Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Thomas J. Millay reviews Allegory and Ideology

Fredric JamesonAllegory and Ideology. New York: Verso, 2019. 410 pp.

Review by Thomas J. Millay

Fredric Jameson has long been an emblem of what a non-reductive Marxism might look like. In Allegory and Ideology—the second volume of the six-volume series The Poetics of Social Forms—we find a positively orchestral synthesis of multiple reading methods, the result being a practice of interpretation as complicated as any literary technician could possibly wish. In the book, Jameson proposes a contemporary return to something like the allegorical reading practice of the Middle Ages (well-summarized in Henri de Lubac’s still relevant books on the subject, collectively titled Medieval Exegesis). The diverse readings collected in the work—chiefly of canonical texts such as HamletThe Faerie Queene, the Divine Comedy, and Faust—open up and explore multiple sites of meaning through engaging the four traditional levels of allegory: the Anagogical, the Moral, the Allegorical (or Mystical, or Typological), and the Literal.

The goal of engaging all these different levels is to achieve one specific desired result, namely a kind of inseparability between the texts under investigation and the history from which they are woven. I particularly appreciated this process in Jameson’s reading of The Faerie Queene, where Spenser’s closed or static stanza (the opposite of Dante’s onrushing terza rima) is revealed to be an attempt to hang on to and arrest the dissolution of traditional allegory, right at the moment when the structure which serves as its precondition—that is, Medieval society itself—is disappearing. When it comes to Goethe’s Faust, Part II, on the other hand, the placement of a seemingly limitless variety of poetic meters right next to one another speaks to the coexistence of multiple forms of life in post-imperial Germany, with a traditional Volk living beside a diminished aristocracy and a rising bourgeoisie. Goethe’s virtuosic performance of many different styles implies he has no authentic or distinctive style of his own, thereby underlining the fundamental relativity of his historical situation with its lack of a clear hegemonic social group. 

Throughout this challenging, boundary-crossing new tome, we are repeatedly given such experiences of the intersection of the most minute details of a text and the grandest movements of history, making for a kind of head-spinning and euphoric journey. Yet this bewildering back-and-forth is in line, after all, with what the experience of the dialectic—with its unexpected connections between previously unrelated social strata—is supposed to feel like in the first place. In that, Jameson, as a dialectician, has once again achieved his aim.