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Responses to Harry R. Berger, Resisting Allegory: Interpretive Delirium in Spenser's "Faerie Queene"
by David Lee Miller, Judith H. Anderson, Richard Danson Brown, Jeff Dolven, Ken Gross, James Nohrnberg, Ayesha Ramachandran

Jump to: David Lee MillerJudith H. AndersonRichard Danson BrownJeff DolvenKen GrossJames NohrnbergAyesha Ramachandran


Agon and Affection: A Special Relationship

David Lee Miller

When the editors of The Spenser Review suggested a feature on Harry Berger, Jr.’s new book Resisting Allegory, I thought that, having had my say in the book’s introduction, I would ask a few friends and colleagues to share their thoughts. The results vary in length, tone, and point of view; I hope that this variety, which is deliberate, will help us relax the usual boundary between writing for publication and conversing through social media. A few contributions stand as written and submitted; others are woven together from email exchanges and previously published essays. Readers of what follows are invited to join the conversation, extending it into a thread on the Sidney-Spenser listserv.

Harry Berger, Jr. was born December 18, 1924 in the Borough of Manhattan, New York. His first book, The Allegorical Temper, appeared sixty-three years ago, and while the author has said he no longer believes most of what he wrote, it remains essential reading for Spenserians. The appearance of his new book on the 1590 Faerie Queene seems an appropriate occasion to reflect on the qualities that have made his work on Spenser across the decades so compelling.

Spenser has been one constant in a career cuts a wide swath through cultural history and theory: as Joe Loewenstein remarks, ‘It was Spenser at the beginning and for a long time.’[1] Spenserians for this reason enjoy a special relationship with Harry, the like of which is available to no other guild except, on a different scale, the Shakespeareans. Indeed, many of the fields Harry has trenched upon are less than flattered by the attention; as Loewenstein also muses, ‘The art-historians hate the Rembrandt book as much as I love it. I wonder what the classicists think of him.’ As a Spenserian, he observes that

Harry’s practice of slowly working through the corpus, his career of Spenserian rumination, has few models. It involved a paired trust: he trusted that all of Spenser could serve his intellectual needs and he trusted that he was adequate to the task.  

This special relationship with Spenser unfolds in a distinctive entente with the field and the workers in it. With us. 

This inflects our sense of the work in specific ways. One of the hallmarks of Harry’s criticism—one tacitly acknowledged in the unconventional convention of using his first name—is how deeply it gets imprinted by his voice⎯not just his style, but literally the unmistakable sound of his wise-guy growl⎯and by his irreverence. This idiosyncratic, intensely personal element in the criticism counterbalances, for me at least, the abstraction that troubles a reader like Therese Krier: ‘This morning I re-read the opening pages of the journal version of the “Archimago” essay… . They are the pages that go on and on about textuality and discourse. It’s so abstract as to mean nothing to me at all. The terms come to seem so deracinated from the stories and the verse.’[2]

Krier goes on to note Harry’s ‘love of agon, which seems most of the time (not always) to go along with discourse and textuality as shaping HB’s approach to a text. Pitting one discourse against another … .’  She continues:

So what, to me, does Harry not seem interested in, in Spenser’s work? Genre, mode, registers. Motion of verse, pacing, tempo, breath of the verse line (HB much different than Alpers or Danson Brown or Gross on this). Process, flux, perception, the tentative nature of thinking in and by the poem … .  Intertextuality in any of its senses. Embodiment—again I feel his sense of poetry seems deracinated. Somewhere in the Spenser discussion list, Andrew Zurcher notes that some phenomenon or other ‘perfuses the whole of the poem’s material, and can be seen to operate in all its flesh, bone, humors, yea in its motive breath.’ (8/18/2010)[3] 

That is lovely, and I do feel keenly the importance of Krier’s view without being entirely persuaded by it. Against this sense of the criticism as deracinated, I would cite James Nohrnberg’s appreciative sense in ‘Succumbing to and/or Resisting Harry Berger’s Resisting Allegory that ‘No one can miss the irrepressible wit, academic insouciance, and intellectual jouissance in his theorizing and his commentaries, not least because these qualities are in the writing as well as the thinking.’ Kenneth Gross’s affectionate teasing in ‘Reflections on Espionage’ shows a delighted sense of the critic in the text. I might also summon to witness this passage from an earlier meditation by Gross, describing the ‘relentless moral burden’ Harry imposes upon himself:

…  in reading Berger’s work, one feels a vigilance, a struggle to bear and decipher a mystery, which belongs to a particular agent or worker in the field. That vigilance combines with it the elation of a broken or divided self, the ravishments of its power to criticize its own representations, the pleasures of yielding to contingency yet holding onto what this yielding makes possible.[4]

In other words, the agon that feels deracinated to Krier seems that way because it is so powerfully deflected into and onto ‘discourses’ from an origin much closer to home. They have their own personalities, these discourses—they are donors and victims, black saints and sinner ladies—but their value for critical analysis in Harry’s practice is that they let his point of view detach itself from character and narrative in order to see how these too-familiar counters can work as engines of self-deception. It is not hard to see this deflection as motivated by the prior agon that it works through in displaced form, the deep internal struggle Gross analyses as ‘self-hatred’. The deflection is a productive move because it turns a merely personal dilemma—who among us has not gazed into the mirror of alienated narcissism?—into a strong ethical and methodological commitment, a suspicion not merely of oneself but of selfhood as such. And not just a suspicion, but as Gross wittily has it, a form of espionage.

This rigorous sublation of misautia sorts oddly with another of the idiosyncratic features of Harry’s work, what Jeff Dolven calls ‘Harry’s long wrestle with critical sociability in print’:

… his regular habit of stopping to give someone else’s position a careful hearing, unfolding its claims, quoting key passages (keeping the other critic’s words before us even as he begins to digest their ideas into his essay’s idiolect), and then patiently describing how he intends to transmute what he has found.[5]

This is the kinder, gentler Harry we know and love. In ‘His Suspicions’ Dolven sees this generosity extended to Spenser as well as his critics, in what he calls ‘Harry’s readiness to share his own critical power with the poem, even with the poet.’ How does a firm commitment to courteous conversation live side by side with a relentless hermeneutic of suspicion? One answer might be that it is precisely Harry’s powerful suspicion of his own equally powerful critical ego that generates this enactment of courtesy. Dolven puts it better: ‘What is being modeled for us’ in Harry’s engagements with other critics, he writes, ‘is a gentle dis-identification with our own words in the service of good thinking and good talk’ (A Touch 268). A more suspicious answer is suggested, if I read her rightly, in Judith Anderson’s carefully balanced ‘Response’ to Resisting Allegory. Loewenstein offers a slightly different variation on the suspicious take:

The courtesy in real life is very real. On the page, though, it sometimes seems a matter of very good form, since he’s almost always heading towards a radical disagreement. I guess it ends up feeling very courteous, but I note that he seldom seems to build on and with others; rather he’s using them as a ledge or step-stool, so there’s the very slight comedy of watching someone say delightfully nice things about something he’s going to step on.

Contrast with this account the one given by Richard Danson Brown in ‘Fragments from a Correspondence’, describing how Berger’s appreciative use of Leigh A. DeNeef’s Spenser and the Motives of Metaphor sent him back with renewed appreciation to a book he had undervalued on a first reading. (I would add, me too.)

Given what I have said about extending the conversation, there can be no last word here; I have tried to locate points of divergence and identify contrasting responses to them. But to afford a provisional sense of closure, let me end with one of my favourite assessments of Berger’s critical style. In an essay whose wit and insight I deeply admire, Leonard Barkan offers this summary:

… Harry’s work is the most sustained, broadest, most energetic, and at the same time most beneficent critical conversation in the whole of our field. To listen in as he probes the work of his colleagues—and not just the famous ones—and to observe the dialectic of his own thinking as it emerges from these rigorous yet beatific cross-examinations is to observe a mental world where personhood is powerful, democratic, consensual, and passionately alive and well.[6]

In choosing this ‘beatific’ note to end on, I can’t help remembering something Theresa Krier wrote to me in a different context: ‘This is a thing I almost want to shout out to you. Don’t idealizeBecome a feminist.’[7] To which I reply, yes, you’re right (and thank you for not shouting). I’m working on it!



[1] Email, 2/17/2020.

[2] Email, 2/22/2020.

[3] Krier goes on to quote (and concur with) Joseph Campana: ‘In his incisive essay “Archimago: Between text and countertext,” Harry Berger, Jr., examines habits of reading particular to The Faerie Queene and he bases his argument on a distinction between “two orientations, two differently accented modes of sign use” … . What is missing in accounts like Berger’s would be a sense of the materiality that grounds poetry. Poetry communicates by means of its imaginative evocation of textures of physicality, and the difficulty in conveying this aspect of poetry arises [in part] as terms like representation and textuality seem increasingly inadequate to describe poetry and its effects’ (The Pain of Reformation: Spenser, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Masculinity [New York: Fordham University Press, 2012], 103).

[4] “Harry Berger and Self-Hatred’,” in A Touch More Rare: Harry Berger, Jr. and the Arts of Interpretation, ed. Nina Levine and David Lee Miller (New York: Fordham University Press, 2009), 29.

[5] “Harry Berger’s Intellectual Community,” in A Touch More Rare 270, 264.

[6] ‘Enlisting in Harry Berger’s Imaginary Forces’, in A Touch More Rare 21-2.

[7] Email, 9/17/2019.


Response occasioned by Harry Berger, Jr., Resisting Allegory: Interpretive Delirium in SpenserFaerie Queene,” ed. David Lee Miller (New York: Fordham University Press, 2020)

Judith H. Anderson

Having been asked by David Miller to comment on Harry Berger’s Resisting Allegory in whatever way I wished, I find myself torn between my abiding affection for Harry and my deep gratitude to him on the one hand, and, on the other, my response to his latest book, a revision of six articles published between 1991 and 2005. All six were part of a single project intended to expose the exclusively male ideology of Spenser’s literary culture and to demonstrate Spenser’s, or rather his text’s, position outside it. Again, exclusively male. Women are never more than fronts, even their limited agency illusions. 

My gratitude to Harry began with a graduate course on Spenser that opened whole new ways of thinking about literary criticism for me. The many other disciplines Harry’s course made available, especially ancient philosophy and modern art history, were either new to me or approached in new ways. I was already well acquainted with close reading but not with the way Harry used it in a poem like The Faerie Queene. That was another eye opener, and it changed my attitude to Spenser from my undergraduate boredom with an old historicist’s approach to a major engagement with Spenser’s thinking, more exactly with the ‘process of thinking’ evident in his romance epic, as I described this process in my first book. But I did not write my dissertation with Harry. An anecdote that I shared over drinks and laughter with Harry years later suggests why. At some point during Harry’s Spenser course, I turned up in his office to discuss an idea. I hadn’t got very far in my proposal before he responded, ‘Let’s use my terms.’ Back in the 1960s when, as a woman and a graduate student, I was trying to find my own voice, Harry’s terms, however brilliant, didn’t work for me. His terminological moves in Resisting Allegory are eerily similar in this respect: for example, his use of key terms such as misautia and autophobia. This time, however, the voice at issue is the one in Spenser’s text, which—in a resonant term borrowed from Harry’s lexicon—he would kidnap.

 Long in the making, Resisting Allegory is Harry’s pièce de résistance on Spenser and, along with his recent books on Shakespeare (2012, 2015), the culmination of a remarkable career that is returning full circle to its Spenserian roots. In this book, Harry has erected a masterful interpretive structure grounded in the language and rhetoric of Books I-III of The Faerie Queene.  His close readings are laser-like and often dazzling, and his arguments tight, consistent and totally in control. The book as a whole is illuminating and immensely provocative in every conceivable sense. If it is a challenge to read, it is still worth the effort.

Yet I admit to résistance, which I will only offer in a few broad brushstrokes. Simply put, Harry and I read different poems in different ways. The Spenser I read does not have all the answers. Characteristically, his writing is provisional, exploratory, experimental, open ended. He is not outside his culture, although he plays with it, enters it, probes it, and at times directly exposes it. He is masked in the poem, slippery and unreliable—‘the absent-but-not absent poet.’[8] But he is not simply a function, an “it.” Instead, he can even cross and mix genders, and his explicit appearances in the poem can be conspicuously and formally apart from the narrative, not simply the same. Since 1998, I have implicitly and explicitly engaged and resisted the six articles underlying Resisting Allegory in articles of my own and particularly in two books, Reading the Allegorical Intertext (the narrator, the Garden and the Bower) and Spenser’s Narrative Figuration of Women in The Faerie Queene” (Books I-VI). These published writings make my participation in unqualified praise for Resisting Allegory somewhat awkward but also justified by the appearance of Harry’s important book. Harry’s own fondness for Socratic dialectic deserves not only just praise but also reasoned opposition.

Although Harry’s Resisting Allegory modifies some readings and skilfully fine tunes the arguments of his earlier articles, sometimes in ways that indicate he has been reading criticism more recently than his citations signal, his fundamental positions have not changed: Una, ‘the almighty humble loving virgin’, remains an idol; Acrasia, like the witch of Book III, is male; the Garden is frightfully scary, and comedy in Book III is merely another instrument of the ‘ideological police’.  He ties his reading of Spenser to Freud and Lacan avowedly in an effort to translate Spenser’s poem into a modern idiom—not simply to draw enlightening modern parallels, as many of us do, but to replace the terms of the poem with others alien to Spenser’s culture. Whereas usually this kind of move would trash poet and poem, Harry’s moving Spenser outside the text—into a godly position?—protects both. But it raises questions about credibility, wholesale translation (radical metareading), and in a word, method. While I find insight in Freud and Lacan, neither offers a defining view for me. Both are deeply androcentric, like the systems they expose and on which they batten. Freud is notoriously unreliable about women (or woman), and Lacan is hopelessly negative: in Ben Saunders’s telling description, the divided subject is the sole ground of knowledge for Lacan: ‘This is the ontology of the void—the bottom line turns out not to be a bedrock assertion but the discovery of a fissure at the base of everything and, below the fissure, nothing, nothing all the way down.’  (Saunders notes ‘Lacan’s almost Nietszchean glee in the face of this void.’)[9]  This is not the Spenser I read, much as I can still admire the Spenser Harry creates.

Effective resistance to Resisting Allegory would start with method, the theoretical moves at the opening of the book, which reflect early chapters in Harry’s impressive, earlier Situated Utterances, as well as additional moves at the openings of later chapters. Applied to The Faerie Queene, however, the distinctions he makes in that earlier book between documents, texts and countertexts turn into a version of the old level-theory of allegory within a single poem: now the content and narrative of the poem, dismissed as innocent and naïve, somehow separate from its textuality, its rhetoric and language which alone carry weight. The notion that the poem has only one set of words, which includes more than one point of view or competing meanings, gets lost.  An interpretation that recognises historical context without running it through the Freud-Lacan translating machine is countertextual, not to say simply perverse, and so on. With the kidnapping of story and history, there is nowhere to go, at least in good faith, within this system.

I would mention one other feature of Harry’s argumentation that is striking, namely, the generous use he makes of the work of other critics of The Faerie Queene, and especially as the book proceeds, of critics who are women. Presumably, he is interested in enlisting the support of women for his own readings, given the androcentrism of his argument. Variously, he admires, adopts, excerpts, modifies, or even kidnaps the critics he cites.  This feature is extensive and conspicuous and probably important. To heed the conspicuous is itself something Harry valuably taught us in his very first book.


[8] Judith H. Anderson, Reading the Allegorical Intertext: Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 27-41 at 34.

[9] Ben Saunders, Desiring Donne: Poetry, Sexuality, Interpretation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 157-79 at 176.


Fragments from a Correspondence

Richard Danson Brown

Dear David,

Resisting Allegory is a treat – I’d read the Archimago essay years ago, and remember being captivated by it then. For anyone ‘digging outside’ of The Faerie Queene’s ‘crooked walls’, Berger himself is a ‘delirious’ as well as a ‘straitening’ example.

Things that have struck me while rereading: he contrives to say things you wish that you had the style and vision to have said yourself. For example, the notion of Christian discourse as an ‘Ideological Cultural Apparatus for the production of narcissism, of autophobia and misautia’ (23) feels profoundly expository both of FQ I and the psychology we’ve inherited. While at one level this is part of his commitment throughout the study to expose misogyny, I’m struck by the way Berger never reduces ‘Spenser’ to a contextual production only: the latter (and his questionable narrators) are constantly interrogating rather than simply reproducing that apparatus.

At the same time, this is a criticism which is always alert for disconcerting yet enlivening moments of humour which contrive to recommit us as readers to the object of study – say the narrator of I.iii.1 as a ‘gallant devotee’. That’s so exact, and speaks to the pleasures of the Book I both as a narration and the narrator as character. In the same spirit, the sentence at the top of p.64 nearly tripped me up as a non-sequitur until I realised it had to be read in inverted commas, almost as an heroic joke: ‘Archimago is surely the most powerful and evil Enchanter in Faeryland’; in a different context, that might emblazon a chivalric t-shirt.

The other thing which you mentioned is the readiness with which he revisits and reformulates his earlier work. Obviously one knows one’s own work best, but he lifts that higher in the way he’s constantly reconceptualising and refining what he has said previously – the process isn’t remotely defensive (and lord knows the impulse to defend what one has said is almost suffocatingly strong sometimes). Of course, this dynamic thinking is reminiscent of Spenser himself in FQ – Berger is never a static thinker, but one who is always in some form of oscillation between states, between formulations, between ideologies.


PS one other thing I meant to say was the way HB makes me revalue aspects of my own reading, particularly in the way he uses DeNeef. To be honest, when I first read that book I really didn’t like it, chiefly because of my resistance to the idea that the Defence is a complete, neo-Aristotelian poetics, and what felt like to me the rather mechanised Spenser he seemed therefore to be delivering. In recent years, though, whenever I’ve picked DeNeef from the shelf I’ve found it more convincing and serious than my 24-year old rejection; HB speaks to that, and the passages he quotes from DeNeef are so good it makes me want to reread the book in toto.


Sorry I didn’t get back to you on this because I was gainfully employed reading the book (now finished).

Very much enjoyed the book as a whole, though for my money Chapters 1-3 are more persuasive and inspiring than Chapters 4-5. I can say more if that would be useful, but I found myself resisting some aspects of the approach especially in relation to Bk III. That’s partly because I struggle to see the value he does the Simon Shepherd book; compared with the other scholars he cites so generously, this feels like giving too much space to a rather one-sided polemic. I was also unconvinced by the discussions of the way men and women differently read the Gardins; like some aspects of reader-response theory, this felt like it needed a more empirical approach if it was really going to come off. Time in the Gardins for me isn’t about what HB calls ‘bitterness’, it’s the Virgilian lacrimae rerum, but then I am a professional whinger.

The final thought I had was about HB’s preference for suspicious readings, which reminded me of Rita Felski’s book. I’m with him completely when he suspects the equation of the narrator with ‘Edmund Spenser’, and throughout the specular tautology section (wonderful), but I would still say that there are aspects of the surface of the text we may not utterly distrust, if that’s not too cagily put.

As ever, Richard


His Suspicions

Jeff Dolven

Recent events have made it clear enough that the methodological innovations of the last fifty years of literary criticism bring with them neither political nor ethical guarantees. Poststructuralism and its hybridisations with history have offered scholars and students alike emancipatory insights and inspiration, but their suspicious regard for constructions that pass for nature can convert too readily into sophistry, into fake news and preemptive accusations of fake news. No progressive-minded critic, in a moment when democracy’s constitutive myths look so frail, will have failed to worry about the repurposing of our critical work. Some have sought alternatives to the hermeneutics of suspicion, while others have doubled down, but we all have to wonder where it leads now.

So what is it about the work of Harry Berger, a suspicious reader if ever there was one, that is so dependably, irreversibly to the good? He is, to be sure, a methodological pluralist, and draws from intellectual projects (especially in anthropology and folklore) that are not all of them primarily critical. But the main lines of his method run from the New Criticism through deconstruction and psychoanalysis. His interests gravitate to abuses of power, to violence and misogyny, and he is an expert diagnostician of injustice and its enabling illusions. Take his essay ‘Wring Out the Old: Squeezing the Text, 1951-2001’, reprinted in Resisting Allegory, which offers an intricate, linguistically resourceful analysis of the Bower of Bliss and its recent critics. (‘Textual critique’, he calls his practice of interrogation by close reading). Harry is unsparing in his account of the episode’s sexual politics, as he builds, with characteristic generosity to his fellow readers, on a recent tradition already severe in its view of poem and poet.

But there are two things, at least, that distinguish his approach. (I will leave it to the reader to decide which is more fundamental). The first is how he handles the question of where to put the blame. Take the following passage from ‘Wring Out the Old’, in which he borrows C. S. Lewis’s characterisation of the fountain-maidens in Faerie Queene II.xii as ‘Cissie and Flossie’ (names Lewis takes, as far as I can tell, from a forgotten comic novel by Stephen Graham, Under-London).

One of the strategies of textual critique is to represent the stand-point of the slandered scapegoat and have its agents talk back to temperance. Phaedria is the most loquacious of these agents, but I’m not sure ‘talk back’ is the right expression for Cissie and Flossie, who are not major players and are not much with words, but who make a big splash in a deceptively small pool. Inasmuch as they caricature not only heroic wrestling but also the pornographic fantasy they objectify, the bathers dramatize male self-mockery and self-despite. To see their contribution in this light is to see it as the acknowledgment both of self-disempowerment and of the slanderous reduction of woman to a spectral displacement that taunts its maker. (Resisting Allegory, 166)

Harry’s readers will recognise that important verb ‘dramatize’, which is his characteristic, pointed alternative to ‘enact’ or ‘commit’. Cissie and Flossie, so-called, are not the object of a male gaze shared conspiratorially by Guyon and the reader. Rather, the reader is positioned behind Guyon, watching what he watches but also watching his watching. Behind Guyon, and behind Lewis—but not behind Spenser. That last is the crucial move, Harry’s readiness to share his own critical power with the poem, even with the poet. It is a position he can only argue for implicitly, by dilating the resources of the language before him. But argue he does, and dilate he does, showing The Faerie Queene to be so intricate and so exquisitely, excruciatingly self-conscious that it must already know everything we could know about it. We do not judge the poem, but rather experiment in its judgments, test them, try them out and on. Not least, its judgments of itself, and us.

The second way in which Harry steers his suspicions toward generosity is his pervasive sense of humour. I have tried to put my finger on its quality, and I confess that I keep thinking of my father. Forgive me a brief story. Until he retired a few years ago, my dad was a social worker, first in Springfield, Massachusetts and later in private practice in Northampton. The summer before I went to college, I worked for the county doing odd jobs for people who were homebound on public assistance, cleaning and painting and small carpentry. One day my partner and I were assigned to paint the interior of a house on Hatfield Street, where we were greeted by an older woman, who presented us with a can of salmon-peach paint to remake the olive squalor of her living room. We painted; she cursed us periodically for our slowness; her two grown sons padded about shirtless, cursing her. It was a bower of dysfunction, but when I described the scene that night to my dad, I was surprised to see him trying to suppress a rueful laugh. At once I realised, though he would never have admitted it, that someone in that house, the witch or one of her sons (to wax Spenserian), was his client. The laugh left a strong impression, nothing cruel about it, nothing mocking, or even bemused, but a kind of head-shaking, sympathetic wonder at the ways we mislead our lives. For most of us, after all, the work of constructing the crazy, unimaginable-if-they-weren’t-true ecosystems of unknowing that we call ‘home’ is as close as we will get to writing The Faerie Queene. In Harry’s sense of humour I hear something like my dad’s comic resilience, a critic’s power to see our self-bafflements clearly, laugh, and still marvel at what we can make.

I’m not sure Spenser could find that laugh reliably. Harry, I think, can always count on it. It is not identical with his commitment to joining the poem’s critical project, joining rather than besting or outwitting. It is still a kind of laughing along, laughing with, not at, just as it is a kind of thinking with, not (merely) about. Resisting Allegory is our latest occasion to spend time thinking and laughing along with Harry, with the critic’s critic as he reads the poet’s poet. They are categories you could just as well cross: who is the critic’s poet, if not Spenser? And who is that poet’s critic, I strongly suspect, if not Harry?




Reflections on Espionage

Ken Gross

In the early 1790s, the British government sent a confidential agent to listen in on the conversations of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. The poets were living close by one another in the Quantock Hills, and a local landowner suspected them of Jacobin sympathies, a readiness to stir up sedition, even outright revolt, among the people of Somerset (though Coleridge was, at this time in his life, increasingly suspicious of the blind factionalism and violence brought about by the French revolution). As Coleridge tells the story in his Biographia Literaria, the government agent, at first eavesdropping on their conversations, found that there might indeed be cause for alarm. Coleridge often talked of someone he called ‘Spy Nozy’—perhaps a foreign agent, or perhaps the eavesdropper himself (he did have a large nose). But the man soon realised ‘that it was the name of a man who had made a book and lived long ago.’ Coleridge was sharing with Wordsworth thoughts about the labyrinthine philosophy of Spinoza. Innocent enough. But STC clearly liked being taken for some kind of secret agent. And he knew what was dangerous in Spinoza.

I find myself thinking—it’s more a whim than a thought—that ‘Spy Nozy’ might be a good name for Harry Berger. I remember how readily Harry himself can play on names and aliases, including his own, so perhaps he might not reject this one. It seems to have some rightness as I read the essays in Resisting Allegory.

Harry as Spy Nozy would be a suspicious man who is under suspicion, a secret agent who works for no single government or network, rather a spy who wanders within his own labyrinth and that of others, using his readerly nose and eyes and ears to find his way, looking into forgotten corners of a text, or at things hidden in plain sight. He’s a complex ironist, a double agent even, a spy spying on other spies, both a subverter of rules and questioner of subversion. He’s not trying to find his way out of the maze, nor inward towards some possible centre (though often enough some bi-form monster does loom up, asking to be struggled with). Rather, this Spy Nozy wants to find better and better ways to get lost in the labyrinth, the wood of Error that he helps to create. (‘I am The Faerie Queene’s Joseph K’, Harry once wrote.) It’s a labyrinth of thought that is, not unlike Spinoza’s, both skeptical and idealistic, and always taking on new forms. Harry as Spy Nozy is at least like Spinoza (a heretic to the Jews and a Jew without religion among Christians) in refusing to compass any image of salvation or blessing that, out of fear or impatience, removes human beings from the given world of things, removes them from the domain of words and bodies and desires, the world of time. Thinking of the mysterious space-time of the Garden of Adonis, Harry writes movingly that ‘the garden and the world must be the same.’

Spy Nozy is also a good nickname for Actaeon, of course, the abject, metamorphosed figure of aggressive male desire, possessive intellect and secret gazing, a figure whose changing presence Harry so alertly traces in Spenser’s text. He’s a figure with obvious doubles, like Faunus in ‘The Mutabilitie Cantos’. But Actaeon also has analogies with other species of ‘grudging and envious’ creative power in the poem. This includes the vengeful Witch in Book III, maker of the False Florimell, a figure who, for Harry (following the thought of Suzanne Wofford) becomes one of the strangest doubles for the creative work of the poet. Actaeon is also, Harry makes clear, an image for the ambitions and fears of the critic himself, a Spy Nozy who might, he hopes, find himself liberated rather than metamorphosed by his studies, by opening himself up to other networks of thinking, standing at other thresholds. As he puts it in one essay, ‘a real puer, however senex, may find new life, a life unclogged by fear, unburdened by the woody growth of alien horns, if only he will take the precaution of eyeing [the Garden of Adonis] not directly but with the mediating mirror of the feminist gaze.’

The name Spy Nozy also makes me think of moments in Resisting Allegory where Harry calls up the figure of Pinocchio. This creature whose nose is always growing and always truncated becomes for Harry an image of the lying logic of the phallus, always under threat of castration. As the sentence just quoted suggests, Pinocchio is also the image of a critic who might, under the right influence, become a fully living human (‘a real puer, however senex) rather than just a petrified thing of wood. (Harry forgets, I can’t help pointing out, that in Carlo Collodi’s novel the fantastic growth of the puppet’s nose is not just a punitive sign of lying—Pinocchio’s nose can grow for no visible reason at all, as when the puppet is first carved, or out of astonished hunger, as when he discovers that what he took for real food is only a picture of food. Also forgotten are the anarchic, very human energies of the wooden puppet who, early on in Collodi’s book, unhesitatingly smashes the moralising, patriarchal cricket with a wooden mallet.)

Lastly, that code-name Spy Nozy evokes for me something said by the Fool in King Lear, when he offers a vividly embodied image of the search for truth. In one of his mocking exchanges with Lear, the Fool asks: ‘Thou can’st tell why one’s nose stands i’the middle on’s face?’ When Lear gives up, he cries, ‘Why, to keep one’s eyes of either side’s nose, that what a man cannot smell out he may spy into.’ Such a diligent, committed and resourceful work of spying-knowing, of letting one mode of sense supplement the other, might well be the work of kings (‘It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honour of kings is to search out a matter’—Proverbs 25:2). In Shakespeare’s play, however, such ‘honour’, and such kingliness, falls mainly on the heads of fools and mad men (real and pretend), on those whose work, like Harry’s, is to harry words and stories and authorities abroad in the world.

Harry speaks plainly in this book about the evolving shape of his scholarly career, about how he’s come to engage with the poem and its critics (including his own prior criticism) and submits them to question. More often than not, however, he wants us to think that it is Spenser’s own allegorical poem that undertakes the task of ‘resisting allegory’. He insists that it’s the poetic narrative’s own intricate play with doubles, puns and ambiguities, complex trains of allusive and inter-textual play, and self-referential masks that do the resisting, that not only question the disguises of patriarchal tradition but question the forms of such questioning. He finds in Spenser’s poem a ludic, allusive, self-examining spirit that is always alert to those turns of human fear, projection and evasion that so often shape our human reading (say, by turning fear of one’s self into fear of another). Spy Nozy is just there to listen in on what the text is doing.

Reading these essays, however, I couldn’t help thinking how often Harry appears under disguise, how often the powers he attributes to the Spenserian text mirror the particular, distinguished agency of his own critical mind. Granted that this is a critical mind, a critical eye, ear and nose, formed by decades of immersion in and wrestling with reading Spenser, a critical power that is great also in its relentless open-ness to the work of other critic-spies. But Harry’s writing-spying always keeps a signature of its own. No one’s Spenser is like Harry’s, and few are as thrilling, touching, fierce, playful and strange, endlessly interrogative, a criticism that’s relentless, even giddy in its facing of fear and doubt. It’s a criticism ready even to own, at least experimentally, a voice like that of Milton’s devil when he spies on Adam and Eve in paradise, a looker-on who is one face of Milton himself. Thinking about the account of Time’s implacable generativity and violence in the Garden of Adonis, and of the fear and thoughts of revenge that these images generate, Harry writes: ‘I sympathize with wicked Time as I think Milton did, and in his behalf I say this to Venus’s “deare brood”: “League with you I seek, /And mutual amity so strait, so close, / That I with you must dwell or you with me.” Evil be thou my good.’ This spy has never learned to keep his complex sympathies to himself. Rather than putting the whole network at risk, however, he makes it stronger. 




Succumbing to and/or Resisting Harry Berger’s Resisting Allegory: Random Notes by an Ageing but First-time Reader

James Nohrnberg

All books like the one in my title, at this point in time, end up offering a version of Spenser hermeneutically very different from other versions, the present first-time reader’s presumably included. The chorus of Spenserian witnesses, as generously adduced and celebrated by Berger himself, hardly dilutes the impression of a tri-generational post-Variorum blossoming of very individualistic interpretations, which cannot pretend to be the obvious, or definitive, or dominant ones, expressing some kind of ready consent and widespread consensus. There is virtually nothing in the first three books of The Faerie Queene about which Berger’s Resisting Allegory does not have something witty, telling, provocative, and far-reaching to say. Berger’s Spenser will be Berger’s Spenser in spades. But it will not necessarily be everyone else’s, or anything remotely like that. God forbid. I cannot presume to say what in all this book’s pages is permanent, and what is faddish, or likely to pass into evolutionary history, or what will become quaint, or antiquated, rather than classic or perdurable. For now, the question is rather what here is catalytic and, in current parlance, game-changing. The critical contract, like the fictional one, never self-abrogates, and yet it is always contingent, and some portions of it are likely to get rejected (in current parlance) as deal-breakers.  Conversely, one seeks out what is likely to be honoured as a permanent ‘game-changer’, like the three-point rule in basketball.

And Berger makes three-point shots all the time.

He is a critic who writes beautifully and incisively, for he thinks clearly and clarifies cannily. No one can miss the irrepressible wit, academic insouciance, and intellectual jouissance in his theorising and his commentaries, not least because these qualities are in the writing as well as the thinking. Berger is nothing if not original. And he is regularly able to go his various and numerous and extensively cited contemporary critical sources one better, often by assiduously searching and consulting a reader’s and his own feelings about the words and sentiments lying wait in any given Spenserian locus before releasing the interpretation the text requires, however insidious or surprising or disruptive. Armed with abundant rhetorical, prosodic, and grammatical evidence of what lurks in or behind the actual Spenserian text, Berger does not believe that there are certain stones that should be left unturned—or sleeping dogs that should be let lie. A reader’s laziness and stock responses are always under suspicion, and are often chastised for co-operating with unexamined or uncritical orthodoxies, and supposedly sound doctrine.   

Berger initially sees or hears a poem that is deceptively and persuasively full of oral formulaic expression, sonorous, hypnotic, mellifluous, and comfortably conventional, and coloured by lots of speaking pictures. But if the unexamined poem is not worth reading, then Berger’s reader must also acknowledge a counter-poem that is full of ‘wait, what?’, intrinsic puzzles and telltale oddities, contradictions, and traps for the unwary who skip over the incongruities. If we thought Book I was about the archetypal Knight Errant of the Christian faith, and the champion of True Religion, it is also about his persistent failure: and specifically about the ‘errancy, autophobia, and misautia’ that produces ‘misogynist and gynophobic idols of feminized truth and falsehood.’ But can we take the next step? ‘This process of displacement exposes the quest motif to the logic of castration.’ Does that mean that we must resist the temptation to explain and justify and externalise the knight’s enemies as merely those of the Reformation? Need we co-operate in the poem’s ostensible ideology at just so many points? ‘Resist Authority’ someone’s bumper sticker says, and if you’re out West, it’s probably Berger’s.[10] 

Of course it takes a while, in the reading of Book I, to come around to early claims for Spenser’s subscription to such things as Redcrosse’s ‘Christian narcissism.’ (As opposed to Christian selfhood or self-abnegation.) If we balk, however temporarily, we should re-read Berger’s carefully reasoned defence of his shifting the discourse of justly established mainline Spenserians like William Nelson to his own new terms and new grounds: by up-close readings of the shifts, evasions, and retractive motions of the language and figures offered to us by the text itself. A manhood to be earned by chivalric derring-do, or a justification to be gotten by Christian sacrifice, should in both cases be transformative, or self-transformative:  but, we will probably ask, must the achievement of a chivalric or a Christian identity also entail the humiliation and emasculation of the male subject by castration? And thus necessitate the threatened subject’s reactions of either autophobia or gynophobia? For that is the logic of Berger’s argument: such a framework is required to, however subversively, ‘uncover the motives behind … discourse that, like the institution and institutes of Christianity, strives to inhibit or suppress interpretation’—i.e., psychoanalytic and quizzical reading, an interpretation outside the received, orthodox channels of Classical and Christian teaching and the lively discourses of Renaissance moral philosophy and programs of self-reformation. Could Spenser’s poem make many Arthurs, or any quasi-Virgilian Boy Scouts?    

Berger’s book marshals a dazzling galaxy of Star Spenserians, Berger’s editor included—maybe half of them of the same sex as Una and Britomart—to help mount its own unremittingly revisionary arguments. His programmatic innovation will consist in close readings that diagnose Spenserian pathologies and phobias, and so lead to interpretations that are themselves congruent with contemporary ‘discourses of gender and sexuality—misogyny, misandry, gynophobia, autophobia, homophobia, etc.’, and with their critique:  in many cases mounted against ‘the so-called Judaeo-Christian culture dominated by dead white males’—a culture subscribing to patriarchal values, and to concomitants like the misogynistic virgin/whore dichotomy (42). Delirium indeed.         

‘Autophobia’, if it is intense self-loathing, seems less a Renaissance affliction than a modern one, as in the first person narrator of Dostoyevsky’a Notes from the Underground. But let us come to actual Spenserian cases, starting from an obvious place in Berger’s overall argument or fable for Book III:

The hyena and false Florimell chime with other examples in Book 3 of desires and practices constituted as deviant by the [regnant heterosexual] system, which is parasitic on such outlaw forms to maintain its normative status—examples of male and female parthenogenesis, transvestism, utopian gynarchy, incest, erotic maternalism, adultery, and same-sex desire.

A diagnostic mouthful—a delirious anatomy of deviance, or never a dull moment! We can come back to Florimell and the hyena, but the avalanche of just named abnormalities attaches to Berger’s Belphoebe, Britomart, Venus, Malecasta, Cymodoce, Hellenore, and Glauce, in the order recapitulated. One could also list, mainly from Berger’s Book I, the deviations from healthy attachments (or orthopsychic norms) in autophobia (self-loathing), gynophobia, misogyny, matrophobia, misautia, phallic narcissism, and male hysteria, not to mention more conventional diagnoses of the androcentric bad faith evident in self-alienation, a guilty sexual conscience, neurotic or paranoid mistrust, fear of infantilisation, demonization of both sexually attractive and unattractive women, self-impairing fear of gelding, and the repression, displacement, and self-misrecognition involved in the fraudulent and self-deceiving and self-forgiving denial of culpability—along with the coeval self-blinding and displacement in the condemnation of female scapegoats. Only the benignant mother-daughter relation (Venus and Amoret, Belphoebe and her daughter-like virginity, the witch and her initially admiring treatment of Florimell) can escape the males’ entanglement in disabling phobias, unwholesome desires, and their haunting by complexes (though Abessa and Corecca, Night and Duessa, Chaos and Nature, and the harbouring witch and orphan-like Florimell, don’t seem to enjoy altogether blessed family relations either). 

Nobody nowadays is likely to doubt that Spenser’s narrative exploits and exhibits a cultural and/or masculine fear of women, at least in its programmatic repulsifying or humbling of seductresses and femme fatales like Duessa and Acrasia, and in the victimising and sadistic tormenting of a succession of Griselda-like female innocents. I might prefer to retain Berger’s specific and trenchant insights into the failings and self-deceptions of Spenser’s knightly male heroes while avoiding some of the Grecian name-calling. Yet that may not now honestly be possible, and might also be, at least from Berger’s point of view, pointlessly inefficient. 

It would be worse than lazy and unthinking to dismiss this chosen language as a discardable apparatus for Berger’s otherwise admirable inquisitorial and suspicious close readings, as if the provocative terminology was a mere spur for reflection and dissent: for the catalogues above cap a bracingly caustic critique of humanist self-fashioning of the type belonging to the institution of an educationally perfectible gentleman. But after acquaintance with Berger’s intelligence about these things, the initiate may wonder, What forgiveness? Berger sees us not as forgiven but as defended, defensively and repressively, by metaphoric thought-police: the mind-force assembled at the station house of the superego, and by the State and culture itself, with Captain Palmer warning the boys in blue about to go on duty, ‘It’s a jungle in there.’ Only orthodoxy, with its always already allegorical ‘countertextual’ law and order and its houses of correction and instruction, can rein it in.

The jungle policed by the likes of Guyon and the Palmer is frequently libidinal. For example, Berger would not deny but support the argument to be made from the formal disposition of the narrative of Book III, centred on the natural plenitude of the Garden of Adonis. Yet Britomart, having set out on the quest for Mister Right, has initially to deal with the straying hands of a smitten nocturnal counterpart of Duessa at the Castle of Evil Chastity, and finally to intervene in behalf of a desperate lover unable to disabuse his inamorata of a traumatising sadomasochistic scenario, a proto-Petrarchan (and pre-Frida Kahlo) open body surgery inscribed on the lovely Amoret’s person and figure. Even the Garden has its horrors, in its abjection of and potential aversion to the muddiness of the matter seeking ideate form there, counterpart to logoi spermatikoi conversely seeking material embodiment and deliverance from the shadowy realm of Chaos. For in that Chaos, Berger writes, the ‘“plenteous horne” of Belphoebe’s horoscope has become a fearsome copia, an invasion of maternal body-snatchers, a monstrous forcing-bed, the implacable force of an inexhaustible reproductive power flooding the world with her grisly hungry stuff, catching and consuming the forms of individual things. … But no matter’—or never mind.  Having conjured up a veritable zombie apocalypse—or the Ulro-like womb of some Blakean Terrible Mother—our delirious critic avers he’s ‘truly scared.’ But maybe he’s just indulging his own imagination, somewhat on the model of the proliferating metamorphoses of Spenser’s Archimago-like Proteus, ‘That of himselfe he oft for feare would quake’ (1.2.10). Many are the guilty pleasures and the anarchy-tempting frissons of reading Berger’s Spenser, and of being at the mercy, like Proteus, of ‘the enthusiasm of a frenetic practitioner who sometimes gets out of hand’ (65). The Berger who is scared by Chaos may share Archimago’s ‘relish of spookery’, Archimago in turn being less the creation of a Protestant dread of Popish imposture than of the idolatrous work of religious and secular imaginations of any stripe.

But in passing, we might not find Spenser’s Chaos hair-raising. Having fancied myself a student of its tradition, I still hear it in the neo-Timaeic discourse of Alanus’ Anticlaudianus. There Reason ‘peers into the abyss of things’ and beholds


… the form which creates of the subject, achieves its being, contributes to the event or guides it into existence, which generates, changes it, preserves it in being; … subjects deprived of forms, return to antique chaos and seek again the proper matrix, and she sees the pure form regain strength in its own state, nor does it lament the loss of the loathsome qualities of its degenerate substance, but the form, rejoicing, takes repose in its own being … it returns … to its own place of birth… . Young, it is not deflowered by the old age of substance but always creates maiden forms out of forms. 

(Cited in AFQ 523)


While I would take issue with a Chaos that had no issue, I also wonder at one so invasive as its ‘wide womb’ is in Berger. To a vitalistic Renaissance mind, Spenser’s dynamic oscillation of teardown-and-pro-create might well have seemed heartening in the way it seems to Alanus, if not Calcidius. Spenser conscripts Chaos for the Garden, and therefore for that envisioning of the prolific and omnific ontogenesis and regeneration of the organic world that includes his male-disguised heroine’s own womb.[11]


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Forgive my tangents. There are blessedly few of these—if indeed any at all—in Resisting Allegory. On the contrary, Berger frequently tosses off a remark that can go much further than his discourse at first seems to propose. For example, Archimago the imposter, made a fool of when he is taken for the true Saint George by Sansfoy, is made fool again when he lies to Sansloy about the victory of Sansfoy over Redcrosse: The pseudo-pilgrim ‘gives Una an account of Redcrosse’s death at the hands of a ‘Paynims sonnne’ that we recognise as a muffled version of his own luckless encounter with Sansjoy’ (in 1.3.33-9)—for it was the ‘enchaunter vaine’ (1.6.42) that Sansfoy had unmasked, back when the mage had donned his false persona as the true St. George (65). All of this is a bit self-defeating for the arch-schemer; hence, Berger concludes, Archimago’s machinations illustrate ‘The guiler beguiled—and self-beguiled…the Christian commonplace that evil’ redounds on itself, etc.’ (67).

It is the power of Berger’s conclusions to strike fire, and to make those sparks discover a life of their own, at least to a properly suggestible reader, when they land on ready tinder that was not so obvious before it ignited. There the reference is to the deception of the Devil when he mistakenly seized upon the innocent Crucified One by virtue of his death in the guise of a fallen sinner.  All of this ‘mis-taking’ of Archimago for Redcrosse may allude to the substitution theory of the atonement, if it is Archimago who is himself the deceived one. Is there evidence for such allusion? Perhaps there is. At the end of the Mammon episode, where the tempted subject escapes the predatory clutches of the underworld on the third day, the narrator exclaims that the praiseworthy Guyon ‘So goodly did beguile the Guyler of the pray’ (2.7.64). Just what the liturgy says, as quoted and interpreted by William Langland(Cf. Spenser’s future words and line 8 of the hymn in Piers Plowman B-text XVIII.159, 358-361b.)

Another case of such a non-tangential spark occurs in regard to Berger’s penetrating readings of Phaedria and Guyon’s voyage to Acrasia’s Cytheria.  In the course of his scrutiny of Phaedria’s ‘perverse and mischievous calls to pleasure’, Berger mysteriously designates the narrator’s line ‘Thereat she sweetly smiled’ (2.6.36) as ‘one of the great moments in literary history.’  He could well include Lucretius, for it is De Rerum’s Venus who ‘with … smyling looke doest pacifie’ in FQ 4.10.44. This Venus’s affect is a type for both Phaedria’s pacifying smile and laughter and Acrasia’s lovesick and depasturizing eyes (DRN I.36, pascit).

Yet another example of a Berger-prompted reflection on Spenser’s treatment of sources is Berger’s recognition of the Spenserian ‘reinflation’ of Chaucer’s deflated Sir Thopas (148-9). The deflation continued, post-Chaucer, in Lily’s Endymion, with the strong suggestion that the sleeping Endymion, Cynthia’s devoted but sidelined swain, represents Elizabeth’s courtier Leicester, and the possibility that Sir Thopaz, in Lyly’s play a pedantic braggart soldier, satirises Gabriel Harvey—who wrote to Spenser that in preferring The Faerie Queene to his Nine Muses the poet was apparently letting ‘Hobgoblin runne away with the Garland from Apollo.’ But Spenser must have taken more seriously than Lyly the project of recreating or renovating the genre of the Middle English romance for a latter-day audience—just as seriously as he did the project of re-creating his Mantuan-esque eclogues for the Shepherd’s Calendar. Sir Thopas is the protagonist of Chaucer’s own aborted Canterbury tale, but Chaucer also himself catalogues nine popular Middle English romances belonging to his tale’s would-be romance kind, which tribute is part of the point of burlesquing their mode. In any case, the list includes at least one such romance, namely Guy of Warwick, that Spenser drew upon as a model in The Faerie Queene for both the dragon fight and Guyon’s Palmer in Book II. Bergerian countertext, or our own counter-countertext: which? 

‘The Tale of Sir Thopas’ was unfinished, and so was the Squire’s Tale from which Spenser started in the story of Cambell, Canacee, Cambina, and Triamond.  But Spenser didn’t just assign to Arthur the Chaucerian dream of Sir Thopas (‘An elf-queene shal my lemman be’). For Spenser’s text has Arthur introduce his account of his own fairy visitation with a line taken up from Sir Thopas’ last full stanza, but the person has changed: Chaucer’s ‘His brighte helm was his wonger’ becomes Arthur’s ‘and pillow was my helmet’ (FQ 1.9.13). The idea that Spenser’s Chaucerian projects of continuation were a bit absurd or parodic needn’t discount an apparent purpose of rejuvenating and rehabilitating or refloating medieval romance at the very points in unfinished texts where it had seemingly run aground. So even if we see Spenser merely ‘kidnapping’ and expropriating romance for ideological purposes of his own, we need to note that Harvey writes of The Book of Revelation as the greatest of all visionary poems: Spenser’s use of it for the figuration of the Protestant Reformation is surely a re-appropriation of it as a biblical prophecy realised in the poet’s own time—even if it is also an abduction of it for partisan propaganda or polemic.    

In conclusion: Berger’s reactions, responses, and commentary at a given passage can often cause us to recover the thematically and verbally comparable discourses to be found elsewhere in Spenser’s text, and in ready support of him.  This concordantial re-contextualisation may be far from Berger ‘s own purposes, but it must be repeatedly numbered among his book’s happy effects.  


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While Resisting Allegory lays out many thoroughgoing interpretations that are both psychoanalytic and social-psychological, Berger also offers other kinds of literary interrogation. For example, he gives a wonderful exposition of the Palmer’s staff (a kind of pilgrim’s Jacob’s staff) as a pedagogical crutch or schoolmaster’s rod that providentially turns into a thaumaturge’s all-powerful wand in his tutor’s last triumphal performance on the scene of Book II. What would happen, Berger provocatively asks, if the Palmer had magically struck Acrasia with this wizard-stick?  He does not stay for an answer, but he is surely right to let the question hang in the air. I’d probably be better off leaving it there too, but one is tempted by the provoking question mark. We might again resort to contexts. For we obviously have them, analogically at least, in Una’s powers demonstrated in exposing her rival Duessa’s monstrosity: the biblical stripping and despoilation of Truth’s rival at her idolatrous altar, in canto 8 of Book I, at Truth’s Revelation-like behest. The Palmer’s analogous extra-biblical, intertextual models would be the exposure of the Siren in Dante (Purgatorio VII.72) at Virgil’s behest, of Alcina in Ariosto Orlando Furioso through Melissa’s ring, and of Trissino’s Acratia by Ubaldo in the Italia Liberata (5.367ff). Had Spenser’s Acrasia been exposed by being struck with Guyon’s rod, I think that she, like Trissino’s bewitching Acratia, would have been revealed to be a lamia, or else a lovelorn creature like the doomed and destroyed queen of the serpents in The Arabian Nights. She lives on borrowed time from the moment she is revealed in the paradise visited by the protagonist. But we’re not invited to pursue the lady’s side of the story. We’d have to wait for someone like Henry James’ Madame de Vionett for that—as Spenser’s pro-feminist convert might himself lament. 


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In one of Spenser’s seemingly digressive epic similes, Phao’s confinement in her jealous lord’s tower of glass makes her invisible to the world, but also a universal voyeur.  As it should, the simile helps generate the complexities in Berger’s rich exposition of Merlin’s panoptic ‘world of glass’; Phao’s un-impregnate-able/shattered tower compares to it, as it were deconstructively. Berger positively delights in reversing things whenever the text, wilfully or covertly, encourages us to do so; surely a mirror could do as much. To summarise the deductions in which Berger’s analysis of the mirror is embedded: ‘Myrrhas more than one’.

Berger does not usually feature far-fetched information about sources and analogues, which typically only offer comfort to established ‘countertextual’ readings, but when he does go outside the text in the countertextual way, he can be startlingly germane, amidst his typical analyses of the fantasias of the Spenserian unconscious. An example is his reading of Ovid’s Metamorphoses X, and the Myrrha material from it—and likewise from the Ovid-like Ciris with its truant Scylla—both for the opening cantos of Spenser’s Book III. I have rehearsed about the same sources and echoes myself—Myrrhas more than one—with further Ariostan material, and again with the Freudian implications of illicit attractions hedging the enamourment and arming of Britomart, and of her engagement in marriage.[12] But for the poem’s use of sources here we might also consider Berger’s inspired passing notice of the recondite but standard information from bestiaries about the hyena: they say that the hyena can and does change its sex, as it were alternatively, and sometimes annually.[13] Spenser’s singular hyena is sent after Florimell by a smitten lout’s jealous and hag-like mother; the beast doesn’t manage to either capture or destroy his fixée, but it brings back the fetching girl’s girdle, now itself ripe for its subsequent fetishisation, along with the fetching idol or substitute-Florimell (in place of the real one who has apparently been killed by the lout’s mother as much as by the beast), which idol is now contrived for the hag’s smitten and forlorn boy’s delectation. This supposed female beauty is cosmetically created by witchery and animated by a mincing spright. The spright itself is male, or at least represents the workings of a male’s adolescent fantasy. Thus the main thing that remains of the hyena are the traces of its reputed bisexual character in the newly manufactured idol. And what remains in place of the departed Florimell’s sexual integrity is its relic-like symbol: the female girdle that now adorns the simulacrum, disguising the mincing spright’s male sex while exhibiting its supposed, trophy-like femininity (the belt in fact seems to be a female version of the codpiece). Again, all of this comes from a couple of Berger’s charged sentences about the witch’s or the bestiary’s Florimell-catcher, whose prey will shortly end up bunked in a fisherman’s unsavoury nets, while we catch at their meaning. 

The narrative interest in such stories as Florimell’s and Amoret’s would lie less in the luridly melodramatic Perils of Pauline themselves, than in her type, the imperilled female at the mercy of sadistic male script-writers. Berger finds a certain hypocrisy in the male narrator’s shedding of self-reflexive and counterfeit tears over the damsels in distress whom he has himself deserted, or put behind the eight ball, or left in dire situations. That chorus-like narrator laments the first case early on, wringing his eyes over Una, long before we have been put on notice by the allegedly forlorn and self-pitying Duessa’s crocodile tears (1.3.1-2, 1.5.18). Violins, please.


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Sometimes Resisting Allegory leaves unfinished the implicit bridges for which it has sunk the explicit foundations. Berger more than once calls Duessa a scapegoat.  In support of this Biblical term’s applicability we can cite the quasi-anthropological parallel of Duessa and Serena: for there are two scapegoats, biblically speaking, one sacrificed by the priest as a pure offering (Serena) consumed to atone for communal impurity, and one expelled by the community as a symbolic displacement and removal of that impurity by excommunication (Duessa). Criminalise the mass, strip its altars (Duessa), end its cannibalistic practice (Serena). The one abhorrence underwrites the other, and draws both closer to the symbolic practices of religion, as opposed to the more secular transactions of social psychology, even while the first case ‘vehiculates’ the second within the analogically stressed world of The Faerie Queene’s fictive anthropology (which can be Irish too). 

The perspective of comparative religion suggested above, for example, may cause us to pay some mind to another Spenserian pairing, as highlighted by Berger’s spirited and searching attentions to the under-stories of two of Spenser’s celebrated psychodramas: Redcrosse’s mistrust of an Una slandered through supernatural but also psychological agents, and Phedon’s murderously intemperate rage towards his female partner—one Claribell, first named by Phedon’s false friend Philemon (2.4.26) and then slandered via Philemon’s motiveless malignity. Berger’s reading of Redcrosse’s deception by his dream of Una’s infidelity can readily be compared with Phedon’s deception by a similarly contrived dumbshow of his beloved’s betrayal of their devotion to each other. 

But why the thematic sympathos between Redcrosse’s loss of faith in Una and Phedon’s jealousy of his friend Philemon’s dubious engagement with Phedon’s Lady Fair? What lies behind the historical emergence of such tales as these, where factitious jealousy between intimates looms large and just waits to be activated by a cynical and sinister agent?  Given the line of stories beginning from the Decameron, and sustaining itself beyond Redcrosse and Phedon to three major Shakespearean dramas—why do these stories gain so much traction in the period? A psychomachia typically has a theomachia in its genealogy. The bottoms that fall out of these characters’ worlds seem to betoken a crisis of faith that is almost theological. Their lurkingly misogynistic subjects turn into Berger’s self-haters and self-excusers: to hear them tell it, they are more sinned against than sinning, and Berger won’t have it. But is the loss of faith in the truthfulness of women to be interpretively related to gynophobia or to a loss of faith in the promises or existence of God’s own Truth, each disappointment commenting on (or re-embodying itself in) the other? Reading Berger’s—and likewise Alpers’—retold stories of the projective personification of internal psychic conflicts may not answer such questions, but certainly helps raise them against a much larger backdrop. [14]

Under the banner of the assertion that ‘Christian discourse is … an Ideological Cultural Apparatus for the production of narcissism, of autophobia and misautia’ (23), Berger brings to light the possible sources of the Redcrosse knight’s self-doubt and eventual despair in ‘an expanded threshold of shame and apprehension’ of personal inadequacy: guilt before the Law heard from pulpit and in pew, inability to deserve divine salvation, failure to meet standards in conduct books and schoolroom, demanding ideals in the literature of civic humanism (the education of a Christian Prince, etc.), and dubieties in the histories of reformed prodigals and various edifying mirrors of princely knighthood and treatises of moral philosophy. And all of it amplified by the new ascendancy of the printing press. 

But Berger starts by probing ‘some sort of strain in the image of togetherness in the first four stanzas’ of the Legend of Holiness—and likewise some sort of strain in various temperaments here: ‘No wonder [Redcrosse’s] horse is angry: As if undergoing dressage, he is being spurred on and reined in’: at the same time (32).  Once you’ve come upon an aperçu like this, you’re likely to be hooked:  you learn to trust and enjoy Berger’s close readings in the book’s long succession of them. And likewise to appreciate his rapid fire and compelling versatility with the larger allegories, even the ‘countertextual’ ones he comes forward to question: e.g.,  ‘Una’s power over Redcrosse is the power of the lamb that died to take away the sins of the world … the tableau of the mourning Una leading her lamb is an emblem that has the same valence as the pietá:  proleptic mourning for the lamb she leads to the slaughter in order to redeem the world’ (33-34). But enough said about that!  After all, Una’s previous would-be champions have all ended up as mere dragon-fodder. Indeed, previous questers, before Book I begins, have all apparently proved little less than frauds: enter Berger’s Archimago, maliciously but insightfully bent on proving Redcrosse’s faith terminally fallible.           

Because of the oddity of some formulations, it may take one a while to accept  Berger’s early discoveries of such things as ‘Christian narcissism’ in Book I.  A manhood to be earned by chivalric derring-do, or a justification to be gotten by Christian sacrifice, should both be transformative, or self-transformative; and of course there needs to be an idolatrously self-regarding self to be transformed. And thus the achievement of a chivalric or a Christian identity might well entail the humiliation and emasculation of the male subject—even going as far as something like self-castration. But do the threatened subject’s reactions also need to be autophobic or gynophobic? For that’s the logic of Berger’s argument: such a framework is required to ‘uncover the motives behind … discourse that, like the institution and institutes of Christianity, strives to inhibit or suppress interpretation’—i.e., Berger’s psychoanalytic interpretations outside the received, orthodox channels of Classical ethics and Christian doctrine, and likewise outside the lively discourses of the Renaissance’s own moral philosophy and (as it were therapeutic) passion for self-reformation. 

Berger reads for a secret or encoded history behind an ostensible one, the story lurking behind the story. Archimago may be Hypocrisy in the Spenserian over-story or the huponoia provided by Spenser’s original reader-interpreter: namely the author of the canto rubrics. Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frere! For in the understory, the papistical Archimago is the traitorous and ‘recusant’ imagination that beds a manufactured or conjured-up image of Una down with a similarly lascivious and adulterous leman—at the same time that the mage is the alienated Jungian ‘shadow’ of Redcrosse’s ‘selfhood’ itself. Archimago abets the processes of projection that objectify and realise the knight’s fear of Una’s control over him, and thus his fears of betrayal at her hands—and then he finds himself the subsequent object of the attack of Sansfoy. 

In the allegory of Una’s apparently faithless behaviour, cuckoldry hardly seems the main issue—that is, unless and until we read in Redcrosse’s story in Book I in light of Phedon’s in Book II. There Occasion replaces Archimago, and gives Phedon a reason to go mad and murder his slandered and seemingly faithless mate.   Structurally speaking, Phedon’s friend Philemon is somewhat like Don John in Much Ado, who provides Claudio with the excuse he needs to avoid making his honour hostage to his marriage, and to co-operate in and vindicate his milieu’s fear of cuckoldry—and his own fear of women. The tutor of the life-long bachelor and virgin Guyon ends up telling Phedon to avoid the whole mess altogether. (Berger’s analysis of the two stanzas of the famously epitomising advice is truly acute.) 

Deep down, then, Redcrosse unconsciously had Una’s image satisfying illicit desires that were his own, Archimago being mainly the internal traitor that realises the scenario both oneirically and then dramaturgically (see AFQ 122 on Morpheus and image-making). And deep down also, Redcrosse may have wanted it to happen as he dreamt it did. Or he wanted to justify his male fear that it could happen as it did by his male anger over it. And if Archimago is an outside force—outside the character-armor of Redcrosse—Berger does not spend any time on the wayward mage as The Tempter in allegorical disguise. But there were sinister outside forces of evil around, of course, from those in the witch-phobic Malleus Malificarum to those in Macbeth (where one character is suggestively named Seaton), right up to the terrible shadow selves in James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner.       

Berger’s Redcrosse may have unconsciously wanted Una to be a lot more sexy and/or impure than she ‘presents’ behind her veil. Her stole is hardly silky nylon, and more like homespun.  But even if Redcrosse’s intended is not sexy (unlike Una’s photogenic counterpart Florimell in Book III), she has used up a lot of males trying to recover the lost Eden of her past. Acrasia is sexy, decidedly so, and she’s apparently wasted a lot of bedimmed boy-toys. And while Britomart is sexy when she removes some of her disguise, maybe she’s also sexy because her being in drag is part of the draw—like the male youths playing girls playing boys on the Elizabethan Stage. Nobody’s perfect—and Malecasta isn’t too choosy anyway. Or maybe she swings both ways. Reading the first cantos of Book III, an Ericksonian interpreter might say ‘gender clarification’ (AFQ 446; cf. 448), but Norman O. Brown might have said ‘polymorphously perverse.’ For the back-story of Malecasta’s former conquests, as embodied in her six knights, apparently threatens Britomart herself: so don’t be  surprised when the line between permissible and impermissible attachments turns out to be a convenient legal fiction—else how could there be an Evil Chastity in the first place? Most of this reading comes to us via Resisting Allegory. We could put more page numbers where we’re echoing Berger-talk, but time is short and it’s the spirit—deliriously vehement—of the thing itself that counts. And likewise the lifetime work of the formidably informed and superbly intelligent author who has proven once again to be the rightful heir and true critical equal of the Prince of Poets in his time. 



[10] But of course we expect the car’s owner-driver, however rebellious he may be, to heed traffic lights and observe speed limits, and we hope he has an operator’s license and car insurance, same as us.  We don’t want him or her to read the STOP sign textually, or subvert it as merely the ‘reality given by ideology,’ or reflect upon the secondary quality of the colour red and the geometric properties of hexagons, and the language of its language—rather, we want him or her to stop and do as the signs direct. ‘Countertextual reading’ pays its attention to the signs for their directions; it does not safely proceed by framing a corrosive semiotic and authority-resisting critique of what they purport to say.

[11]  Cf. Nohrnberg, The Analogy of The Faerie Queene (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976; hereafter AFQ) 557-60 with FQ 3.3.22, 3.4.11. 

[12] After FQ 3.Proem.5, ‘In mirrours more then one herselfe to see’; see AFQ 442-449, and ‘Alencon’s Dream/Dido’s Tomb: Some Shakespearean Music and a Spenserian Muse’, Spenser Studies Vol. XXII (2007), 73-102: 78, 81. For the arming in Angelica’s Saxon arms, see ‘Britomart’s Gone Abroad to Brute-land, Colin Clout’s Come Courting from the Salvage Ire-land: Exile and the Kingdom in Some of Spenser’s Fictions for “Crossing Over”’, Edmund Spenser:  New and Renewed Directions, ed. J.B. Lethbridge (Teaneck / Madison, NJ:  Fairleigh-Dickinson Univ. Press: 2006), 214-91: 231. And cf. Berger, RA 188-90. 

[13]  See Batman vppon Bartholeme (London, 1582), 398-399: De Hiena. cap. 61: ‘HIena is a cruell beast lyke to the Woulfe in deuouring and gluttony, and réeseth on dead men, and taketh their carcasse out of the earth and deuoureth them. And therfore hath ye name Hiena, of Niando, for desire he réeseth to his praye with open mouth and voyce. It is his kinde to chaunge Sexus, for he is nowe found male and now female, and is therfore an vncleane beast, as Isidore sayth, Libro. 8. cap. 30. Plinius speaketh of this Beast, and sayth, that in Hiena is eyther kinde, for it is sayd, he is one yéere mal[…]e another yéere female. And she bringeth furth her broode without male, as the common people suppose. And Aristotle denieth that.’

[14]I.e., if behind every psychomachia of faith’s or love’s betrayal by jealousy there lies a theomachia as well, this would betoken a crisis within the aggrieved God of faith that Christendom inherited from Hosea, and the anxious gods of desirous love that the West inherited from the Greeks. Might the crisis within the disappointed subject of Book I betoken his doubts of the deity’s actuality or existence itself? (Although Berger’s possible interest in the theological perspective is relatively invisible.) 



Critical Play: Self-Reflexive Berger

Ayesha Ramachandran

It was pointed out to me that certain thefts could be left undeclared’, begin the acknowledgements to The Allegorical Temper, ‘those from Plato, Aristotle, St Paul, the Christian Fathers (and Celtic Mothers), Shakespeare, German Idealism and Eliot. This is agreeable to me since, looking around, I find victims sufficient unto the day. They must expect to be dragged into a crime they helped commit.’ [15]

I was finishing up my undergraduate senior thesis when I first read these words. All of twenty, and for the first time faced with the task of enumerating my scholarly debts in an acknowledgements page, I found myself paralysed and anxious, writing formal, stuffy prose that I myself couldn’t bear to read. After witnessing my agony for a couple of weeks, my advisor, Bill Oram, handed me his copy of Berger’s first book—the dissertation book which changed a field—and showed me this page with a twinkle in his eye. ‘Harry’, he said happily, ‘writes the best acknowledgments. You should learn from a master.’

I do not know if Harry Berger’s astonishing acknowledgments loosened my anxiety, but they transformed my sense of academia and scholarship. Here was a critic and stylist who could wink at himself and his friends in sly complicity, who could grin with gravitas, and who reminds us that criticism is—first and always—an ongoing conversation among friends, sometimes fierce and heated, sometimes funny and absurd and sometimes profoundly moving. The image of scholarly indebtedness as a kind of crime, a theft, that demands a shared circle of responsibility was also unsettling: there was a restless double-edge to the cheerful and teasing voice, one that threatened to turn on itself or its objects of analyses at any instant.

This ambivalence became most apparent to me in Berger’s long engagement with feminist and psychoanalytic scholarship, epitomised by his sharply contrasting readings—of two interlinked Spenserian pleasure gardens, the Garden of Adonis and the Bower of Bliss. In Revisionary Play (1988), he follows the ‘force of eros’ in the Gardens of Adonis. Framed by passages from Leonardo da Vinci and Ficino, Berger’s reading hinges on the imposition of form on chaotic experience. It counterpoints the ‘infolding of myth’ against the ‘unfolding of narrative time, historical adventure’.[16] The Gardens of Adonis here are an instance of the green, adventurous world, a space of imagination in which we watch the imagination at work.

In sharp contrast to this still resonant exfoliation of the stilled, ‘systolic’ time of myth and the dynamics of narrative (and psychological) movement, Berger’s return to the Garden a few years later (‘Actaeon at the Hinder Gate’, 1994), discloses a different logic at work. ‘The object of the Spenserian critique of these discourses [Petrarchan, Ovidian, Neoplatonic, chivalric, courtly, goliardic, pastoral]’, he writes, ‘is the logic of the phallus…this is the logic of castration’. Spenser’s dramatisation and critique of this logic in the sixth canto of Book 3, ‘and especially… the reflexive irony of his narrator’s knowing failure to avoid what he criticizes’, is the subject of his re-interpretation.[17]

Berger’s classic analysis of the Bower of Bliss in The Allegorical Temper (1957) is similarly, playfully revised in an essay from 2003. In his first book, he (mostly) followed the traditional reading in which masculine virtue triumphs over the wicked, lascivious enchantress of romance who threatens to undo both vir and virility. But in the retrospective essay, Spenser’s objective in this key episode becomes a critique of ‘the androcentrism of the epic-romantic discourse it celebrates and continues’.[18]

Berger’s relentless folding back on himself, a characteristic of his work, depends on what he elsewhere calls ‘the citationality of all literary texts’. This citationality is Spenser’s literary practice, as Berger describes it, but it is also Berger’s critical mode. Spenser’s poetry is to him ‘a critique of what poetry is about’, representing ‘the precursors as elements in a pastiche integrated under a single rubric’.[19] Berger’s criticism, too, is a detailed and elaborate encounter with what criticism is about. Digested into elements, its precursors are integrated into new wholes. The master acknowledger is thus also a master exfoliator of hidden intellectual debts and the complex dynamics—sometimes playful, sometimes harrying (to play and to harry being his two favourite, distinctive verbs)—in which they are held in literature, art and scholarship.

In her incisive review essay of the Berger oeuvre in 2011, over fifty years after the publication of The Allegorical Temper, Margreta de Grazia begins with Berger’s twenty-five-page acknowledgments to Making Trifles of Terrors, observing that ‘in Berger’s bible, acknowledgment is as much an admission of shortfall as a recognition of dependency…confessing himself “a self-proclaimed parasite,” Berger describes his use of others’ work as lifting, ripping off, leeching, raiding’, crafting what she calls ‘a spirit of productive opposition’.[20] This ‘productive opposition’ produces the critical dynamics (that other, favorite Bergerian word) and weaves the bonds of shared, citational responsibility and acknowledgement that draw so many scholars into his web. In his first book, Berger explains what this means, as he acknowledges his deep debt to William K. Wimsatt. To cite and acknowledge, to draw the circle of scholars, is ‘to make use of what our heritage has given us…to face it with an attention at once respectful and vernacular—submitting to those who have most deeply pondered our condition, yet thinking their thoughts in our heads and for our lives’.[21]


[15] Harry Berger, The Allegorical Temper: Vision and Reality in Book II of Spenser’s Faerie Queene (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), ix.

[16] Harry Berger, Revisionary Play: Studies in the Spenserian Dynamics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988)152.

[17] Harry Berger, Resisting Allegory: Interpretive Delirium in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, ed. David Lee Miller (Fordham University Press, 2020), 212.  First published as  “Actaeon at the Hinder Gate: The Stag Party in Spenser’s Gardens of Adonis,” in Desire in the Renaissance: Psychoanalysis and Literature (Princeton UP, Princeton, 1994), 91–119.

[18] Harry Berger, “Wring Out the Old: Squeezing the Text, 1951–2001,” Spenser Studies 18, no. 1 (January 1, 2003): 81. 

[19] Berger, “Wring out the Old,” 83.

[20] Margreta de Grazia, “Harry Berger Jr. and the Tree of Acknowledgment,” Shakespeare Quarterly 62, no. 4 (2011): 541.

[21] Berger, The Allegorical Temper, ix.


  • Mission Viejo Concrete Company 4 months, 1 week ago

    Yet that may not now honestly be possible, and might also be, at least from Berger’s point of view, pointlessly inefficient.

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Cite as:

David Lee Miller, Judith H. Anderson, Richard Danson Brown, Jeff Dolven, Ken Gross, James Nohrnberg, Ayesha Ramachandran, "Responses to Harry R. Berger, Resisting Allegory: Interpretive Delirium in Spenser's "Faerie Queene"," Spenser Review 50.2.2 (Spring-Summer 2020). Accessed April 17th, 2024.
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