Sunday, December 10, 2006


I have railed against allegory, here and here, and I find myself in agreement with old J.R.R. on this one:

J.R.R. Tolkien's emphatic statement in the introduction to the American edition ""It is neither allegorical nor topical.... I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence."

Let’s chew on this one for a bit.

This morning I was in the park. I had just about finished my workout. At the end, I start swinging my broadsword around. (Waitaminnit, you say: You’re a grown adult, swinging a weapon in the air, in a public place? Yep – I do it all the time.)
Some fellow in his thirties uses the bathroom, and then goes and does some weird little workout of his own (hanging off the monkey bars, chin-ups, etc). I finish my sword form (kata, call it whatever), and he says to me, “Sorry for disturbing your tranquility.” “What?” “Sorry to disturb you.” “Oh, no, I was finished.”
This happens occasionally. Someone begins to watch, and when I sheathe my big ass saber, they’ll say something akin to “Hey, don’t stop on my account.”

My point here is: people assumed that I stopped because they showed up, were watching, etc. When in fact, I was simply done.

We all do this. We try to interpret items in some way as being directly (or indirectly) related to our presence. We as a species are constantly doing this. Whether it’s wooing someone we’re attracted to (hey, is that simply a smile, or a ‘come-hither’ look?), a stranger looking at us cross-eyed (“What’re you looking at?”), a boss’ dropped innuendo, a lover’s insistence of ‘nothing’s wrong’ when obviously there is (sighing, gazing off into the distance, the crinkled brow, who isn’t bugged by that?), and a multitude of other signs/hints that I leave up to the reader to fill in.

Allegory: the reading of subtle signs.

Our ancestors used it in a much different manner.

The light scent of wet fur on the wind, the sound of a branch breaking, the movement of underbrush, the spoor of claw or hoof: these signs, taken individually or collectively, could signify food, flight, or fight. Life or death. A hungry belly, or the filling of predator’s.

As we became more complex, these simple indicators also multiplied: the written marquis declaring entertainment or designating a marketplace, aromas to wet the palate or bring the prospective mate, the eloquent waltz or the soothing sexiness of jazz, the gentle curve exposed ever so slightly or the sashay chosen to attract the opposite sex, these have propagated, either to fold each in the other, or to blossom outwards, plum petals cast upon the waters of metaphor.

Allegory: it is in our pulses; it powers us, it pushes us to read each other’s body language, eavesdrop on the nuance on our tongues, conjures context (from thin air, on occasion), and proves the Pavlovian conditioning we have inherited from the pool of evolutionary processes.

A jigsaw puzzle, constantly growing, in piece and fit, always outwards. There are hidden meanings within each of us. Multiple facets in the jewel of our individuality. But in us, as a species only. Seek only those secret formulas in each other: there is no meaning in nature itself – that is reification, which another path we should avoid altogether.

Allegory: it can own us, or we can own it. When sometimes (as Freud put it), “a cigar is just a cigar.”

Till the next post, then.

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