Monday, July 13, 2020

Evening Note for Monday, July 13

Thought for the Evening: Allegorical Reading of Poetry

One of the Confucian Classics is the Classic of Odes or Classic of Poetry. Confucius himself praised it highly, and seems at the very least to regard it as an essential source for learning how to speak well; but because he also says at one point that 'it does not deviate', he was generally interpreted as suggesting that it is a storehouse of moral guidance. It is perhaps not always immediately obvious how this works; for instance, Ode 87 is a woman singing (literally) about lifting her dress so she can cross a river, and seems to press this risqué image for all its erotic potential: she is willing to lift her skirts for a man if he desires her, but if not, is he really the only one available? But Confucian commentators might read it as a describing a political situation in which the lovers are two states, and the relationship one in which a weaker state needs help and guidance from a stronger state.

The Platonists read Homer allegorically. Thus Circe turning Odysseus's men to beasts would be read as describing the tendency of vice to make us less than properly human. A good summary of this way of interpreting the Circe story, for instance, is found preserved in Boethius (Consolation of Philosophy, Book IV, meter 3); that this long predates Boethius in some form is strongly suggested by occasional other comments we have.

The Song of Songs, Shir ha-Shirim, also known as the Song of Solomon, is an erotic poem, but it was compared by the Rabbi Akiba to the Holy of Holies. The rabbis interpreted it as a parable describing the relationship between God and Israel. (This manner of reading it, of course, is found also in Christians, who have often read it as a description of the relationship between God and the Church.)

In the modern West, it has become common to treat such readings as 'misreadings' or 'abuses' of the text, and allegorical readings are not fashionable among us. But I think it's important to recognize how utterly abnormal this is; to refuse to allegorize is artificial. In cultures in which poetry plays an important role -- and particularly an important role in 'how to speak', to put it in Confucian terms -- allegorical readings of poetry arise spontaneously. Refusing to read poetry allegorically at all requires regularly squashing this tendency. Allegorical reading requires nothing but a sense of how something can be a metaphor for something else, which people generally have to some degree; refusing to read allegorically requires walking an extremely fine line in which one recognizes the figurative character of the poem but takes the figurative language of a poem to be only a little bit figurative -- little figures of speech not extended 'too' far. This is not a target that can easily be hit without a lot of practice.

Of course, none of this is to say that people don't disagree with allegorical readings -- contrary to what is sometimes assumed, allegorical readings are not arbitrary but reasoned -- and even with respect to the three highly allegorized texts above (Shijing, Odyssey, Shir ha-Shirim), you get occasional spurts of skepticism about allegorical readings, and occasional phases in which people focus more on less allegorical readings. But there is a gap between these kinds of criticism and skepticism and refusing outright to recognize the power of a poem to describe large sections of human life.

Related Evening Note: Mythology as a Guide for Morals

Various Links of Interest

* Helen De Cruz discusses the role of awe in scientific inquiry.

* An interesting in-depth discussion of a worrisome recent trend, namely, the tendency of corporations and businesses to divide along partisan lines.

* Amod Lele, The Consolations and Pleasures of Philosophy

* Cameron Harwick, It's Not Socialism, It's Clientelism

* Alison Cobbe, Frances Power Cobbe and Nineteenth-Century Moral Philosophy

* Medieval London is an online exhibit giving a picture of what life was like in a medieval city. Medieval Londoners is a database for actual people we know to have lived in medieval London.

* Sarah Hutton, The Cambridge Platonists, at the SEP
Stephen Phillips, Gaṅgeśa

* Frederick Douglass's oration on Abraham Lincoln, given at the unveiling of The Freedmen's Monument in Washington, DC. The Freedmen's Monument was paid for in commemoration of Lincoln by freed slaves, some of whom devoted significant portions of their first income as free men and women to the project. It was one of the monuments targeted in the recent spate of memorial vandalism, because some people think that the slave thus depicted looks like he's kneeling to Lincoln -- which is not true, he is beginning to rise, his chains having been broken, but people see in statues what they have trained themselves to see, in one way or another. The copy of it in, I think, Boston, was taken down for this reason. In any case, the DC one was protected by Washington's rather active community of Black History tour guides and re-enactors until barricades could be put around it. For myself, the fact that it is a monument to emancipation paid for by emancipated slaves themselves makes it as close to sacred as a secular monument can be, and tearing it down one of the worst forms of arrogance, and treating 'racial justice' as an excuse for tearing it down an obvious lie; but it's sometimes difficult to explain this to people who hold nothing sacred at all. Regardless, Douglass's oration is one of the most measured and laudatory eulogies of Lincoln imaginable -- fully recognizing his limitations, but giving him a kind of praise that is among the highest forms of praise a human being can receive.

* Robert Post, The Incomparable Chief Justiceship of William Howard Taft (PDF)

* Sianne Ngai, The Gimmick of the Novel of Ideas. Ngai is usually considered a literary theorist, and I think her work is often uneven, but at its best it's some of the best work in aesthetics done today.

* Andy Smarick, Why Statecraft Is Still Soulcraft

* July 9 was the 123rd anniversary of Venerable Augustus Tolton's death.

Currently Reading

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
Lucretius, On the Nature of Things
Yuri Slezkine, The House of Government
Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism