – not only human sacrifice but long-dead, legendary/mythological persons, supernatural events, and gods were portrayed in the theatre by actors wearing stylised masks during a religious festival.[15] Hence we must consider the plays, particularly regarding human sacrifice, as myth. In this regard, as per Rudolf Otto, Joseph Campbell and others,[16] we can expect mythology to primarily promulgate a numinous emotionality, and as per Clifford Geertz,[17] reflect and support a cultural ethos related to and vitiated by the worldview presented in myth.

But while religion reflects the highest, most primary source of meaning, particularly in ancient societies, the peculiar language and dialectic of myth has its own hermeneutic difficulties. The interpretation of a non-mythological source, such as a legal document, is relatively straightforward; provided there are no concerns about sincerity or authenticity, words can be taken at face value, and compared with and/or generalised into contemporary cultural norms, customs and beliefs. Mythological material cannot be reliably extrapolated and generalised into historical data in the same way. Herein lies the value of Joseph Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’.[18] The revelation in relation to Campbell’s exposition of the more-or-less universal ‘stages of myth’ – such as ‘the call to adventure’, ‘the road of trials’, ‘apotheosis with the father’, etc. – lies not in the fundamental sameness and therefore hermeneutic equivalence of all mythologies worldwide, but in their differences: the divergences, omissions, transformations, and unique realisations of the mythological stages in each particular cultural nexus.[19] In other words, Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’ can be used as the yardstick, with the cultural ethos revealed in the manner in which a particular culture arranges and realises the stages, or how a particular element loses or gains value by its position within the schema.

Sadly, the history of human sacrifice as a motif in myth is sketchy but, according to Campbell and others, it seems to make its appearance in early sedentary agricultural village cultures, generally on a ‘complex hunter-gatherer’[20] or Neolithic level of human society, apparently extending into early prehistoric ‘Bronze Age’ societies.[21] The apparent religious attitude accompanying human sacrifice, as attested by our scant sources,[22] is not primarily aggressive, but ecstatic or ascetic; sacrifice appears as a voluntary act of the mythic hero, committed as a means of identification (‘becoming one’) with a god or transcendent principle.[23] Campbell has postulated that cultures to the east of modern-day Iran exhibit more features of this Neolithic sacrificial mythic worldview than those to the west.[24] The ideas of ascetic self-denial or ecstatic absorption in a ritual-religious role are fundamental religious principles of eastern myth.[25] For example, the Jain, Hindu, and Buddhist schools of India all encourage the individual to realise a state of ‘no-self’ or ‘annihilation’,[26] and the Confusion, Daoist, and Shinto religions of China and Japan advocate an absorption in a social-natural order.[27] As a result, myths of the east frequently present human sacrifice as an ascetic or ecstatic calling – death is fundamentally an escape from a sorrowful or deceitful world or a mere playful illusion (cf. reincarnation).[28]

In opposition to this, in mythologies to the west of Iran, the self is not denied; instead, “[it] is … treated as though it were a definable knowable entity with particular characteristics.”[29] One does not ‘deny ego’; one develops it.[30] Campbell has observed that this emphasis on individuality has separated god from man in western myth; connection to the deity is one of relationship, rather than identity, hence human sacrifice is frowned upon, and other forms of relationship to the deity are established.[31] Add to this a further division: in the Near East, god is generally more righteous than man; he is a mighty warrior god with moralistic concerns.[32] Relationship is established via a warrior code, a covenant, sacrament, or koran; Job submits to God with the words: “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 46:6).[33] Whereas in ancient Greece, god and man are separate but more equally matched. Humans may coerce other humans, even other gods, to oppose the will of Zeus; “I care less than nothing for Zeus,” cries Prometheus. “Let him do what he likes” (Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 937).[34] These differing relationships with god may also reflect the respective political systems: autocratic rule, mandated by god (Yahweh, Allah, Marduk) in the Near East, and a huge variety of political systems, democracy among them, in ancient Greece.

Thus we return to Greek tragedy, itself a form of mythmaking that is essentially unique to Europe in its quality of acknowledging “the human sufferer.”[35] Suffering in eastern myth is either dismissed as an illusion (e.g. Hinduism) or presented as a weakness to be overcome in transcendence (e.g. Buddhism); in the Near East, it is essentially punishment for sin (cf. the Fall in the Garden). In Greek tragedy, suffering is apparently presented for its own sake, as an acknowledgement of the way the world is, but also as something to be surmounted – but in worldly, not other-worldly, action, such as war, vengeance, or even (unavoidable) human sacrifice, committed for one of these worldly ends. The unpredictability and diversity of Greek tragedy is a result of multifarious conflicts – between god and man, man and man, god and god, god and man and Fate. The ‘message’ of the myth is difficult to pin down because it is not, as per Near Eastern myth, moral/political ideology in disguise, nor is it transcendental psychology or ‘sympathetic magic’, as it is in the east, and in earlier hunter-gatherer and Neolithic myth.[36] In fact, a Greek tragedy may closely approximate what we mean today by a work of art, a creative work presented primarily for the story itself and the emotional effect it generates. It is as if the numinous emotional quality has managed to separate itself from the metaphysics, psychology, morality, or ideological strands of myth and religion proper – producing, on one hand, art (the theatre, etc.), and on the other, early science and democracy (philosophy, rhetoric, etc.).[37] Yet the fact that Greek tragedies were presented within a religious festival suggests that the break between religion and art had not fully occurred.

This almost ‘artistic’ expressive-ambiguity pervades tragedies involving human sacrifice particularly. As per above, ambiguity is acknowledged by many commentators.[38] It is difficult to conclude exactly why a virgin such a Iphigenia in Iphigenia in Auris must die. Why tell such a story? It makes no logical sense; there is no clear ‘moral’. However, it certainly is emotionally powerful. As per Wilkins, “The principle rhetorical force of the [sacrifice situation] … is the great desire of the victim to die, against the wishes of the … relatives and friends.”[39] The perverse emotional force of this scenario is actually not ambiguous – ‘ambiguous’ is too flat and unemotional a term. This comes back to tragedy’s proper status as myth. Again, Greek tragedies are not discourse treatises, presentations of arguments as might occur in a law court or philosophical treatise. We cannot arrive at Euripides’ opinion on human sacrifice by merely ‘adding up’ the number of ‘for’ or ‘against’ arguments presented in his plays, as many commentators have done to much confusion.[40] Rhetoric in tragedy is primarily emotional, as is appropriate for a mythological (or artistic) presentation of an argument concerning an obviously fictional event. Tragedy is not ambiguous; it is numinous, beyond the bounds of logic and reason.

Epidauros.07The marvel of Greek tragedy is that it manages to be numinous, or, at least, emotionally powerful, without recourse to an explicit and corroborating political ideology, psychological literature, metaphysical revelation, or divine mandate. It is this desire to create a powerful, logically ambiguous, emotionally transcendent experience – an experience which these ancient people might designate ‘an experience of the gods’ – which explains many of the perverse events in tragedy. We see this messy emotional power in the contradictory arguments offered, the strange, seemingly unmotivated prophecies and omens, the ironic fusing of opposites[41] – death with marriage,[42] sacrifice as objectification,[43] as patriotic duty and familial obligation,[44] as horrendous waste.[45] The most courageous motivation for sacrifice is thoroughly complicated by the powerful protests against it.[46] Significantly, the acknowledgement of human uniqueness occurs simultaneously with that of human frailty. The result is a particularly capricious worldview full of powerful conflicts:[47]

… differing fortunes
Follow close upon one another.
Fate brings low those that were high;
The unhonoured Fate makes prosperous.

(Euripides, Children of Heracles 639-42).

To summarise, human sacrifice in Greek tragedy is, I argue, primarily not just ambiguous but perversely powerful and numinous, especially in the mythological context of a kaleidoscopically varied and complex order of gods, humans and fateful powers which forms the ancient Greek mythic worldview. Just as the issue of human sacrifice is grim and complex in Greek tragedy, so too is the ancient Greek view of death. It is clear that death is not spiritually welcomed like in many of the Neolithic and Asian mythic systems. The ancient Greeks’ greater emphasis on worldly, social, and individualistic values meant that death was viewed with more reality and finality. Its necessity for a greater social good was recognised, but not unambiguously advocated. When characters die willingly in Greek tragedy, their sacrifice is linked to worldly ends – dying for the particular institutions of family and city-state. In fact, it is probably the inability of Greek myth to allow the individual to spiritually stand completely separately from these institutions[48] that makes Greek tragedy still appear somewhat alien to modern readers, who, inheriting more recent ideas from the European Renaissance, have a greater, or at least different, sense of the value of human life, of the individual, and his or her relation to society.[49]


Primary Texts[50]
Aeschylus Prometheus Bound trans. H. W. Smyth (Cambridge, MA, 1926).
Aristotle Poetics trans. P. Murray and T. S. Dorsch (London, 1965).
Euripides Children of Heracles trans. P. Vellacott (London, 1972).*
Euripides Hecuba trans. W. Arrowsmith (Chicago, 1958).
Euripides Iphigenia in Aulis trans. P. Vellacott (London, 1972).*
Euripides Phoenician Women trans. P. Vellacott (London, 1972).*
* Due to the layout of this translation, the line references for these titles are approximate only.

Secondary Texts
Austin, N. Meaning and Being in Myth (University Park and London, 1990).
Burkert, W. Homo Necans: the anthropology of ancient Greek sacrificial ritual and myth trans. P. Bing (Berkeley, CA, 1987).
Campbell, J. The Hero With A Thousand Faces (Princeton, 1949).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Creative Mythology (New York, 1968).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Occidental Mythology (New York, 1964).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Oriental Mythology (New York, 1962).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (New York, 1959).
Campbell, J. Myths to Live By (New York, 1971).
Cassirer, E. Language and Myth trans. S. K. Langer (New York, 1946).
Csapo, E. ‘Theatrical Production, Greek’ in M. Gagarin (ed.) The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (Oxford, 2010), from (accessed 18/04/14).
Donner, Susan E. ‘Self or No Self: Views from Self Psychology and Buddhism in a Postmodern Context,’ Smith College Studies in Social Work 80 (2010), 215-27.
Garrison, E. P. Groaning Tears: ethical and dramatic aspects of suicide in Greek tragedy (Leide; New York; Koln; Brill, 1995).
Geertz, C. ‘Ethos, World-View and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols,’ Antioch Review 17 (1957), 421-37.
Hayden, B. Shamans, Sorcerers and Saints: a prehistory of religion (Washington, 2003).
Koller, J. M. Asian Philosophies, 6th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2012).
Murnaghan, S. ‘Sophocles’ in M. Gagarin (ed.) The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (Oxford, 2010), from (accessed 21/04/14).
Otto, R. The Idea of the Holy trans. J. W. Harvey (London, 1923).
Pollard, E. A. ‘Sacrifice’ in M. Gagarin (ed.) The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (Oxford, 2010), from (accessed 18/04/14).
Rabinowitz, N. S. Anxiety Veiled: Euripides and the traffic in women (Ithaca, NY, 1993).
Rehm, R. Marriage to Death: the conflation of wedding and funeral rituals in Greek tragedy (Princeton, 1994).
Scodel, R. ‘Virgin Sacrifice and Aesthetic Object’, Transactions of the American Philological Association 126 (1996), 111-28.
Seaford, R. ‘The Tragic Wedding,’ Journal of Hellenic Studies 107 (1987), 106-30.
Wilkins, J. ‘The State and the Individual: Euripides’ plays of voluntary self-sacrifice’ in A. Powell (ed.) Euripides, Women, and Sexuality (London and New York, 1990), 177-94.

[1] At least, not as normal practice, see Pollard (2010); Wilkins (1990), 178.

[2] Wilkins (1990), 177.

[3] Or not betrothed (Euripides, Phoenician Women 943-4).

[4] Wilkins (1990), 183.

[5] It is probably best to exclude Sophocles’ Antigone from this study as her death resembles more of a murder/suicide than a sacrifice to the gods.

[6] Rabinowitz (1993), 35, 39, 42-43, 55; Wilkins (1990), 183.

[7] Wilkins (1990), 177, 179, 190; Roselli (2007), 111.

[8] Rabinowitz (1993), 38.

[9] Murnaghan (2010).

[10] Scodel (1996), 111, 119.

[11] Rabinowitz (1993), 39.

[12] Rabinowitz (1993), 37-8, 56; Roselli (2007), 110, 126.

[13] Wilkins (1990), 177, 179; Roselli (2007), 111.

[14] Girard, referenced in Rabinowitz (1993), 33; Burkert (1987), 62.

[15] Csapo (2010).

[16] Otto (1923), 5-71; Campbell (1962), 35-6, 45-8; Austin (1990), 15; Hayden (2003), 3, 63-4.

[17] Geertz (1957), 421-7.

[18] See Campbell (1949).

[19] Note: in this respect, the key Campbell text is not The Hero With A Thousand Faces (1949), but The Masks of God (1959-68), a work five times as long.

[20] See Hayden (2003), 122-7.

[21] Campbell (1959), 171-3; Hayden (2003), 200-1.

[22] E.g. the myths of Polynesian head-hunters, the stories of the astonished Christian friars in pre-colonial Mexico, and particularly the accounts of more recent human sacrifices in 19th century C.E. India (the ritual of sati, for instance).

[23] Campbell (1959), 179-83; Campbell (1962), 64-9.

[24] Campbell (1962), 3-9; Campbell (1964), 3-5.

[25] Campbell (1959), 176-83; Campbell (1962), 23-30; Campbell (1971), 65-6, 71-3.

[26] For example, nirvana means literally ‘extinguished’; see Koller (2012), 47.

[27] Campbell (1962), 23-30.

[28] Campbell (1962), 23-30.

[29] Donner (2010), 217.

[30] Campbell (1962), 14-5, 21-3.

[31] Campbell (1962), 30-33; Campbell (1968), 346.

[32] Campbell (1971), 175-80.

[33] Campbell (1971), 81.

[34] Campbell (1971), 81.

[35] Joyce in Campbell (1968), 354; cf. “… since no suffering is involved, it is not tragic” (Aristotle, Poetics 14.5).

[36] See Campbell above.

[37] See Cassirer (1946), 97-8 for this idea.

[38] Scodel (1996), 111; Roselli (2007), 124; Rabinowitz (1993), 42.

[39] Wilkins (1990), 183.

[40] This is approach (a) above.

[41] Rehm (1994), 136-40.

[42] Rabinowitz (1993), 33, 38, 55; Scodel (1996), 111; Seaford (1987), 108-9, 112.

[43] Rabinowitz (1993), 33, 34, 39, 55; Scodel (1996), 111-2, 114, 115; Roselli (2007), 87-8, 130.

[44] Rabinowitz (1993), 33, 36, 38, 56; Wilkins (1990), 185; Scodel (1996), 111.

[45] Rabinowitz (1993), 55; Scodel (1996), 118-20, 125.

[46] Garrison (1995), 129.

[47] One is reminded of the difficult, tumultuous and unrelenting business of maintaining a healthy democracy.

[48] As, for example, in the later mythic/artistic developments of individualistic romantic love, and political-personal ‘freedom’.

[49] See Campbell (1968), 304-8 for a revealing comparison of the Greek ‘Theseus/Phaedra’ story to the Celtic-Medieval ‘Tristan/Isolt’ story.

[50] The book of Job from the Bible was referenced in Campbell (1971), 81.

Some Troublesome Art Terms

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Susanne K. Langer

Here are some troublesome art words and clarifying explanations of them I learned from reading philosopher Susanne K. Langer (Philosophy In A New Key (1941), Feeling and Form (1953), Problems of Art (1957)). Langer argues that all art (from pictorial art, to sculpture, architecture, music, dance, poetry, literature, and theatre) functions in a way that is fundamentally not expressible using words.[1] This is generally the problem lying behind these troublesome art terms. Since verbal expression is difficult, there is a tendency to use words impressionistically or metaphorically but then become confused with any number of literal meanings.



– often used to mean ‘art that aims to superficially distract the viewer, or to avoid unpleasant realities’.

“Escapist” tends to be incorrectly applied merely to artworks which have no obvious verbal content or message.

This misuse has to do with the modern assumption that if a meaning cannot be expressed in words in must be “emotional”, “mystical,” “irrational,” “unscientific,” “sensational,” “fantastical” or “delusional”. Langer points out that the ‘fantasy’ or ‘faery world’ experienced in childhood is not an attempt by the child to escape the ‘real world’ (as in “escapism”) but is a non-verbal way of conceiving reality when other methods have not developed yet – it is a “thinking in shades of feeling.” Similarly, an artist may use non-verbal means to communicate certain expressive or emotional effects which cannot be properly articulated verbally.


“artistic truth”

– has nothing necessarily to do with truth in relation to reality (“the way things really are”, “the existence of things”) or historical fact (“what really happened”) or logical processes (“this conclusion follows from these premises”).

Yinka_Shonibare_MBE.77213521_stdLanger argues that “artistic truth” is the degree to which an artistic work reminds the viewer of the feeling patterns of organic life. Such patterns might be the approximate feeling-impression of organic growth (like a plant growing or a young person maturing), of natural processes (like the heart beating, water flowing or vines curling), or of natural emotional patterns (such as fear or desire or horror or passion). Langer emphasizes that this is only an impression of these feelings and consequently there is no necessity for the artwork itself, or the subject it seems to be portraying, to actually be organic or alive (or, in particular, to reflect factual or social-political reality – art is not a newspaper article or scientific paper). It is merely ‘an impression of organic life’. (This is also often inexpressible in words.) Thus, a work that “has no artistic truth” seems inorganic, flat, ho-hum.



– Langer argues that “self-expression” has no necessary connection to art if you use “self-expression” to refer to:

  1. the feelings that the artist feels when creating the artwork
  2. the raw visceral emotions a viewer might feel when reacting to real-life events (such as vigorous exercise, or hearing that a close friend has died, or winning the lottery)

Langer argues that it is unnecessary to be in an emotional state to create an artwork that has an expressive effect.[2] In fact, being in a highly emotional state does not allow for much concentration. Also, in the case of the performing arts, an emotional state cannot easily be produced on the spur of the moment when it is time for a performance.

Similarly, when, as viewers, we feel ‘the anguish of the holocaust’ or ‘hunted by a monster’ on the cinema screen, we do not actually undergo the same or even similar emotions as we would if we believed these events were actually taking place. (Going to see a horror film would be traumatic and physically painful.)

berensonLanger argues that art does not produce or vent emotions, and the artist is not making us feel emotion.[3] Instead, the artist is arranging artistic materials so that they signify expressive effects to us – though we should take note that Langer is essentially using ‘signify’ here in an unconventional way; to mean indicate and sense, get an impression of, understand non-verbally. There isn’t actually an adequate word to describe something that is felt but isn’t a feeling. The best that Langer can do is to describe it as a feeling that is not a reaction but a form of comprehension – ‘you ‘know’ that feeling’.

The whole difficulty of “self-expression” in art resides in the fact that artworks seem to express something without telling us anything in the usual practical non-artistic way. A painting is not a person so it cannot “speak” to us. A poem does not deliver information in the same way that a newspaper article or instruction manual does. How is it “expressing itself” without bluntly “saying what it means”? The artwork appears to be “alive”, to be “telling” us something, “making us feel” something, but in some non-conventional way. This again is difficult to describe in words – a feeling of subjectivity (the expression) with apparent objectivity (the artwork is apparently just a ‘thing’, and ‘things’ aren’t alive in order to express things to us).

All of this is related to:


“aesthetic distance”

– this term is often used in relation to expressive effects which are muted: “it stands at some aesthetic distance”.

Langer points out that “aesthetic distance” is essential to art (otherwise you wouldn’t recognize it as art) and that the distance can be near as well as far.

The confusion surrounding this term has to do with non-verbal expression again. “Aesthetic distance” refers to the process of making something into (or, from the viewer’s perspective, considering something as) a work of art. The artistic materials must be sort of ‘set back’, or mentally ‘marked off’ from not just their surroundings but the ‘everyday’ ‘normal’ way of thinking that we employ for non-art objects. This may involve ignoring an object’s practical function or usual context. Importantly, this is not necessarily about impersonality or lack of expressive effect – in fact, the very act of considering something aesthetically tends to enhance its expressive effect. Once again, we have a tricky conception which does not lend itself to words – this is rendering something ‘distant’ or ‘formalised’ but not ‘typical’, ‘general’ or ‘unemotional’.escaping_criticism_by_caso

Something that is at too great an “aesthetic distance” (“too far away” as it were) seems to be a non-art thing (a practical object or incidental thing), which does not strike a viewer as being expressive at all – it is usually ignored or merely ‘used’ to some purpose. A sign in a supermarket would not usually be experienced as art for this reason.

Something that is at too little an “aesthetic distance” (“too close to us”) seems to be a non-art thing (a practical object or incidental thing) which is reacted to violently by the viewer or ‘shatters the illusion’ (the aesthetic situation). Suddenly talking to the audience during a naturalistic play can have this effect if not properly prepared. So can graphic sex or violence in a movie (we stop caring about the story and start marveling at how fake or real it looks, and whether that is really the actor’s private parts).

(Alfred Hitchcock mentions a “house of horror” amusement at a carnival in which the patrons sat down before a cinema screen, thinking a horror movie would start, but the real horror is caused by the roof seeming to suddenly collapse upon them. Hitchcock reports that the ride was really unpopular because the fear was too real to be enjoyable. This is another example of being at too close an “aesthetic” distance – the experience was certainly terrifying but it was not “aesthetic”.)

Langer suggests that this is why we should really talk of art as engendering a ‘disengagement with belief’ (belief being far “too close” a conception) rather than “make believe” (we are disengaging belief not engaging or ‘making’ it).[4]


“form versus content”

– People talk about an artistic work being ‘more formalistic’ or ‘more about the content’.

Langer points out that in an artistic work, form and content are always the same thing. This is because the formal qualities of a work are only perceived by the viewer through the positioning of the elements, which is the content. Hence if there were no elements or the artistic elements were different, the form perceived would be absent or different, hence form and content are always necessarily intertwined.

Often “form versus content” is raised when the speaker is actually talking about the use of conventional or clichéd structural devices (“it is too/very formal”) or clear verbal messages (“it is more about the content”). Neither of these elements necessarily harm the expressive effect of an art work.

A work which is mainly about conveying information – for example, a public service announcement – could have an impact on an audience, if, for example, the information itself is distressing or interesting. Since its impact is more a result of an emotional reaction to certain facts or ideas (= the artistic materials themselves rather than their status as artistic elements), we might refer to such a work as “non-” or “less aesthetic” and the other kind of work as more “formalistic”. However, such wording is misleading as the “more aesthetic”, “formalistic” variety is actually not “formalistic” but equal parts “content” and “form” (so much so that the difference between these things is indistinguishable). When discussing literature, Langer points out that even in an essay (in which information conveyed is of paramount importance), the structuring of the argument (along the lines of introduction, first point, counter proof, second point, examples, conclusion, etc.) is aesthetic. This is art being used in the service of ideas. We might more accurately say that ‘information’ art is “more content” while the other variety is “equal parts content and form” but we are still being terribly vague and simplistic.


“beauty” “value” “culture”iberens001p1

– do not have set descriptions; they have no definite units and cannot be combined in clear proportions. Langer points out that describing these as if they form part of a systematic quantitative order is either poetry or nonsense, but certainly not art criticism. We might as well describe medicine using the medieval theory of the four bodily “humors” – it is a form of poetic expression which is masquerading as a graded system.


“imitation of reality”

– art isn’t an imitation of reality (see “artistic truth” above). The concept of imitation doesn’t actually apply to whole areas of art: What is a building or a melody imitating? As we discussed above, the expressive power of an artwork does not come from its literally life-like imitation but from its “expressive-indication” of the feeling patterns of organic life.

This is why we use the word “creation” for the making of an artwork but not for the making of a cake. We say “She has constructed an artistic creation”, “He is creative”; we do not say, “He has created a cake”, “My plumber has created a downpipe for my roofing”. What is “created” is the “expressive-indication” of the feeling patterns of organic life.

Langer suggests that the reason we want to touch “realistic” sculptures is not because we are amazed that they are so precise an imitation, but because we are astounded that this mere thing can be so expressive (see again “self-expression”).[5]

The idea of imitation leads to the following 2 perverse questions:

–       “What is the artist trying to say?” and

–       “What is the artist trying to make us feel?”

That is, “how has the artwork imitated or indicated things or concepts extraneous to itself?” But, Langer argues, this is studying the associations generated by the artwork rather than studying the work itself. Artworks don’t imitate; they “expressively-indicate” or “present aesthetically” non-verbal organic “lived experience” to our comprehension/”feeling-understanding”.

Both of these questions are also based upon a theory of art founded on verbal language, which can either convey information or stimulate feelings. But, as we have seen, art fundamentally is not verbally expressive. It does not “tell” us things, nor does it “stimulate” feelings in the same way that real-life does.

The valid question, for Langer, is “What has the artist made, and how did the artist achieve this effect?” The poet has not created a mere arrangement of words, for words are only her materials, out of which she makes her poetic elements, which are deployed, balanced, spread out, or built up to create a recognizable “expressive-indication” of the feeling patterns of organic life.


[1] Yes, poetry and literature use words as their artistic materials, but the way these materials function as art is not easily expressible in words.

[2] This is kind of like how it is not necessary to be happy to use the word “happy”, or to actually be in the presence of a cow to say the word “cow” and be understood.

[3] All of these could happen but they are not indicators of art itself, which can occur without these effects.

[4] It is more accurately, “make expressive-indication” or “make aesthetic”.

[5] It’s almost like an optical illusion.

Written by tomtomrant

18 June 2014 at 6:01 pm

Bad Art

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I used the term ‘bad art’ – isn’t it disgraceful?!
Surely ‘art’ cannot be ‘bad’ as this assumes an absolute ‘good’ and an absolute ‘bad’ and as right-thinking post-modern thinkers this is just unacceptable!
Art isn’t ‘bad’ or ‘good’ – it all depends on the frame of reference, the critical theory, the person doing the looking.


But don’t stop there.

If the theory stops there, we have a situation like the following:
Danny is a total tool. He is a really hot guy and he goes about seducing girls, using them then dumping them.
“What a dick,” his latest, Janet, reflects. “You are a tool, Danny, and I am breaking up with you. Do you know why?! Because you are a dick. Think about it.” And she dumps him.
Danny, hurt by this unflattering assessment of his character, momentarily reflects: Who is she to call him a dick? These are just words. They are just subjective judgments. Danny is not of course literally a dick (though he may have one), it is simply a matter of opinion – it depends on the frame of reference, the critical theory, the person doing the looking.

Danny stops here. Thus assessing the relativity of judgments, he banishes such thoughts from his mind and continues his womanizing ways. In other words, he fails to learn anything.

It is precisely in this way that “post-modernism”, “post-structuralism”, “deconstruction” suggest we should view the world: fixed and definite meanings are impossible and futile; meanings are always shifting, multi-faceted and ambiguous; no one is capable of dispassionate judgments.

The result of this is: “You can’t tell me what to think!” and *shrug* indifference. But of course both of these attitudes are only useful against poorly considered, badly thought-out judgments, in situations requiring water to slide of the duck’s back. For example:
Two months later, Danny sees Janet at a party. “Hey,” he says, sidling up, “You still being a bitch?”
Janet reflects: Who is he to call me a bitch? These are just words, etc. It all depends on the person doing the looking – and puts his insults out of her mind.

Such indifference may be a mature response to a dickhead. But applied to all situations, we have a stunting of personal growth, the inability to learn, arrogance and the sense that life is meaningless.

Danny is right that he is not literally a dick. He is also right that the insult is only Janet’s opinion. BUT what is Janet’s opinion worth? 

This is the step the post-modernists seem reluctant to make: all right ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion’ but is such an opinion RELIABLE? Is the person to be trusted, or, more importantly, what data, what thinking is it based upon?

Janet is not a stranger and Danny knows that Janet is not a moron. In fact, Janet is probably both intellectually and emotionally smarter than him. Furthermore, they were going out for 3 weeks and spending a lot of time together. Janet has both an excellent sense of judgment and plenty of multi-faceted evidence about Danny’s character. Of course this means that what she said is not law, but it is still extremely reliable. Maybe, Danny might consider, maybe I might like to reconsider some of the ways in which I behave…

pollock-paintingSo the sequence goes like this:
1. Judgment
2. Step back from the judgment to realize the relativity and unreliability of all judgments, in an absolute sense.
3. Don’t stop there. Now assess the perspective from which that judgment is valid. Is such a perspective an important one? We must assess the source of the judgment and the basis of the assessment. Is it reliable?
This last, all important step (step 3), seems to have flummoxed the modernists, who seem transfixed by the existential crisis of the non-absoluteness of judgments (step 2). This suggests they secretly miss, cannot cope with, cannot endure a world without such absolutes. At least, it is unendurable to the extent that they stop there.

The modernist laments the directionless fragmentation and disorientation of modern life while the post-modernist celebrates it. Neither of them seems to want to do anything about it (aka., progress to step 3).

So instead:
Post-structuralism: we decide to reject complex structures (clearly all ‘lies’) and study instead the unstructured, the incidental, the plain. This is expressed by Danny when he says: “How dare she be smarter than me! I’m going to stick to dumb, disoriented girls in future who I incidentally meet at parties and never see again.”
Post-modernism: we ignore cohesive ideas and study instead the disordered, meaningless and cynical. For Danny: “How dare she make sense! I’m not going to even attempt a real relationship again – I’m just for the sex and the joy of manipulation.”
Or, we can read everything from a black-and-white political perspective: vis-a-vis Marxist Criticism, Lesbian/Gay Criticism, Cultural Materialism, Post-Colonial Criticism, Ecocriticism, Feminism, etc. Danny: “Well it would be just like a Bourgeois/hetero/old school/exploitative/fossil-fuel-burning woman to say something as totally dumb as that!”

Notice that these attitudes are equally unhealthy even if Janet were to think them about Danny. Janet should be indifferent to Danny’s taunts because she has assessed his claims, and knows them to be nonsense – not because:
Post-structuralism: “All opinions have a merely relative structure, therefore even Danny’s opinion is worthless.”
Post-modernism: “All is meaningless so I am cynical of anything Danny (or anyone else) tells me.”
Or: “Well it would be just like a Bourgeois/hetero/old school/exploitative/fossil-fuel-burning man to say something as totally dumb as that!”

Step 3 (the assessment of the pertinent reading of the situation) is not the reinstatement of a step 1 absolute judgment. It is the making of a judgment from a relative but appropriate point of view. The post-modernist argument seems to be that finding the appropriate point of view is so difficult, it is impossible or at least, not worth even trying. The idea is related to, not just an over-interpreted idea of Einstein’s theory of relativity, but the reality of the modern ‘global’ world, in which many races, cultures, religions, people are all mixing and intermingling to an extent never before experienced in the history of humanity. It is as if we are two alien tribes meeting for the first time, except everywhere and all the time. But what did we do at those earlier meetings, where there was no common language, no common culture or understanding? We tentatively and cautiously took some clumsy mute attempts at communication, at reassurance on a common ground. This seems to me to be the appropriate course of action – not the definitely right one of course, but, as post-modernism keeps insisting, there is no absolute right so, post-modernists, quit your whinging and get a grip.

I agree the situation is not easy and is not ideal, but I think encouraging people to take those tentative steps to communication, not just to find bland ‘new’ hyper-individualistic (“You can’t tell me what to think!”) forms, but to reconstruct and re-use old structures, orders, cohesive systems, old understandings with fresh insight, would be a lot better, a lot more appropriate, than celebrating indifference, inhumanity, fragmentation, disorder and the hopelessness of going on. This is the difference between stepping into the unknown with a shaky confidence versus cowering in a corner and giving up.

Not just literary criticism, but art that does the former and not the latter is truly ‘good’ – ‘good art’ – at least for this moment, in this global situation, but probably (shock! horror!) for all time – for what situation would not require a meaningful, ordered critical but uncynical reflection on life?

Written by tomtomrant

15 June 2013 at 12:40 am

Literary Theory (1) New Criticism Reviewed

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I’m not much interested in literary theory but a recent traumatic university assessment experience has forced me to peer into its bewildering world of arcane verbiage and idiosyncratic intellectuality and attempt to distinguish the proverbial head from tail. The unfashionable schools of Formalism and New Criticism seem to me to make a good deal of sense, although we must overlook some deficiencies of method and update elements of old-school language. My brief comments below were inspired simply by the Wikipedia page, but I thought I would share them.  

New Criticism

Such Formalism looks promising:
New Critics often performed a “close reading” of the text and believed the structure and meaning of the text were intimately connected and should not be analyzed separately rather than analyzing the literary text itself.” = non-separation of content and style.
Content by itself = ‘information’ and everything this could entail (not necessarily having anything to do with the arts), i.e. history, culture, opinion, news, etc.
Style by itself = abstract art (not usually very engaging) or ‘the mode of presentation’: the notepaper, empty stage/screen/Powerpoint slides, etc. In sum, meagre offerings with limited potential.[1]

But Formalism seems less promising in the negative:
“New Critics focused on the text of a work of literature and tried to exclude the reader’s response, the author’s intention, historical and cultural contexts, and moralistic bias from their analysis.”
I would add the words: “unless the text itself, or the method of critical examination, explicitly calls for these.”

“For Wimsatt and Beardsley, the words on the page were all that mattered; importation of meanings from outside the text was considered irrelevant, and potentially distracting.”
This is fair – we are studying literature. To read more into a text than reasonably occurs to one while reading is like neurosis: seeing shadows which are not merited/are based on one’s own personal idiosyncratic character or context.

But we can’t HELP being in a social-political context surely?
This is true but:
1. if the work is contemporary, we are currently IN that context and if the context is relevant it should occur to us naturally when reading. (It is also possible that the cultural character of the current age is not something we can see clearly while living in that age and it is problematic (and off the subject!) to be theorizing about this.)
2. if the work is NOT contemporary, or it is from a context which is strange to us[2] (set in distant lands, concerning a subject we know little about), it is fair to say that the context is then relevant provided it is made explicit that we are interpreting it from a relative standpoint. (It is quite possible to analyze an ancient work as viewed through modern historically-unenlightened eyes.)

This is also a bit of a worry:
Wimsatt and Beardsley also discounted the reader’s personal/emotional reaction to a literary work as a valid means of analyzing a text.
If you discount the reader’s reaction what exactly is the point of art? …I have subsequently done more reading on this and it seems that this sentence is a little misleading. It is not any emotional reaction that is to be discounted but an excessively personalised one (see above). Also, writing about emotion in ‘paint-by-number’ categories, e.g. this bit makes us happy, this bit makes us sad, is not enlightening and over-simplistic.

Criticism of New Criticism:
“Terence Hawkes writes that the fundamental close reading technique is based on the assumption that ‘the subject and the object of study—the reader and the text—are stable and independent forms, rather than products of the unconscious process of signification.’”
1. The subject and object of study ARE stable forms – from a particular perspective. When the particular perspective is ‘white Caucasian academics’ it is true that custom has made it assumed rather than specified. This assumption confers a stability which is merited provided we bear the assumption in mind.
2. The subject and object of study ARE NOT independent forms – I am in agreement with Hawkes here; however are the New Critics really saying the work and reader/context are independent? (See the first and last points on this page.)
3. An unconscious process cannot properly be expressed in words. Not addressing such an area (the unconscious) is usually the practice in other academic criticism: for example, one is not to employ theories of the unconscious when discussing Greek myth or, say, the history of the French Revolution – unless specifically asked to do so. Looking into the unconscious nakedly and constantly creates the kind of morass of messy contradictions and heated debates which is the landscape of current literary theory. Unconscious signification is just that – unconscious. We can hazard vague suggestion of it (and signification methods are illuminated by a greater awareness of the perspective from which we are viewing things) but in the end, digging into the unconscious will only take us off the subject. As per Carl Jung: “Only the material that is clearly and visibly part of a dream should be used in interpreting it.”

“For Hawkes, ideally, a critic ought to be considered to ‘[create] the finished work by his reading of it, and [not to] remain simply an inert consumer of a ‘ready-made’ product.’”
This is the chicken and the egg. A work requires the reader, and a reader requires the work. To assume there is only one side of this is the problem.

A salient point from another New Critic:
“to put meaning and valuation of a literary work at the mercy of any and every individual [reader] would reduce the study of literature to reader psychology and to the history of taste.”
This is largely what indeed has happened.

The idea of target audience is fine if you mean ‘audience from whose perspective it may be beneficial to interpret (or create) this work’. It is problematic if you then suggest that all target audiences are equally sophisticated in their readings, which is no more true than that all people are equally happy, or wise, or intelligent. There is a perspective from which there is no target audience: just me – the personal individual idiosyncratic reading – but this is not usually the vantage point of literary theory which is, if anything, collective to some degree.

[1] Note exception for music where the content is the melody = ‘aural sentence’.

[2] Or we are in a context that is strange to the work

Written by tomtomrant

6 June 2013 at 8:16 pm

Two Species of Monster

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This is an undergraduate literature essay from last year. I read it again recently and decided its content is relevant to this site: namely the distinction between allegory and mimesis is really the distinction between political, moral, rational ideas on the one hand, and creative, artistic, mythological and ’emotional’ ideas on the other. It may be surprising for some to realise that rational philosophy, for example, is really, in effect, a variant form of moralism mixed with occasional allegory.

The monster-figure in literature can be interpreted as a primal beast, a representation of the societal or unconscious ‘other’, a challenge to mainstream values, or a particular social, political, or moral evil. Whether the monster is interpreted as one or some or all of these depends upon authorial intention and reader interpretation, influenced by factors both within and outside the text. In this essay, I will compare two modes of presentation employed within a narrative, two modes which have a bearing upon the narrative significance and meaning of monsters – allegory and mimesis. Allegorical monsters take on the form of personified phenomena as part of a figural narrative, such as the dragon Errour in Spencer’s Faerie Queene or Rumour in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Mimetic monsters, such as Polyphemus in The Odyssey or Grendel in Beowulf, can be said to personify either nothing explicit, an obscure multiplicity of phenomena, or, looked at another way, only themselves. I will examine the implications of these stylistic and hermeneutic modes on these monster-narratives and assess their relative strengths and weaknesses in achieving particular authorial intentions.

Allegory as a literary concept is difficult to classify definitively. This is largely due to many centuries of commentary and scholarship in which the term is often proscribed slightly differently; literary scholar Gary Johnson’s 2012 book The Vitality of Allegory provides the foundation for my understanding of the term. Johnson defines allegory as “a class of works that fulfills its rhetorical purpose… by means of the transformation of some phenomenon into a figural narrative” (8). By “rhetorical purpose,” Johnson means something approximating authorial intention, the meaning the author is trying to convey (10). By “figural,” he approximates ‘metaphoric’: “figuration.. [involves] things representing or standing for other things” (8). However, Johnson notes that allegory is figural in a particular way; “[a]llegory entails duration” (Johnson 14). Thus, allegorical figurations intrinsically involve narrative; the figurations not only pervade the whole narrative but the narrative effects a ‘comment’ on the concept referenced  (Johnson 12). Furthermore, scholars note that there is “a [large] degree of manifest incompatibility between the tenor and the vehicle” (Miller 357); the figural reference “point[s] to an earlier and fuller reality outside itself” (Krieger 4). In other words, allegory entails a reading of the narrative as metaphoric of a relatively specific concept which is extrinsic to the meanings inherent in the narrative taken for itself. Thus, Johnson takes issue with a definition such as this: “[allegory is] a way of giving a narrative form to something which cannot be directly narrativised” (Butler qtd. in Johnson 11). This is too broad; allegorical figurations tend to refer to more specific content (Johnson 11).

A work that achieves a high level of ‘figural narrative transformation’ Johnson designates a ‘strong allegory’ (37). A ‘weak allegory’, he notes, references extrinsic concepts, but it is difficult to specify exactly what these are (54). Animal Farm by George Orwell is the classic example of a strong allegory although it should be noted that strong allegories are generally rare. (Johnson suggests Kafka’s short stories are an example of the weak type (63).)[1] In Orwell’s novel, a narrative involving farm animals is explicitly figurative of the extrinsic concept (and ‘narrative’) of Soviet Communism. This concept is extrinsic as, for instance, Communism itself is never mentioned in the story itself. It may help to contrast such an allegory with a ‘symbolic’ narrative (or a narrative involving symbolism). A symbol differs from an allegory in that the metaphoric reference is more obscure (less precise), and this reference is to ideas more closely related to itself, i.e. “the substance and its representation do not differ in their being but only in their extension” (de Man qtd. in Johnson 14).

As an allegorical monster, Errour in The Faerie Queene has been said to represent “intellectual speculation… learned error” (Waters 283), the “false rationalism of the church of Rome” (Waters 284) or “the temptation to lust” (Klein 177). This multiplicity of references suggests that this is not a strong allegory, however, the fact that such extraneous references could be suggested by a mere “ugly monster plaine” (1.14.6)[2] identifies this as an allegory all the same. Readers of The Faerie Queene understand from the text alone that the author intends to instruct us “in man’s progress toward goodness” (Klein 174-175) and to comment and critique the events and characters of the English reformation (Padelford 1). We are aware that overall it “combines social commentary with moral and epistemological inquiry” (Borris 174), yet it contains few moments of explicit commentary; it is a poetic narrative. Allegory is employed to reference these extraneous and specific allusions, and this is achieved through the author’s stylistic methods.

To signal to the reader that an allegorical reading is required, a delicate balance between verisimilitude and the extrinsic reference is maintained (Kelley 38). The character of Rumour in Ovid’s Metamorphoses provides a simple illustration.

“Picture a space at the heart of the world…
Here there are eyes for whatever goes on, no matter how distant;
and here there are ears whose hollows no voice can fail to penetrate.
This is the kingdom of Rumour, who chose to live on a mountain,
with numberless entrances into her house and a thousand additional
holes, though none of her thresholds are barred with a gate or a door.
Open by night and by day, constructed entirely of sounding
brass, the whole place hums and echoes, repeating whatever
it hears… Rumour herself spies every occurrence
on earth, at sea, in the sky; and her scrutiny ranges the universe.”
(12.39, 41-48, 61-21)[3]

Ovid has essentially personified an abstract concept in this passage; rumour – an extrinsic idea (unrelated to kingdoms, or mountains, and possessing no body with spying eyes) – has become an entity. We are alerted to the allegory by the very perverse incongruity of this ‘mixed mode’, by the precise and explicit nature of the metaphor; “it is the predicates that ‘say’ the one and the (personified) nouns that ‘mean’ the other” (Levin 25). To remove the allegory here, we could substitute the personification noun with an ordinary one (Levin 28) – instead of ‘Rumour’ we could say ‘Sarah’ (or whoever). However, Rumour, to be an effective allegorical monster, cannot be too conceptual or too ‘realistic’. For example, Ovid would struggle to personify a specific rumour or the concept ‘talk’ as these are difficult to caricature simply. Equally, the allegory would collapse if the character of Rumour as described were to undertake too many person-like actions, such as if she were to pull Achilles’ hair or develop a too ‘well-rounded’ personality; rumours are not actual people and cannot literally pull hair (this shatters the figurative unity). Thus, “in allegorical narrative, [discourse] and personification are inversely prominent” (Johnson 66); more of one, less of the other. Allegorical monsters are therefore less well-rounded characterizations and more glyph-like. “The more personal attributes we give our personification, the more we turn it first into a… character type… and finally into.. [an] individual” (Whitman 6) – which would push the allegory out of the reader’s awareness.

errorWe know that The Faerie Queene is an allegory because this balance is sufficiently maintained throughout. The Red Crosse Knight and Una are described without overcomplication of either extrinsic concept or intrinsic characterization; the allegory is apparent – he is a “norm of Holiness” (Padelford 2), she is “Christian Truth” (Padelford 4). Errour appears as a hideous supernatural monster, half-woman, half-serpent. Her very name, Errour, and her hybrid human-animal form alert the reader to another ‘mixed mode’ reference – the mismatch of idea (‘error’) and personification, the extrinsic references of woman and snake in unnatural combination. It is important to note that it is not Errour’s supernatural quality that is distinctive of allegory but the incongruity of the elements; they do not cohere on their own terms. (Does she possess the upper or lower half of the woman? Presumably the upper, but then how do her thousands of offspring fit inside her mouth?) When Red Crosse attacks her, Errour not only spews forth poison and gore but “bookes and papers.” (1.20.6). There is simply no credible way, within the frame of the story itself, that these could have got inside her (let alone remain intact). This signals that allegorical figuration is present.

So the allegorical quality of monsters like Errour involves both thinness of characterization and internal incongruity (‘outsideness’ or ‘artificiality’) to reference the extrinsic ‘other narrative’ idea. When considered dynamically in interaction with other figures and constructs within the narrative, these monsters clarify, educate, or challenge readers’ understandings and opinions about specific extrinsic concepts, events, or ideas. For example, Red Crosse is driven into the Wood of Errour by a tempest. This tempest is often taken to represent the beginning of the Reformation (Whitney 44). It is telling that Red Crosse ends up confronting the foul dragon Errour when he is helplessly lost as a result of this tempest, even though he is accompanied by Una and the dwarf – hence the allegorical meaning: even ‘Truth’ and ‘Prudence’ are confused in the calamity of the Reformation (Whitney 44).

Mimetic monsters have a noticeably different quality within their narratives. I am using the word ‘mimetic’ not so much because these monsters actually resemble (‘mimic’) ‘real’ monster-antagonists. I use ‘mimetic’ mainly in the sense of ‘non-allegorical’; these monsters have a stronger kind of internal ‘reality’. They make some sort of (albeit fantastic) sense within the narrative. Mimetic monsters are more believable. However, this does not necessarily mean they are more realistic in the sense of ‘resembling historical or physical reality’. For example, within the context of a narrative, Hitler is not necessarily a more believable antagonist than Grendel from Beowulf. Hitler may have actually existed in history whereas Grendel presumably didn’t, but both characters can be presented as mimetic, believable monsters; it depends, once again, upon the style and context. In one sense, all the characteristics of an allegorical monster are simply reversed – a mimetic monster is a more complex characterization, more intrinsic to its narrative ‘world’, and either does not suggest figurations, or such figurations are intrinsic and complex or obscure.

The Cyclops Polyphemus in The Odyssey, for example, is a much more well-rounded and complex monster than Errour or Rumour. Once again, the style of the narrative contributes to this impression. Homer’s use of contrasts contributes to a more believable narrative ‘world’. The menace of Polyphemus’ cave is all the more affecting in contrast with the apparently idyllic pastoral scene portrayed beforehand (Murgatroyd 166): the land is “no mean spot, / it could bear you any crop you like in season” (9.143-144),[4] the water-willows are “soft and moist” (9.146), the harbour, “snug” (9.150). This introductory episode, positions Polyphemus out of view contributing to a sense of unease but it also increases identification with Odysseus and his men (Murgatroyd 167); we care about them as people, rather than representative ideas. Johnson remarks, “[i]nstead of thinking about what [the character] represents, we must contemplate… what he will do” (66, emphasis in original).

More contrasts follow: the abject horror we experience when Polyphemus starts devouring Odysseus’ men is contrasted with dark humour as Odysseus tricks the monster into getting drunk on wine (Murgatroyd 168). Furthermore, even though Polyphemus is a loathsome, stupid and primitive monster as initially described, he is presented, briefly, in a sympathetic way, when he cowers in pain at his blinding, and shows a pitiful affection for his ram (Murgatroyd 170). In contrast to the monster Errour, who is “lothsom, filthie, foule, and full of vile disdaine” (1.14.9), and who dwells in a shadowy cave in a dark wood, Polyphemus is much less a black-and-white caricature.

All of this ambiguity and detail makes it very difficult to interpret the story allegorically. The very complexity of Odysseus’ escape plan – involving drink, the blinding, hiding under sheep etc. – cements the events into the specific world of the narrative itself; allegorical figurations would have to reference a parallel extrinsic narrative equally as detailed. Mimetic narratives can of course be read allegorically if a reader should choose to do so; in fact, Homer was often interpreted allegorically in 16th century Europe (Borris 16-20). However, such readings can be rather unconvincing and reductive; a lot of the detail must be overlooked or glossed over. Whitman outlines a section of The Iliad where the 18th century translator, Alexander Pope, capitalizes ‘Grief’ and ‘Rage’, as if these are allegorical personifications when no such personifications are present in the original text. “In Homer it is the person who acts, not the personification,” Whitman remarks (18). It is certainly difficult to conceive of a specific extraneous figurative reference for Polyphemus; he has symbolic rather than allegorical connotations involving the obscure forces of primitive irrationality (epitomized by Polyphemus’ character and actions within the story itself).

When comparing these two species of monster – the mimetic and the allegorical – it is clear that, despite the propensity for mimesis and allegory to overlap sometimes, each monster-type is largely unique and diametrically the opposite of the other. Author and scholar J.R.R. Tolkien was scathing of critics who interpreted his novel The Lord of the Rings as allegory;[5] it must be admitted that allegory and mimesis have very different aims and functions. Even as long ago as the late 18th century, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge remarked that “[a]llegory cannot be other than spoken consciously” (qtd. in Johnson 34), and he meant this as a criticism. Others complained that allegory “too consciously limits the text’s signifying potential” (Johnson 35), that it “distort[s]… apparently real or material details” (Kelley 31), and that it is “so obvious and so pedantic, so ‘sermonlike’” (Johnson 36). Of course, many of these criticisms were made by those specifically interested in mimesis with its more believable characters and situations, in which “readers leave their present reality, and dwell, for the duration of the story, within the world the writer creates” (Card 158).

A number of 20th century literary critics have disparaged mimetic literature (particularly modern fantasy novels) as populist and ‘escapist’, suggesting that the indulgent nature of the narratives distract, or propagate old-fashioned or harmful social-political ideas (Card 153). However, science fiction writer Orson Scott Card argues that mimetic narratives are not generally read for their social-political comment. In fact, ideology is likely to ruin a mimetic story; after all, “[Fantasy (mimesis)] is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends” (Tolkien 15). ShelobCard uses the example of a mimetic monster, the giant spider Shelob from book 4 of The Lord of the Rings, to illustrate this. In their increasingly desperate and dangerous quest to infiltrate the land of Mordor unseen, hobbits Frodo and Samwise must pass through a dark tunnel inhabited by Shelob. Against enormous odds, Shelob is eventually skewered on the hobbits’ sword and painfully crawls away, apparently to die a painful death elsewhere. If we feel the painful and cruel death of Shelob to be too much for us, that she does not deserve to be dealt this death blow (by one of our heroes no less), Card argues that “the effect is not an argument, but rather a withdrawal from the world of the tale” (Card 164). Either that or the reader ignores the mistreatment of Shelob and tries to move on. Modern readers may feel a similar concern for Polyphemus when Odysseus skewers his eye; this may ‘break the mimetic spell’, as it were, leading to rejection of the ‘reality’ of the story.

So in conclusion, mimetic monsters such as Grendel, Polyphemus or Shelob tend to be characterized by a degree of believability achieved by an obscure complexity of connotations and contrasts in authorial style. These monsters ‘live and breath’ within the narrative structure. However, these qualities pose a problem if the author wishes to reference specific extrinsic ideological evils. In this instance, allegorical monsters such as Errour and Rumour achieve their authorial intentions far more effectively, having the clarity of a particularly pertinent illustrative example in a text book or ideological treatise. Relatively simple, fable-like  characterization allows for specific extrinsic figuration – such that the reader can easily designate their status as personified phenomena and in so doing detect a specific authorial ‘message’. Each species of monster therefore has a unique, exclusive function; rare instances of overlap between allegory and mimesis actually entail reading the same text in two drastically different and mutually exclusive ways.

WORD COUNT: 2520 (not including in-text citations)

Works Cited

Borris, Kenneth. Allegory and Epic in English Renaissance Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Card, Orson Scott. “How Tolkien Means.” Meditations on Middle Earth. Ed. Karen Haber. London: Earthlight, 2002. 153-174.
Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Viking Penguin, 1996.
Johnson, Gary. The Vitality of Allegory. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2012.
Kelley, Theresa M. Reinventing Allegory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Klein, Joan Larsen. “From Errour to Acrasia.” Huntington Library Quarterly 41 (1978): 173-199.
Krieger, Murray. “‘A Waking Dream’: The Symbolic Alternative to Allegory.” Allegory, Myth, and Symbol. Ed. Morton W. Bloomfield. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981. 1-22.
Levin, Samuel R. “Allegorical Language.” Allegory, Myth, and Symbol. Ed. Morton W. Bloomfield. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981. 23-38.
MacLean, Hugh, ed. Edmund Spenser’s Poetry. New York: Norton Critical Editions, 1982. 6-19.
Miller, J. Hillis. “The Two Allegories.” Allegory, Myth, and Symbol. Ed. Morton W. Bloomfield. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981. 355-370.
Murgatroyd, Paul. Mythical Monsters in Classical Literature. London: Gerald Duckworth, 2007.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. David Raeburn. London: Penguin, 2004.
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[1] Johnson emphasizes that no value judgment is implied in the terms ‘strong’ and ‘weak’; these “simply designate degrees of allegoricalness” (8).

[2] Quotations from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene taken from MacLean 6-19. References are in ‘canto: stanza: line’ format.

[3] Quotations from Ovid’s Metamorphoses taken from David Raeburn’s translation. References are in ‘book: line’ format.

[4] Quotations from Homer’s The Odyssey taken from Robert Fagles’ translation. References are in ‘book: line’ format.

[5] The concept that the One Ring represents anything as specific and extrinsic as ‘the threat of nuclear war’, for example, may perhaps cause readers to “turn [their] heads away in some embarrassment” (Card 156). This is as dubious as interpreting Animal Farm on the level of an amusing rural fairy-tale such as ‘The Three Little Pigs’ or E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.

Written by tomtomrant

10 April 2013 at 11:22 am