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Vladislav Todorov


Allegory and assembly life

The Yale Journal of CriticismAllegory is a compound word. Allos means other or alien. Agoreuein means a speech delivered in an open public space, the square or agora, in front of the assembly or the citizens of the polis. Allegory is a special kind of rhetorical device used in the composition of ceremonial orations. How fine it is to speak of something by speaking of something else; how powerful to call a thing by an alien name; how wonderful to invoke the divine through figures or icons.

Having in mind one thing but speaking of something else, the orator demonstrates that the one is substituted by the other. The orator resorts to the rhetorical transmission of allegory to indicate that words fail before the transcendental constitution of the One; the very refusal of a name becomes the testimony to a hidden presence. In this way allegory not only maintains but creates that ceremonial distance between the One and others which is the very condition of assembly life.


Strategy and procedures of allegoresis

Ancient allegory is deus ex machina, God from the machine, a procedure by which the gods intervene in earthly affairs. By means of allegories the divine descends to earth and communicates with man. Ancient allegory is God's chariot. It is a divine organ in which the body of God is adapted to touch the human, in that the original meaning of organ is tool, instrument, machine, device. Allegory is thus the prosthesis of the divine by which it steps down to earth, starts into life. The gods march down to us on allegorical machines. Such machinery is not assembled here on earth, for its construction requires divine techne and daimonic genius. The poet who fits together allegorical devices is possessed by a daimon which has descended to make contact with humankind. In later times the allegorical plot is a demonic machination, freed from providentiality and turned into a villain's intrigue. The ancient pantheon lives on through incessant intrigues which reflect upon the matters of this world. In this sense, life on earth is a reflected demonic machination and exactly for that reason its construction is allegorical.

Christian allegory is a machine that has nothing in common with the divine organism, for God has left the world, and the world strives after God without His being in the least perturbed by it. Christ on the Cross: the mysterious event that assembles the main allegorical device of Christendom. At this moment the allegorical figure still holds in itself the divine organism. The Other is still Here, the allegory has not yet begun. The Cross is the handle of the Door which the Messiah is to open in order to leave the world. Without this instrument we remain in solitary confinement. And: the Cross is the crutch with which the Messiah climbs Golgotha and ascends into heaven. Christ's passion is the agony of a human body dragging to the top of a hill the allegorical machine which will launch it towards God. We can never assert (within the limits of this world) whether it is the body that carries up the machine, or the machine that carries up the body. They are one being until the moment when the one launches the other. The Ascension is the radical splitting of the earthly from the celestial, of the figure from the flesh, of the machine from the operator. Once having projected the Messiah beyond, the cross remains to transfix every eye with the mystery of the event.

Modernity: the armada of critical concepts set sail against the grand illusion of mankind, and exposed allegory as a machine without God, a fabric of mere appearances. The Other which the allegory signifies, which makes it exist and justifies its being, is in itself an image produced in, and projected out of, the allegorical process. Allegory is a mental hologram; an apparatus for the production of imaginary space as though it were real. Technology reshapes and reassembles the visual as mere apparition. The eye-machine, the camera lens, becomes the allegorist of modernity, above all in political art. For now the political dominates the work of the imagination, both in art and in Utopian projects for a future state. The great radical revolutions of modernity disassembled the classical system of the imagination and mobilized it anew. The idea of a political modernization of the world by revolution, or rather by series and clusters of revolutions in every form of social life, creates an unprecedented allegorical space - a space in which revolution is presaged, projected, imagined, recalled. For political revolution cannot take place if it is not foreseen and motivated through special images and figures of speech. Allegory is the laboratory of the political imagination. The construction of communism, for example, was first tested in the visionary projects of political modernism, both in the social sciences and in art. Allegory as political institution is a factory assembling images of the other, authentic political order which we are to build here on earth, justifying our existence.


Allegory and physiognomy: The Hippocratean face

The signs to watch for in acute diseases are as follows. First study the patient's face... the more abnormal it is, the worse it is. The terminal appearance may be described thus: sharp nose, sunken eyes, the temples fallen in, the ears cold and retracted with distorted lobes, the skin of the face hard, stretched and dry, and the colour of the face pale and dusky... and if there is no improvement within the prescribed time, it must be realized that this sign portends death.

Hippocrates, Prognosis

Physiognomica means knowledge of the inner condition of the individual derived from the face and its configuration of features and expressions. The physiognomist reads the face as a signifier, as an icon, as coded information. This icon is not something constant: on the contrary, it changes incessantly, as the face inscribes on its surface different ciphers of the psyche within. The physiognomy is a constellation of traces, a semiotic antechamber leading somewhere else, behind or beyond the face itself. The physiognomy is a flexible aphorism expressing a nature that is invisible, non-manifest, hermetic. Hippocrates describes how one may read the symptoms of a disease through the changing complexion, and recognize the advent of death by the contortion of the features. Here the face is at one and the same time the stage and the actor of the agony between life and death. As living nature dies in the features of the face it is transformed from an arena into a cemetery. In ancient times a mask was laid upon the face of the corpse in order to seal the physiognomy for eternity. The mask appropriates the physiognomy of the corpse and shifts it beyond decay, for if the Hippocratean face is an aphorism of death it must be written down in another, more permanent medium than mere flesh. The death-mask is an allegorical ruin: life's relic, death's proper body.

The physiognomist is a melancholic. The original meaning of melancholy is a flux of black bile, the substance of death. The melancholic physiognomy of Hippocrates expressed the influx of death into the spaces of the face. Bourgeois modernity turned melancholy into sorrow with the transformation of metaphysics into psychology and the attempt to rationalize death. Even as it spreads into all areas of life, rationalism leaves behind some residual hermetic phenomena it cannot cope with and which have to be processed eventually by the psyche; the advance of reason deposits certain impenetrable psychic states. Modern melancholy is such a state: sorrow without motive. Because the origins of its sorrow are occult, inaccessible to rational explanation, the psyche is compelled to supply an imaginary genesis. Such origins can only be imagined as something rejected by the work of reason - ruins it has left behind. The soul becomes a storehouse for these relics and specters; it is haunted as graveyards are haunted by ghosts of the dead. Paranoia comes into force: the disease of an Enlightened reason which still fears monsters, no longer phenomena of myth but of the psyche.

What happened to Hamlet? His brilliant mind educated in the traditions of high rationalism, fell sick - but with what kind of sickness? Reason cannot process the facts of life which appear already to be irrationalized by a great evil; Hamlet surrenders reason and confides in the psyche, for only the psyche can save him. He sickens with melancholy, disease of the modern man of genius, an unmotivated sorrow. He feverishly invents ambiguities. He turns himself into an enigma. He divides himself between the roles of Prince and Fool. He organizes around himself a physiognomic space. He stages court life as an absolutely new enigmatic text in which he is the sole ruler and which is perilous for anyone else who enters it. Hamlet is the great melancholic, allegorist and physiognomist: the great paranoiac, in that the source and justification of his metamorphoses is the ghost of his father. The ghost actually legitimizes the monstrous world, the sinister matter of the psyche. It authorizes the psyche's criminal nature and proposes crime as a life-saving medicine.

Hamlet, a madman of genius, materializes his melancholy by assembling the allegorical machine of court life, setting a physiognomic trap in it, the Mouse-trap. The result: a heap of corpses. Fortinbras enters to pronounce the words: Take up the bodies. He, the man of reason and action, comes to veil the Hippocratean face into which the stage - the world - has been transformed.


The dream of a corpse

A key figure of early allegory is the corpse.
Walter Benjamin, Central Park

When Communism came to power it generated a physiognomic space of its own; it unfolded its monumental spaces; it covered them with its aphorisms and began to fill them in with ruins. Although justified by science, pre-planned, pre-viewed and rationalized, communism had to be authorized by allegorical images, visions, ceremonies, monuments. In its centre was laid the mummy of the leader. The corpse creates the physiognomic spaces of communism. It leads the people by commanding their mass sorrow, inspiring a universal melancholy as the state of society. The mummy is the materialized specter of communism which advertises its imaginary space; it is its real political body. If the teaching of the leader is the rational motive of communism then his corpse is its irrational one. Thus communism transformed both the rational and the irrational into a political mode of life, where both coincide.

It is important to notice that the corpse of Lenin has no Hippocratean face, no physiognomy to be decoded. Not death but dreams inhabit its face. For the face of the corpse is as if alive, sleeping and dreaming: and its dreams are the lives of the people. The corpse dreams life. The corpse dreams us and we become its nightmare. Our lives are its politically justified paranoia. Science and paranoia, reason and imagination are radically united in the corpse. There is nothing beyond it. Here is life, and life is grieving. In the works of Platonov grief is the substance of the psyche, much as horror is in the works of Kafka.

Whatever horror it invents communism stays innocent, for a corpse may have a nightmare from time to time. What saves the people from horror is their existential sympathy for the poor corpse suffering its nightmares. Mourning, melancholy, paranoia, allegory, physiognomy - such are the political metamorphoses of a corpse dreaming communism.

A key figure in late allegory is the memory. Following the scheme of memory a commodity is turned into an object for collectors: a souvenir.

Benjamin, Central Park

We view the mummy as the greatest souvenir.


The shield of Perseus and the physiognomy of Medusa: Allegory as reflected/parried danger

The monstrous power of Medusa was hidden in her gaze, which petrified all who looked upon her face. The Gorgon's eye turned living beings into a stony monumental assemblage which figuratively represented her supernatural power. Then came Perseus with the gift of a shield that in mirroring the Gorgon's look robbed it of its power. Gazing upon her reflection, he was able to cut off her head.

If the sight of the Gorgon had meant death to the beholder, then it is a fact that she remained invisible to living eyes. Reflected, she became visible, harmless and vulnerable, herself at last a dead thing. The reflection is a shield: icon of the force, not the force itself. But because he can never look upon her alive, Perseus can never know for sure if the reflection he sees in the shield-mirror is the exact and true representation of Medusa. Instead he has won possession of two allegories of the deadly magical power: its image and its death-mask.

Just as no one alive has ever seen the fatal physiognomy of the Gorgon, so a human being can only suffer but never know a supernatural danger. What he or she knows are just the allegories of this danger. Nobody can tell whether, being reflections, these allegories are adequate, and the question of their verification is irrelevant. And besides, in the allegories the danger is already dead. The figures are its corpse. Yet such allegories are themselves magical equipment, just as were shield-mirror and severed head for the hero. They are prostheses which help us to see better, prop up our crippled knowledge. By reflecting the mysterious powers of nature, they parry their threat. Like Perseus, the allegorist steals dangerous forces in figures.

The case of Don Juan is just the opposite. The statue of the Commandant, whom Juan murdered, comes to smash him with a granite fist. After his death, as a monument, in his allegorical being, the Commandant grows dangerous. Here allegory does not save but (in the name of a Christian morality) destroys life.

The theatre stage can be considered in the aspect of these two modes of allegory. In ancient times it used heroic masks for the performance. Action and spectacle were the reflected being of the myth, which was otherwise an inscrutable, impenetrable fatality. The stage was the mirror-shield where the death-masks of the heroes were exhibited. To subdue the threat of an unknowable fate, men seized it and enchained it in visible characters (the ancient meaning of character: imprint, seal, stamp, sacred grapheme). Yet the theatrical performance is something more than a work of art (techne) because it includes - as well as poetic language, music, spectacle, and architectural space - living human bodies. Mythic forces possess these living bodies and invade the stage, which (thus) does not parry but transmits a supernatural power. Theatre is radically ambivalent: on the one hand, an exhibition of supernatural powers, made visible and harmless; on the other, an action that intervenes in life much as the Commandant's statue overwhelms Don Juan. A danger (unlike the Gorgon's face) that we are compelled to gaze upon, theater is an intervention which may leave life in ruins. Therefore theatre must happen in strictly contained and guarded places, made safe through particular procedures and imperatives which ritualize the action on the stage and impose silence in the auditorium. It is the most dangerous of the arts.


Allegory as reflection/refraction: The Wall and the Tower

Once upon a time, as is well known, the nations started to build a tower to reach God. The world itself was to be reshaped into a monolithic ladder which would reunite all the different peoples and God. But God, feeling threatened, shattered into fragments the peoples' language so that construction could not proceed. Demolished tower, fragmented language and broken unity of nations all reflected the intervention of God into human affairs as a grand negation. Our shattered language guards God against any second offensive of history's dramatis personae in search of an author.

The Wall is also an allegorically organized space, but in its foundation different from the tower. Let us consider its representation in Kafka's famous parable of the Great Wall of China. The wall is built for defense against an enemy invasion; but it becomes obvious that no enemy can cross the mountain chains which the wall is to fortify. As a concept the wall is a gigantic artifact, an endless curve on the map. The practical construction of such an artifact is impossible to accomplish at once. It is a process infinitely fragmented in time and space, involving innumerable people, across generations. Building the wall turns into a permanent and elaborately organized form of collective life, guaranteed by a preliminary design, and defining the community in terms of a threat that must be parried.

Construction of the wall begins simultaneously in different places. Each unit of what will become the vertebrae of the future wall is built, not from the base upwards or from one end towards the other, but by two separate communes who begin from both ends and meet in the middle, the way tunnels are dug. After one vertebra is completed the two communes move elsewhere and begin another. Each vertebra achieves in itself the figure of the whole, in that it is an event of connecting, assembling, linking two communes into one. The building is an allegoresis: unfathomable grand whole multiplied in time and space as an endless chain of its own miniature replicas.

And yet the building of the wall is a fragmentation. The process of construction continuously generates allegories of its own objective and so prolongs the way to its achievement. The wall is endless because new vertebrae can always be erected somewhere in space; the wall will always suffer from a chronic deficiency of vertebrae. Only the verbetrae, figures of the wall, occupy real places (topoi) while the whole remains Utopian. While the idea of the wall calls together the communal body of society the process of building scatters it into discrete parts. Unity of action is made impossible, or rather action is unanimous in form but fragmented in performance. In this fable action, not language is fractured.

The idea of the whole, of a monolithic construction, is destroyed by the continuous production of gaps, of empty spaces between the vertebrae. The wall is a construction of gaps. The building process produces fragments of the wall which represent figuratively its unfathomable integrity. As the fragments of the tower allegorize the past, so these of the wall allegorize the future; not what is lost, but what is to be achieved. Space is produced as broken for a making-whole in the future; equal and ready-made fragments to be assembled according to a universal technology.

The principle of state power is here, then, the creation of a fragmented social space in which the inner organization of every fragment duplicates every other in an allegory of the grand totality. This allegorical uniformity between fragments maintains an identical intuition of the ideal construction of the world. In this way the gigantic mass of the people is made into a unanimous subject, the People of allegory.

Whoever builds fragments opens gaps.

The Wall reflects no enemy to be parried from without, but the power that ordered it to be built. Its construction consolidates the population on a communal principle through fragmentation, even as its uniform and universal gaps incessantly regenerate the initial disunity of the people and return them to their original effort to assemble. For the subjects are the real enemy of power, and it is to parry their danger that the state erects a shield in the form of a wall which is to reflect the shadow of an external enemy and figuratively unite the population by scattering its communal assembly.


Making ruins

State power assembles the wall from vertebrae and gaps. It is the link which binds vertebrae and gaps together into a phantasmatic, centauric unity. Invisible and unrecognizable, power installs allegorical ruins and fractured objects on earth in order to master life. The making of ruins presupposes the conjugation of compact, high-density, solid space with empty space; the solid made jagged by the touch of the void.

Built-up space has a schizophrenic constitution. It is divided and fragmented from its very foundations, scattered across a territory. The void has a paranoid constitution. The phantoms of enemies, dangers and conspiracies peep through it. The void propagates the imagination with encircling threats.

The social body is situated and segmented according to the construction of imaginary space. A community builds in space to escape the void. But the void invades and fragments solid space, crumbles it to pieces which humans clutch like survivors from a shipwreck. Or from the opposite perspective: solid space cuts deep into the void, splitting it into fragments, driving out its phantoms. Solid and empty, paranoid and schizoid spaces lock together in a dynamic joint which moves life and makes it produce bodies and phantoms, objects and icons. The wall represents the vertebral column of an otherwise invisible power, and an imaginary enemy which lurks in its gaps. In contrast to the wall and its foundational principle of fracture, the tower was a solid monolith that threatened the void of the heavens until punished by a fragmentation that brought the void down into the world. Thus space was split: below an aggregation of ruins, above the endless world of images. The lower world is inhabited by a schizophrenically disintegrated community, the higher by saints and devils born from paranoia.


Amor fati

It is our fate to be born into a void. To stay alive we make it dense, using our own bodies as material.

Space is damnation.



© Vladislav Todorov
© E-magazine LiterNet, 05.10.2006, № 10 (83)

Other publications:
The Yale Journal of Criticism, vol. 6, № 1, Yale University, 1993.