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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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Friday, March 16, 2007

Spenser’s allegory

Posted by Adam Roberts on 03/16/07 at 10:52 AM

The Faerie Queene is an allegory.  So far so good.  The first adventure in this enormous allegorical textual edifice concerns the Redcrosse Knight, who stands for ‘holiness’, and who is travelling through Fairyland in the company of his woman, the beautiful and virtuous Una.  They enter a dark and tangled wood, and there encounter a hideous monster called ‘Errour’.  A nasty piece of work, this creature: ‘a monster vile, whom God and man does hate’:

Halfe like a serpent horribly displaide,
But th’other halfe did womans shape retaine,
Most lothsom, filthie, foule, and full of vile disdaine.

Redcrosse fights the monster and kills it.  It’s not easy.  She wraps him in her coils; but he grabs her ‘gorge’ so tightly that she is compelled to loosen her grip on him.

Therewith she spewd out of her filthy maw
A floud of poyson horrible and blacke,
Full of great lumpes of flesh and gobbets raw,
Which stunck so vildly, that it forst him slacke
His grasping hold, and from her turne him backe:
Her vomit full of bookes and papers was,
With loathly frogs and toades, which eyes did lacke,
And creeping sought way in the weedy gras:
Her filthy parbreake all the place defiled has.

This vomiting combines the strictly allegorical (the poison, gibbets and toads all represent the evil that ‘error’ performs in the world) and a more direct mode of representation—erroneous books and papers are the sorts of things that might literally (rather than allegorically) lead us astray.  But to put that on one side for a moment; the main thing is that the Redcross Knight is successful in his fight.  He lifts his sword

And strooke at her with more then manly force,
That from her body full of filthie sin
He raft her hatefull head without remorse;
A streame of cole black bloud forth gushed fro[m]; her corse.

There we are.  The end of error.

Now it’s easy to see why Spenser puts this episode right at the start of his allegorical epic.  He intends to dramatise the battle, and ultimately the victory, of truth; and this is clearly the right way to begin such a striving, by tackling that emblematic enemy of truth, Error.  But there’s more.  In a sense, this defeat of error sets up the allegorical mode itself.

I’ll explain what I mean.  Allegory is a way of seeing the world such that the inner truth of entities is displayed externally.  In this respect it is different to the world in which we actually live.  In the real world, as Shakespeare once pungently observed, there’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.  Indeed, that single insight, and the endlessly dramatically fertile disparity between appearance and reality, is the main motor of Shakespeare’s writing.  It is very easy to fall prey to error, in our world, because the face our world presents to us is so often misleading, hypocritical and false.  So our task is first to identify error, and only then to fight it.  Or to put it another way, our first danger is to fall into error about error—not to recognise it for what it is.

By encountering and slaying error right at the start of the Faerie Queene Spenser is addressing this matter head-on.  He is ushering us into a world in which error, in its manifold embodiments, will be plainly visible to anybody who has eyes to see.  Lawlessness (say) will not insinuate itself into our acquaintance as freedom, or as revolution, or as anti-tyranny or anything like that; it will ride up fully armed, with Sansloy written on its shield, and try to hack us down.  Evil will not walk the land as a plausibly-spoken and handsome man called George W.; it will take the form of an enormous, foul dragon that must self-evidently be destroyed.  These things will still be lawless and evil; it’s just that they will be obviously lawless and evil.  In other words, Redcross’s first victory is important because ‘the death of Error is the birth of Truth’ [James Nohrnberg, The Analogy of The Faerie Queene (Princeton University Press, 1976), p.147].

But there’s a problem here, and it’s one that has the potential to unpick the entire project.  It’s this: how can it be that Redcross, having slain error, subsequently goes on to fall into error.  Because that’s exactly what he does, and not just once, but many times.  How can he be fooled into erroneously trusting the wicked Archimago?  The falsely beautiful witch Duessa?  How can the false knights (such as Sansloy, Sanfoy and Sansjoy) be riding around in a world in which error is dead, defeated, no more?  Those three are manifestations of specific varieties of error; but the category itself has already been abolished!  How can they persist?

Critics have of course noticed this, although they seem (in my reading of the secondary criticism at least) remarkably blithe about it.  Here’s Russell J. Meyer:

In fact, although he has defeated error, the remainder of Redcrosse’s adventures center on his falling prey to various manifestations of error.  Over and again he fails to take the lessons previously taught and apply them to his present situation.  [The Faerie Queene: Educating the Reader (Boston: Twayne 1991), p.36]

Surely it’s not as simple as this.  Meyer says ‘his defeat of Error is not the glorious victory he believes it has been … Error may have appeared to him in the form of a dragon, but indeed she is not a ferocious dragon.’ What?  This can’t be right.  In the world of The Faerie Queene Error is precisely a ferocious dragon.  That’s how allegory works.  In our world, of course, it’s not so simple.  But in allegory that simplicity, that unity of truth embodied in the fact that the figure of Truth is represented by a beautiful woman called Una, determines it exactly that way.

Now I’m not trying to deny that error, speaking generally, is a complex and multifaceted thing that cannot actually be slain by a simple feat of arms.  But we’re not speaking actually.  That’s not where we are, right now.  We’re in Spenser’s allegorical Fairyland.  Either Redcrosse has slain Errour or he hasn’t.  This either-or is integral to the way allegory works.  It’s a constitutive function of allegory itself that all the errors that have or ever might be can be embodied in a single form, and that form then killed.

This is, in other words, a worldbuilding question.  In order for Spenser’s built world to preserve the coherence, consistency and consequentiality that are essential to the creation of a believable world, it must trace through the implications of its making.  If a character is killed, it’s no good having that character walking on in the next canto as if nothing had happened.  If Redcrosse is tricked into believing Una false, then there needs to be some reverse conversion before he can marry her at the end: it would be no good having him simply forget about the earlier episode.  And on this level, Spenser is very careful to worldbuild carefully.  But this business of destroying error and then encountering lots of examples of error: it is radically destabilising.

There’s another level to this question of course.  As James Nohrnberg notes, allegory, as a general rule, requires the perpetration of a kind of interpretive “error” in order to sustain itself.

The error is very much like the one that [Irwin] Panofsky [Idea: A Concept in Art Theory, trans. Joseph Peake (Columbia SC 1968)] thinks of medieval artists as making in the depiction of classical subjects: on the one hand, the gods of the pagans lost their traditional configurations; but, on the other, many of these configurations survived, having migrated from classical to Christian subjects.  Without some such error Christ could not be conceived of as Phoebus-Apollo-Veritas, and there would be no allegory of the divinely illuminating Word as specifically solar in character.  Conversely there would be no representation of the sun-god as a medieval knight, at large in the wood of knight errantry … The “adventure” of Spenser’s opening traces the path of his legend as a whole, which ends with the unveiling of Truth.  [Nohrnberg, Analogy of the Faerie Queene, 150-51]

This is a variety of the error entailed by all reading, we might say: the necessary and creative error (Bloom calls it ‘swerve’) of interpretation.  But this only makes it more peculiar to symbolically eliminate error at the very start of the allegory.  No?

Let me put this another way.  Imagine that Redcrosse’s first encounter in The Faerie Queene is not Errour, but Allegoria herself, riding in her ornate chariot drawn by two leopards.  Let’s say that Redcrosse pulls out his sword and slices this witch’s head clean off.  Allegoria is destroyed.  What happens next?


Interesting post.  I always wondered about the letter to Ralegh in this context.  Doesn’t that letter, in which Spenser reveals the “whole intention” to Ralegh and in which he discounts, and even apologizes for, the vehicle of the allegory itself, attempt to slay the witch Allegoria right from the outset, before you even get to the poem? It’s a very strange letter, I think.

By on 03/16/07 at 01:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In a world-building sense, Redcrosse has not killed error but Error, i.e. a dragon whose name is error.  We’ve already left the world of dragons when we read Error not as a proper noun but as a common noun signifying error-as-such.  The either/or logic which characterizes the existence of diegetic characters does not apply to the ideas they embody, so there doesn’t seem to be any contradiction on the level of the world projected by the text.  Perhaps you could state more precisely what you mean by the world-building sense, as the category seems to be slippery in your analysis.

This is not to deny the obvious contradiction that occurs when Redcrosse has slain Error only to encounter error again and again.  My question is only whether the contradiction occurs on the worldbuilding level, which seems to be a central part of your argument.  On the other hand, what do you make of the fact that Error as a dragon is a particularly textual beast - one that spews papers, and whose blood is the color of ink, etc.?

By surlacarte on 03/16/07 at 01:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The simplest answer is that allegories work within a logic in which larger categories do not include smaller categories.  You can destroy Error, but that doesn’t destroy personified subtypes of error.  It seems like a natural consequence of personification; an allegorical figure is not only what it stands for, but also a character within the book with a certain independence.  Sometimes the allegory will run away from the author and the allegorical figure will start to obtain personal characteristics as if it were a non-allegorical character (for theorists, please take the necessary burble about “excess” as read).

Therefore if Allegory was destroyed at the start (as I previously saw theorized at a certain secret blog) that wouldn’t wipe out the book itself as long as the book itself had allegorical presence within the book, either as itself or as some subtype of allegory.  The same would presumably happen if allegorical Nietzsche rode up at the beginning of the book and wiped out allegorical God.

But your use of the term “worldbuilding” sets off a four-alarm Demiurgy alert, so I’ll go into some of what I was going to write for Frankenstein.  (One of the reasons I rarely write things; I’ve already written them in comments somewhere.) Worldbuilding involves consciousness of error: authorship within the archetype of the Demiurge.  Maybe that’s a useful distinction; the religious allegorist can only have individual error, not worldbuilding error, since they are trying to represent a world built by God.  This is what makes the SF worldbuilder an essentially tragic-Romantic figure.

There are two ways of attempting to escape this necessary consciousness of error within SF; one of them may bear on the religious-allegorical case.  The first is through “hard SF”, in which the author claims to be extrapolating within known science, and therefore not responsible for where they are being led.  The second and more applicable case is through Tolkein’s “subcreation”, in which the author assumes a sort of permission slip from God to create erroneously as long as they are doing their best—no longer a Demiurge, but part of the hierarchical order.  That’s closer to what I see going on with the religious allegories.

By on 03/16/07 at 01:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Just a thought… what role does skepticism play in allegory? and, more specifically, in Spenser’s allegory?  My understanding is that Spenser would have drawn a distinction between explication, criticism, and skepticism which is not longer drawn.  I may be wrong, but I think we tend to group them all together as a single activity, when they may not be.

By on 03/16/07 at 03:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Doesn’t Error (in this context) mean something like “false theological belief,” or “heresy”? If so, it wouldn’t be inconsistent for Redcrosse then to come upon other forms of sin or moral weakness, including intellectual sin. I have taken Spenser as saying here that clearing up one’s wrong theology is just the beginning of the moral/spiritual life.

By on 03/16/07 at 06:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s also the details of her appearance, which you said you would come back to but then didn’t (which is good, cause then I can add this comment). You say that Error is a dragon, but she clearly is not: she is half dragon and half loathly and disdainful woman, which is something quite different. In fact, it would seem that in cutting off the head of Error, the Redcrosse Knight begins this splitting of evil heart and evil appearance which causes such trouble later on in the figure of Duessa, and thus _creates_ the difficulties of reading and recognizing errors that that then becomes, partly, the force driving the entire narrative.

By Sisyphus on 03/16/07 at 08:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Along the lines of the “just the beginning” in the most recent comment, when Redrosse slays Error, doesn’t this merely spawn (within the fairytale narrative) a bunch of little baby errors?

By surlacarte on 03/16/07 at 08:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

surlacarte, I’d say—tantatively—that those are not “little baby errors” but rather great big sins (or potential sins), and that they are not “spawned” by the slaying of error but rather revealed by it. Spenser lived in a time and place in which people were ready to die, or at least to kill, for theological distinctions; many of those people believed that once they had established orthodoxy their work was effectively done. The career of Redcrosse suggests that establishing orthodoxy just clears the way for the necessary confrontation of a whole raft of temptations, weaknesses, and possible false paths.

By on 03/16/07 at 11:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Make that “tentatively.” “Tantatively” would be “after the fashion of Tantalus,” which is not what I was after here.

By on 03/16/07 at 11:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d say that, according to logic, Redcrosse, having slain Error, certainly hasn’t slain all the other allegorical figures and characters capable of erring. He hasn’t slain himself either. Redcrosse will still be Redcrosse, he’ll still be the same character, liable to fall into error.
This is how I’d explain it; but I’m certainly not an expert on Spenser or The Faerie Queene.

By on 03/17/07 at 11:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

the necessary and creative error (Bloom calls it ‘swerve’) of interpretation.

Now that’s interesting.  Jonathan Lear uses “swerve” to denote one class of neurotic misinterpretation (one that maintains the neurosis, IIRC).

By ben wolfson on 03/18/07 at 01:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

These are all very interesting comments.  I could note a couple of things.

It would be easy, for instance, to point out empirically that many generations of readers of The Faerie Queene have had no problem with Redcrosse killing Error.  They have not thrown the book down at this point saying “oh but that destroys my capacity to suspend disbelief and enter satisfyingly into the world of the text.” So, in that sense, there isn’t, or at least there hasn’t been a problem here.

Worldbuilding is an elastic concept, and the pleasure of some texts resides in precisely the ways the author pushes the envelope of ‘rules’ that are, implicitly, agreed between writer and reader.  But if the author is too careless, or too cavalier, then a breakdown in the reader’s ability emotionally to invest can be reached.  It’ll be reached at different points for different readers, of course.  To stay on the subject of allegory, it was reached for Samuel Johnson, when he was reading Milton’s Paradise Lost at exactly the moment allegory enters the text: a work S.J. had been taking as a dramatisation of true scripture, twists itself into a new shape as Satan attempts to leave Hell and finds Sin and Death at the gate.  These are allegorical figures, and Johnson found the admixture of “real” and “figurative” modes intolerable.

“Sin” is Satan’s child (“thy head flames thick and fast,” she tells her Dad, “Threw forth, till on the left side op’ning wide,/Likest to thee in shape and count’nance bright,/Then shining Heav’nly fair, a Goddess arm’d/Out of thy head I sprung”).  This is the proper logic of allegorical worldbuilding, something Milton takes from the classics.  It’s a bit stupid (Satan must have some kind of womb in his head, and some ability to open and close his skull etc), and it does jar with what’s gone before, but it makes sense according to the logic of allegory.  To transfer to The Faerie Queene: if there is a creature called Error, and this creature represents what surlacarte calls “error as such”, then all other errors encountered in this allegorical realm must have some descendent relationship to the original Error, surely.  They might be error’s children, or products of Error’s body, like the bookes and papers and loathly frogs and toades (which, incidentally, don’t wriggle away to defile Fairyland, but die on the spot).

To put it another way: Rich suggests that in allegory “you can destroy Error, but that doesn’t destroy personified subtypes of error”, and this is clearly right in the sense that killing Atilla the Hun doesn’t kill off Atilla’s children and followers.  But the logic of allegory does require that all (as it were) “minor” forms of error have in some sense been produced out of the body of Error-as-such.  And that’s something lacking in Spenser’s text.

Now, as I say, this doesn’t worry the majority of Spenser readers; and if it worries me then I daresay that’s my problem.  But I think it worries me because Spenser goes much further that previous allegorists in the direction of creating textual coherence, of making his allegory more than just an itinerary of localised allegorical tropes that bear no larger relationship to one another.  He creates a pedigree and backstory for Fairyland; characters meet, part, have other adventures and meet again.  But this, it seems to me, only goes so far.  And that’s where I have a problem: does this border represent, as it were, a limit to Spenser’s powers of textual co-ordination, or if this border something integrally limiting in allegory itself?

By Adam Roberts on 03/18/07 at 07:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"But the logic of allegory does require that all (as it were) “minor” forms of error have in some sense been produced out of the body of Error-as-such.”

Well, Demiurge theory (if I can dignify it with that description) would say that all forms of error are produced out of the author.  The initial dispatch of Error then stands the author dispatching their original concern that they might get the entire thing wrong.  (A serious concern when writing religious allegory, I’d think; getting things wrong doesn’t merely mean writing an unentertaining text, it means misrepresenting God).  Without this killing, the author couldn’t write.  It’s not like the author isn’t conscious that Error is full of books and papers.

But having made this initial concession to arrogance (think back to “The Structure of Mad Scientific Revolutions”; envision the mad scientist / author as they are at the start), the author necessarily finds out that they still produce errors.  No author ever writes exactly what they have imagined writing.

By on 03/18/07 at 09:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

FWIW, I, like Alan Jacobs, took Dragon-Lady Errour specifically as heresy (encompassing, at this time and place, treason). Thus the importance of printed matter: it’s not like Elizabethan England was much concerned with pharmaceutical research journals overstating their claims—controversies were the big concern. I haven’t read any Spenserian scholars on the subject, though. Maybe my reading is itself heretical?

By Ray Davis on 03/18/07 at 09:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

But we’re not really talking about how it would have been read in Elizabethan England, are we?  This essay appears to me to be in the line of Adam Roberts’ “truth” series (cleverly not named as such in order to avoid trolls), which involve Adam Roberts as character—a character reading works with a radically modern concern for the unity of truth.  As Adam says, “many generations of readers of The Faerie Queene have had no problem with Redcrosse killing Error”.  But there could be if we decide to start reading works while taking values seriously that are taken seriously in other contexts.  That’s what makes these interesting readings (to me, anyway); anyone can go along to get along, but it takes a certain degree of purposeful refusal to see—of Bloomian misprision—in order to produce something new.

By on 03/18/07 at 10:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s very flattering, Rich.  I think.  But you’re right, the error is mine as reader (or as ‘author of my reading of ...’).  Twas ever thus.

I can see the appeal of Alan J. and Ray’s desire to read ‘error’ here as heresy; it makes an Elizabethan sense, of course.  But then I’m tempted to add that, to an Elizabethan mindset, ‘heresy’ is not something that can be neatly separated out from other sorts of error.  Or, put it another way: heresy is a sort of basic misprison of the nature of the universe, the type or fount of all errors.

By Adam Roberts on 03/18/07 at 01:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Saying “the error is mine” is not quite *always* thus.  To put it back in terms of Frankenstein, the hard SF / libertarian writer (note how they are often linked), thinking of themselves falsely as Enlightenment-before-Romanticism, might say “Yes, I made a creature—but I was guided by the logic of the situation into doing so.  Had it not been me, it would have been someone else.  And once the creature is created, its crimes are its problem, not mine.” The Tolkienian fantasist wouldn’t even worry about it, any more than Tolkien was concerned about his great demiurgical crime, the creation of orcs.  It would be “Did my best—that monster sure does a good job of illustrating monsterhood, doesn’t it?” To assume the responsibility for error, I’d argue, the worldbuilder needs to be within a specific Romantic tradition, one which SF adopted through its Gothic heritage.  By talking about The Fairie Queene as if logical categories matter within its allegory, and as a problem in “worldbuilding”, you import a later context to the work that makes a demiurgical reading worthwhile.

By on 03/18/07 at 04:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m re-reading Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, and noted this example of allegorical Error and a family relationship to lesser errors:

“The God of poets is not Apollo, who lives in the rhythm of recurrence, but the bald gnome Error, who lives at the back of a cave; and skulks forth only at irregular intervals, to feat upon the mighty dead, in the dark of the moon.  Error’s little cousins, Swerve and Completion, never come into his cave, but they harbor dim memories of having been born there, and they live in the half-apprehension that they will rest at last by coming home to the cave to die.” (pg 78)

Note: cousins, not children.

By on 03/27/07 at 11:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s interesting.  One Q:  is it ‘...to feat upon the mighty dead’, in a knight-errantry stylee, or ‘...to feast upon the mighty dead’ in a cannibalistic way?

By Adam Roberts on 03/28/07 at 07:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

No, it’s feast; I typed it in wrongly the first time.

By on 03/28/07 at 08:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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