Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Charles Altieri reviews Allegorical Moments

Lyn Hejinian. Allegorical Moments: Call to the Everyday. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2023. 352 pp.

Review by Charles Altieri

6 June 2024

This is a remarkable book by a remarkable person. I will remember the person as a center of intellectual energy at Berkeley because she was so dedicated that she regularly taught overload theory seminars at her house and gave students training in every stage of publishing. She was also a faithful and dedicated friend, always ready to make me laugh and think, often at the same time. The book is impressive for its clear theoretical expositions linking “allegorical moments” to her complex understanding of what she called “everyday life” and for putting that understanding to work in complex and subtle practical criticism. Her essays on Gertrude Stein’s The Good life of Lucy Church Amiably (1930)¸ on Margaret Cavendish and Virginia Woolf, on George Oppen, early and late, and on her own versions of My Life (1980) are the most imaginative and perceptive accounts of their subjects that I have seen. Especially striking is her linking the possibilities of avant-garde writing with intricate grammatical reflections on operators like “as” in her essay on Leslie Scalapino (see pp. 137–53). And there is an emotionally gripping concluding essay taking very seriously the Occupy movement that made me both nostalgic and even more depressed about our current political situation.

All I can do in this brief review, beyond trying to convince readers of how important this book is for the enjoyment of American poetry post WWII, is to try to explicate briefly Hejinian’s way of linking allegorical moments to her vision of the possible roles of conceptions of everyday life in various writerly practices. She follows Walter Benjamin and Fredric Jameson in treating the allegorical function as “‘rewriting a given text [or, I would add, “a given experience”] in terms of a particular master code’” (p. 254). Then she adds the crucial twist that “it is the puzzling, even obscurantist, rather than overdetermining aspect of the allegorical that has the greatest political—and perhaps, artistic—potential,” in large part because “the code may be one over which marginalized, rather than ruling, elements may have mastery” (p. 254). This is where everyday life will come into the story because its expressions can readily challenge the ruling elements.

I wish Lyn had distinguished sharply between allegorical texts and allegorical moments, at least if we want to honor the kind of intentions Dante Alighieri lays out in his letter to Can Grande. Allegorical texts try to justify the relevance of the ruling elements—hence they seem merely ideological to most of us now, despite the fact that these efforts can be heroic and moving and capable of manifesting significant sympathy with challenges to the dominant models of mastery. This is especially true when Dante’s Christianity offered its own version of transcendental possibilities within domestic life that still resonates today as a challenge to the political. Allegorical moments tend to resist mastery because they provide evidence of needs for meaningfulness that have to be tentative—marked by worries about multiple options for what might make the best sense. Lyn also makes a claim about “oversignification” in contemporary avant-garde poetry that my limited aesthetic cannot buy, but I cite it because of its elegance and possible use for others:

Value is situated not in inner meanings but in the extroverted, manic outward cast of the poetry. It is not quality but quantity of signification that matters; the greater the number of references, the richer (and perhaps wilder) the relevance. (p. 212)

One can see that oversignification would then be one logical way to accept, play with, and even sometimes resist the manifest need for meaning. But there are richer ways of staging allegorical moments fundamental to needs and possibilities that become present in everyday life. Let me save words by offering a long passage of Hejinian’s eloquent prose from her Introduction that presents her most recent reflections on her topics. She is talking about “‘the art of everyday life’” as an expression of the ways in which “things . . . invite (or require) interpretation” (p. 2). And she correlates such invitations with Hal Foster’s proposal that “art is allegorical ‘in its impulse to exploit the gap between signifier and signified’” (p. 5):

Turning attention to the interweavings and entanglements of thinking, insofar as it makes us conscious of and responsible to the entailments of thinking and its (our) contexts, is of urgent importance in this particular historical present. . . . And perhaps . . . the allegorical moments that are launched, on the one hand from and on the other hand into, contexts, can recover or even produce meanings from them. (p. 2)

Then she explains the stakes of this linking of semantic strategies with a distinctive and often ignored domain of behavior:

I am . . . appropriating the term allegory to demarcate (or caption) . . . ideas regarding meaning-making that acknowledge contexts, and do so on the grounds of discontinuity. . . . I am positing the possibility of drawing interpretation out of meanings' discontinuity, not to establish meaning as discreet and autonomous but to identify interpretation as a dynamic force propelling both everyday and aesthetic flow and recognizing meaning as something always to be made and always on the way. (p. 2) 

Ordinary life becomes a domain of quests for meaning because of our uncertainties. In these quests our reflections can take on political significance because of manifest failures in the ruling symbolic orders. Such quests embody a kind of freedom born of pain but working toward new modes of affective investments made partially articulate by means of the terms of our refusals: “meaning . . . [is] always on the way.”