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Brenda Machosky, Structures of Appearing: Allegory and the Work of Literature
by Kenneth Borris

Machosky, Brenda. Structures of Appearing: Allegory and the Work of Literature. New York: Fordham UP, 2013. x + 259 pp.  ISBN 978-0823242849. $49.50 cloth.              


While addressing writers of fiction from Prudentius to Baudelaire and Kafka, as well as Plato, Aristotle, and Hegel, this study of allegory accents recent philosophers and literary theorists such as Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, Maurice Blanchot, and Paul de Man.  “More interested … in what allegory is than in what it does or how it works,” the author valorizes phenomenological analysis over inquiries into allegory’s significance, historical context, and techniques (24-25).  “Such an understanding of allegory will,” she maintains, enable us to talk about “‘art,’ and ‘theater’ and ‘literature’ and ‘poetry’—and even ‘philosophy’—with a new perspective and a different kind of clarity” (26).  Whatever extent of validity that claim may have, this book should reward those with interests in allegorism, its history, and cultural roles;  in the relative status of poetry and philosophy;  and in the history of their quarrels and interactions.  Nevertheless, the discussion of Spenser, the main topic of this review, will likely disappoint knowledgeable Spenserians.

From Machosky’s phenomenological standpoint, allegory is “not primarily a structure of meaning, but a structure of appearance” (5).  Defying logical constraints, this means of representation definitively manifests “two things in the same image, in the same ‘space’ at the same time.”  The “‘other’ thing” represented along with the more obvious content of the words or image has been traditionally termed “‘meaning,’” she observes, “because allegory has long been understood as part of a system of representation with a metaphysical structure—based in the tangible real, but transcended by the meaningful ideal” (1).  But, she urges, allegory should be understood instead according to its own structure, which is in her view neither metaphysical nor one of meaning.  Since there is thus no “‘other’ thing” in allegory, she puts the word “other” in scare quotes.  While not claiming “that allegorical texts have no meaning,” she argues that they “go ‘beyond meaning’ by staying within their own structure, not seeking a transcendent position outside of it” (1-2).  Hence she must dismiss medieval and early modern conceptions and practices of allegory (which understood it as a metaphysically informed structure of meaning) as “prejudiced views” or “a flawed tradition of allegory” (10).  In positing a supposedly essential transhistorical identity of allegory that was violated throughout those eras, Machosky’s approach devalues historicized inquiry into their traditions and expressions of allegorism and allegoresis.

Dante and Spenser would probably insist that allegory is indeed a structure of meaning.  As such it reflected and represented the perceived cosmic order, whereby the physical universe expresses creative divinity, as the Book of Nature supplementing the Bible.  For at least sixty years, scholars have concluded that this numinous way of perceiving reality underwrote medieval and early modern allegorism and much of its prestige.  Such former conceptualization of allegory as a structure of meaning did not, pace Machosky, necessarily entail a radical otherness of the allegorical sign’s signified, relative to its signifier.   For example, the doctrines of God’s partial immanence in creation, the divine image within human beings, the soul’s heavenly origin and immortality, and beauty and virtue’s divine origin, among others, underwrite Una’s transcendental meanings in The Faerie Queene.  Her relation to them is in those ways synechdochal.[1]  Sir Philip Sidney declared that we each have within us a “particle of the Divine Mind.”[2]

Hence Machosky’s basic conception of allegory, whereby it “holds together the object and the image” (31), has long been advocated from very different viewpoints.  She acknowledges that A. C. Hamilton did so over fifty years ago (31).  So did Rosemond Tuve, among others:  “we must not suffocate allegory with the tightly drawn noose of inflexible equations, but allow meanings to flow into and inhabit the literal so that it is symbolic also.”[3]  I have always read allegory this way, rather than in “levels,” and have assumed that this procedure can be taken for granted among early modern literary scholars, as common knowledge since the 1960s.  Hence reference to particular kinds of allegorical application, such as anagogy, just constitutes a pragmatic means of clarification.  Such allegoresis does not depend on Machosky’s theoretical assumptions;  nor, as Tuve’s case and Una show, is it incompatible with early modern conceptions of allegory’s polysemy and reference to the cosmic order, and historicist appreciation of them.

Machosky’s account of allegory serves a much broader agenda:  liberation of poetry from the judgments of philosophy and especially Aesthetics.  Since allegory is “the phenomenon in which two things (impossibly, illogically) occupy the same space at the same time, allegory is the work of art with which Aesthetics simply cannot contend” (26).  On account of this structure, allegory is “that mode of appearance peculiar to art,” and moreover “implicit in all forms of language,” including “the symbol, … especially in its poetic form.”  Thus philosophy itself “depends on allegory, on poetry, in order to achieve its ends” (26-27), and this phenomenological study of allegory grounds a critique of the history of Western thought and culture.

Some may object that a definition of allegory such that it comes to appear constitutive of all language, thought, and representation is too broad to be meaningful.  Others will note that Machosky’s “use of the term phenomenology is admittedly peculiar” (14), or will question her versions of intellectual and cultural history and her historiographical choices.  To justify beginning her analysis of allegory’s historical development with Prudentius in Chapter Two (c. 400 CE), she states that “the phenomenology of allegory needs to begin at the most originary thing one can identify and from that point reduce that thing to its most irreducible parts” (64).  However, the Derveni papyrus, unmentioned in this book, preserves allegorical Orphic theogony of the fifth or sixth centuries BCE.[4]  Moreover, “the Homeric poems” had been allegorically interpreted “at least as early as the sixth century BCE” (64), and Machosky later attributes her essential structure of allegory to Homer’s Odyssey (181-82).  Elsewhere she finds allegory fundamental to all discourse, which began far earlier.  Nevertheless, everyone should appreciate the splendid and fascinating scope of her discussion.

After summarizing her agenda in the Introduction, Machosky re-examines the relations of art, philology, and allegory in Chapter One, to challenge the claims of Aesthetics and hermeneutics to rule art, and extricate allegory from them.  The following chapters historically recapitulate their predecessor by examining particular literary and philosophical texts in chronological sequence.  The second chapter focuses on Prudentius;  the third on Dante and Spenser;  the fourth on Hegel;  the fifth on Goethe and Benjamin;  the sixth on Baudelaire and Kafka.  The fifth further argues that the Romantic distinction between symbol and allegory is untenable, and the sixth that allegory is more like metonymy than metaphor.  Though both those ideas have already been mooted,[5] these are worthwhile discussions.

By comparing Dante and Spenser, Chapter Three seeks to clarify what allegory is and how the Protestant Reformation changed its appearance (though not, the author assumes, its phenomenological structure).  By prefiguring eighteenth-century subjectivity in Machosky’s view, The Faerie Queene provides a convenient transition for her historiographical narrative:  next comes Hegel (Chapter Four).  The central distinctions between Dante and Spenser seem questionable.  Whereas, for example, “Spenser strives to make his poem serve as a moral mirror for human behavior—wanting to bring his text into the world,” Dante “does not yet have this urge;  he brings the world into his text,” but “making his poem meaningful within the context of the actual world was not his goal” (13, 214n8).  Yet the Commedia contains much satire of human institutions and individuals, as well as admonitory punishments of persons who actually existed.  Dante too sought to provide a moral mirror for humankind, and his poem was read accordingly, as extant commentaries show.  Utilitarian conceptions of art influential in both Dante’s and Spenser’s lifetimes promoted such interests and agendas among both poets and readers.

Allocated just fifteen pages, the chapter’s reading of The Faerie Queene focuses on the Bower of Bliss and the Mutability Cantos.  The grand historiographical scale of the conclusions proposed for Spenser and for his text’s relation to the development of Western culture would reasonably require more sampling of this 36,000-line text, for much contradictory content is unacknowledged. 

Unlike Dante’s Commedia, we are told, Spenser’s poem “most tellingly … culminates not in a blessed … experience of the infinite divine, but in an attempt by Mutability, the personification of human existence (finite and changeable), to posit herself as divine and to disrupt the order of the universe” (112). Thus The Faerie Queene manifests a felt recession of divinity from the world, the emptying of its mystical significance, and new claims of the self for authority (124-27).  So whereas in Dante “allegory provided the structure by which a divine presence could manifest itself in an unprecedented appearance within the finite realm,” in Spenser “allegory becomes a structure for mediation and for the first appearance of the Subject absolute within itself” (127).  The Faerie Queene would thus anticipate Wagner’s Götterdämmerung.

However, readings that depend on making the Mutability Cantos the poem’s definitive culmination are problematic because those addenda were first published long after Spenser’s death.  We do not know what sort of role or context he would have given them, nor even if he wrote more of the poem, that has been lost.  Their relation to the six books that Spenser himself published will always be mysterious.

Even if we accept the Cantos as The Faerie Queene’s definitive conclusion, we may question whether Mutability personifies human existence (112), rather than having a much broader meaning, and in any case the poem does not culminate in Mutability’s attempts to supplant the gods (pace Machosky, 112), but rather in the quashing of her claims (VII.vii.58-59), and the poet’s final self-abnegating turn to God (VII.viii.2).  As Balachandra Rajan remarks, Mutability is “recognized but constrained, given status but denied supremacy.”[6]  Though Spenser does not seek to represent God so directly as Dante, the English poet’s more cautious procedure (partly to avoid poetic hubris) had strong warrants in Judaeo-Christian tradition, and his extant poem still ends in prayer like Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, which Spenser knew well.  He humbly requests his “Lord” to grant him the vision of divinity in afterlife. Whereas Machosky maintains that the poet “ends by confronting us with our own finitude, our own image, not reflected in a symbolic transcendence but only in our own vain mirror” (125), Spenser concludes by presenting human prospects of transcending finitude and flux through God’s grace.  The Faerie Queene involves many representations of symbolic transcendence, and they inform this context.

Machosky’s reading of The Faerie Queene and her definition of Dante and Spenser’s differences arise from an oversimplified account of early modern Protestantism.  “Protestant morality,” we are told, “gave the individual more responsibility for his or her own fate than under Catholicism.”  So whereas “Catholics have the patristic tradition and the Vatican to navigate this dilemma for them,” Protestants “must figure it out for themselves.”  Moreover, “without the moral structure of divinity, humankind becomes responsible for its own moral code.  This is an implicit yet profound consequence of the Protestant Reformation” (114-15).  But The Faerie Queene’s poetic theology also draws significantly on broader and older Christian traditions, and on Platonism.  And in any case Protestantism had its own infrastructures of support, including the magisterial Reformers, Bible translations and commentaries, and preferred patristic authorities such as Augustine.  The Elizabethan church provided moral and doctrinal guidance through publications such as the Thirty-Nine Articles, Bishops’ Bible, liturgies, homilies, and hymns.  Church attendance was mandatory.  Divine grace and providence had vital psychagogic roles in Protestant doctrine and experience:  “many perils doe enfold / The righteous man, to make him daily fall,” except “heauenly grace doth him uphold” (I.viii.1).  The “exceeding grace / Of highest God, that loues his creatures so,” sends “blessed Angels” to “succour vs” (I.viii.1-2).  When Calidore seeks to save Pastorella, “God” goes “before,” the narrator assures us, to give her deliverance providential oversight (VI.xi.36).

Though seeking to define The Faerie Queene’s representation of humanity’s relation to God and the cosmos, and the poem’s consequent relation to the development of Western culture, Machofsky never mentions grace or providence.  In her view, “the Protestant epic is the story of a reformed subject trying to find him- or herself.  The poem begins in a dark wood, but it does not end with transcendence.  The reformed subject is a creature bound to this world” (120-21).  The latter statement is true of the actual world as I myself atheistically perceive it.  It is not true within The Faerie Queene’s fictive world created in the late sixteenth century.  Magisterial Protestantism assumed that human beings have immortal souls.  And despite the labyrinthine complexity of Spenser’s poem, it is characterized by much quasi-providential poetic justice, the advent of a guardian angel, explicit manifestations of divinely saving grace (e.g.,, epiphanies of goddesses (the Graces), the vision of the heavenly New Jerusalem, narratorial assurances of providential care, the celestial radiance of unveiled Una and of Arthur’s revelatory shield, and so forth—none of which Machosky mentions.  Rather than being “emptied of its mystical significance” as she implies (127), The Faerie Queene’s world is replete with mediated expressions of God, attributing to him much immanence in the cosmos.  Rather than attempting to provide a final divine vision like Dante, Spenser diffuses symbolic transcendence broadly throughout his poem.  Dante’s procedure suited his fiction’s movement from hell through purgatory to paradise, which aptly climaxes in a vision of divinity.  The romance-epic mise en scène of Spenser’s fiction, like Tasso’s, allows only mediated representations of divinity, as immanent in the world, but Spenser provides plenty of them.

Hence he represents his poem’s world as if it is numinously informed by a higher order beyond its appearances, that sometimes flashes through them.  The turret-head of Alma’s castle is “likest … vnto that heauenly towre, / That God hath built for his own blessed bowre” (II.ix.47), and so Spenser defines human heads as revealing adumbrations of God’s nature and being.  The doctrine of humankind’s creation in the divine image underwrites this analogy.  The poet expresses the transcendental order’s presence particularly through his motif of reflected celestial radiance that appears, for example, in many descriptions of his heroines’ beauty validated by their virtue (as at, viii.33-35, xii.21-23;  II.iii.22;  III.v.34-36).

Nevertheless, this stimulating book offers diverse judicious insights.  On Spenserian allegorism, for example, Machosky says “an allegorical fiction that is true becomes the necessary antidote to a false world” (118), and that observation epitomizes much of The Faerie Queene’s orientation to its audience.  She also recognizes Sidney’s “positive” view of allegorism (100, 283n7), which still eludes some specialists.[7]


Kenneth Borris
McGill University


[1] See Kenneth Borris, “Allegory, Emblem and Symbol,” in The Oxford Handbook of Edmund Spenser, ed. Richard A. McCabe (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2010), 437-38, 444.

[2] Sidney, Letter to Languet, 1 March 1578, in Sidney’s Correspondence, ed., trans. Roger Kuin, 2 vols, (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2012), 2:817.

[3] Tuve, Allegorical Imagery:  Some Mediaeval Books and Their Posterity (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1966), 353.

[4] See Luc Brisson, How Philosophers Saved Myths:  Allegorical Interpretation and Classical Mythology, trans. Catherine Tihanyi (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2004), pp. 32-37.

[5] See Borris, 437-38, 445.

[6] Rajan, “Closure,” in The Spenser Encyclopedia, ed. A. C. Hamilton et al. (Toronto:  University of Toronto Press, 1990), 170.

[7] E.g., Robert Stillman, Philip Sidney and the Poetics of Renaissance Cosmopolitanism (Hampshire:  Ashgate, 2008), ch. 2.  See Kenneth Borris, “The Arcadias,” forthcoming in the Ashgate Research Companion to the Sidneys, 2014.




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Kenneth Borris, "Brenda Machosky, Structures of Appearing: Allegory and the Work of Literature ," Spenser Review 43.3.58 (Winter 2014). Accessed March 19th, 2018.
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